Tigers without weapons
With an election in the offing, it’s customary to express various noble sentiments. This is especially so on the part of the opposition which always tries to occupy the moral upper ground vis-a-vis the government. In this context, the present columnist would like to challenge the UNP to issue to the public a copy of their party constitution. This is an era when everybody talks of the right to information, but it’s almost impossible to obtain a copy of the UNP constitution from anybody. Over the past fifteen years, Ranil Wickremesinghe has been tinkering with the party constitution and today nobody knows what the final version is. Needless to say, all the tinkering has been to make it impossible to remove him from the party leadership no matter what. From what I hear, even the provision that made R.Premadasa the leader of the UNP in 1989 has been amended. According to that clause, if a member of the UNP becomes the executive president of the country, the leadership of the party automatically devolved on him.
Even if someone gives you a copy of the UNP constitution, one can never be sure whether it’s the authentic final version. The only way to ensure that it is indeed the final currently extant version of the constitution is to get the party general secretary to certify it as being the final version. The party constitution is being kept under lock and key for fear that if others in the party get hold of it, they will find some loophole to get rid of the leader. However if no one has a copy of the constitution, they won’t know where to even start. This is a pretty smart strategy, but the question is whether people capable of such manipulation should be allowed anywhere near a position of power. In the view of the present columnist, there are two men who should be kept out of power no matter what - Sarath Fonseka and Sarath Silva. This constitutional cloak and dagger stuff makes us wonder whether RW is a third such individual.
Speaking of Sarath Fonseka, he made waves again last week by sending an exclusive letter to the controversial British TV station, Channel 4, which became a household name in Sri Lanka by rooting for the LTTE. The only known TV appearance by the LTTE arms procurer Kumaran Pathmanathan was also on Channel 4. It was also on Channel 4 that a controversial video clip purported to be of extra-judicial killings in Sri Lanka during the war was aired for the first time. However Channel 4 is a domestic British TV station and not an international station. Whether the British public would be interested in the plight that Sarath Fonseka has got himself into, is a moot point. Britain itself is in the throes of a crisis though of a much lesser magnitude than that of Sri Lanka, with the entry of a former Army Commander into politics. Ironically, even as Channel 4 aired its story on Sarath Fonseka last week, the BBC repeatedly kept asking rhetorically whether it was appropriate for a senior military figure to enter partisan politics soon after leaving the armed services.
This was in the context of former British Army Commander Richard Dannatt retiring from the army and immediately taking up an appointment as an advisor to the opposition Conservative Party around the same time that General Fonseka entered politics in Sri Lanka. The parallels between the British and Sri Lankan cases are in fact uncanny. The immediate past army commanders of both Britain and Sri Lanka entered politics soon after leaving the armed forces. Both stand accused of using the power they had when they were commanding their armies to further the cause of the opposition parties they joined. In the case of Dannatt, the ruling British Labour party says that his criticisms relating to government funding of the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan when he was commander of the army were politically motivated, and made with his future political career in mind. One Labour member of the House of Lords had in fact said that Dannatt had all along been hand in glove with the Conservatives.
In the case of Fonseka, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse came on TV and told the public that it was Fonseka who had objected to the speedy resettlement of the nearly 300,000 IDPs in the Vanni who had been rescued from the LTTE so as to create an international backlash against the government which he (Fonseka) could exploit to his advantage after he entered politics against government he was serving. In his interview, Gota revealed that there were instances when Fonseka had ordered IDPs sent out for resettlement to brought right back to the IDP camps.
Even the left leaning British daily, The Independent, opined that the prospect of General Dannatt becoming a minister in a future conservative government risks politicizing the army. They also echoed the concerns of the British defence establishment that if Dannat joins a future government, that would have a negative impact on the working relationship between the ministers and serving military commanders. Labour party minister have been describing the recruitment of Dannatt by the conservatives as a ‘political stunt’, as indeed the recruitment of Sarath Fonseka was a costly gonpaat by the joint opposition in Sri Lanka. As in Sri Lanka, in Britain too the political general does not see eye to eye with most senior serving military officers. At least one important western country is experiencing a milder form of what Sri Lanka had to face. In Britain, there was of course the precedent of Lord West, the Navy commander, joining the Labour government and becoming a minister. However that was about one year after he left the military. The moot point now is whether the proposed new constitution for Sri Lanka should not include a provision preventing former commanders of armed forces from holding political office for a certain number of years after leaving military service.
