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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2583

The Stalemate

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“How deep in shame you have sunken, O Granada!
Heinrich Heine (Almansor)

The problems are senseless; the contradictions are irreconcilable; both are mounting. And they stem from the very nature of the ‘Mahinda Chinthanaya’. ‘Mahinda Chinthanaya’ commits the President to a unitary state; a political solution to the ethnic problem which exceeds the unitary structure is a sine qua non to win the backing of the minorities and the international community. ‘Mahinda Chinthanaya’ commits the President to socio-economic programmes aimed at improving the living conditions of ordinary people; these cannot be implemented while maintaining defence expenditure, corruption and waste at their current exorbitant levels, in a situation of dwindling foreign aid and investment. Survival requires some fundamental changes; the political foresight and the political will necessary for such changes are conspicuous by their absence.

The result is a (largely self-made) politico-economic stalemate. The regime’s failure to investigate and punish excesses by Lankan Forces and its unwillingness to devolve power is costing Sri Lanka crucial international support, including large chunks of aid without which neither the war nor the economy can be sustained. The regime’s unwillingness to impose even a modicum of financial discipline on its own members is making Sri Lanka more vulnerable to international pressure. Like Alice in the Looking Glass Land, the administration, the country and the populace have to do all the running they can just to stay in the same place. We cannot get out of this rut unless discipline is restored in all spheres and those who violate the laws of the land are punished irrespective of whether they are friends, enemies or relations. Unless the regime opts for such an attitudinal and operational change, the crisis cannot but grow and fester.

Today bad governance has become the norm. The policy of helping political friends and punishing political enemies is encouraging indiscipline at every level, in every sphere. How is good governance possible when impunity becomes the prerogative of the friends of the regime? This government’s blatant attempt to negate the first COPE report is symptomatic of this attitude. It is an open secret that the regime did not move against the wrongdoers identified by that report because quite a few of them happened to be UNP defectors. This ‘our side can do no wrong’ attitude is behind some of the worst human rights disasters we are faced with today. If the regime moved resolutely against the killers of Joseph Pararajasingham and of the five Tamil students in Trincomalee, it would have sent a clear message down the line that excesses by our own side would not be tolerated. Instead the regime covered up, delaying investigations and intimidating witnesses. Inevitably other excesses followed, costing us dearly.

Cost of Indiscipline

Internationally the pressure is rising inexorably and no amount of invective or smart repartee can change that. The pressure is not to halt the war against the Tigers but to prosecute it as cleanly as possible. In an informative piece, the Asian Tribune’s Daya Gamage warns of an impending American aid cut, quoting SEC. 690 of the Appropriation Bill for 2008 (prepared jointly by the US State Department and the USAID to be ratified by the Senate): “None of the funds appropriated by this Act under the heading ‘Foreign Military Financing Program’ may be made available for assistance for Sri Lanka, no defense export license may be issued, and no military equipment or technology shall be sold or transferred to Sri Lanka pursuant to the authorities contained in this Act or any other Act, unless the Secretary of State certifies and reports to the Committees on Appropriations that the Sri Lankan military is suspending and the Sri Lankan Government is bringing to justice members of the military who have been credibly alleged to have committed gross violations of human rights, including extrajudicial executions and the recruitment of child soldiers” (Asian Tribune – 23.8.2007 – emphasis mine).

The message is clear enough – the war against the LTTE will be supported only if the regime does not countenance gross human rights violations by members of the Armed Forces. This is rank hypocrisy coming from the country that is killing innocent Iraqis and Afghans by the hundreds of thousands. Sadly the US does not buy weapons from Sri Lanka or receive military aid from Sri Lanka. It is we who are dependent on the US for weapons and aid.

We have no choice but to expect such hypocrisy and learn to put up with it, if we are serious about defeating the Tigers. Fidel Castro can continue to defy the US and Hugo Chavez can call George Bush the Devil because neither Cuba nor Venezuela receives aid from the US or buys weapons from her. Nor are they bogged down in a long and costly war which necessitates such assistance. Mahinda Rajapakse cannot ape either leader because the country he governs needs American money, American weapons and American support to stay whole.

Think logically; think rationally. Does it make sense to weaken our capacity to wage war against the Tigers just to protect a handful of human rights violators in our ranks? Think of what we are losing in terms of minority and international support and goodwill because of the Mutur Aid Worker massacre and a few other atrocities. Is it worth the price? Does it make sense? Aren’t we undermining ourselves? Aren’t we helping the Tigers, albeit unintentionally? This is not patriotism but rank stupidity. It is our patriotic duty to take action against those undisciplined elements in our Armed Forces who, through their illegal excesses, bring the country into disrepute and severely constraint our capacity to meet the Tiger challenge.

