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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2963

‘Hastening Slowly’ : Perspectives on Politics and Prabhakaran in Sri Lanka

By Col R Hariharan (Retd.)

The recent success of President Rajapaksa in cruising his budget proposals with a combination of carrot, stick, muscle power, rhetoric and backroom deals (ultimately they always come to light in Sri Lanka) through a divided house has underlined his strategy of 'hastening slowly.' This phrase, an oxymoron (a rhetorical figure of speech in which contradictory terms are used together), aptly describes not only the budget process but also the happenings in Sri Lanka, whether it is the Security Forces operations, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam's leader Prabhakaran's Heroes' Day response, the elusive an all party formulation for devolution, or the government's handling international outcry on human rights violations in the country.

All the issues in Sri Lanka appear to travel at their own pace with a Karmic lack of urgency. Undoubtedly, the country is paying a high price for not considering time as an irreplaceable resource in nation building.

Budget success and its aftermath

The marathon budget debate and the crucial voting pattern had many interesting and some disturbing sidelights. The last minute decision of the Jathiya Vimukthi Peramuna's (JVP) to absent themselves at the time of voting on the budget after all their sabre rattling against the President's 'corrupt regime' showed their true colours. Leftists the world over have refined the art of double speak (our own Communist Party Marxist is a past master in this). So in a way the JVP's action showing up their true Marxist credentials in this respect was not surprising. Their action to bail out President Rajapaksa showed that the President's war agenda had the full approval of the JVP. Moreover, with the threat of a possible general election if the government was voted out must have made the JVP nervous. Already the President had been successful not only in retrieving the SLFP flock that had been migrating to the JVP but in closing the Sinhala ranks behind him. So clearly the JVP like other political parties did not want to be caught on the back foot in facing an election right now.

Perhaps the President had either uncannily assessed the JVP correctly, or had worked out an arrangement of sorts with the JVP well before the budget session. This is evident from the confidence many members of the ruling alliance showed. Moreover, this was underlined in the casual disdain with which the ruling alliance treated the ill-timed cross over of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) led by veteran politician Rauf Hakeem to the opposition benches. Even there, the ruling party appear to have done its homework as it managed to split the SLMC votes.

The SLMC is no stranger to splits which had been plaguing it regularly. Hakeem's dispensation as the leader of party had never been unanimously accepted by all ranks of the SLMC after its dynamic leader and adroit politician Mohammad Hussein Muhammad Ashraff was done to death in 2000. The split in the SLMC thus comes as no surprise. It showed that after all these years in politics, the Muslim politicians have not regained the unity that Ashraff had forged and continued to wallow in a narrow agenda of their own gains.

Retributions in handling political dissent appear to have become the order of the day. More disturbing was the absence of strong reaction from political parties on what happened to those who oppose the rulers in Colombo. Three opposition Tamil National Alliance (TNA) members were absent on the day of budget voting.

Their relatives in the east were earlier reported to have been kidnapped by the members of Pillaiyan group of the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Padai (TMVP) apparently to prevent them from participating in the voting. The innocent victims were released immediately after the parliament voted on the budget. Surprisingly the political parties' reaction to the kidnapping and arm twisting of the TNA members did not go beyond making speeches. They appear to have accepted the nefarious act as part of the occupational risk of posing a threat to the ruling powers.

The ham handed treatment of Hakeem in withdrawing his security detail immediately after he joined the opposition ranks and the subsequent 'visit' of the Inland Revenue Department to an ice cream parlour run by his wife show the depth to which political antipathy has descended in Sri Lanka. Another vocal critic and parliament member Mano Ganesan is in the same boat losing his security detail. Unfortunately, Sri Lankan politics appear to be copying some of the less creditable methods practised by some of the notorious political parties of India.

Even without a budget voting crisis, the Rajapaksa government had gained an unsavoury reputation for arm twisting during the last two years. After the infamous episode of Teren Alles, the latest victim of 'coercive persuasion' is a non-political person. The Sri Lanka government is withdrawing the work permit of Peter Hill, the British chief of the Sri Lankan, the flag carrier airline of the country, ostensibly for not taking care of 'majority shareholders interest.' But it appears to be too much of a coincidence that this had come about after the airline could not download 35 passengers to accommodate the Presidential entourage flying to the UK on a private visit recently.

Prabhakaran's Heroes' Day speech and after

An undercurrent of Velupillai Prabhakaran's Heroes' Day address of November 2007 is his slow realisation that the world outside Vanni has changed enormously from the sunny days of February 2002. With increasing curbs on help from Tamil expatriates reaching the LTTE from overseas, Prabhakaran has suddenly discovered their value to his struggle. With the LTTE's cavalier treatment meted out to some of its long term expatriate supporters and the arrest of key LTTE operatives in countries like France and the UK, his discovery of their contribution has not come a day sooner.

But certain hardy perennials like India bashing for the LTTE's sins and maladies of Sri Lanka Tamils have continued to figure in the Heroes Day address. This year was no exception. But this year he took to task the international community also for their "partisan and unjust conduct." Even in 1987 India's interest in Sri Lanka and in taking up the cause of Tamils went beyond the assertion of power in its neighbourhood. By oversimplifying it as hegemonic, Prabhakaran had been making it difficult for the Tamil constituency in India to push India to regain its enthusiasm for the subject.

Now with closer India-Sri Lanka ties and the indelibly etched public memory of LTTE bomber doing its former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to death, Prabhakaran's job at impressing Indian public has become even more difficult. It is high time Prabhakaran realised that the LTTE strategies have ceased to impress not only the Indians, but also the international audience. Without changing his script it is not clear how he expected the people and government of India to bend over backward to accommodate and support his brand of "solution" for Eelam Tamils. His intransigent attitude to international concerns has made it difficult for even international NGOs to do so. The same applies to the international community.

This years Heroes' Day speech probably had more inputs from Prabhakaran than earlier years when the late Anton Balasingham used to draft them. Considering this, the speech brings out the tragic reality that everyone had suspected – Prabhakaran remained as recalcitrant as ever. Unfortunately, this attitude is ingrained in most of the other leaders of the LTTE.

In 2005 Anton Balasingham's comments on Heroes Day speech showed how the LTTE always looked at the world through a prism of conspiracies. "Talking is difficult than fighting. We can directly fight and destroy the enemy and achieve victories. We have done that. But talking is a different type of struggle. There will be mines. There will be entangled network of conspiracies…There will be conspiracies to trap the Tigers to take a different direction from their goal. It is now crystal clear that the Sinhala leaders will never put forward a just resolution to the Tamil national question ... The uncompromising stance of Sinhala chauvinism has left us with no other option but an independent state for the people of Tamil Eelam,'' he said, referring to the Sinhala majority that dominate the government and the military.

As long as the LTTE continued in this vein, with military victories becoming costlier to earn, the march to death and doomsday would continue. And the LTTE's continued refusal to adapt its approach to a dynamic regional and global situation has only strengthened the military lobbies of Sri Lanka but also had made a mockery of all those who strive for peace in Sri Lanka. In a way it only vindicates what President Rajapaksa has been doing with his war-in-peace strategy. And the woes of the Tamil population caught between the war of the Tigers and the elephant continues.

Col. R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies. He submitted this article for publication in the Asian Tribune.

- Asian Tribune -

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