A feather like no other in the President’s cap

The newly launched Hambantota Harbour is more than a dream-come-true for President Rajapaksa. Offering numerous hitherto untapped economic resources to be exploited, the newly constructed harbour will be an employment hub whilst easing pressure on the Colombo Port.
The water filling ceremony of the Hambantota Port, which is the second largest harbour in the country, will take place today under the patronage of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The newly built port is certainly a dream come true for President Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa, who has already earned the credit for eradicating terrorism from the country that plagued it for nearly three decades has, through the Hambantota Port project, embarked upon his much ambitious programme of salvaging the country economically. This is the single largest project undertaken by any government since Independence. The project paves the way to exploit hitherto untapped economic resources, since it is located between six to ten nautical miles north of the East-West shipping route, which was known as the Silk Route in ancient times. The Hambantota Port, which has been created to salvage the country from the economic quagmire that it is in today, is certainly a feather in the cap of President Rajapaksa.

Historical Value
Hambantota and its history, as some of us are aware, dates back to the era of King Devanampiyatissa. The Kingdom of Ruhuna, as it was known in the past, and even today, was carved out and created by Mahanaga, a brother of the Anuradhapura monarch in the early days of recorded history of Sri Lanka. Historical evidence reveals that the region in that era was the cradle of a flourishing civilisation coupled with fertile lands and an intricate irrigation network. Hambantota was known by many names such as ‘Mahagama’ ‘Ruhuna’ and ‘Dolos dahas rata’. It was during the reign of King Devanampiyatissa, the first kingdom of Sri Lanka was established in the North-Central region of Anuradhapura, within which period, the advent of Buddhism is recorded in historical chronicles.

According to recorded evidence, it was after a personal dispute with his brother, King Devanampiyathissa of Anuradhapura, King Mahanaga established the kingdom of Ruhuna in the South of the island. This region played a vital role in building the nation, as well as nurturing a unique culture based on the great teachings of the Buddha. Hambantota was a key location in ancient maritime history too; the Chinese and the Arabs used it as a part of the maritime silk route. An iron foundry was in operation somewhere close to Embilipitiya, which produced high carbon steel in a furnace powered by the monsoon winds. The steel so produced, according to historical records, had been exported to Rome to manufacture quality armaments for the armies in Europe. In other words, Hambantota was a centre of activity from ancient times, which was more akin to places such as Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa in the North-Central Rajarata, known today as the cradle of Sinhala Buddhist civilisation.

It had been nestling a monarchy from the time of Mahanaga to Kavantissa, after which, King Dutugemunu, who defeated the Cholas occupying Anuradhapura once again, shifted the kingdom to Anuradhapura.
After years of neglect, Hambantota was given a new lease of life by President Rajapaksa, after he became the Head of State in 2005. The Hambantota Port Project was one ambitious project undertaken by the Rajapaksa regime to put Hambantota back on the world map. Hambantota is located along the main shipping route between the Malacca Straits and the Suez Canal, which links Asia and Europe. An estimated 36,000 ships, including 4,500 oil tankers, use the route annually. However, the only major port in Sri Lanka, being the Port of Colombo, which is generally equipped towards container handling, is unable to provide facilities for port-related industries and services. Therefore, the new port at Hamabantota will be supplementing the Colombo Port, providing all the services and service related industries closer to international shipping routes.

An Economic Hub
It will help relieve pressure on the Colombo Port, and provide services to ships that usually take three-and-a-half-day detours from their shipping lanes to receive these services, including refuelling, maintenance, logistics and buying provisions and medical supplies from Singapore. Proposals to build a port in Hambantota date back over three decades, but plans never got off the ‘blueprint’ stages. The Hambantota Port project was finally launched after Mahinda Rajapaksa, who hails from Hambantota was elected President. With the development of the Port, the entire Hambantota area is poised to gain economically, since it could provide nearly 50,000 jobs and indirect employment to lot more, revolutionising the lifestyle of one of poorest districts.
Not only Hamabntota, but the entire country stands to gain from this project that will stand testimony to the efforts of President Rajapaksa, who relentlessly worked towards reviving the ailing economy of the country.
Hambantota invariably, is close to the President’s heart, and when somebody who hails from Hambantota indulges in an unwarranted antisocial act, it would certainly stir his mind and propel him into action. When Mervyn Silva’s Kelaniya tree-tying episode was brought to the notice of the President, the politically perceptive President Rajapaksa moved swiftly on Tuesday evening to strip him of his post. The SLFP hierarchy too responded immediately, suspending his membership and the organisership of the Kelaniya electorate, which clearly showed that the Government does not in any way tolerate criminal and antisocial acts, which are part of a bygone era.

