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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2733

The March of Unreason

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“A cause insolubly connected with decay and death….”
Klaus Mann (The Turning Point)

For the first time since the commencement of Eelam wars irrational extremists are in control in both the North and the South. The Tiger dominates the North while in the South the JVP – and to a lesser extent the JHU – holds the whip hand over the Rajapakse administration. These Sinhala and Tamil extremists will be the decisive players in the official Fourth Eelam War that is about to commence. In such a condition, preposterous policies and horrendous practices cannot but become the norm.

The LTTE never wanted to settle for anything less than de jure Eelam. Even Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was willing to concede de facto separation in return for the continuation of a deeply flawed ceasefire, was not good enough for Vellupillai Pirapaharan. He wanted an enemy he could do battle with and who would make him look good by comparison. A Lankan administration seeped in irrationality and firmly wedded to extremism was what the Tiger leader was hoping for when he engineered the victory of Mahinda Rajapakse at the last Presidential election. Events are proving that he did not mistake his man. Not only has Sri Lanka regressed in its attitude to the ethnic problem under the Rajapakses; the regime has permitted itself to become dependent on the JVP and the JHU. This, in turn, has given these two extremist Southern parties more power and influence than they ever had. The moderate Tamils are two weak on the ground and too dependent on the government for physical survival to make a difference. Sri Lanka has at long last become the playground of the irrationals, a country in which the lunatic fringe predominates the mainstream.

The JVP and the JHU are as extremist and as maximalist as the LTTE. The difference is that the Tiger is more cunning, more aware of the need to present a façade of flexibility to the outside world. This is evident from the LTTE’s reaction to the formal abrogation of the ceasefire by the Rajapakse administration. It is a win-win outcome for the Tigers; they are rid of the CFA and in such a way that the blame for its final formal internment falls squarely on the shoulders of the Lankan administration. By acting irrationally the government has assumed the role of primary aggressor, a role that belonged to the Tigers in the Second and Third Eelam wars. In both 1990 and 1995 the Ceasefire agreements were abolished by the LTTE while Colombo made frantic efforts to salvage the situation. This time the Rajapakse administration, thanks to the pressure of its natural ally, the JVP, saved the LTTE that trouble.

The Tiger today is able to shed crocodile tears over a CFA which had outlived its uses, which he violated with impunity almost from the very day of its birth. The news is all over the world: the LTTE wants to save the ceasefire, wants the Norwegians to stay, wants the Lankan government to try harder for peace while Colombo is belligerent and intransigent. Such propaganda will do a lot of good for the Tiger’s bloody reputation. The LTTE can sound as reasonable and peace-loving as it wants and needs, safe in the knowledge that the government will see in this pose signs of weakness and respond with contempt. The contrast is thus made for international consumption between a reasonable Tiger and an inflexible Colombo; this will make the world less willing to support our war against the LTTE.

The Wilfully Blind

Is it that the warning signals are unseen or do they go unheeded? A war – even the most just war - is not made in a vacuum. It needs certain political, economic, social and psychological conditions to become sustainable, let alone victorious. Many of these factors are absent in Sri Lanka, fully or partially, and these absences cannot but have a critical impact on the war itself before the year is over.

The LTTE is not running a country with a democratic system. It can afford to divert most of its resources into the war effort. This gives the Tiger a greater staying power, a greater capacity to survive on depleted resources. The LTTE need not launch massive offensives to keep the war going. It just needs to be present. By merely surviving – and thus prolonging the conflict - the Tiger can wear down the Lankan side, by increasing the political and economic cost of the war to the point of unsustainability. When the financial crisis becomes unmanageable, when the economic distress becomes unbearable, when hope of an easy and a quick victory diminishes, despair will take a deadly hold over the South. From despair to anger is but a short, logical step.

Lack of wisdom and lack of foresight seem hallmarks of this regime. The short-term commercial loans taken by this government must be serviced and paid, in foreign exchange. These are financial time bombs ticking away. Waiting for something to turn up – in the style of Mr. Micawber – is not sensible conduct on the part of the government, especially when the financial horizon is getting increasingly darker. The EU is said to be considering the removal of preferential treatment granted to our garment exports – primarily because of our poor human rights record. And yet the government does not seem to care. If the EU does withdraw its preferential treatment, the garment industry, which is already in crisis, will collapse. Hundreds of thousands of young men and women – mostly from rural areas – will loose their jobs and their families will be forced back into poverty. Garments are also a major export and thus a major foreign exchange earner. Surely it is within the mental capacity of the Rajapakses to comprehend the deleterious impact such a situation would have on our economy, living standards and war effort?

