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Why Rajapakse’s actions make sense

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This confrontation is not about water. Despite the talk of ‘humanitarian’ missions, the truth, as the head of the international monitors, Ulf Henricsson, suggested, is that this war is about something else.



After all, the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE have resolved numerous other far more controversial issues in the past four years of ceasefire than a blocked water channel. And not once, but twice, Sri Lankan bombardments have destroyed deals with the LTTE to open the sluice gates.



It is now quite clear this is about Sri Lanka pursuing a military campaign against the LTTE despite the constraints of the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement (CFA). Whilst some observers are perplexed at the government’s actions, an examination of its stated objectives suggest this is not inconsistent behaviour.



President Mahinda Rajapakse’s administration has relentlessly pursued two objectives since he assumed power. The first, like all his predecessors, is to ensure he maintains power and secures a second six-year term. And the second is to implement his manifesto, unsubtly titled ‘Mahinda Chinthana’ (Mahinda’s thoughts).



What might appear crass, even stupid, on the international stage is, in the Sinhala heartland, honest, even honourable. A promise to the people is being kept.



The abrogation of deals with the LTTE is easily explained. After all, the Tigers are the Sinhala nation’s arch foes and all is fair in love and war. And this internal constituency is far more important to Rajapakse than the self-interested members of the international community.



Even at the internationally transparent talks in Geneva in February, the Rajapakse government struggled to accept the legitimacy of the CFA. And even though it finally agreed to implement it, soon after its delegation arrived back in Colombo, it repudiated the Geneva 1 deal.



Within weeks, Army-backed paramilitaries resumed their campaign against the LTTE and its supporters, sparking the low intensity hostilities that has escalated steadily to war this month.



And it is not only agreements with the LTTE that have been scrapped.



Rajapakse’s administration has repeatedly assured the foreign powers backing Sri Lanka’s peace process that it is committed to peace and welcomes their support - and there is no doubt it certainly welcomes their fiscal support.



However, in the face of increasing international pressure to deliver on his various pledges, including Geneva 1, President Rajapakse’s response was to court new allies abroad and to attempt to marginalize the Norwegians by seeking direct talks with the LTTE.



When this clumsy political chicanery failed, Colombo had to respond to new pressures from the international community.



But he got an unexpected break: having virtually conceded that President Rajapakse was never going to disarm the paramilitaries, the international community changed focus from demanding Geneva 1 to efforts pushing for a permanent political solution.



Pressure grew for a bi-partisan agreement with the main opposition UNP that could reduce the influence of the ultra-nationalist JVP and JHU. Rajapske’s response was to dust off an old Sri Lankan trick: the All Party Conference (APC).



And he wasn’t very subtle, not even bothering to invite the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), even for show.



Furthermore, he sent an unambiguous message to the JVP and its allies – and for that matter, the Sinhala and Tamil communities – by appointing a group of Sinhala ultra-nationalists to the committee to draft his administration’s proposals for power sharing.



Meanwhile, a ground breaking deal engineered by India between the UNP and Rajapakse’s ruling coalition collapsed: no sooner had Delhi’s Envoy left Sri Lanka, the President resumed poaching UNP parliamentarians to the government benches.



Why, observers might ask, is the man deliberately damaging the necessary steps to a stable negotiation process and a permanent solution?



The answer lies in the twin objectives Rajapakse has never concealed: his political future and Mahinda Chinthana.



The UNP crossovers enhance his government’s stability whilst spreading discord and disharmony within the UNP’s already disarrayed ranks. It also makes joining the (more stable) government a more attractive option for the savvy JVP.



At the same time, the delaying of a bi-partisan deal with the UNP also put paid to any hope of the APC coming up with a pan-southern platform for peace talks. It also bought time for the committee tasked with coming up with power-sharing proposals.



Rajapakse’s most important success is outmanoeuvring Delhi’s interventions on behalf of the stuttering peace process.



Having politically re-engaged in Sri Lanka at the behest of both protagonists, India could not have expected the degree of duplicity that Rajapakse demonstrated with regards the bi-partisan deal that Delhi’s envoy set up. Else India would not have staked its prestige on it.



And then there is the military escalation by Colombo, despite India’s reported insistence of restraint. Within a week of assurances to India to prevent further escalation of the conflict and to pursue a negotiated solution, Rajapskse unleashed a major military offensive against the Tigers.



The only way to determine Rajapakse’s intentions is to understand his interests.



Bottom line, Rajapakse needs to pursue a solution to the ethnic problem which is within a unitary state. Any other option risks alienating the JVP and, more importantly, the Sinhala vote bloc which backed him last November.



Besides, a federal or autonomy solution is at odds with Mahinda Chinthana. There is no need for a bi-partisan agreement with the UNP if you don’t need the two-thirds majority. You don’t need the majority if you don’t intend to substantially change the constitution.



What about international opinion? Rajapakse knows full well that international support for federalism is not based on any fundamental commitment to the Tamils, but as a bid to buy off the Tamil separatist campaign. If the threat from the LTTE was to diminish, so will international pressure for autonomy, in his view.



This column has argued before that international guarantees against the LTTE’s struggle means that even if a military effort by Colombo goes awry, there will be no great political cost – Rajapakse would only still need to agree to a federal model (and the JVP or JHU could not fault him then for selling out).



But were he to be successful on the battlefield, Rajapske knows he won’t be pressured to offer that much to the Tamils, a point reinforced by the stated commitments to Sri Lanka’s territorial integrity by several leading members of the international community.



He is much more likely to continue in power in either solution. But not if he were to sell out to the Tamils by making a serious offer of autonomy now.



These calculations have been apparent to Rajapakse even before he filed his papers for last November’s Presidential polls.



And since coming to power, he and his hardliner defence officials have been preparing the ground for a military confrontation. That is why the paramilitaries were not disarmed, but expanded and reinforced. That is why the embargoes were not lifted.



Columnists in this newspaper argued as early as June 2005 that Sri Lanka was planning a war in the east. This column did so again in April 2006.



The reasons for the present Sri Lankan military offensive in Trincomalee are nothing to do with water or any other humanitarian issue.



With the international community focused on the Middle East, President Rajapakse has acted swiftly to take advantage of a fortuitous controversy that erupted in the strategic eastern theatre.



Hence Rajapakse’s haste to escalate the violence despite the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) in the area being on the verge of resolving this otherwise mundane water dispute.



Contrary to many international actors, the political vision behind Rajapakse’s military offensive is not to weaken the LTTE and secure a better position at the negotiating table.



It is to create the conditions under which a solution within the unitary constitution can be offered on a ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ basis to the Tamils.



The international community has in the past backed similar weak offers. Federalism entered the negotiating field only after the ferocious LTTE violence of 2000-1.



In any case, there cannot be a limited war. If Rajapakse is successful initially, the JVP and other Sinhala nationalists will insist the war goes all the way to a total victory. As the National Movement Against Terrorism declared in its recent poster campaign, the goal is ‘Onward to Kilinochchi.’



As this column argued earlier, if the LTTE is able to resist his military onslaught, then the most Rajapakse will have to offer is a federal solution.



But that is sometime in the future. The question can be revisited then. Right now, neither of Rajapakse’s objectives – staying in power for the next decade, or delivering his vision of Sri Lanka, ‘Mahinda Chinthana’ – can be achieved through offering a federal solution. So war it is.



Tamil Guardian: Sri Lanka’s war aim is to take the east [April 19, 2006]

Tamil Guardian: Will new war be in the east? [Jun 29, 2005]

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