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A period of trial

It looks as if Sri Lanka's top leaders are on trial now, facing grave challenges and an uncertain future, writes PK Balachandran.

india Updated: Nov 29, 2005 19:27 IST

It looks as if Sri Lanka's top leaders are on trial now, facing grave challenges and an uncertain future. The list includes the newly elected President, Mahinda Rajapaksa; the defeated United National Party (UNP) leader Ranil Wickremesinghe; former President Chandrika Kumaratunga; and the LTTE Supremo, Vellupillai Prabhakaran.

Having come to power on the basis of his personal charisma bordering on the messianic, President Rajapaksa has a huge and varied agenda to fulfill. On the economic front, the skyrocketing prices of essentials have to be brought down; jobs have to be provided for the hoi polloi; foreign investment has to be attracted; foreign aid utilisation has to improve drastically; and economic reform has to be initiated against stiff opposition from his radical Marxist allies.

Admittedly, despite the tsunami of December 2004, the Sri Lankan economy is now growing at a decent 5.2 per cent. But there has been a decline since 2003, the second year of peace, when the GDP grew at 6.6 per cent. Between 2003 and 2004, the budget deficit grew from 7.3 per cent to 8.2 per cent. The trade deficit went up from $1.3 billion to $2.2 billion, and the current account deficit from $71 million to $648 million.

Foreign aid utilisation had come down from 27 per cent in 2003 to 18 per cent in 2004. Sri Lanka's Auditor General had reported that in the first six months after the tsunami, only 13 per cent of the aid had been utilised. In 2004, Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) totalled $233 million only.

The gargantuan public sector utilities threaten to continue to drain the exchequer. Rajapaksa's Marxist ally, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which has powerful trade unions, is not going to let him go ahead with economic reform as suggested by or dictated by international lending institutions. The JVP has already sensed Rajapaksa's inability to follow its prescriptions and has decided not to be part of his government. It has reserved the right to criticise and agitate against him and make political capital out of his mistakes or "anti-people" polices and garner support for itself in the coming local body or parliamentary elections.

With the kind of price reductions and doles Rajapaksa has promised in his 90-page election manifesto, the Treasury may come under unprecedented strain. The already overstaffed public sector is going to be burdened with another 1,10,000 appointments, if the promise to provide government jobs is implemented.

Bringing peace most challenging task

But the most challenging task before Rajapaksa will be to bring peace to Sri Lanka through negotiations with the rebel chieftain Prabhakaran. The two sides not only have entrenched positions on what a solution should be like, but their attitudes have hardened in the last few days.

Rajapaksa wants Prabhakaran to come to terms with the hard line position the Sinhala-majority community in Sri Lanka held prior to 1994. But Prabhakaran has stuck to the classic Tamil position. The Tiger chieftain has even said that if a "reasonable" proposal does not come from Rajapaksa "soon" he will have no option but to resume the struggle for independence "next year" (presumably anytime after January 1, 2006). This is interpreted as a threat to unleash war again.

In his first ever address to the Sri Lankan Parliament as President, Rajapaksa said that his government was rejecting the LTTE's demand for a separate Tamil Homeland in the North East and that there was no question of giving any ethnic group the right to self-determination and secession. Rajapaksa said that he would find a solution within a "united" Sri Lanka. But given his past statements on this issue and his election campaign, the term "united" actually denotes a "unitary" constitution, which the Tamils and the LTTE do not want.

While the least that the LTTE and the Tamils want is a "federal" constitution, Rajapaksa and the Sinhala majority are allergic to it. They think that a federal constitution in whatever form, will definitely lead to the dismemberment of Sri Lanka.

There is, therefore, no meeting ground between Rajapaksa and Prabhakaran. However, both are playing for time as neither can afford to go to war to settle the issue. Both are under pressure from the international community, which has become a key player in the Sri Lankan peace process since 2002. The international community, though fighting Al-Qaeda elsewhere, wants a peaceful settlement, not war, in Sri Lanka. And the countries involved in Sri Lanka are led by the redoubtable United States, the world's sole super power.

Reliance on India may be misplaced

Rajapaksa is counting on India's help to keep the West and the West-backed Facilitator Norway out, or at least to contain them. But India of today is not as anti-West as it was in the 1980s.It also has domestic legal and political problems which will prevent it from playing a direct role in the Sri Lankan peace process. It cannot interact with the LTTE because that outfit is banned in India. The pro-LTTE or pro-Tamil parties, now part of the government in New Delhi, will not allow it take an anti-LTTE or anti-Tamil line. Further more, as per the India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987, India is committed to fostering a federal solution to the ethnic conflict.

