Six decades and a year after nationhood, it was an epochal week for Sri Lanka in many respects.
The piece de resistance was Wednesday's Independence Day celebrations. Ending British colonial rule in then Ceylon, the late Prime Minister, Don Stephen Senanayake, stood on the soil of Galle Face Green on February 4, 1948 to unfurl the national flag. A young independent nation was born.
Last Wednesday, 61 years later, President Percy Mahinda Rajapaksa, was at the same promenade soil to declare that he and his Government had been able, within a short span of two and a half years, to "almost completely defeat the cowardly forces of terror." He noted that for the past 30 years "we have lived in the midst of an illegal armed terrorist movement."
As he stood on the special dais in immaculate white, the Kurakkan Sataka (or maroon shawl) around his neck, Rajapaksa brimmed with confidence and pride. He stood ahead of the men, in ceremonial uniform, who gave leadership to the military campaign. They were the Commanders of the Army, Navy, Air Force and the Police Chief. Before Wednesday's event, they had hoped to wrap up the offensive military campaign against Tiger guerrillas. That was to allow their Commander-in-Chief to declare that they were "completely defeated." However, he had to use the word "almost completely defeated" since some resistance and counter attacks had delayed regaining control of the little terrain left in the Mullaitivu district. The rebels are now corralled there. However, that made little difference for the dawn of that new reality that complete victory on the battlefield is more a case of days, if not weeks, away.
|President Rajapaksa delivering his Independence day speech
Even as Rajapaksa hoisted the national flag, troops were fighting bitter battles. This week, after troops seized the coastal village of Chalai, in north-east Mullaitivu, the remaining guerrillas are trapped on the ground from all sides. Thus, very soon there would be no 'ground zero' for them to dominate. This has already given rise to credible reports in intelligence circles that guerrilla leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, his spy chief Pottu Amman and a coterie had fled to a hideout in Tamil Nadu. Such reports would naturally trigger official denials, but the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is known to command substantial support and influence in the southern Indian state.
In the wake of imminent defeat due to the sophisticated and superior firepower of the Security Forces, the LTTE had been preparing for the worst. This is why the elusive Selvarasa Pathmanathan (or Kumaran Pathmanathan alias KP) was named head of a newly established 'Department of International Relations'. Pathmanathan, the LTTE said, will be representing the movement in any future peace initiatives and will be the primary point of contact for engaging with the international community. The LTTE has said that Pathmanathan will be working abroad "with the required mandate from the LTTE leadership," according to a letter circulated to selected diplomatic missions and other organisations.
That clearly meant the LTTE leadership planned to go underground and let KP, the notorious weapons procurer, do the talking. However, he is a wanted man and there is an Interpol Red Notice out for his arrest. Intelligence circles believe a more important reason for naming Pathmanathan is to be heir to LTTE's foreign assets including their shipping network and secret bank accounts where large sums of money are stashed away. Naturally, the Government of Sri Lanka would soon seek the assistance of friendly countries to not only hunt for KP but also identify such assets. With the loss of remaining terrain, at least some remaining cadres will blend with the civilians. Military leaders are conscious they could resort to guerrilla tactics of hit and run.
Wednesday's Independence Day celebrations were different from many others in the past years. It was not because it took two hours longer and was only for invitees. Debarred on grounds of security were the public and yet it was really meant for them. Through the sights and sounds of an Independence Day the Rajapaksa administration delivered a very strong message to Sri Lankans of every stratum, whichever corner of the country they lived, be it in a town or a rural village.
Observed Rajapaksa: "It is said that failure is the very mother of success. You are aware that most governments and leaders of the past attempted to solve this problem with separatist terror, through military means and discussions. It is no secret that all these efforts were unsuccessful. It is these failures that led me to decide to move towards success".
With those words, he was reminding his compatriots that he, as President, Minister of Defence, Commander in Chief, had accomplished what previous governments and leaders had not been able to achieve.
As those words, televised nationwide not only by State broadcasters but also simulcast by private tv networks, echoed in the ears of Sri Lankans, what they saw on the screen gave more meaning. Some 4,500 troops together with police officers, some from elite specialised units together with new military acquisitions, like Main Battle Tanks (MBTs), Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs), Artillery Guns, Multi Barrel Rocket Launchers (MBRLs), Communications Vehicles and an impressive array of new infantry weapons parading etched a strong impression in their mind. Adding to it were the colourful air display and manoeuvres by Navy vessels in the Indian Ocean. To most, it seemed the hardships they endured, like the mounting cost of living, were not in vain.
"With that speech, longer than other addresses to the nation during Independence Day celebrations, coupled together with the impressive military display, Rajapaksa concluded all ongoing and upcoming election campaigns in one day," says a political scientist attached to a state university. Speaking on grounds of anonymity since he is not officially authorised to make comments to the media he added, "those few hours of" what he called "show and tell" will lead to "a heavy rain of votes to flood the Government's support base." This acknowledged the growing groundswell. The Independence Day programme was well packaged and marketed.
