Cutting the ground under the Opposition’s feet (Part II)

Although President Mahinda Rajapaksa has never switched political parties in his decades-long political career and remained faithful to the SLFP, he displays an uncanny skill at promoting others to change sides. The president has cleverly exploited his relatively short war on LTTE terror and the unprecedented armed forces triumph over the Tigers to further his political strategy. To the president’s credit, he hadn’t allowed any issue whether domestic, personal or external, to interfere with his administration’s war strategy executed by his younger brother, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. The Rajapaksas have cleverly transformed the armed forces war against terror to be the mother of all battles encompassing politics and the media, two critical factors in any society.

The widely expected decision to take Thilanga Sumathipala, a former UNP organizer and former chairman of Sri Lanka Telecom and Sri Lanka Cricket, on board his political bandwagon was part of this strategy. When Sumathipala engaged in a running battle with former national cricket captain Arjuna Ranatunga, MP, pledged his support to the president at an UPFA meeting at Hanguranketha on February 1, the UNP lost another key financier and a formidable strategist plus the support of Sumathipala’s newspapers. To add salt to their wounds, government strategists picked Hanguranketha, S. B. Dissanayake’s home base, to stage the crossover. Dissanayake, the UNP’s Chief Ministerial candidate for the Central Province, some time back went to the extent of appealing to the president against targeting Sumathipala over a court case which Dissanayake believed was engineered by an influential section in the UNP. But today Sumathipala too has ended up on the side of the Rajapaksas.

Ironically, Sumathipala’s move came shortly after the assassination of veteran journalist Lasantha Wickremetunga. When Sumathipala switched allegiance to the UNP in the run up to the last PC polls for the NCP, UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe had consulted party strategist Wickremetunga. The recent meeting between the president and Wickremetunga’s first wife, Raine didn’t surprise me as it did many others. The release of a photograph of the president with Raine at Temple Trees before she returned to Australia would undermine the opposition’s campaign against the government.

With the likes of Sumathipala, A. Duminda Silva and Lal Peiris, a Mervin Silva associate, pledging their support to the president, funding for forthcoming PC elections campaign wouldn’t be an issue. Their support coupled with unlimited assets of the State at the ruling coalition’s disposal as well the armed forces triumph over the LTTE would give an unassailable advantage to the government side.

Although the government’s unprecedented success on the war front could have easily helped it to retain both Wayamba and Central PCs, now scheduled to poll next Saturday (February 14), it continued to engage in its usual gimmicks to boost its propaganda campaign. But nothing could have been more ridiculous as bringing Puttalam District UNP MP Range Bandara’s ex-wife on to the government’s stage. Thousands of people had been invited to Temple Trees, President’s House in Kandy and other venues to pledge their support to the Rajapaksa administration. Government propagandists had called them disgruntled UNPers who had switched sides in support of the president’s war effort. These events had been held at great expense to the taxpayer.

In an article headlined ‘Cutting the ground under the Opposition’s feet’ (January 25) the Sunday Island discussed how an influential section of the media, once hostile to the administration, articulating the government’s strategy. The bottom line is that the president has got many of his one-time critics praising him. In fact, the likes of Rajitha Senaratne, one of the strongest critics of the war and human rights abuses and a staunch supporter of the Norwegian-led peace process unashamedly bats for Rajapaksa. To make matters worse for the Opposition, the UNP and the JVP had been forced to publicly acknowledge the armed forces success. Badulla District UNP MP Lakshman Seneviratne admitted in parliament the other day that 95 per cent of the war had been completed. Although both the UNP and JVP had repeatedly emphasized that success on the battlefront shouldn’t be exploited for political gain, the ground reality is different. The government sponsored Deyata Kirula exhibition at the BMICH is evidence that the ruling coalition wouldn’t hesitate to exploit battlefield successes. The exhibition showcased war victories with the armed forces and police displaying arms, ammunition and equipment seized from the LTTE. Wide and live media coverage on a daily basis gives the government a turbo boost.

