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Sunday, September 30, 2007

Policy shifts or policy shows -

Policy shifts or policy shows -

  • President explains two-track policy to UN amidst confusion and contradiction
  • UNP explains about-turn on F-word, but issues strong attack on 'blood brothers'
  • JVP, Mangala group also take steps towards political realignments

By Our Political Editor

President Mahinda Rajapaksa addressing the UN General Assembly sessions in New York on Tuesday

It is strange but true. Some of the key stakeholders in the country's festering ethnic conflict -- the Government, the main Opposition United National Party (UNP) and even their protagonists, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) -- were making fresh policy pronouncements this week.

It comes after more than a five-year long ceasefire that remains only on paper. An undeclared Eelam War IV is raging. In the light of all this, more military and political wars are inexplicably a certainty. President Percy Mahinda Rajapaksa is for both war and peace. "We launched military operations," he told the 62nd United Nations General Assembly sessions in New York on Tuesday "to convince them (the Tiger guerrillas) that it would not be possible to obtain a military victory." Paradoxical enough, the same message he gave the UN was delivered to Rajapaksa and his own Government just four days earlier.

United States Ambassador, Robert O' Blake, declared, "The tactical successes should not tempt the Government to re-consider whether Sri Lanka's conflict can be won by military means." The US is an important member of the Donor Co-chairs who are underwriting the peace process together with facilitator Norway, Japan and the European Union member countries.

"Our goal remains a negotiated and honourable end," declared Rajapaksa setting out the second of his dual track policy at the UN. To achieve this, he pinned his hopes on the All-Party Representative Committee (APRC) by saying it is "working successfully towards it." However, there were growing new doubts over such a possible success. Barely 24 hours before Rajapaksa had spelt out his two-track war cum peace policy to world leaders and diplomats, Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe sprung a surprise. His United National Party will no longer insist on a federal solution to the conflict.

A two-page document released on Thursday explained the UNP's position. It said, "there must be a credible power sharing between the national government, Regional/Provincial Councils and Local Authorities. The Centre must identify the powers needed for the national government and parliament." The document, which was a reiteration of UNP policy, did not refer to any settlement based on a federal system.

In moving away from that previous position, UNP front liner Ravi Karunanayake was to claim that the word "federal" was put to use by the media and not by the UNP. Even if he or his party believed that would absolve them from any blame, the ploy was too transparent.

In doing so, the UNP seemed to try to harmonise itself with the position taken by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). The JVP is opposed to any federal system. Like the UNP now, the JVP has stood for maximum devolution within certain confines. It was only last Sunday that JVP leader Somawansa Amerasinghe declared in a signed article written exclusively to The Sunday Times that "in our view the UNP is not capable of mobilising its membership or following on a programme of action. That is why their slogans are hollow. There is no meaningful action to back those slogans."

Here was Wickremesinghe responding in his own way to the assertions proving again that there are no permanent enemies in politics. That naturally means that the APRC, already faltering would flounder further. Thus, the question remains whether they will be able to work successfully towards any acceptable political package.

It was The Sunday Times sister paper Lankadeepa that ran the story of the UNP dropping its previous commitment to a federal solution. Interesting enough the JVP politburo was in session that day. Its leader Somawansa Amerasinghe was to say that Wickremesinghe's remarks were aimed at "getting our 37 votes." He said it was his understanding that an APRC political package to end the ethnic conflict, to be announced in November, would be within the framework of the 13th amendment to the Constitution. He said the Human Rights and Disaster Management Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe had visited Norway and was engaged in a secret exercise to resume peace talks between the Government and the LTTE.

JVP parliamentary group leader Wimal Weerawansa was stronger in his criticism of Minister Samarasinghe. He said he (Samarasinghe) had not given up his agenda to work towards becoming Foreign Minister. He failed once before, during the last Cabinet re-shuffle despite asking two leading Colombo-based envoys to espouse his case. He was now trying to play the role of a Kapuwa (broker) to revive peace talks in the hope that he would be made the Foreign Minister.

Weerawansa said it was a "crying shame the way some ministers stooped to any level to achieve their personal ends." Weerawansa was also critical of the upcoming visit by UN Human Rights Commissioner Louise Arbor. He said the Government had not learnt its lessons after the visits of Allan Rock and Sir John Holmes. JVP's foreign affairs spokesman Vijitha Herath said that if the UNP was unable to defeat the Government during the budget, UNP leader Wickremesinghe would be in "great trouble".