The first test of easy approval will come at the end of just five days. That is when the North Western and Central Provincial Councils go to poll on February 14. It will no doubt repeat itself during the elections for the Western Provincial Council (WPC). Nominations for this will be accepted from February 19 to 26. Government leaders expect that, before the WPC elections are concluded, the military would have ended its offensive campaign and regained full control of the Wanni. Those glad tidings portend much greater significance. President Rajapaksa has already told his Ministers to prepare for parliamentary general elections before year-end. There is widespread speculation in Government circles of a possible dissolution of Parliament immediately after the National New Year in April, by which time the honourable members of this parliament would have qualified for their pensions after 'serving' five years in the country's legislature. In the aftermath of military victories, that it would usher more political victories for the government, is hardly in doubt.
In his address to the nation on Wednesday, Rajapaksa ruled out any future dialogue with the LTTE. This has consequently rendered ineffective the role of Norway as a peace facilitator. He noted: "Our country became the victim of the most powerful terrorist organisation in the world. We had come to the verge of the separatist terrorists achieving their goal of dividing the country and establishing a separate state of Tamil Eelam.
"We were being compelled by some administrators of that time to except (NOTE: this word in the official text should read as "accept") the so-called peace brought about by the division of the country, and the victory of the forces of terror. Many foreign forces attempted to persuade us that the path to achieving peace was to be subjugated by a terrorist organisation that had power on land, sea and air as well as ruthless suicide killers." Adding to this equation is the Government's stated position that the LTTE should lay down arms and surrender.
Just 24 hours ahead of Rajapaksa's address to the nation from the Galle Face Green, Sri Lanka was the focal point of attention in several world capitals. The country's largest aid donors who style themselves as Donor (or Tokyo) co-chairs - Norway, Japan, the United States, the European Union - were busy formulating a statement. They wanted it made public on Tuesday night, ahead of the Independence Day. Envoys of those countries based in Colombo were consulting each other and the respective capitals on the text of the statement. Despite the delays involved, they agreed to a format that incorporated an appeal to the Government and the LTTE on four matters. They were:
To avoid further civilian casualties and human suffering, the Co-Chairs:
- call on the LTTE to discuss with the Government of Sri Lanka the modalities for ending hostilities, including the laying down of arms, renunciation of violence, acceptance of the Government of Sri Lanka's offer of amnesty; and participating as a political party in a process to achieve a just and lasting political solution;
- and call on the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE to declare a temporary no-fire period to allow for evacuation of the sick and wounded, and provision of aid to civilians.
The Co-Chairs will work with the Government of Sri Lanka, India, the United Nations and others to ensure:
- the internally displaced people from the north are transferred to temporary camps where UN agencies, the ICRC, and humanitarian organizations will have full access and the IDPs will be treated according to international standards and resettled in their original homes as soon as possible;
- an inclusive dialogue to agree on a political settlement so that lasting peace and reconciliation can be achieved.
A statement issued on Tuesday night declared:
"The Tokyo Co-Chairs (Norway, Japan, US and EU) jointly express their great concern about the plight of thousands of internally displaced persons trapped by fighting in northern Sri Lanka. The Co-Chairs call on the LTTE and the Government of Sri Lanka not to fire out of or into the no-fire zone established by the Government or in the vicinity of the PTK hospital (or any other medical structure), where more than 500 patients are receiving care and many hundreds more have sought refuge. They also call on both sides to allow food and medical assistance to reach those trapped by fighting, cooperate with the ICRC to facilitate the evacuation of urgent medical cases, and ensure the safety of aid and medical workers.
"The LTTE and the Government of Sri Lanka must respect international humanitarian law. International efforts to persuade the LTTE to allow the civilians freedom of movement have failed. There remains probably only a short period of time before the LTTE loses control of all areas in the North. The LTTE and the Government of Sri Lanka should recognize that further loss of life - of civilians and combatants - will serve no cause."
The statement was later endorsed by Canada and Switzerland.
Ahead of their statement, Japan's peace envoy Yasushi Akashi, was in Colombo last month. Diplomatic sources said he telephoned the head of LTTE's Political Wing and now disappearing 'Police force', B. Nadesan to urge the guerrillas to lay down arms and surrender. Nadesan had agreed to convey Japan's request to the LTTE leadership and respond thereafter. However, neither Akashi nor the Embassy of Japan in Colombo received any response.
The Donor Co-chair statement was pregnant with many nuances. Most importantly, they had acknowledged that "there remains only a short period of time before the LTTE loses control of all areas in the North." In saying this, Sri Lanka's largest aid donors who substantially constitute the international community were endorsing Rajapaksa's declaration on Independence Day that he and his Government have been able to "almost completely defeat the cowardly forces of terror." They were also acknowledging that there remains "only a short period of time before LTTE loses control of all areas in the North."