Let us face realities. We cannot run the economy and conduct the war with Russian, Chinese and Pakistani aid alone. We need international assistance to maintain the war, run the economy and feed the people (and to enable our ruling class to maintain their extravagant lifestyles at public expense). That is why voluntary or involuntary isolation is not an option for Sri Lanka. The world does not need us; but we need the world, in order to survive as a single, viable, liveable country. This is why the greatest danger we face is not that of the West invoking the R2P clause against us and intervening militarily against us. That is a not a likely prospect. The world is far more likely to give up on us as irredeemable and leave us to our own devises. That is the real danger – being isolated globally, if we fail to play by internationally accepted rules and norms in our war against the Tigers and our dealings with the Tamil people. Without international assistance our war effort will be hampered and public economic distress will increase manifold.

Acquiescing to the JVP and the JHU will help maintain political stability in the South in the very short term. But beyond that, their irrational conditionalities will cause the international isolation and national disintegration of Sri Lanka. The government obviously hopes that if it has the JVP on its side it will be able to impose more and more burdens on the people without risking a Southern outburst. In the immediate term this assumption is correct. For the next several months the regime will be able to avoid many strikes, demonstrations and other marks of protest. In return the Rajapakses will have to give into more and more JVP demands – insatiability is another characteristic the JVP shares with the LTTE and the JHU. This in turn will worsen our international woes; more and more countries will begin to impose restrictions and sanctions on us to show their displeasure and in the hope of making us see some sense. For instance, if we mishandle the proposed Akashi visit, if we sound belligerent – while the crafty Tigers adopt a reasonable mien – the Japanese may decide to follow the example of the EU and the US. As more and more countries cut down economic and military assistance, the South will begin to spin out of control. If economic distress becomes unbearable, the people will find ways to manifest their anger, with or without the JVP. Total war cannot but result in total destabilisation of the South eventually.

A Self-destructive Mindset

The Rajapakses are not only short-sighted. They are fatally incapable of distinguishing the petty from the critical, the strategic from the tactical, wheat from chaff. How else can one explain the hysterical reaction to Peter Hill, which provoked the Emirates to dump the Sri Lankan Air Lines in full view of the world? The message sent to international financial circles is that it is impossible to do business with the Rajapakse administration. It is entirely possible that the regime will consciously make the Sri Lankan Air Lines unviable so that Mihin Air – that jarringly uncouth symbol of political partisanship and Presidential aggrandizement - can be elevated as the national carrier.

The fatal short-sightedness of the regime can be best understood by the manner in which it abuses its capacity to provide security to citizens threatened by political enemies. T Maheswaran’s security was slashed drastically because he annoyed the powers that be. The regime is yet to apologise to the bereaved Maheswaran family for this deadly error. Nor has it restored the security of parliamentarians Rauf Hakeem and Mano Ganesan. Are the Rajapakses are incapable of understanding that they will be held responsible if any harm befalls these two parliamentarians? Or do they not give a damn? The impression created is an ugly one: a petty minded President and an equally petty minded Defence Secretary who grant or withdraw security to politicians on the basis of whether they are friends or enemies. In the hands of the Rajapakse siblings the provision of security has been turned into a Sword of Damocles to be used against their potential or actual opponents. Their friends are rewarded with protection while their opponents are punished with its withdrawal. Such conduct is unfair, unjust and most of all unwise.

Commenting on the difference between the Khmer Rouge and other national liberation and revolutionary organisations Elizabeth Becker opines, “What marks them unique was their willingness to take every policy to its limit and beyond, pushing the people, themselves and their country until it broke apart” (When the War was Over: Cambodia’s Revolution and the Voices of its People).

This is true of the LTTE and is becoming increasingly applicable to the Lankan administration under the Rajapakses, the JVP and the JHU. Thanks to their Sinhala supremacist rhetoric and actions relations between different ethnic and religious groups have reached a low, not seen since the days of Black July. A conflagration along ethnic or religious lines is a very real danger, particularly since times of extreme economic distress are characterised by the search for scapegoats. The imposition of soft sanctions by the US is not an end but a beginning; others are bound to follow suit, if we are seen as persistently obdurate. The majoritarian arrogance of the Rajapakses together with the pressure from the JVP and the JHU will render a political solution to the ethnic problem impossible.

Just as there is no political solution to the Tiger problem there is no military solution to the ethnic problem. If Vellupillai Pirapaharan is removed from the equation – either by nature or by enemy action – India will begin to play the role of big brother again, with the blessing of the international community. Sans Mr. Pirapaharan, the LTTE will be amenable to a quasi-federal settlement; democratic Tamil leaders too will be happy with it, creating, at long last, a moderate Tamil consensus. And it is this consensus a reactivated India, with the backing of the international community, will seek to impose on us. As objective conditions render non-acceptance impossible and the JVP and the JHU threaten to ignite the South, the Rajapakses will know what it is like to be caught between the hammer and the anvil.

- Asian Tribune -

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