In his Heroes' Day speech, LTTE chief Prabhakaran had said that he would "wait and observe" Rajapaksa, and Rajapaksa has said that he will build a consensus about a political solution in the Sinhala south before opening talks with the LTTE. But it remains doubtful if the Sri Lankan President will be able to come out with a "reasonable" proposal "soon" as demanded by Prabhakaran, and ward off the threat of war in 2006.

Wickremesinghe's insecurity

While President Rajapaksa is at least secure in his position, Ranil Wickremesinghe, the Opposition Leader and defeated Presidential candidate, is not. Powerful forces in his United National Party (UNP) are plotting to oust him on the grounds that the party can no longer put up with a leader who has led it to 14 defeats since 1994. But Wickremesinghe is refusing to go. And he has good reasons to stay put.

Firstly, he was not "defeated" as such, in the November 17 election. If only Prabhakaran had not called for and enforced a boycott in the North East, more Eastern Tamils and Jaffna Tamils would have voted, and Wickremesinghe would have been home and dry. It is no secret that these Tamils were rooting for Wickremesinghe. And then, the defeat was by a wafer thin margin of 180,786 votes. The UNP also got 1.3 million more votes as compared to the last election in April 2004.

Wickremesinghe also knows that there is really no alternative to him in the UNP top echelons. He is not only the most experienced leader, but is the only now who can take decisions and wield power effectively. If only he had a "cultural" image more acceptable to the Sinhala-Buddhist majority, he could have beaten Rajapaksa even in the Sinhala-Buddhist constituency.

Kumaratunga's bid

Having failed in her attempt to get one more year in office and to prevent Rajapaksa from getting elected as her successor, former President Chandrika Kumaratunga is now trying to get her Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) to nominate her to a vacant seat in parliament. But for obvious reasons, Rajapaksa is determined to thwart it. He has proposed a confidante, Dallas Allahaperuma for the vacant seat.

But Kumaratunga, who is only 60 and has a lot of fire in her belly still, wants to be in active politics. She does not want to be marginalised particularly by Rajapaksa, who she had marginalised for long. The thought of sitting it out in the political sidelines without even a seat in parliament, and a party to back her, must be very disturbing. She is the President of the SLFP, but de facto, the party owes allegiance to her rival, Mahinda Rajapaksa.

But gutsy Kumaratunga is not one to give up. She has been plotting with her erstwhile rival, Wiskremesinghe. The two might join to criticise the Rajapaksa regime and offer a joint alternative to his economic and peace policies. Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe have already found common ground. Both are for a federal solution to the ethnic conflict, international involvement in the peace process and an economic policy suited to the current globalised world. All this is in contrast to the policies of President Rajapaksa. In the months to come, the duo may pose a serious challenge to Rajapaksa.

Prabhakaran's problems

Looking at it from one angle, the LTTE chief, Velupillai Prabhakaran, seems better placed than the two main Sinhala leaders. He does not have President Rajapaksa's problems relating to governance. He does not have to provide goods, services and economic development to the people under his control or influence. He does not have to worry about prices or promoting trade. Nor is there a challenger anywhere in sight.

But he has two problems confronting him. First, lack of legitimacy in the international community and second, the inability to force his writ in the Eastern districts.

Already alienated from Prabhakaran after the assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadigamar, the international community, especially the US and European Union (EU), are further displeased with him for forcibly preventing Tamils living in the North East from voting in the November 17 Presidential election. The EU, which had said that its member governments would not entertain LTTE delegations had also threatened to ban the LTTE.

If the ban does come, a major chunk of the LTTE's support base (Tamil refugees and expatriates in Europe) will get weakened. And as admitted by Prabhakaran himself in his November 27 Heroes' Day oration, the LTTE needs international legitimacy to carry on its struggle in Sri Lanka.

According to local Tamil sources, Prabhakaran's weak position in the Eastern districts of Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Amparai, had resulted in about 25 to 30 per cent of the Tamils defying his boycott call and voting for Wickremesinghe, a candidate he wanted defeated.

For the average Tamil of the North East Wickremesinghe was a man of peace who signed the Ceasefire Agreement in 2002. They voted for him in the hope that as President, he would consolidate peace. But Prabhakaran was looking at Wickremesinghe from a very different point of view. To the Tiger chief, Wickremesinghe meant international pressure to accept a solution which he might not want to. For Prabhakaran, the International Safety Net which Wickremesinghe had woven for Sri Lanka during his Premiership in 2002-2004, was a trap he might never be able to get out of.

Prabhakaran's weak position in the Eastern districts casts serious doubts on his ability to wage a sustained and successful military campaign in the near future. Any resumption of military hostilities might result in the loss of the East, which houses the Tamil Eelam's putative capital, Trincomalee. And there can be no Tamil Homeland in Sri Lanka without the East. Thus, it can be presumed that for Prabhakaran, one of the tasks ahead will be regaining full military and political control of the East.

(PK Balachandran is Special Correspondent of Hindustan Times in Sri Lanka)

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