Is Rajapakse a full-fledged war-president?
GoSL and LTTE bunker down for protracted war
by Kumar David
If you believe that a military “solution” is desirable and possible you will be overjoyed, and if you think it a destructive delusion you will be horrified, but faint hypocritical echoes for the benefit of foreigners notwithstanding, GoSL is now fully committed to the military option. The Tiger for its part is not going to play pussy-cat, disarm, belly-up and purr in front of the Lion Army. The scene is set for several more years of debilitating war, humanitarian ruin in the North and East, and, in time, socio-political havoc in the South. As prices increase and economic hardship bites, as will in a prolonged military imbroglio, instability will swell. Let us take a long view and prognosticate about the next period in the likely history of this troubled island.
Is this a war-presidency?
A feature article in the Sunday Island of 8 April describes the Rajapakse Presidency as follows.
“Fighting the war half-heartedly is not a charge that even his worst enemy can credibly lay against President Rajapakse. The regime conducts its military operation undeterred by considerations about ‘collateral’ damage. The President’s brother is in charge of defence and the President backs him completely. Money and political support are available in abundance. The regime defends all actions of the Security Forces, unconditionally. This is the politico-military context . . . .”
That said, the brother has been frank enough to go on record portraying the cease-fire agreement as a fiction that GoSL disregards, and explaining the reason it has not been formally annulled is to pacify pesky foreigners. As Secretary for Defence he has also laid down a target of three years “to wipe out the LTTE”. Since military planners are congenital optimists, a three-fold correction factor is in order, hence we are facing about a decade of war to “wipe out the LTTE”, if it can be done at all.
There are those in the left and peace movements, who with the best of motives, unreservedly supported Rajapakse’s presidential candidacy in 2005. They argued that despite his Machiavellian deals with the JVP and JHU, Rajapakse was in truth a man of peace and we would see his true hue after the elections. After the elections, we were entertained by a new version of this legend. ‘Mahinda is good and peace loving, though weak’, the yarn went, ‘but he is surrounded and misled by a bunch of nasty warmongers and crooks’.
How much credence does this version hold? There is indeed a tightly knit ‘Presidential Cabal’, consisting of brothers Gotabhaya and Basil, perhaps Army Commander Fonseka and the JHU’s Ranawaka, and a few sleazy businessmen gathered around the President. It is known that this cabal, not the Cabinet of Ministers, is the true centre of essential decision making. The members of the cabal are on the whole intelligent and competent, a far cry from the menagerie of 100-plus kleptomaniac Cabinet and non-Cabinet Ministers, once described by one of themselves as a carnival of clowns.
Against this backdrop, if the ‘good Mahinda, bad cabal’ hypothesis is to hold it would also require a corollary hypothesis, namely, that President Rajapakse is not an integral ingredient of the cabal. The Sunday Island feature writer seems to reject this corollary, and so does this correspondent. Are there grounds to deny any longer that Mahinda-Gotabhaya-Basil, plus dubious business characters, and perhaps Fonseka and Ranawaka, constitute a single, united, tightly knit, political, military and business clique? A Marcos Marshal Law regime reborn!
This correspondent is one among those who did not rush to this judgement and in these columns and elsewhere, repeatedly asked for something different from the Rajapakse Presidency. Explicitly, previous editions of this column have said that President Rajapakse has the trust of the Sinhala people, the short-term parliamentary and military upper hand, and UNP support, to boldly propose full-fledged devolution as a basis for a political solution. Though never an uncritical supporter, this included exhorting him, after his election, to exercise his leadership before the window of opportunity closed. Now, after eighteen months in office, the window has all but closed, and he has, together with his cabal, regrettably, signalled a commitment to the military option.
The APC-ARPC melodrama, though, is still on-stage, now running to a half empty house; mostly to distract the Co-Chairs and India, all whom are glad to play along with the charade and refrain from penalties which may secure humanitarian or peace objectives.
What about the LTTE?
The LTTE reached its apogee of support among militant Tamil youth in the late 1980s and early 1990s. There were two reasons for this timing; the anger and frustration in the Tamil community had festered during previous decades and boiled over in young people reaching their late teens and twenties at this time, and secondly, it systematically exterminated all other Tamil militant movements and murdered the traditional Tamil leaders, thus assuring for itself a monopoly position. This enabled it to conduct a successful military campaign and blunt the army, to build a strong position in the diaspora and to cleverly exploit the cleavages between Sinhalese political parties and between the Sri Lankan and Indian governments during the Indira Ghandi and Premadasa periods and the Wickremesinghe-Kumaratunga dispute.