Championing the Rule of Law
Though there were various comments posted on websites, giving rise to speculation that this governmental action could be an eye wash to appease the masses, and to surmount the growing discontent over the manner in which Government conducts its affairs, many are of the opinion that the Government is true to its convictions, unlike in the past. The Government action, no doubt, would serve as a deterrent to others who otherwise would behave in an unbecoming manner, taking Mervyn’s act as a precedent or a password into the forbidden areas of politics. The President’s move to nip it in the bud, therefore, deserves commendation by the law-abiding people of this country.

What Mervyn has to say is a forgone conclusion, amidst his deafening silence over what actually took place, but by Thursday, he blamed the celestial bodies and the debilitation of Saturn for the unruly act; however, the inquiry that has been initiated by the SLFP would reveal in full, the circumstances that led to this unlawful conductr of the Minister. The crux of the matter is that no minister or any other influential person should be allowed to take the law into their hands; the danger being, such a situation may lead to anarchy in the end. At the same time, what the authorities should realise is that, there is no democracy in the absence of the Rule of Law.

The Government may have realised this, and the implications that could befall the Law and Order situation within the country, which propelled them into action. However, the precedent created, following the incidents at the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC), may have given Mervyn the courage that he could go scot-free after committing any offence in the guise of restoring public order. The Government turned a blind eye when he stormed the newsroom of the SLRC and attempted to intimidate the officers. However, Mervyn could not walk out with his pistol brandishing bodyguards, in the face of heavy resistance from the employees at the SLRC. The treatment he received there and the behaviour of the staff cannot be condoned as rightful action against a gang of criminals, or that they were acting in self-defence. Both Mervyn and the staff of the SLRC overstepped their limits, and the Government took up the position that no person could be punished twice for the same offence, but people were offended by this, since they thought that it was Mervyn who provoked the workers at the SLRC into such drastic action.

However, in this instance, the Government has moved swiftly to clear the air and allay the fears of the people that the country is slowly marching towards anarchy. The decision of President Rajapaksa to strip him, gave a clear signal that democracy and the rule of law is very much alive in this country. It may help Sri Lanka to restore its image internationally, that was going down a precipice, owing to the erratic behaviour of elements within the Government. Mervyn in particular, has no loyalty to anybody, though he pretends to be so. At one stage, he was an ardent fan of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, and then he shifted his allegiance to Anura Bandaranaike, and thereafter, to Chandrika Kumaratunga, and to the UNP from there, and back again into the SLFP fold to pledge his allegiance to President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Overall, he knows how to play the game and survive in politics, while doing his utmost to be in the limelight. He has the support of the people at grassroot level, whose mindset is akin to his. So long as there is some support, he derives an unusual satisfaction that resembles the characteristics of a political clown.
The bigger problem we are facing is with the media, who are ever ready to report all what he does. Hence, it is difficult to fathom whether he is the darling of the media or the whip boy. Whatever it is, he takes undue advantage through his unlawful and erratic behaviour, to gain publicity on which he thrives as a politician.

UNP’s Rumblings
Besides Mervyn’s antics, the other important issue in the political arena are the rumblings within the main opposition United National Party (UNP), over leadership stakes and the party’s new constitution. There is heartburn among UNP top rungers over party Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s frequent meetings with President Rajapaksa, despite the latter’s move to entice UNP members to join the Government. Wickremesinghe must be having his own reasons for this; recently, he prevailed upon the Government to accommodate the amendments moved by him to the Local Government Election Act. This means, if one candidate is disqualified, the entire list would not be nullified in future, as the Local Government Election Act spells out today. The UNP lost the Colombo Municipal Council at the last elections, largely due to this, and it was Wickremesinghe’s intention to circumvent such situations in the future.

What Ranil Wickremesinghe tells his seniors, after these hurriedly convened meetings, does not trickle down as it is, and they take it with a pinch of salt. So are the affairs of the Grand Old Party today. Wickremesinghe, as it stands today, is fighting a two pronged battle- one with the Government, or he pretends to be doing so, and the other with his own party men who are aspiring for a new leadership in the party.

The previous Friday, the rebel group within the UNP led by Sajith Premadasa, met with Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya and some seniors of the party, to devise a compromise formula to resolve the ongoing leadership crisis within the party. During this meeting, it was proposed that Ranil Wickremesinghe remain as the Senior Leader of the party, which the party constitution does not recognise. The salient point in the proposed formula was to appoint Karu Jaysuriya as the interim leader, until Sajith Premadasa takes over the reins of the party. The meeting lasted for a few hours on Friday night, and was reported in most of the English newspapers on Sunday.

