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Rajapaksa the liberator?

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Tamils are ignored as Sinhalese celebrations mark the ‘liberation’

THE victory at Thoppigala brought the Eastern Province, one of Sri Lanka’s nine administrative provinces, under the control of the government. The defeat of the LTTE in the east is, no doubt, a victory for the security forces.

 
But the ultimate victory is not nigh. The path to that elusive victory is strewn with many an obstacle. The journey along that path requires courage and sacrifice, both at military and political level. Whether we will see that victory during the present regime of President Mahinda Rajapaksa is a big question now.
 
The victory in the east has hardened the ultranationalists’ resolve to continue the fight and conquer the north. Yes, conquest is the goal of these ultranationalists whose ideology has fuelled the ethnic flames and driven the country towards destruction and the disgruntled Tamil youths towards violence.
 
On the eve of the Thoppigala victory, I had a casual conversation with a few senior military officers at a defence academy. One senior officer told me that the real victory could come only when the Tamils in the east also join with the rest of the country to celebrate the military’s feat.
 
He was talking like a liberator – not a conqueror. “The more we harp on our victory, the more hurt we will be heaping on the Tamils,” the Sinhala said.
 
Yes, the Tamils are hurt. Not because the LTTE, which is claiming to be the sole representative of the Tamils, has been driven out of the Eastern Province. But because the victory is being projected as a conquest by the government and its ultranationalist allies.
 
And no one in the government has thought it fit to look at the victory from the Tamils’ point of view. There is none in the government to drive the point that one has to be humble and magnanimous in victory.
 
But our government is planning grand-scale celebrations throughout the country, except in the LTTE-controlled areas in the north. The functional value of these celebrations in promoting national harmony is a big zero.
 
Of course, they will help President Rajapaksa to salvage his slumping popularity.
 
The LTTE, I am sure, won’t be displeased with the celebrations, either. The victory celebrations with pomp and pageantry are contributing towards the further polarisation of society along ethnic lines, for they bring out Sinhala nationalism, which is like oxygen to the LTTE, rather than Sri Lanka nationalism, which is like cyanide to the Tigers.
 
The posters of ultranationalists and the government proclaim that the LTTE’s dream of setting up of a separate state in the north and the east of Sri Lanka has been dealt a deadly blow by the security forces. The posters also urge the army to conquer the north as well.
 
The propaganda campaign by the government and the nationalists is so effective that people are unwilling to believe the allegations made by the opposition United National Party and two sacked ministers that Rajapaksa paid millions to the LTTE before the presidential elections in return for a boycott call that prevented the Tamil from voting and eventually cost UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe the presidency.
 
The allegations have become a damp squib in the Thoppigala euphoria.
 
Rajapaksa is a hero today – a leader who has liberated/conquered the east. The Rajapaksa campaign is so effective that people in the south believe that it is he who, for the first time in the 25-year history of the ethnic conflict, has liberated the east.
 
But the fact is that the armed forces took the entire Eastern Province, including Thoppigala, under their control in 1992 and the then government successfully held elections to the local council.
 
The east became once again a stronghold of the LTTE during the Chandrika Kumaratunga regime, in which Mahinda Rajapaksa was a minister.
 
The Thoppigala euphoria has infected the people in the south with myopia. For them, it does not matter how the east was won. The armed forces moved into Tiger-controlled areas in the east — Mavil Aru, Mutur, Sampur and Manirasakualm and eventually Thoppigala — first launching aerial attacks on LTTE targets which incidentally were located in civilian areas.
 
As a result 300,000 civilians were displaced. Hundreds were killed. The subsequent exchange of fire, artillery and multi-barrel rockets, destroyed their houses, fields and whatever facilities that sustained their livelihood.
 
As area after area was liberated, some internally displaced were resettled. But thousands of them found to their horror that they could not enter their villages that had become part of a high security zone while they were away in refugee camps.
 
Since the victims were largely Tamils, the pain is less in the south. Coinciding with the celebrations, the government is launching a development programme called Neganahira Navodaya. The English translation of the Sinhala phrase means New Dawn of the East.
 
East is a predominantly a Tamil-speaking province with Muslims and the Tamils constituting more than 70 per cent of its population.
 
There is no attempt to name the programme in Tamil and to dismiss charges of racism.
 
Ameen Izzadeen is a Sri Lankan journalist based in Colombo. This comment for the Khaleej Times was published on 17 July 2007

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