No doubt, it was a bitter pill for Norway to swallow when it agreed to be a party to the Donor Co-chair statement.
It was Oslo that had entered the Sri Lankan peace process as a 'facilitator' during the Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga administration in 2001, and later brokered the February 2002 Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) between the then United National Front Government of Prime Minister, Ranil Wickemesinghe and the LTTE. It was Norway that had put together representatives from Nordic countries to form the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission to enforce the CFA, and arranged for peace talks between the government and the LTTE.
Now, Norway agrees unequivocally that the LTTE would lose control of all areas in the North. More importantly, the one-time interlocutor is now advising the Tiger guerrillas to lay down arms, renounce violence and accept Government of Sri Lanka's amnesty. In doing so, it is now endorsing the position taken up by one of two parties with whom Oslo was facilitating peace, i.e. the Government of Sri Lanka. Quite clearly, the Government's amnesty offer, reiterated in Parliament on Thursday by Prime Minister, Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, was valid only if the guerrillas laid down arms and surrendered unconditionally.
The Norwegian volte-face came as much a lethal a blow to the LTTE as the crushing defeats inflicted by the Security Forces in the battlefield. Yet, the guerrillas were too embarrassed to go public displaying overtly their anger. Nevertheless, the Tamilnet web site, which has been orchestrating the LTTE position over recent developments, did not ignore it. The Tamilnet quoted a Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Jaffna district MP as saying:
"The most regrettable aspect of the Co-chair show is the behaviour of Norway, a country that ventured for the noble and neutral task of facilitation, becoming a signatory of the Co-chair move aiming for the protection of genocidal Colombo and sabotage of the aspirations of the victimised Tamils. Norway has always been claiming that its involvement in the island of Sri Lanka is on the basis of the request of both the parties of the conflict. Norway signing the present Co-chair statement calling for the surrender of one of the parties, casts serious doubts on its credibility as a trustworthy international peace facilitator. Contrarily, it only paints a picture of it as a handmaid of certain powers."
In Tamil web sites, particularly those favouring the LTTE, Norway has joined India attracting accusations in "betraying the Tamil community."
On the other hand, Norway's dilemma is somewhat understandable. Since the abrogation of the CFA, it has scrupulously avoided public statements. When other members of the Donor Co-chairs are raising cry on the hardships caused to civilians because of the ongoing fighting, the question is whether it could continue to remain silent and be perceived as being on the side of the LTTE. Such a perceived stance would be made worse by accusations that Norway scrupulously stood aside when it came to humanitarian issues. Whatever the reasons are, good or bad, being a party to the Donor Co-chair statement, Norway has outvoted itself from continuing its role as a facilitator in the Sri Lankan conflict. That is, if the role of a facilitator still exists. Oslo has paid that heavy price. In doing so, it has also endorsed, like all other members of the Co-chairs, that the guerrillas have no choice but to surrender, lay down arms and talk to the Government.
Norway's International Development Minister Erik Solheim, the key figure behind Oslo's peace moves, told both print and electronic media in Oslo that their decision was to protect the thousands of civilians trapped in the war. They were becoming casualties every day and Norway had to join other members of the Donor Co-chairs on collective action to protect them.
Nevertheless, the main expectation of the Donor Co-chairs, to bring about a limited cessation of hostilities, did not materialise. They made a "call on the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE to declare a temporary no-fire period to allow for evacuation of sick and wounded, and provision of aid to civilians." The use of the words "no-fire period" was in fact a euphemism for a ceasefire. Barely 24 hours after the statement, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who is directing the military machine against guerrillas, rejected the call for any stoppage of the war.
The only way out, he declared categorically, was an "unconditional surrender" by the guerrillas. Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake articulated the same position in Parliament on Thursday. "Under no circumstance will the Government suspend the ongoing military operations against LTTE terrorists until they are completely wiped out from the face of the land," he declared speaking on the motion to extend the state of emergency on Thursday.
This is in marked contrast to remarks by the arm of the Government that is officially tasked to direct Sri Lanka's foreign policy. Foreign Minister Rohita Bogollagama, was to raise some laughter, if not consternation, by the response he issued to the Donor Co-chair statement. If Defence Secretary Rajapaksa and Premier Wickremanayake spoke plainly, Bogollagama was to express appreciation for the statement. He did so in a media statement.
In rejecting the call for a stoppage of the war (or a ceasefire), the Government also resisted international pressure that came in the wake of the Donor Co-chair statement. During a visit to Washington, British Foreign Secretary David Millband joined Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday and called upon "both the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE to agree to a temporary no-fire period." They said "both sides need to allow civilians and wounded to leave the conflict area and to grant access for humanitarian agencies."
