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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2643

The Possible and the Impossible

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

"Listen to all American presidents on television say the words, 'the American people', as in the sentence, 'I say to the American people it is time to pray and to defend the rights of the American people and I ask the American people to trust their president in the action he is about to take on behalf of the American people.' It's a scintillating stratagem. Language is actually employed to keep thought at bay. The words 'the American people' provide a truly voluptuous cushion of reassurance. You don't need to think. Just lie back on the cushion. The cushion may be suffocating your intelligence and your critical faculties but it's very comfortable."
Harold Pinter (Art, Truth and Politics – Nobel Lecture)

The Tiger has begun the Fourth Eelam War in characteristic fashion by massacring civilians in the South. However to dismiss these abhorrent actions merely as further signs of the LTTE’s barbarism or the desperate lashings of a Tiger in death throes would be to miss the wood for the trees. The Tigers are attacking civilian targets in the South because they want to bring the war to the entirety of Sri Lanka, and in the process ignite an ethnic riot a la Black July. Such a conflagration would be the LTTE’s dream scenario since it will create the international environment needed for the East Timor/Kosovo outcome the LTTE is aiming at (several large scale attacks on Tamil civilians by the Lankan Forces would be the Tigers’ next best scenario).

The time perhaps has never been more propitious for such a strategy. Sri Lanka’s international reputation is more in tatters today than it was even during the First Eelam War. By choosing to abrogate the CFA officially, we have damaged our own cause still further. In fact the unexpressed reaction in many capitals to the recent Tiger atrocities would be that we brought this calamity upon ourselves by officially commencing the Fourth Eelam War. The regime does not seem to be seriously interested in taking steps to improve Sri Lanka’s human rights record (the Prime Minister’s recent statement that the Armed Forces have been given a free hand to defeat the Tigers would sound ominous to most Tamils). The APRC’s proposal, if it does see the light of day, is unlikely to be endorsed by the government. The JVP has already made clear that any such acceptance would result in the prompt withdrawal of the party’s support to the regime. Therefore the proposal will be jettisoned by the President on some excuse or the other.

Psychologically too the barriers to another Black July have been considerably dismantled. For the first time since the demise of Cyril Matthew, we have government ministers saying the unthinkable, out loud (Champika Ranawaka’s now infamous comments to Al Jazeera being a case in point; he and the JHU are paranoid about Christians, Muslims and Tamils and make little effort to hide their visceral hatred; more disturbingly the President seems comfortable with the xenophobic outlook and outpourings of his allies). Worst still, both the Tamils and the Muslims maintain that some of these elements are trying to remake the East in accordance of their own Sinhala supremacist vision. Majoritarian chauvinism is suddenly acceptable, even in official circles. This attitudinal change makes another ethnic riot possible, particularly if the Tigers continue to attack civilian targets in the South. And the Tigers will. True they would face some international ire as a result. But for the LTTE the risk would be worth taking, because the dividends of igniting another Black July will be rich beyond avarice – even of Vellupillai Pirapaharan.

Illusions of a ‘Fast Food War’

The government is hoping for a short sharp war, ending in a decisive victory. The people in the South are expected to suspend their critical faculties and believe in this beguiling illusion of a ‘fast food war’. Dissenting opinion is castigated as unpatriotic. The mindset prevailing in official circles is disturbingly similar to the false and unrealistic optimism that was pervasive in American administration and media at the onset of the Iraqi invasion (the leading Bush strategist Richard Perle even opined that within a year a grand square in Baghdad will be named after George Bush by a grateful Iraqi populace). Deeply infatuated with this impossible scenario the regime does not seem interested in wondering what would happen if things do not work in accordance with its wishes.

The regime’s inexplicable sanguinity about the problems the country is facing on many fronts becomes comprehensible in the light of this ‘fast food war’ scenario. If the government really believes in a short sharp war (of less than one year) even the sky rocketing inflation will cease to be a major problem in its eyes. After all if the war is over soon, economic difficulties caused partly by high defence expenditure too are bound to abate. There are even wild rumours of schools being closed for three months, until the LTTE’s back in broken. The regime seems to be gambling on the assumption that the public will put up with anything if the war is short and victorious, from high prices to civilian massacres, from a break down in law and order to an absence of normalcy. The regime’s propaganda is obviously aimed at helping along this belief in a fast victory, providing the public astronomical figures of dead Tigers (whether the Southern public is as gullible as the regime’s propagandists think is quite another matter).