However, during the de-briefing, Wickremesinghe did not show much enthusiasm over the proposed Senior Leader post, which would virtually render him powerless. Senior party men pointed out that Wickremesinghe has now taken the advantage out of the situation, where Sajith Premadasa has conceded the leadership to Karu Jayasuriya. With this in the back of his mind, Wickremesinghe summoned a Working Committee meeting last Tuesday, where the party’s apex body ratified the constitutional reforms proposed by the Reforms Committee, without any alterations to the original proposal.

The Working Committee decision to go ahead with the Reforms Committee proposals, without major amendments, was described by some in the UNP as a victory for Ranil Wickremesinghe. He, however, admitted that it would not augur well for the UNP to forge ahead as a formidable Opposition aspiring to form the next government, since there could be opposition to Wickremesinghe at the grassroot level. What precisely happened at the Working Committee is that Wickremesinghe won the day and overcame all obstacles that stood in the way. The Working Committee went one step ahead, when they directed the Legal Committee assigned to draft a new constitution, to see that all positions should be filled with consensus and not by a vote, which would further fragment the party.

Sajith Scenario
Now Sajith Premadasa will have talks with the leader to explore as to where he would fit in. Premadasa also opposed the entry of Mangala Samaraweera into the Working Committee, on the basis that the number the leader could appoint has exhausted. Premadasa’s argument was based on clause 7.1(iii) of the Reforms Committee report, which stated that the present composition of the Working Committee would so remain until the formation of the working committee in compliance with the amendments… However, Wickremesinghe, at this point of time, stated that he is well within the Party Constitution to appoint Samaraweera to the Working Committee.

One party senior told this column that the party stands to lose once again, if there is division within the ranks, and expressed hope that all would agree to work together as cohesive partners, to put the party back again on the path to victory, once the new party constitution comes into operation. During the Working Committee sessions, there were minor emotional upheavals, when Ravi Karunanayake raised the issue of attacking his vehicles and some others, during his visit to Hambantota. He cast innuendos at UNP politicos such as Sajith Premadasa and Dilip Vedarachchi. It was Sajith Premadasa’s position that he would not get involved in violent politics, and went a step further to say that the people who obstructed his father’s political career are now with him. The underlying message is that the class struggle within the UNP has come to the fore once again as in the past. Premadasa, in the recent past, was more obsessed in attacking the tie-coat fraternity within the UNP, on the grounds that they were opposing a popular people-friendly party, which was the base for his father’s success as a politician. Premadasa must have been drawing inferences to the impeachment motion masterminded by Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanaike in the early ’90s that rocked the UNP.

Karunanayake meanwhile, who furnished details and related evidence, demanded a fair inquiry from the party leader. There was also an exchange between Karunanayake and Lakshman Seneviratne, and Karunanayake and Ranjit Madduma Bandara, on issues involving political meetings in their respective areas. Squabbles and upheavals are common to any political party. Not only in the UNP, there are differences among senior members within the ruling UPFA too. One reason for the two-day workshop in Beruwala for all the ruling party Parliamentarians are, to iron out their differences if any, and to educate the novices on Parliamentary practices. Almost all the ruling party Parliamentarians were present on the occasion, where university professors and intellectuals were invited for presentations.

India’s Silence
More than anything, Government worries appear to be India’s stoic silence over Sri Lanka’s struggle with the United Nations and its General Secretary Ban Ki-moon. Political analysts believe that there is some sort of misconception on the part of India, as a major partner who helped Sri Lanka to eradicate terrorism and defended Sri Lanka’s position in international forums. Ostensibly, the major confusion appears to be the re-settlement process in the North and the East, and the delay to come up with a viable political solution for the ethnic question.

Another area of contention is Sri Lanka’s lethargic attitude towards finalising the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with India, that is on hold for some time now. There are two schools of thought in this connection, a segment of the Sri Lankan Business community and several political parties are opposing this, on the ground that it would give undue advantage to India. Yet, others think that it would open up a huge market for Sri Lanka, while India could also benefit from this. However, it is very unlikely that the Agreement would be signed as it is. According to political Business analysts, it is very likely to undergo changes and materialise in another form, before it is finalised and signed between the two countries. The delegation led by Economic Development Minister and Senior Advisor to the President, Basil Rajapaksa, will have extensive talks in India, shortly, to iron out differences and forge closer links with the giant neighbour, without which, it would be difficult for the country to weather the political storms directed at this Island nation, internationally.

