TamilWeek Feb 5, 2006
True Freedom: A long way off

By Darisha Bastians

There is a tale told about the tragedy of our country over the last century.
It involved Lee Kwan Yeu, the Singaporean Premier who arrived in Sri
Lanka soon after we attained independence from the British. He went back
and told his colleagues that it was Sri Lanka that the tiny island of
Singapore should model itself on. She was the epitome of Asian economic
and social development. Then Yeu returned to Ceylon in the 1970s, by
then a nation fractured by political feuding. It is said that on that occasion
he returned to his country and said “Sri Lanka is exactly what Singapore
must not become.”Fifty eight years ago today, Sri Lanka threw off the
yoke of colonization and became independent. Given her status of
prestige back in 1948, it looked like the teardrop in the mighty Indian
Ocean would assume a position of economic strength and development
with ease. Socially, culturally and economically, Sri Lanka was already
streets ahead of her South Asian neighbours. That was before the seeds
of racism were sown and Sri Lankans began to see everything through
eyes that made distinctions between colour, speech and religion.

So here we are, half a century later, gasping for breath economically and
struggling to kick-start negotiations with separatist rebels, in a bid to end a
civil war that has been our undoing for the last 20 years.

Cloud on Geneva
The initial euphoria about talks between the government and the LTTE in
Geneva died a quick death after the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation
relief workers were allegedly abducted near a security checkpoint in
Welikanda. It is no secret that the TRO is the LTTE’s ‘NGO’ proxy,
engaged in development work solely in the north and east and funded by
the considerably large Tamil Diaspora. Representatives of the
organization claim that five of its members were dragged out of a vehicle
and taken away, with the assailants warning those remaining to make
coffins for the abductees. Since then, two of the abductees have been
released by their captors. One day later, five more TRO staffers went
missing.

The abductions fuelled an angry response from the international
community almost immediately. The US mission in Colombo issued a
statement asking that the relief workers be freed, while humanitarian
agencies also stepped into the fray.

Some observe that the LTTE was keen on legitimizing the TRO, which was
banned in the UK. And this action only helped the relief organization gain
recognition.

The LTTE was quick to pounce on the opportunity. Less than 24 hours
after the first abductions, Head of the Tigers Peace Secretariat, Pulidevan
warned that the Geneva talks could be hampered by the recent
developments.

Taking up the cue, the Tamil National Alliance which put paid to any
significant work being done in parliament over the last month with protests
about the killings and harassment of Tamil people in the north and east,
vowed to continue their struggle within the House until the abductees were
released. The TRO was accusing the government troops of having been
involved in the incident, with the assistance of paramilitaries and the TNA
was protesting in parliament in a bid to force the government to look into
matters.

Colombo vehemently denied the reports. Publicly, that is. It hinted at foul
play by the TRO by saying that the abductions had not been reported to
any police station or security point.

But behind the scenes, the administration was in a state of flux. Defence
Ministry officials issued orders to the military, asking them to produce the
five workers immediately.

Mounting international pressure on the government put an unfair onus on
troops on the ground, who claim not to have had anything to do with the
abductions. Military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told this
newspaper that they had begun to fear for their jobs since producing the
abductees was impossible, given the fact that they were not in security
forces custody at all. Intelligence reports meanwhile indicate that all the
alleged abductees are safe and sound inside LTTE-controlled territory in
Batticaloa.

There is much speculation in political circles – hinted at by Foreign
Minister Mangala Samaraweera himself at last Thursday’s Cabinet briefing
– that the abductions were set up by the Tigers themselves in a bid to stall
the Geneva talks.

Talks bound
But if the LTTE is dragging its feet, Rajapaksa and Co. after much
humming and hawing have finally cobbled together a delegation.
Government spokesman Nimal Siripala de Silva will lead the delegation,
while Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, Faizer Mustapha, Rohitha Bogollagama and
a military officer will comprise the main negotiating team. Given the
obvious inexperience of the government delegation, especially in
comparison with a veteran like Anton Balasingham, the President has
decided to send a massive advisory team to Geneva in order to stem the
LTTE’s advantage. The Daily Mirror learns that Sri Lanka’s contender for
the UN Secretary General’s post, Dr. Jayantha Dhanapala, Peace
Secretariat Chief John Gunaratne, several defence advisors and senior
public servants will accompany the primary delegation to Geneva.

Having suggested the dates – February 15 and 16, the government now
awaits a positive response from Kilinochchi about the proposed two days
for the talks. It is also learnt that the four donor co-chairs who were
scheduled to meet in Colombo this month for review talks, have decided to
hold it elsewhere. It is possible that they would try to coincide their own
meeting with the Geneva talks.

JVP victory
Last week also saw the now silent Wimal Weerawansa coming out strongly
against the proposed visit of ADB, IMF and World Bank representatives to
the Tiger stronghold in Kilinochchi. Weerawansa said the JVP was
“warning” the new administration not to allow the visit to go through, since
it would give unnecessary legitimacy to the rebels in the run-up to the
Geneva talks.

The representatives, scheduled to make the trip to Tiger-controlled
territory yesterday (3) issued a joint statement saying that the government
had requested them to postpone the visit until after the talks in
Switzerland. It would seem that President Rajapaksa did, in fact, succumb
on this occasion to pressure from his election ally, with whom he is bound
to have several running battles in the near future.