A cause for serious Government concern came hours before the Donor Co-chair statement was released on Tuesday night. The United Nations Colombo office spokesman Gordon Weiss had told the foreign media that Cluster Bombs were being used in the North. He had declared that 52 civilians had been killed. This, no doubt, had set the stage for the Donor Co-chair statement. If indeed what Weiss said was correct, why the UN did not issue an official statement remains a mystery. A day later, the same Weiss declared to the foreign media that the UN had accepted the assurance of the Government of Sri Lanka that it was not using cluster bombs.
The tenor of Weiss' statement is an insult to the intelligence of any Sri Lankan. His first blunder is going public with the accusation that cluster bombs were being used in the North. The second was worse. He says thereafter that he now accepts the assurance of the Government. If he had blundered in making a false statement, is it not incumbent upon him, as a UN official to apologise? Alternatively, has the Government of Sri Lanka given the UN a mandate for its spokesperson in Colombo to pass judgement on their pronouncements? Sad enough, the Foreign Ministry is too oblivious to the entire goings on.
With not much more ground to dominate when troops end their final phase of military operations, the separatist war will end, sooner than later. Troops are conscious of possible smaller guerrilla wars thereafter but are well prepared.
President Rajapaksa seemed conscious of the future. He said on Wednesday that like the military victories, in the same manner he and his Government would enter "the struggle to establish stability and good governance in our country, free of corruption and waste."
"We must be able to change as required by the challenges placed before us by time," he warned and added, "if we cannot do so we should be ready to leave the stage." He vowed to transform Sri Lanka into a "country where the social and economic expectations of the people are not shattered." He explained, "if not, there will only be a very small space for peace and stability."
A nation waits in earnest as the focus for the week shifts to the provincial polls in the Central and North Western provinces this coming weekend. It would appear that the Opposition United National Party (UNP) and Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) have all but conceded the North Western province to the ruling United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and concentrated their resources, human and financial to the Central province.
The UNP has been plagued by in-fighting within the North Western province, and rely totally on the campaign launched by its Central Province Chief Minister candidate S.B. Dissanayake.
Dissanayake has been making some of the most outrageous comments on public platforms, one being that he favours a dictatorship in the country, provided, of course, he is the President. Whatever that may be, he is winning some headlines in the media by such comments.This has pitted Mahinda Rajapaksa himself against Dissanayake, and this, the erstwhile General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) must take as a great compliment. The UPFA has clearly felt the need to inject some muscle into the campaign in the Central province in the face of Dissanayake's challenge. Its own Chief Minister candidate Sarath Ekanayake has relied on an effective poster campaign, which the UPFA fear is not enough to ensure victory.
Rajapaksa has been accused, somewhat justifiably, into turning the President's House in Kandy into a veritable election headquarters for the UPFA in the Central province.
Dissanayake says that he will (if he loses) file an election petition against the UPFA under section 79 of the Provincial Council Elections Act, the offence being 'general treating', a charge he levels at Rajapaksa himself for entertaining a host of people, from different walks of life, starting from Thai Pongal day, at the President's House in Kandy while the campaign was in progress. Rajapaksa has chosen to ignore this specific charge, but says that during an election, the President cannot live in a bunker. He is also oblivious to the widespread abuse of state vehicles by UPFA candidates in both provinces.
Voter apathy is quite high in both provinces. For one thing, these councils have served neither man nor beast over the many years they have existed. For another, the voters know that a government cannot be changed, and by ousting a ruling party only makes matters worse with the council's dealing with the Centre in Colombo.
The UPFA, UNP and the JVP have found it difficult to get voters to even attend their meetings, and often speakers address empty chairs rather than actual voters. On February 4, the UNP organised a disastrous Independence Day meeting at Kundasale where party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was to hoist the national flag and address voters. For starters, the timing was such that people had to stand in the hot sun around 11 in the morning. They had to move away and seek refuge inside nearby boutiques and retail shops in the market square. Then, other UNP organisers had arranged meetings elsewhere and kept coming and going from this meeting where the party leader was. The party workers were also therefore spread out thin. The entire event looked thoroughly disorganised and it did not paint a pretty picture for the party leader when only a handful of people were present to hear him speak.
The UNP, of course, felt it was successful in other ways, because it brought together all anti-Rajapaksa forces under one platform. One of the UNP's biggest drawbacks would be the estate vote in the Nuwara-Eliya district, once its guaranteed vote-bank. While the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) is gradually losing its grip on this large vote-bank, because of the idiosyncrasies of its leader Arumugam Thondaman, that vote can make a decisive change in who wins and loses the province.
Political analysts expect the government to announce yet another military victory in the Wanni in the coming week. That, they feel, will clinch already assured victories in both these provinces for the UPFA.