Last week was manifesto week, with both the UNP and the JVP led Democratic National Alliance issuing their manifestos for the parliamentary election. Since the results of this election are a foregone conclusion, these manifestoes are not worth the paper they are written on and the only manifesto that counts is the government’s manifesto. The only manifesto that should attract some attention if not for anything other than its potential to disrupt the peace in the future, is the manifesto of the TNA. The TNA manifesto is nothing but a restatement of the Vadukkodai resolution of 1972 in different words. What the TNA manifesto shows is that they have learnt nothing from the experiences of the past 30 years. This is the first time that the TNA put out an election manifesto after the end of the war. One would feel that this would be an ideal occasion for them to engage in a self critical examination of northern Tamil politics of the past three decades. One would have expected the TNA to do an exercise of the sort that the SLFP/PA did in 1994, prior to their re-election to power after 17 years.
The present columnist was at an international seminar held a couple of years back, which was attended by TULF leader V.Anandasangaree as well as a representative of the LTTE from Norway. Whenever Anadasangaree made any comment critical of the LTTE, this gentleman would say tongue in cheek, "Aiya, it is you (the TULF) who put us up to this. You misled us!". It was indeed the TULF and its leaders who sowed the seeds that grew into the monstrosity that became the LTTE. There is no mention at all in the TNA manifesto about the LTTE or the destruction that it wrought on everybody including the Tamil people. There is no examination of the causes that led to the LTTE getting banned in India, the USA, Canada and 27 European countries. There is no examination of the methods adopted in the past. There is a saying that those who do not learn from the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them. It does appear that the TNA is well on their way to repeating the mistakes of the past. The attempt of the TNA seemes to be to continue from where the LTTE left off, but without bullets.
The title of the TNA manifesto says it all – "A Tamil nation in the island of Ceylon." Prior to the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century, says the TNA manifesto, there were three kingdoms in the island of Ceylon, one of which in the north belonged to the Tamils. They hark back to the resolution passed by the Federal Party in 1951 to the effect that the Tamils were a nation distinct from the Sinhalese and were therefore entitled to the right of self determination and their call for a federal system of government. Then there is the usual statement of grievances, the abrogation of the Banda" Chelva pact, and the Dudley" Chelva pact, the colonization of the north and east, organized violence against the Tamil people, from 1956 to 1983, and so on. It would have been quite OK, mentioning only these if this was 1985. But this is 2010 and many things have happened in between. While reneging on the Banda and Chelva pacts were no doubt deplorable, so was the LTTE’s breaking of ceasefires in 1990 and 2006. While its true that the Sinhalese committed outrages on Tamils in 1958 and 1983, much worse outrages have been committed by Tamil terrorists on Sinhalse civilians in the intervening period.
In fact the UNP manifesto released last week stressed that if Sri Lanka was to move forward, the mistakes made by ALL parties had to be acknowledged and work towards a new Sri Lanka. The manifesto of the JVP led DNA for its part has placed national reconciliation above economic issues and corruption in their list of priorities. The DNA has said that the unprecedented political fissure in the country is getting extended into an ethnic and religious division as well, and has recommended the setting up of a 'national reconciliation government' to arrest this trend. This however has not been the approach taken in the TNA manifesto. While flatly refusing to see anything wrong in the approach taken by the LTTE or even their own mistakes of the past, which gave rise to the LTTE, the TNA has simply sought to continue more or less from where the LTTE was made to leave off. They have asked for the right of self determination to be accepted, for the north and east to be merged, and a federal structure of government to be introduced.
After this parliamentary election, the TNA has announced, they will use the mandate they will get from the north and east to enter into a dialogue with the government on ‘restructuring the system of governance’ in the country in a manner that will recognize the ‘sovereign rights’ of the Tamil people.
If the government fails to grant their demands, the TNA has said that they will lobby both India and the west and also launch a peaceful satyagraha campaign to win their rights. This is perhaps not quite what the UNP expected when they spoke of all sides acknowledging the mistakes of the past. The UNP, the DNA and the TNA backed the same candidate at the presidential elections just seven weeks ago. But clearly, these allies, especially the UNP and the TNA which have been cooperating with one another from the time of the eastern provincial council elections in 2008, have not synchronized their parliamentary election manifestoes. The UNP (and the DNA) is calling for reconciliation, whereas the TNA is asking for separation in everything but name.
The UNP is not winning any friends by calling for reconciliation with those seeking separation. The TNA is in fact doing to the UNP what the LTTE did to them earlier. The UNP went out on a limb to sign a ceasefire agreement with the LTTE and to abide by it, but the LTTE did everything they could to embarrass the UNP, resulting the erosion of public confidence in the latter. After this parliamentary election where they are doomed anyway, perhaps the UNP should seriously consider whether they should continue with the policy they have followed towards the TNA. The only result that the UNP has got from this policy is to fall between two stools – losing the votes of the Sinhala south as well as those of the Tamil and Muslim north and east.