This senselessness is evident in other areas too, especially in matters financial. That the country is facing severe financial constraints is undeniable; that this financial need makes us vulnerable to international pressure is also undeniable. In this context a government which flaunts its patriotic credentials and avows not to give into international pressure should, logically, take steps to bring some order and method to its financial policy. Not the Rajapakse regime. Take the issue of duty free vehicles. According to media reports the regime had spent US$ 8 million of scarce foreign reserves on importing luxury vehicles for parliamentarians. This has caused “a loss of Rs. 2.5 billion to the Treasury - or public funds - due to the duty waiver, a highly placed Customs official said yesterday….. ‘Contrary to popular belief, these vehicles are not duty free. They are duty free only for the privileged parliamentarians as they do not pay any duty. But duties and taxes for each vehicle are paid in full by the Parliamentary Affairs Ministry from public funds,’ the official said” (Daily Mirror – 21.8.2007).

Does this make sense? Can such undermining of the country’s financial capacity to face the Tiger threat be patriotism? Shouldn’t the self-declared patriotic leaders present an example to the rest of the country by abnegating all luxuries until the war is won? According to the same article, “The government has paid more than Rs. 13 million each as duty for the super luxury vehicles imported by JHU parliamentarians, Ven Ellawala Medhananda, Ven. Athuraliye Ratana and Ven Kotapola Amarakitti Theras”. These prelates make a habit of exhorting the public to bear more of the costs of war, more willingly. They declare loftily that Sri Lanka can get by without foreign aid.

They can, since they have no compunctions about using public funds for their own betterment; it is the man, woman and child in the street who will have to shoulder the extra burden, in the form of still higher prices, abysmal quality services and innumerable other inconveniences. Such rank hypocrisy will make people believe that ‘patriotism’ is merely a slogan used by a bunch of knavish politicians to fool the public, stay in power and enjoy the good life ad infinitum. And as economic hardships grow, morale of both the general public and rank and file soldiers will be affected, creating more and more receptive ears for Ranil Wickremesinghe’s Song of Appeasement.

Instability

The regime is undermining the sustainability not only of anti-Tiger War but also of Southern stability. The JVP, given its antipathy to Ranil Wickremesinghe, is unwilling endanger the existence of the regime. Its reluctance to face an early election also stems from the impossibility of maintaining – let alone bettering – its 2004 performance (a dilemma it shares with the JHU). But for how long will the JVP leadership be able to withstand the pressure from its own rank and file? For the regime’s policies are having a particularly deleterious effect on the base of the JVP, made up in the main of fixed income earners, small business people and students. Their living standards are being eroded at a fast rate and the JVP runs the risk of alienating its own support base if it is seen to be backing the regime unconditionally. The JVP has to do something to prove that it wants to do something, against the increasingly intolerable status quo. Last Wednesday’s violent clashes between the police and demonstrators of the JVP controlled Inter University Students Federation foretells this future.

Unless the regime can control runaway inflation and runaway waste and corruption, the JVP’s growing stridency cannot be impeded. The regime needs to understand that patriotic slogans alone will not suffice. Given the JVP’s Sinhala supremacist mindset, using patriotism as a cover for human rights violations of Tamils and Muslims will pass. But the same latitude will not be available when the victims are Sinhalese in general and JVP members in particular. As far as the JVP is concerned it is the standard bearer of true patriotism and any attack on it by anyone for any reason is, by definition, unpatriotic. Since the regime too feels the same way about itself, a clash of the patriots may be in the offing.

Irreconcilable contradictions abound. The APRC’s Majority Report is unlikely to see the light of day; even if it does, it will meet the same fate as the Majority Report of the Experts Committee. The President cannot grant the devolution that can satisfy moderate minorities without antagonising his hardline allies; he cannot continue to deny devolution to appease his hardline allies without antagonising the minorities and the international community. The JVP has already threatened to vote against the budget if the President backs the APRC’s Majority Report. Yet if the President asphyxiates the APRC, minority and international backing needed to sustain the war against the Tigers will not be forthcoming.

Perhaps the least the government can do is not to add more problems to its already filled to overflowing plate of woes. On Friday in parliament the JVP presented the regime with another ultimatum. Wimal Weerawansa charged that the regime is using the viva system in public recruitment to favour friends and supporters over those who got high marks at the competitive exam.

Restore the earlier practice of recruitment solely through a competitive exam or we will vote against the budget, he threatened. The Speaker reminded the House that this practice of recruitment solely through a competitive exam was installed by President Premadasa. One of the charges levelled by the DUNF against President Premadasa was precisely that he replaced recruitment via political patronage with merit-based recruitment.

Today that deplorable practice of employment via political patronage has retuned through the back door. It is symptomatic of the senseless and avoidable errors which this administration is so prone to, which have brought both the regime and the country to the current, dangerous impasse.

- Asian Tribune -

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