Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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Crunch Time for Rajapakse

by V Gunaratnam, December 22, 2005                

Mahinda Rajapakse, having won on a wafer thin majority to become the president, can hardly be considered to represent the conscience of the nation. His victory was built on the backs of the Tamils, to appease hard-line Sinhala nationalists. Nothing was spared; he took away everything that meant something to the Tamils, which had formed the basis of peace negotiations. But now, when he says he wants to engage the LTTE in talks, what is there to talk about?

Winning was everything to him at that time, but he is left with so many contradictions in his policies. But whatever policy entanglement he might have got into, the challenge still remains the same: how to get a breakthrough, reach an accord with the LTTE, and achieve peace and prosperity for Sri Lanka.

Rajapakse knows there will not be a next time for the country if he fails, because the LTTE’s resolve has a new edge to it, and because the international community has misgivings about Sri Lanka’s will to find a political solution.  

For the Tamils, it is the perennial question. Are we going to waste more precious years talking? We are known for our patience; after all we waited nearly sixty years for a Rajapakse to come along and snatch away even the bits of hope we were clinging on to. But, even in the depths of despair, we never lost hope, or refused the opportunity to resolve our differences peacefully. There is, however, one key difference this time. The LTTE as our sole representative has given the government a deadline to come up with a solution. What will they and the others do?

Uphill task for Rajapakse

For Rajapakse, with the euphoria of victory gone, it is back to the serious business of state, the urgent need to restart the dialogue with the LTTE in search of a solution within all the time he can squeeze into 2006. But how is he going to get everything done with so many obstacles in his path?

Rajapakse started by promising too much to the Sinhalese. It was so much easier becoming the president, he must be thinking, because to govern there are so many imponderable political forces and hurdles to be overcome before things can fall into place: the JVP, JHU, UNP, constitutional changes, and a referendum. The biggest obstacle is the huge Sinhala majority, inside and outside parliament, with the power to kill any accord with the Tamils, what they have been doing with impunity for sixty years! It could all get buried again in the graveyard of Sinhala chauvinism, like the other accords before.

JVP’s dilemma

The near deafening silence of the JVP since the presidential election is puzzling. After all the fiery election time demagogy, rabble-rousing, and skullduggery, it comes as a real surprise to see them wind down their rhetoric. Does it signify something politically? Is it a sign of a deal within a deal with Rajapakse?

The JVP forms a vital part of Rajapakse’s survival kit. Though they never fitted in with former president Kumaratunga’s imperious ways, they seem to find it easier with Rajapakse. But, while it is still early to define their relationship with Rajapakse, their shadow clouds everything. Without their tacit or overt support Rajapakse’s government would crumble tomorrow.

The JVP know, however, that their fortunes are inexorably tied to Rajapakse’s. If he were to fail, they would have nothing to fall back on. There cannot be a repeat of what happened with Kumaratunga and risk being branded as opportunists. This might be why the JVP has opted to stay out of government, to allow Rajapakse some freedom of action.

If the JVP falter, the UNP is there to drive a wedge between them and Rajapakse. The UNP’s Prof GL Peiris has already launched into this strategy by offering his experience to deal with the complexities of the peace process. The SLFP and the UNP leaders have also met and pledged to cooperate. Letting the UNP into his tent is one way of getting the JVP to moderate their position. Rajapakse will not be shy to use this tactic to keep the balance of power in his favour.

But the JVP has matured after being king-makers in two elections, and is not about to throw away all its gains by creating problems for Rajapakse. They know by now that governing is all about good sense, compromise and deal making; a war would mean death, destruction, economic chaos, and social unrest, with no winners. They will probably make some noises from time to time, but the chances are they will play along with Rajapakse, without appearing to be doing so, for want of a better strategy at this time!

Having helped to send the Bandaranayakes into limbo, the JVP continues to make inroads into the SLFP, and they hope it would one day soon provide them with the springboard to real power, a government of their own!

Bald heads in yellow robes

The JHU is the rump party which got just  3% of the vote at the last general election. These extremist bald heads in yellow robes wield more influence than their numbers warrant only because they are Sinhala Buddhist priests.

But without the JVP pulling in tandem with them, they are only a marginal force. Their votes count for nothing in parliament when the JVP chooses to pull in a different direction. Rajapakse meets with them from time to time out of respect for the Maha Sangha, to keep a dialogue going, and have them on hand to meet contingencies.

UNP in the doldrums

UNP candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe suffered a bitter defeat at the presidential election, but it was wrong for the UNP to be thinking that he was robbed of the presidency when the Tamils kept away from the polls in droves. Admitting responsibility for Karuna’s defection did not help, and probably destroyed the UNP’s credibility with the Tamils.

The UNP's fate at the next general election, slated for March 2006, also looks dicey. There is a lot of infighting going on within the party. But their traditional voter base has always been solid. In the meantime, we can expect them to continue playing hot and cold with Rajapakse to keep him treading water till the political fortunes turn in their favour.

The UNP’s best hope of continuing as a force in national politics must now rest on winning an outright majority at the forthcoming general election and forming the next government. They could act as a buffer against extremism and Buddhist fundamentalism. But, after ‘Karuna,’ there is no knowing what direction they would take in the future.

Turning point

For all the brave talk from his armed forces and Sinhala politicians, Rajapakse must know deep down that it is crunch time for Sri Lanka and for himself, because there is no mistaking what the LTTE Supremo’s words foreshadow.

Does it mean the LTTE is ready to resolve the Tamil question on its own if Rajapakse fails? It is a question Rajapakse must answer for himself. But, we know the LTTE is not known for engaging in empty rhetoric; it means we have reached a watershed in our relations with Sri Lanka, a turning point.

What is at stake is greater than what the Sinhalese, their leaders, or political parties have ever tried to comprehend. If they had, the Tamil question would have been resolved peacefully decades ago. But what are the options open to Rajapakse?

In the present context, only the international community has the power and means to help him bring about a settlement. Unless he relents, and lets them carry the burden of finding an acceptable solution based on their experience, with strong endorsement from India, we cannot have any hope of reaching an accord, and receiving wide political consensus amongst the Sinhalese, who seem to have so much faith in India.

But Rajapakse would be making a grave mistake if he tries to use India as a cat’s paw to deal with the LTTE, nor would India agree, given their internal politics. There is no alternative to all the parties working together with the Norwegians, in common cause, to reach an accord. A solution cannot be imposed from outside; it must flow from the negotiations; and it must be in harmony with international models used in other parts of the world.

President Rajapakse will be the instrument of his own downfall if he fails to respond to the rapidly developing situation, and deliver a solution within the time constraint he is under. But in the nature of politics, anything could happen, and if the planets are aligned properly, as some would say, we could still see something positive coming out of this.

But whatever happens in Southern politics, the Tamils do not have the luxury of waiting much longer, because Sri Lanka lacks the political will to reach a settlement.

Rajapakse must resolve and act if we are to continue believing that a resolution is still within our grasp!