The Tigers have emerged as a formidable war machine and the recent air attack on the Katunayake airbase has displayed a quantum leap in technological capability. Only a foolish person, bereft of strategic thinking, could fail to appreciate the utmost importance of the modern knowledge-based, human-capital resources, it has acquired and demonstrated. Despite gaining the ability to fight large conventional battles the LTTE has also retained its guerrilla warfare capability as other events of the recent months have shown. This is one reason why despite GoSL procuring much better armaments, airpower and logistics, and despite clearly improved strategic talent, a military solution, that is a knock-out defeat of the LTTE, is not on the cards. In adversity the LTTE will switch and combine modes of warfare and keep going for a long time.
Notwithstanding all this, the real reason for the strength of the LTTE within the Tamil community lies elsewhere. Many commentators, and certainly not Sinhala nationalists alone, have pointed out that the Tamil community is oppressed by the near dictatorial mandate that the LTTE has conferred upon itself. Nevertheless, the rule of thumb, the one-third rule that Tamils use in the absence of meaningful elections to estimate Tamil political allegiance, is a reasonable guideline. Not much less than one-third of the community supports the LTTE, somewhat more than two-thirds sees the LTTE-TNA combination as the principal Tamil voice, and the rest remain relatively disinterested. Douglas, Anandasangaree and Karuna are minuscule and in truth the second largest ‘Tamil Party’ in Sri Lanka is the UNP.
Why despite the repression does the LTTE retain considerable Tamil support? Clearly most Tamils don’t want Tamil Eelam, and know in any case the likelihood is a myth. So it’s not that. The reason is simple: the LTTE stood up and fought. Everybody, whether Sinhalese, Tamil or Moor, knows that the South would not so much as stop to give the Tamils the time of day, let alone negotiate devolution, if the LTTE had not fought GoSL to a standstill. That is the lesson of fifty years of Sri Lankan ethno-politics.
Hence, though indeed the Tamils have messy and unfinished accounts to settle with the LTTE, the Tamil people will not, and cannot, settle their accounts with the Tigers until they have first settled their accounts with the Sinhala State.
Imagine if the LTTE is militarily wiped out tomorrow. What talk will there be of devolution, power sharing, or any such thing, on the day after tomorrow? Nothing! The Rajapakse Presidential Cabal (not to mention the JVP, JHU and the SLFP majority) knows this. So do the Tamils and the LTTE; such are the stakes. Hence, a military settlement is impossible. Any significant military gain by one side will only open a new phase, and perhaps a new form of military, social and political conflict. Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley are more intelligent than our home-baked halfwits in learning this lesson.
Nevertheless, the LTTE is finding recruitment ever more difficult both because of demographic changes in the Tamil areas and because today’s Tamil youth have not experienced the personal trauma that so embittered those of a generation ago. Whether GoSL ‘solves’ this problem for the LTTE by embittering the populace by bombardments and perpetrating egregious humanitarian calamities, remains to be seen.
What is the end-game?
If on the one hand Thamil Eelam is impossible; and on the other a military solution is also impossible, that is, if the civil war in some form persists until the Sinhala State grants that which the Rajapakse Administration has set its face against granting, then what is the end-game? The only foreseeable end-game is a prolonged middle-game, a protracted war with no particular endpoint in sight. A regime change is not on the cards in the short-term, astrology aside, given the degree of Sinhala support for Rajapakse playing rough. A huge military reversal for GoSL may force a change of heart in Colombo, but that too is unlikely in the foreseeable future – the LTTE is, after all, now in retreat. Overall, this conjuncture adds up to prolonged, pernicious and inconclusive war.
Forgive me for closing with these frank but unhappy thoughts. Yes unhappy; my intention is not to lull you into deluded and vacuous bliss. Marx coquetted that the entrance to science must be festooned with the same inscription Dante used to sign-post the gates of hell:
“Here all suspicion must be abandoned
Every craven thought must be here erased”+ [island.lk]