The regime’s gamble will work only of Vanni and Killinochchi fall fast. This is not a possible scenario, given the nature of the Tiger. Perhaps government leaders are envisaging an end akin to Adolf Hitler for Vellupillai Pirapaharan, with the Fourth Eelam War progressing like the last phase of the Second World War. Perhaps they believe that the march on Vanni and Killinochchi will be similar to the final phase of the march on Berlin. Anyone familiar with the history of the Second World War would know that such assumptions are based on taking comparisons too far, to illogical, non-factual places. It is therefore to be hoped that the regime has a plan B, a plan dealing with what it is going to do if Vanni and Killinochchi do not fall at the expected lightening speed.

An indicator of what awaits the regimes at the hands of some of its own allies if the expected victory does not materialise is available in the latest edition of the unofficial JVP paper, Lanka. The JVP is an unreliable ally at the best of times. In fact it is already preparing the ground to ditch the regime if the expected quick victory is not forthcoming. The JVP’s plan seems to be to open a second front in the South on economic issues. Going by the political column of ‘Lanka’, when the time comes the regime will be accused of failing to take on the might of local and foreign monopolies in order to bring down the cost of living. Among the monopolists mentioned in the political column is the owner of Nipuna - a rice wholesale establishment - said to be a brother of the Minister of Agriculture and SLFP General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena. This fact too would be used for good effect when the JVP takes on the government sometime in the future.

Is the government ready for a scenario which includes an unfinished war, international sanctions, economic crisis, popular distress and Southern unrest? This is a highly possible scenario unlike the regime’s impossible one of total victory in three months. A strategy that is based on unrealistic assumptions, wishful thinking and the backing of Sinhala supremacist elements, whose ideas and agendas are totally at variance with the actually existing nature of Sri Lanka and the world, is bound to fail. And when it fails it will take down with it the necessary war against the LTTE. Appeasement will win its definitive victory and the path will be open for those who argue that any price is worth the absence of war.

An Alliance of Moderates

The best possible scenario for Sri Lanka would have been a genuine national government between the PA and the UNP with the inclusion of the more moderate elements of the JVP as well as the democratic minority parties. Such an alliance could have conducted the war against the Tigers in the North while coming up with a political solution to the ethnic problem by marginalising Southern extremists. But this scenario cannot work so long as the pro-Tiger Ranil Wickremesinghe remains the leader of the UNP. The President put paid to the possibility of effecting a change in the leadership of the UNP when he lured all the most likely alternatives to Mr. Wickremesinghe into the government. That move created a situation which encompasses the worst of all worlds. There is no alternative visible to the pro-Tiger leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe in the UNP today. The defectors have discredited themselves both within the party and nationally. And the regime is no less dependent on the JVP – as the Budget vote amply demonstrated. The President thus did himself and the country no favours when he engineered the defection of 18 UNPers. By doing so he barred the only possible way out of the current crisis – a moderate national coalition which is anti-Tiger and pro-devolution.

Sans such a coalition of moderates the regime will remain dependent on both the JVP and the JHU. It will be compelled to adhere to their extremist agendas in order to survive. This would render impossible a more flexible attitude towards the international community, an improvement of the country’s human rights record and a political solution to the ethnic problem. The government may make promises to clean up its human rights record or to devolve power. But as long as its dependency on the JVP and the JHU remains, such promises can be kept only in the breach. A viable national government is impossible so long as Ranil Wickremesinghe remains the leader of the UNP; and there is no figure in the UNP today who can lead a successful rebellion against the Wickremesinghe leadership.

The war will not be the ‘fast food war’ of the regime’s imagination; it will be a costly and a prolonged one. And as the war drags on, and the regime continues to indulge in waste and corruption, the economic distress of the masses will mount and the financial crisis of the country will escalate. The world will turn against us and the Tamil people will loose hope in a palatable Sri Lankan future. For the Tiger, survival in the short term may be sufficient to reap a rich crop in the medium term.

In the meantime, illusions will hold sway. The regime and its propagandists will assure us that the final victory is round the corner. The number of Tigers killed in the regime’s statements may even surpass the total number of Tamils in Sri Lanka. As the expected quick victory fails to materialise, we are more likely to make mistakes, of the sort that helps the enemy (military attacks on Tamil civilians, ethnic riots etc). And the only way out of the crisis would have been closed off by the President’s own past actions. The errors we have made and continue to make will ensure for a us a bitter harvest, even as early as this time next year.

- Asian Tribune -

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