A discussion on the JVP's stance on the budget could not be concluded. The meeting had to be adjourned early since two of their members - Wimal Weerawansa and Vijitha Herath - were to represent the JVP at the funeral of the mother of Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle.

The UNP dropping the federal system of governance in finding a solution to the ethnic problem also caused some minor ripples in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party-M faction. Its convenor Mangala Samaraweera was in Galle when he read the news in the Lankadeepa. Later, he sought a meeting with UNP leader Wickremesinghe. There, the latter explained the nuances and gave him a copy of the two-page document which the party was to release later.

Samaraweera, it turned out, was satisfied that the UNP stood for maximum devolution though there was no express reference to a federal system. That exclusion, it was pointed out, did not mean any dilution in the UNP's approach to resolve the conflict, it was pointed out.

Though it was Ravi Karunanayake who was tasked to explain the UNP's position on 'federalism', it became clear that the Party was making a major re-alignment. The UNP has, clearly decided that there is an urgent need to win back the support of the southern voters, which largely eroded because the UNP was perceived as a party that took a soft-line on the LTTE.

The fact that one of the biggest debacles inflicted on the LTTE, the breakaway of the Karuna faction, was done politically, and largely due to the UNP's pursuit of peace talks from 2002-2004 has been lost on the southern polity. The fact that LTTE Leader Velupillai Prabhakaran himself indicated that he engineered the North and East boycott of the 2005 Presidential Elections to get Ranil Wickremesinghe defeated was because of the UNP Leader's "trap" for the LTTE through an international safety net, is also lost on the south.

In addition to this, what Defence Secretary Lt. Col. (Ret.) Gotabhaya Rajapaksa says, almost grudgingly, that the UNP has come to drop 'federalism' because of the military successes over the LTTE, and its popularity with the southern masses, seems to have some truth in it.

The UNP Leader was to later explain the party's sudden decision to drop the F-word from their own vocabulary. He said the party had not been using this word - federalism - in recent years. They are for power-sharing, and in their previous proposals they have not used that word. When he was asked by some ; what of the Oslo Communiqué, and whether the UNP has jettisoned that as well, he replied in the negative, and said that the Oslo Communiqué only referred to "exploring federalism".

Even more significant was the typed note released after the party felt that Ravi Karunanayake had not explained the party's position adequately. In that 'special statement', the UNP quoted its leader as saying the Party opposes separatism, and that while terrorism requires a "military response", the causes that lead to separatism require a "political solution".

It went further to say that a negotiated settlement should be based on renunciation of violence, human rights and democracy - and even acknowledged the concerns of some sections of the majority Sinhalese that devolution will lead to separatism. The party seemed to stick to its international safety net principle, which Prabhakaran called a "trap" for the LTTE, but what was equally striking was the fact that it even questioned whether the Province must be the unit of devolution for the future. "If new units of devolution are being demarcated, it should be based on political, social and economic criteria", it said.

Clearly, the UNP was aiming at winning back the lost ground of the Sinhalese vote-base in the long-term, and the JVP's support in the immediate. Menawhile, the LTTE, in a statement a day ahead of Rajapaksa's UN address, took to task the remarks made by Retired Lieutenant Colonel Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the all powerful Defence Secretary, that "We cannot establish permanent peace in the country by winning only half or two third of the war against terrorism… President Rajapaksa cannot implement the desired political solution to the north and east conflict unless LTTE terrorism is defeated 100 per cent."

The LTTE said, "Two important facts can be gleaned from this statement (of the Defence Secretary's) that was clearly endorsed by the President himself. Firstly, that the GoSL intends to intensify the war in the north and secondly that the APRC was a façade to fool the international community."

Thus, on three key fronts - the Opposition, the LTTE and even the international community - President Rajapaksa and his Government appear to have moved into a cul de sac. Its own initiative or the lack of it has prolonged the political process. The new turn of events is making matters worse. The political process is not moving hand in hand with the ongoing military thrust. It is moving faster.

The glitter of the Big Apple, or New York, and the glamour of brushing shoulders with the world leaders and diplomats would no doubt be a lifetime experience for most of nearly 85 members of the Sri Lanka delegation. The piece de resistance, the address by President Rajapaksa, in the afternoon of UNGA inaugural alas was bereft if anything new or striking. Of course, there were a few asides.

