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This is my Nation


                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

Rajapaksa sticks with divide and rule policy

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

President Mahinda Rajapaksa probably committed a grave political error by not calling for a general election soon after his election to office. That would have seen the ‘snowballing’ trend provide him with a stable parliamentary group, but it is too late to rectify that blunder now.

Faced with these predicaments, the Rajapaksa regime has resorted to a twin strategy to keep a disgruntled public at bay: adopt the maxim of divide and rule for the opposition and tell the people that Rajapaksa needs to be in office no matter what, if the Tigers are to be vanquished militarily

Muhamalai and Piliyandala grabbed the headlines last week despite the elections in the east and fracas in the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) sent another forceful message against the continued prosecution of the Eelam war.

Muhamalai was being called a military debacle where the Sri Lanka Army reportedly walked into a Tiger trap, losing a disputed number of lives in the process. The military hierarchy vehemently denies any such ‘defeat’ and, in fact, claims the Army advanced half a kilometer along their forward defence lines.

Such paradoxical versions of the same event have been a common phenomenon in the Eelam war as both the state media and the Tiger propaganda machine go into top gear in the aftermath of a military event. Nevertheless, even the military does not claim the Muhamalai incident to be a resounding victory.

There have, of course, been suggestions that Muhamalai was timed for the Eastern provincial council polls – again, a claim strenuously denied by those in authority. And even if that was not part of the strategy, the incident only served the purpose of calling into question the recent military thrusts against the LTTE.

And, as if to reinforce that, a bus bomb claimed over two dozen lives at Piliyandala on the last Friday of April. It was almost as if the Tigers were replying to government claims that it was winning the war - and a grim reminder that many more civilians will pay with their lives before this conflict is concluded.

The Mahinda Rajapaksa regime, to its credit, has prosecuted the Eelam war as no other government before it has done. And in so doing, it can take credit for many achievements, the death of Thamilchelvam and ‘liberating’ the east being relevant examples.
But recent actions of this government now beg the question as to whether the overall policy of prosecuting the war against the LTTE is being dictated to by political constraints that the President is constantly confronted with.

It is no secret that the Mahinda Rajapaksa government is not the most popular of regimes in recent times. Just two years and a few months after being elected to office, it has been hit by a downward spiral of economic mismanagement and a global food crisis.

The government and its think tanks have been collectively unable to deal with the problem resulting in a series of hardships being imposed on the general public in the form of rising prices of essential consumer goods, escalating prices of fuel, electricity, gas and water and the trend shows no respite.

In addition to this quandary, the government is also in a political pickle of sorts: it relies on a wafer thin Parliamentary majority for its survival that keeps fluctuating from time to time depending on the fickle loyalties of its honourable members.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa probably committed a grave political error by not calling for a general election soon after his election to office. That would have seen the ‘snowballing’ trend provide him with a stable parliamentary group, but it is too late to rectify that blunder now.

Faced with these predicaments, the Rajapaksa regime has resorted to a twin strategy to keep a disgruntled public at bay: adopt the maxim of divide and rule for the opposition and tell the people that Rajapaksa needs to be in office no matter what, if the Tigers are to be vanquished militarily.

The first strategy has worked very well for the President: the two main opposition parties, the United National Party (UNP) and the JVP are now split right down the middle and are busy wallowing in their internal squabbles instead of challenging the government.

But, it is the second strategy - that of using the war as an instrument of gaining voter confidence - that needs to be called into question. It appears that the President and his inner circle of siblings and advisors are convinced that as long as the war appears winnable, a re-election is a mere formality.

No one blame the President for strategising thus. In recent times, President George Bush (Snr.) did so in the Gulf War, as did Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the Falklands War. While Thatcher won, Bush lost. So, Mahinda Rajapaksa is certainly not the first to use patriotism as a political weapon.

But, this ploy makes two assumptions. It assumes that the war is indeed decisively winnable by military methods alone. It also assumes that winning the war will guarantee re-election for Mahinda Rajapaksa and his party.

The second proposition is the likelier of the two, given the sentiments of nationalism that has been successfully aroused in the southern Sri Lankan voter in the past. After all, Rajapaksa himself used nationalism as a vote catching gimmick at the last presidential election - and successfully too.

But the policy of approaching the ethnic issue with bullets and bayonets alone must surely be re-examined. That has led to Sri Lanka’s increasing isolation internationally and diminished its standing as a peace-loving nation. Can the country relentlessly pursue this path unilaterally?

And, even if it did that, will it be able to win the war decisively and eliminate the LTTE? Or, will Sri Lanka descend to an Iraq like situation where the North too has been ‘liberated,’ but bus bombs explode in the streets of Colombo day in and day out?

President Mahinda Rajapaksa must be commended for pursuing the Tiger. But now he runs the risk of being condemned for pursuing war at any cost and that is a strategy the leadership must revisit, however tempting it may politically be.

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