Learning from past mistakes and present trends

It is heartening that the current mindset of the Tamil people had been correctly projected in the submissions made on the first two days of the public hearing of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. This column had in the last few weeks, argued that lessening of the strains the Tamil people are experiencing, and removing the causes that led to armed challenge to the State, should be undertaken on a priority basis.
Tamil people would be grateful, especially to Bernard Goonetilleke, former head of the government Peace Secretariat, who advocated in his submission on Wednesday, the need to address the existential problems, while looking into the reasons that led to the armed conflict.

Goonetilleke who interacted intensively with the LTTE and the Tamil political leadership, during the post-2002 ceasefire agreement period, listed the current areas of concern in the following order: Releasing of the Internally Displaced Persons, assisting them in initiating livelihood means, development of infrastructure and healthcare facilities. He added, “The Government’s decision of increasing the military presence in the North and East should be rethought, as it may hinder the healing process.” I can safely add that the military presence which is going to deny 5,000 families their land, has emerged the priority problem.

Healing process, if it is to succeed, should be backed by finding solutions to the causes of the conflict. V. Nallanayagam, a member of the Tamil expatriate community living in Canada, identified language as one of the root causes of the conflict. He said, “I believe that the split between the two communities began with the implementation of the Sinhala as the only official language. That was the beginning of the sense of alienation,” he said. I wish to add that sharing of power and State aided colonisation preceded the conflict over language.
Historically, dispute over the sharing of power led to the demand for communal representation, balanced representation and then to the demand for a federal Constitution, and to the separate State of Tamil Eelam. The decision to demand a separate State was the outcome of a democratic political decision: The Vadukoddai Resolution of May 14, 1976. The mover of that Resolution, S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, planned to attain his goal through the democratic process of non-violent agitations, including non-cooperation. His death, within a year after the adoption of the Resolution, and the growth of armed militant groups, took the conflict in a different direction.

In his submission, Goonetilleke stated that the LTTE was not prepared to discuss the core issue of a political solution during the talks that followed the signing of the ceasefire agreement. As one who had made a deep study of the LTTE leader, I can say this: He was committed 100% to the formation of the separate State of Tamil Eelam. That commitment was born out of his conviction that, no Sinhala leadership possessed the political will to grant the Tamil people of the North and East an autonomous unit within a united Sri Lanka.

Even during the short period the LTTE had talks with President Ranasinghe Premadasa, Prabhakaran’s instruction to Anton Balasingham was clear: Premadasa is going to use us for his benefit. Make use of him for our benefit. The fact that Premadasa supplied weapons and money to the LTTE, and that Prabhakaran took control of the Northern and Eastern Provinces, as the Indian Peace Keeping Force withdrew, are well known.
Lessons can also be learnt from present trends of events occurring in several countries, especially from events in Kashmir. The Kashmir valley is embroiled in a deadly unrest led by students backed by their parents.

It was sparked by the death of a 17- year-old student killed by a teargas shell in early June. In the State-wide protests that ensued, 31 protesters had been killed so far, 13 of them in the last week. The protestors have resorted to arson and attacks on police stations. Their slogan is: “We don’t want Indian rule”.
India, which is in control of Kashmir since independence in 1947, had faced a 20-year separatist insurgency, which claimed thousands of lives. The level of violence had decreased in recent years, and the Indian government had claimed that it had subdued the insurgents. Analysts say that the spontaneous eruption of the current protest was the result of the pent up frustration. They also say that the special status given to Kashmir and the focus paid on economic development had made no tangible progress, and unemployment is running high, especially among young people.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh held a crisis meeting on Tuesday, and announced the appointment of an Experts Group headed by R. Rangarajan, to prepare a Job Plan within three months. The Prime Minister also promised an economic package. In addition, he declared his government’s readiness to discuss granting autonomy to Kashmir.
He declared: “I recognise that the key to the problem is a political solution that addresses the alienation and emotional needs of the people. This can only be achieved through a sustained internal and external dialogue. We are ready for this. We are willing to discuss all issues within the bounds of our democratic processes and framework.

Prime Minister’s offer of autonomy had activated the extremists in Kashmir and in other parts of India. Hindu fundamentalist organissations headed by Shiv Sena have voiced their opposition. Three hundred Shiv Sena activists in Srinagar in Kashmir, conducted a demonstration, shouting that Kashmir is part of India and no special treatment should given to it. It demanded that the Hindus evicted by the Muslims should be resettled. The demonstrators burnt an effigy of Manmohan Singh’s government, and issued a statement which said, “The prime minister has only given boost to the separatists and stone throwers, and demoralised security forces and police, who are injured in stone throwing.”
Kashmiri Muslim militant group Hurriyat Conference rejected Manmohan Singh’s offer to discuss the autonomy of Kashmir saying that it did not merit attention.
Independent commentators said the autonomy offer to Kashmir may act as an incentive for other States to agitate for autonomy.