One was a pot shot at the West in general, and probably the George W. Bush Administration, in particular. Rajapaksa declared: "Guided by the principles of Buddhism, we have long respected the rights of our fellow human beings. Therefore, it had not been necessary for us to experience global wars or the deaths of millions to, learn to recognize their value. My country has no record of inflicting misery on fellow human beings for the purpose of empire building, for commercial advantage or for religious righteousness."

The other was a lament on the issue of human rights - a subject on which the Government has come under severe international criticism. In turn, Government Ministers have also been heaping strong criticism on senior UN officials who came to Colombo to speak with Government leaders on the same subject. The last was on Sir John Holmes, the UN Under Secretary General. If Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake called him "uncivilised," his Ministerial colleague, Government Spokesman and Chief Government Whip, Jeyaraj Fernandopulle branded him a "terrorist".

And on Monday, President Rajapaksa lamented at the UN that the "tool" of human rights was being used to victimize Sri Lanka. He said "…human rights are too important to be used as a tool to victimize States for political advantage. It is essential that international action to facilitate compliance with human rights standards is fair and evenhanded. Human rights have to be protected and advanced for their own sake, not for political gain."

The remarks would have been more credible if those front liners in the Rajapaksa Government did not brand the UN human rights officials with wild titles and hurled ugly remarks. Barely a day after President Rajapaksa and his usually large entourage had arrived in New York, than the UNP circulated a four-page document titled "Blood Brothers" to foreign missions at the UN. It said, "through this second pamphlet Blood Brothers we bring you another sordid account of the tightening grip of Rajapaksa Incorporated on Sri Lanka's polity, economy and society and the country's rapid descent into failed state status.

A potentially rich and prosperous country is today as a result of the machinations of the blood brothers facing - massive defaults in governance, a ruined economy, violation of human rights, hundreds of thousands of displaced people, a highly militarized state, widespread corruption, and the pauperisation of the people through daily increase in the prices of food, fuel and transport."

Here are some highlights of the "Blood Brothers" document:

* Democracy at Grave Risk: Serious allegations are now being made that Mahinda Rajapaksa's narrow win at the Presidential Elections in November 2005 was as a result of his "bribing" the LTTE to order its instruction to over 600,000 Tamil voters under LTTE control in the North not to vote."

* Appointment of Basil Rajapaksa: In callous disregard of democratic conventions and practice, misusing the immunity accorded to an Executive President, and in a show of unmatched arrogance of power, Rajapaksa has had the effrontery to appoint his brother Basil a Member of Parliament. He is being tipped to head an important Ministry.

* Harassment of the Judiciary: An attempt has been made to influence the decision of Magistrate (Ms Darshika Wimalasiri) on the matter of granting bail to a Minister's (the infamous Mervyn Silva) son Malaka, by threatening the Magistrate's mother on the night before the bail decision was to be given.

* Peace through WAR: While his Foreign Minister, "BOGS" (name Bogollagama shortened) preaches of a negotiated political solution to the national problem, Mahinda Rajapaksa's brother the Defence Secretary (Gotabhaya Rajapaksa), orders his troops to wage all-out war.

* Media Freedom: The Sunday Times published a report by its Defence Correspondent Mr. Iqbal Athas, on the irregularities connected to the purchase of MiG 27 jet fighters from Ukraine. Subsequent to this report, Mr. Iqbal Athas' security was withdrawn and he received death threats. Senator Jopesph Biden, Chairman, Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, Joel Simon, Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalsits, had written to President Rajapaksa drawing his attention to the intimidation of Mr. Iqbal Athas.

There were a number of other unrelated developments too. Mangala Samaraweera had to skip the Janarala by the National Congress in Moneragala on Friday. He appeared before the Sri Lanka Freedom Party's Disciplinary Committee with a battery of six lawyers. The five-member Committee is headed by Power and Energy Minister, John Seneviratne. Samaraweera's lawyers argued that the Disciplinary Committee was not properly constituted. They argued that it was appointed by the SLFP Central Committee which in itself was illegally constituted.

His lawyers are to now submit written objections on October 15. A ruling on this is expected two days later. Thereafter, the Committee will decide the next date for its sittings. Questions were raised whether Samaraweera was still opting to be in the mainstream SLFP, despite his breakaway faction, to which Samaraweera had responded that he went for the inquiry because he respected the SLFP Constitution. That answer still did not seem to answer the question, whether he still opted for membership of the mainstream SLFP headed now by President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

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