The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna has become very used to flexing its
muscle with the SLFP in the last few years. Fully realizing that the blues
cannot win an election without the strength of its super-organised
grassroots network, the JVP has staked its claim in a big way at the
forthcoming Local Government polls. Somawansa Amarasinghe and his
boys are demanding that SLFP members contest under the JVP symbol
and not the common UPFA banner in 18 councils. The JVP wants 14
Pradeshiya Sabhas and four Urban Councils to be completely within the
party’s control should they win the election. It has demanded councils in
Colombo and Kaduwela, Ratnapura and several areas in the Hambantota
District, including Tissamaharama and Tangalle. It was with regard to
Tangalle that President Rajapaksa realised that the Marxists were trying to
strike too close to home. Uncomfortable with the reds trying to wrest
control of his home turf, the President has already told the JVP that they
can forget about Tangalle. He is said to be considering the other requests
by the Marxists, but it will be a tough call for the President with most
SLFPers completely averse to the idea.

Kumaratunga’s comeback
One SLFPer has known all along what the game plan of the JVP was. And
by all indications, she’s looking to come back to quash the JVP conspiracy
to swallow the SLFP whole and become the main alternative to the UNP.

Sri Lanka’s ‘other’ President, (the one who still issues national day
messages on letter heads bearing the official Presidential standard) – and
daughter of SLFP founder S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, Chandrika
Kumaratunga, is back from her holiday overseas, guns blazing.

Totally unexpected, Kumaratunga turned up for a meeting of the SLFP
organizers, who the President had summoned to Temple Trees on
Wednesday (1). Rajapaksa, as yet unable to summon the SLFP central
committee, since he does not wear the mantle of party leader, decided to
call together the district organizers in a bid to brief them about the
upcoming polls and the JVP’s demands.

The organizers were scheduled to meet the President at 8.00 p.m. on
Wednesday, one hour after the Cabinet meeting. Kumaratunga, notorious
during her Presidential tenure for her tardiness, had arrived at Temple
Trees, 10 minutes before the organisers’ meeting began.

The Cabinet of Ministers was rippling with anticipation when they heard
that the former President was in the premises, greeted warmly by all the
organizers. When the Ministers and the President walked in after the
Cabinet meeting, they found Kumaratunga surrounded by her party men,
chatting pleasantly. The incumbent and his predecessor greeted each
other and then each got up to address the gathering. Kumaratunga went
first and without lashing out too much, pointed out that the SLFP had to
continue with its moderate policies and whoever joined the party to form
alliances would have to come on board with the SLFP ideology and not
vice versa. She proposed that 25% of nominations be given to the JVP
members but stressed the need to maintain the SLFP as the leader of the
coalition.

President Rajapaksa sounded a different call. Pointing out that there were
now bigger players than the LSSP and the Communist Party in the SLFP-
led alliance, it was necessary to incorporate their ideologies as well in
order to maintain their support at elections. Rajapaksa said he would be
meeting with the JVP and the JHU for discussions on Thursday and he
would inform the party of their demands afterwards.

With the JVP demanding its pound of flesh and the former President
digging in her heels for the long haul back into mainstream politics, there
will be many fierce battles to be fought in the run-up to the polls in March.

The Cooray crisis
The local government elections are creating a different set of problems for
the UNP and its leader. Last week, MPs Milinda Moragoda and M. Mahroof
ambushed UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and demanded that he
nominate former UNP frontliner Sirisena Cooray as Colombo’s mayoral
candidate. Also in the running are Azard Sally, Hemasiri Fernando and
Omar Kamil. Moragoda and Mahroof threatened that if Cooray was not
nominated, they would not work in their electorates at the forthcoming
polls. Wickremesinghe was loath to agree to Cooray, given the age of the
former politician and the dire need of fresh blood in the party. But refusing
would also mean the party machinery in three main Colombo electorates
would be affected, if not paralysed. He agreed to talk to Colombo Chief
Organiser M.H. Mohammed about Cooray and get back to the two MPs.
When he did so, Mohammed also backed Cooray, mostly, it is learnt, on
account of a personal grudge against Kamil.

Wickremesinghe now finds himself in a precarious situation with Deputy
Leader Karu Jayasuriya insisting that Kamil be the UNP candidate and
protesting Cooray’s nomination because he was too old. In parliament last
week, Wickremesinghe was also besieged by the other Colombo District
organizers including Ravi Karunanayake, all of whom were insisting that
Cooray be discarded. These MPs are also threatening to take action if
Cooray’s nomination goes through, creating more problems for the UNP
leader, which he does not need.

Sirisena Cooray is well over 70 years and way past his prime as a
politician. What Moragoda and Mahroof are trying to achieve by promoting
him as mayoral candidate cannot be fathomed. Colombo, being the capital
is also the most cosmopolitan and problem-ridden of the districts and
requires a mayor with a novel outlook towards city planning and
administration. But the Cooray crisis appears to be fast becoming the next
problem the UNP will have to contend with, as if the main opposition party
did not already have enough on its plate.And it so happens that on this
58th anniversary of her independence, Sri Lanka stands on a razor’s
edge, faced with what is probably the last chance for peace and a polity
that refuses to look beyond party politics, come what may. Freedom – in
the truest sense of the word, is a long way off.
[Courtesy: DailyMirror]
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