In contrast to the UNP, President Mahinda Rajapakse’s response to these questions was refreshingly forthright. In an interview with the Singapore based Straits Times, published last week, he had said a clear NO to a merger of the north and east, NO to federalism, which he described as a ‘dirty word’, and he had said NO to devolving police powers to the provincial councils. The cost of a stand like this is of course that the president will not get many votes in the north and east. At the recently concluded presidential elections, Mahinda had got barely over a quarter of the votes cast in the Jaffna, Vanni and Batticaloa districts. That was contesting against the chosen candidate of the TNA. However, if the UNP contests in the north and east against the TNA,(as they did at the Jaffna and Vanni local government elections last year) they’ll get virtually no votes; so much for the effectiveness of their strategy vis-a-vis the minorities. If there is no appreciation from the minorities or the majority community for a certain policy, commonsense would say that the policy concerned should be jettisoned. With this manifesto, the TNA officially become Tigers without weapons.
Now that we are on the topic of election manifestos, the supreme irony is that both the UNP led alliance and the JVP led alliance have put out much more detailed documents than they did at the presidential elections. This is a classic case of closing the door after the horse has bolted. As stated earlier, the manifestoes of the UNP and the DNA are not worth the paper they are written on because there is no prospect of ever being able to implement them. The UNP’s manifesto should in fact have been put out at the presidential elections and may even have contributed to increasing the vote by convincing the voters that they were seriously planning something for the country. The UNP’s manifesto this time is 80% economy and services related and only 20% political whereas the presidential election manifesto put out by the joint opposition was 80% political and only 20% economic.
The presidential election was fought on political issues which had little or no relevance for the vast majority of the people. There was no demand from the public for the abolition of the executive presidency, but the opposition made that their main campaign platform. Most people show no interest at all in the seventeenth amendment, but the opposition campaigned to have it implemented. As was surmised in this column after the presidential election, making such irrelevancies the main campaign issue was probably Wickremesinghe’s subtle way of undermining the General. What adds credence to the view that the presidential election campaign was deliberately undermined from within, is the different way the salary increase for public servants has been treated in the UNP manifesto.
As was said in a previous column, when a Rs 10,000 salary increase was promised, the public servants knew they would end up getting nothing because they knew the promise was impossible to implement. In the latest UNP manifesto however, what has been promised is a Rs 3,500 salary increase with more increments every six months until the total comes to 10,000. Most people would take the promise of increments every six months with a pinch of salt, but the 3,500 initial increase does not look impossible and therefore has greater credibility.
The UNP would not be the UNP if there was no gonpaat to entertain us. In the manifesto, they have promised to set up a hospital supply agency responsible to parliament to streamline hospital purchasing operations. A simple executive operation like ordering hospital supplies to be brought under parliament! What should have been said was that the UNP, if elected, would appoint a competent minister who would ensure that the hospitals were kept well stocked with drugs and that money would be released from the treasury for this purpose. Whoever heard of parliament directly supervising hospital supplies? At one point a couple of years ago, the opposition leader was in the habit of demanding a parliamentary select committee for virtually everything. This petered off after a while when nobody took any notice. Even the existing parliamentary committees are poorly attended - if meetings are held at all. One can only imagine what the situation will be like if parliament is asked to oversee the purchasing of hospital supplies as well.
Another like gonpaat in the UNP manifesto is the promise to set up an ‘independent examinations authority’ to conduct examinations. The word ‘independent’ has been one of the most overused words by the opposition in recent times and this has now found its way even into the field of examinations! It’s independent commissions for everything under the sun. Is it being suggested here that politics has intruded into the conducting of examinations by the examinations department and only UPFA supporters pass examinations in this country? There are fairy tales in all election manifestos. But one fairy tale in the UNP manifesto that made us stand up and take notice is the proposal for the establishment of a ‘harvest deposit project’ whereby all agricultural produce will be delivered to designated warehouses and producers will be given a 70% advance on their produce and the government would undertake the marketing of this produce.
Making the State responsible for distribution in this manner is something one would expect to see in a JVP manifesto. It makes one wonder whether the presidential election experience has led to some cross fertilization in terms of ideas. There is the promise also to purchase every grain of paddy produced in this country. That too sounds more like a harking back to the very system that the UNP dismantled after 1977. What is the UNP saying? Are they suggesting that the free market system has failed and that the system in place before 1977, with all its shortcomings, was better?