There is no doubt that the rapid advances on the Vanni battleground prompted the government to dissolve Western Provincial Council and call for fresh elections. With the army widely expected to liberate the entire Vanni region within a week, thereby bringing major ground battles to an end, the government is likely to explore the advantage of calling for snap general elections. With global recession coupled with mismanagement and corruption undermining Sri Lanka’s economy, an influential section of the government is likely to push for early general elections. The group is of the view that the government should go ahead with polls hot on the heels of the Vanni victory. Although some opposition politicians still presented a brave front in the face of rising popularity of the government, battlefield successes have completely changed the political landscape. The government propaganda machinery had gone to the extent of categorizing political opponents as LTTE sympathizers.

This week’s Ravaya political column by its editor Victor Ivan would have surprised many as much as the revelation (by the president) of Lasantha Wickremetunge’s clandestine association with Rajapaksa did. Ivan plainly endorsed the Rajapaksa administration and its military campaign. He didn’t stop at that. Like master blaster Sanath Jayasuriya, the former JVP activist moved outside the crease to hit the opposition and the media. The article headlined what has happened? What can happen? (Siduvuye kumakda? Viya Hakke Kumakda?) shrewdly articulated the importance of turning a blind eye to any contentious political-economic, media and judicial issue to facilitate the military triumph over the LTTE. Ravaya, once severely critical of the war against the LTTE and human rights violations, asserted that the judiciary had failed to act with responsibility at a time the government battled the LTTE, the Opposition and the international community bent on undermining the Sri Lankan State. It also justified the search operations conducted by the police and armed forces targeting LTTE operatives hiding among Tamil civilians in the city and its suburbs. The judiciary, the paper asserted, had only considered the inconvenience experienced by civilians but totally neglected national security considerations.

The paper also attacked a section of the media for attempting to exploit the situation for its advantage. Victor Ivan who I admire for a series of exposures of corrupt and shady deals including that involving the so called free media went to the extent of asserting that recent attacks on some journalists could have been easily avoided had they not interfered unnecessarily with military affairs.

The Ravaya editor’s admission couldn’t have come at a better time for the government and is evidence that the UNP can’t depend on Ivan’s support. Although Ivan’s change of heart and that of Sumathipala didn’t take place overnight, I believe that once the president calls early general elections, many opposition MPs would seek to switch allegiance to the Rajapaksas. Although the UNP leadership would never accept their predicament publicly, an early general election could cause immense problems to the party. While the UNP support base is strong, a relentless government propaganda campaign based on battlefield success could attract large groups of UNPers, particularly in the backdrop of sizeable number of youth from UNP families joining the armed forces, police and civil defence forces, to the government side.

It is no secret that the government didn’t bother to check political allegiance of recruits’ families while filling vacancies in the services. According to available reports over 120,000 youth had found employment with the armed forces with the army alone taking over 80,000 over the past two and half years.

Contrary to expectations, the government hasn’t called off recruitment although major ground battles are rapidly coming to an end. The army recently announced that youth could join the service at Deyata Kirula exhibition. The support extended by the growing number of armed forces families is likely to be a critical factor in any future election. Unfortunately both UNP and JVP strategists seemed blind to the government’s game plan.

The Sunday Island also learns unprecedented Indian support is expected to strengthen rehabilitation and reconstruction work in the Northern Province. Once the LTTE loses the remaining area under its control (about 100 to 150 square kilometres), as pointed out by the Tokyo Co-Chairs last week, the Tigers wouldn’t be on the radar of the international community for long. As the international community had embraced the breakaway LTTE faction, with Karuna and Pillayan being invited to diplomatic functions, it would play ball with new representatives of northern Tamils.

The recent invitation extended by the Indian High Commission here to Pillayan for the Republic Day celebrations at India House and a high level US military delegation visiting the Chief Minister of the Eastern Province at Trincomalee reveals the speed at which new relationships are being struck. On the part of the government, it has gone out of its way to promote its new associates. This and the Mahanayaka theras readiness to welcome Pillayan and Karuna separately at the Dalada Maligawa, is all part of the emerging picture.

