Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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Mahinda Rajapakse and the Art of the Possible

By V Gunaratnam                

“Politics is the art of the possible,” remarked Bismarck, and we are tempted to think that Mahinda Rajapakse is left with nothing but possibilities after having burned all the peace-bridges, and riding to victory to become the president of Sri Lanka on the backs of Sinhalese radical political forces opposed to Tamil aspirations.

But while Rajapakse went overboard, making wild promises to the Sinhalese, playing on their fears of the LTTE’s intentions in order to win the election, he must be finding it difficult to countenance his own position now, after bluntly rejecting everything that was affirmed by Sri Lanka from the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement, through the 2002 Oslo agreements, down to the present day.

Nothing is being spared. Power-sharing is gone. The dream of a Tamil homeland has evaporated. Federalism is no longer considered an option. The ceasefire agreement, despite having held for four years, is another candidate cited for some provocative changes. And, in another development, pressure is building up on the Norwegians to pack up and go home. But, there is also a more heartless side to the assault on the Tamils. 

While tons and tons of donations for tsunami victims came pouring in from abroad, thousands of Tamil victims in LTTE controlled areas are not getting any of it. Rajapakse’s pious words “all citizens will be equal before the law and no citizens will be discriminated against,” ring hollow in Tamil ears. His idea of humanitarian aid is to let the Tamils fend for themselves; he seems less concerned about their suffering than ensuring that the P-TOMS, which has no political or administrative powers, remains a dead letter, just to keep the LTTE out of aid distribution. But if he is so touchy about the LTTE being involved, how he is so ready to talk directly to the LTTE is beyond understanding.

This has been the tenor of the relationships with the Sinhalese that has ruled our lives since independence in 1948. Why is it so hard for them to help the Tamils stave off starvation, sickness and death after being hit by such a natural disaster as the tsunami? What is there to inspire the Tamils and make them believe in the Sinhalese, when even an act of common humanity is beyond them? It simply boggles the mind to think that, while a whole year has gone by since tsunami hit us, they are still shuffling papers around!

Whatever stand Rajapakse takes, the enormous problems faced by Sri Lanka are not going to go away because of his powerful JVP and JHU friends, or because he commands them from the high perch of the presidency. The powerful presidency alone is not enough to solve anything, as Kumaratunga found to her cost, frustrated again and again by her inability to count on a stable majority in parliament, and/or held to ransom by the JVP. Rajapakse is likely to face the same dilemma, and his wafer-thin election victory does not help.

The question of peace with the LTTE overshadows everything else faced by Rajapakse. Failure this time around to settle with the Tamils could mean a war more devastating than anything we have seen before. The international community knows this and is going to descend on him like a ton of bricks if he strays from the beaten peace-path, which also risks foreign aid and investment drying up pretty fast.

The picture looks foreboding. Taken at face value, Rajapakse’s policy pronouncements are so extreme and inflexible as to be unworkable. Where is the room for compromise on anything? And with the assortment of radicals, led by the JVP, ready to destabilize his regime unless he toes their line, he is in for rough times. But, until he seriously starts playing ball with the LTTE, nothing is going to move.

If anything illustrates the duplicity of his present position better, it is this contradiction in his policy statement to the nation: “The political solution to a lasting peace…should receive the approval of the majority of the people of this country.” This effectively means that in any referendum* to change the constitution, the steamroller majority of the Sinhalese would get to decide what is good for the Tamils.

Any talk about democracy, equality, discrimination, and so on is nonsense, because the majority Sinhalese have control over every issue affecting Tamils. In truth, we do not have any rights anymore, because the majority has wrecked everything that was good about our relationship, and now even the human touch is gone.

What Rajapakse is trying to do defies common sense. He is effectively saying “We have changed our minds; we are taking back all what we said was on the negotiating table.” Where does it leave us? If we construct our lives around something we have agreed to today, it could all crumble to nothing tomorrow because we cannot stop the majority from acting capriciously when it suits them.

What Rajapakse did at election time was not posturing, because he went too far. At that time winning was everything. But, after becoming the president, by reaffirming what he said and presenting those declarations again as his government’s policy statement to the nation, he has made it more difficult to reconnect with the LTTE. So what in the world is he going to do now?

Rajapakse’s instincts should tell him that his first and only priority now is peace, and securing it by avoiding precipitate action of any kind. Undoubtedly, this includes keeping the international community happy, and engaging the LTTE in some way, to gain time while he sorts out exactly what he wants to do, but primarily focusing on how to backtrack from the hard position he has taken on critical issues affecting the Tamils.

Is Rajapakse possibly trapped in a no-win situation? This seeming paradox might help us to see what is involved: If Rajapakse succeeds with his stated policies, he would have failed, because it would have ignited a war of separation; and if he fails to carry them out, it would mean being forced to meet the political aspirations of the Tamil and the LTTE. The only other way out would be an all-out war to completely subdue the Tamils, but this would not be a realistic option for either party, and has been tried before. Also, neither India nor the international community would let complete destruction of the Tamil community occur - which is what this would require. [The other alternative is the current state of limbo, which the LTTE seem determine to prevent -- Editor] So he should come back to terra firma and start working to find a solution under the aegis of the international community.

Rajapakse must therefore start believing in the art of the possible, and make a paradigm shift to new ground to finally slay the dragon of racial politics in Sri Lanka. Will he rise to the great height of a Mandela, do the brave things Sadat and Begin did in 1977, look at Indonesia’s nascent peace agreement with Aceh this year, or how Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965 without going to war? Buried within all this is the germ of a solution to our problem. Will he be able to find a way forward, prepare his people to make the leap of faith with him, and achieve something that has eluded all the other Sri Lankan leaders since 1948?

* If the total number of valid votes cast does not exceed two-thirds of the total electors, a bill shall be deemed to be approved only if approved by not less than one-third of the whole number of such electors.