Parallel to the military campaign, the government has moved rapidly on the political front. In fact, the battlefield success wouldn’t have been a reality had the president failed on the political front. His ability to persuade over 50 elected and nominated members of the UNP, JVP and SLMC to join his government was a major gain. Had the president failed, he wouldn’t have the political stability required to pursue a combined security forces campaign.

After two and half years of heavy fighting, the armed forces had brought the LTTE to its knees. Since the liberation of Kilinochchi in the first week of January, the army has pounced on LTTE bases east of the A9. The rapidity of the LTTE’s collapse had even surprised the military with the army now poised to liberate the remaining area under LTTE control by end of this week.

Late last week’s multi-pronged assault which brought Vishvamadu and Chalai under army control would thwart any attempt on the part of the LTTE to prolong the ground battle. Had anyone believed that the Co-Chairs’ statement would deter the government from launching an all out attack, it was belied. Within 24 hours of the call by the Co-Chairs for immediate suspension of hostilities and negotiations to facilitate the evacuation of civilians, particularly the sick and wounded, the army overran Vishvamadu and Chalai. The loss of Chalai effectively brought the curtain down on the Sea Tigers who over the years had managed to smuggle in arms, ammunition and equipment from far away places.

Had the navy, under Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda’s leadership, failed to thwart the arms movements, the ultimate victory over terrorism would have been delayed if not altogether unsuccessful. To the credit of the army, particularly tough talking Lt. General Sarath Fonseka, the ground forces fought with sheer determination against a motivated and capable enemy until they turned the tide against Prabhakaran’s elite fighting units. The sacrifices made by the army are huge during the two and half year battle. Over 4,000 officers and men sacrificed their lives and over 17,000 wounded in battles in some of the bloodiest battles of the Eelam war.

Before last week’s success at Vishvamadu and Chalai, a massive LTTE counter-attack directed at the 59 Division and Task Force IV caused heavy losses on the army. Although the government downplayed the LTTE offensive, the frontline troops, particularly the 59 Division which recently liberated Mullaitivu had taken sizeable losses. It is understood that the offensive spearheaded by a suicide attack launched by Black Tigers using two explosives-laden vehicles was the biggest single operation initiated by the LTTE after the loss of Elephant Pass.

Although this attack didn’t force the army on the defensive, the enormity of the losses, both in men and material, highlighted the need to face any eventuality on the battlefront or the streets of Colombo and its suburbs. The LTTE offensive launched on February 1 at one time had threatened to cut off the 59 Division commanded by Brigadier Nandana Udawatte. The army chief has swiftly intervened to stabilize the front by ordering additional reinforcements and effecting critical changes in the command and control structure by placing Major General Jagath Dias, General Officer Commanding 57 Division, on a supervisory role over the 59 Division and Task Force IV.

Had the LTTE believed the suicide attack would trigger a collapse of the Mullaitivu front, the expectation was short-lived. Although the army had retreated initially, it regrouped and held a rear line while the rest of fighting formations went on an all out offensive. Instead of giving in to growing international pressure to call off the offensive and suffering a debacle on the battlefront, the government liberated Chalai and Vishvamadu on Thursday, the day after independence celebrations where the political and military leaderships put on a brave face as the army backed by SLAF fought off what I believe could be the last major offensive undertaken by the LTTE.

The LTTE offensive collapsed by Thursday as superiority in numbers and heavy firepower overwhelmed the Tigers who lacked adequate supplies as well as strength of numbers to continue.

In about two weeks, the armed forces campaign on the Vanni front will undergo a drastic change as troops face LTTE cadres mingling with the civilian community. It would be a different fight sans artillery, jets, armoured fighting vehicles and multi barrel rocket launchers. Spearheaded by the army, the forces and police will be ready to meet the LTTE’s challenge. But in the absence of an area under its control, the LTTE, I am sure will find it extremely difficult to recruit and train youth in live firing exercises et al.

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