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Going For Broke

Aug 20, 2011 3:00:55 PM - thesundayleader.lk

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

Maithripala Sirisena, Mahinda Rajapaksa and G. L. Peiris

“For both Prabhakaran’s war of national liberation and Rajapaksa’s war for national sovereignty, one unstated motive assumed the greatest significance – the entrenchment of unchallenged personal power”.
UTHR-J (Special Report No 34 – 13.12.2009)
Sri Lanka is to buy 14 Mi-171 military helicopters from Russia, two+ years after the war was won.
According to Wikipedia, the average unit-cost of a helicopter is US$11.5 million. The helicopters are being supplied “on account of the Russian state credit given to Sri Lanka by Russia in 2010 for purchasing Russian armaments” (ITAR-TASS – 15.8.2011). According to this loan-agreement, signed in February 2010 (by Lankan Ambassador and Rajapaksa-cousin Udayanga Weeratunga), Colombo is to purchase Russian weapons worth US$300 million within 10 years.
Under Vladimir Putin, armaments became a major Russian export, so the deal is in Russia’s interest. But is it beneficial for Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans? The deal was signed, post-war. This is a loan with interest and not a grant. Why exacerbate our already sky-high indebtedness, to buy exorbitant-weapons after the war has been won?
Who or what is the regime arming itself against? The Tigers are dead. Sri Lanka faces no external military-threat. Is this weapon buying-spree a way for the powers-that-be to make mega-bucks? Or is the regime preparing for the day it will have to defend itself against an Egyptian-type popular revolt?
Last week, Minister G. L. Peiris accused the Tamil Diaspora of launching an “economic onslaught against Sri Lanka to prevent and derail it from gaining economic prosperity” (Daily Mirror – 18.8.2011). The Minister should have pointed the finger inwards. The real obstructions to development are the Rajapaksas’ policy of exorbitant defence costs, post-war, the Rajapaksa proclivity for waste (Rs. 31 million on propaganda for ‘Api Wawamu’) and the Rajapaksa tolerance of official-corruption.
No sooner than the adulterated-petrol scandal subsided, an adulterated-cement crisis erupted. The latter is of far greater consequence, since builders are warning about a consequent debasement of construction-quality. Senior SLFP leader Minister Maitripala Sirisena recently sounded a warning about “the widespread corruption in the construction of highways” (The Sunday Times – 14.8.2011). Interestingly, President Rajapaksa is the Minister of Highways; and the warning was made at a top-level meeting chaired by Presidential-sibling Minister Basil Rajapaksa.

Suicidal Maximalism

The excessive defence costs stem, in part, from the Rajapaksa policy of peace-at-gun-point. The North is under de-facto military occupation, maintained at enormous politico-economic cost.
The only way out is to concede a degree of autonomy to the Tamils, ideally along Indian lines.
Devolution is necessary, for internal and external normalisation. Without devolution, a consensual-peace is impossible. Without devolution, Sri Lanka will eventually find herself in the ranks of international-pariahs, alongside Zimbabwe and Myanmar.
Adequate devolution to satisfy Tamils and Muslims with adequate safeguards to reassure Sinhalese will enable Sri Lanka to isolate die-hard Tiger supporters (especially in the Diaspora) by winning the backing of the moderate majority, here and abroad.
The President was in China reportedly to seek support for his multiple hardline stances. Chinese and Russian support would have price-tags and boundaries. What Russia did with Serbia/Yugoslavia, China did with Sudan and Russia and China did with Libya should serve as warnings about the limits of Sino-Russian backing. If we continue to ignore Lankan Tamils, irritate India and antagonise the West, someday we might find ourselves defenceless, with Moscow and Beijing absent during a crucial UN Security Council vote.
Rajapaksas should have learned the suicidal nature of maximalism from the fate of Vellupillai Pirapaharan. Mr. Pirapaharan wanted de jure Tiger Eelam and he wanted to win it on the battlefield. With his inane-maximalism he brought destruction upon the people he led, his organisation, his family and ultimately, himself.
The Rajapaksas cannot reject everything from devolution to a credible investigation into alleged war-crimes, from the removal of Emergency/PTA to the demilitarization of the North. The Lankan state has to consent to reasonable demands in order to avoid dangerous outcomes.
The real impediment to devolution is not the Sinhala-South. Southern popular opinion about devolution is not autonomously generated, but is coloured-and-shaped by the stances of major political parties. Thus most SLFP-ers were anti-devolution till 1994 and pro-devolution till 2006; UNP-ers who were lukewarm about devolution until 1987 defended the provincial council system at the risk of life and limb.
Thus if the two major two parties take a strong and principled stand for devolution, the absolute majority of their members would go along. In fact if the SLFP and the UNP are supportive (or even neutral) a referendum on a new quasi-federal constitution would become winnable. Currently the JVP and the JHU are electoral nonentities. The key to a consensual-peace is a SLFP-UNP agreement not to use devolution as a political weapon against each other. Once such an agreement is reached, handling the JVP, JHU and sundry extremists would be eminently feasible.
The real stumbling-block is not from the Sinhala-South but from the Rajapaksas. As Defence Secretary Rajapaksa said (in a quintessentially-Gotabhaya interview), “So devolution-wise I think we have done enough. I don’t think there is a necessity to go beyond that (13th Amendment)” (India Today – 8.8.2011)
The Rajapaksas are viscerally opposed to sharing power with anyone, including Sinhalese and even fellow SLFPers. They want to keep all power within the Family. That is the main impediment to devolution in post-war Sri Lanka. The stalled negotiations with the TNA and the proposed (second) APC are attempts at camouflaging this reality.
For those of us who were born into universal suffrage, it is hard to conceive that just 150 years ago the ‘one citizen-one vote’ principle was regarded with fear and loathing, as the ultimate radical anathema, by ruling elites and middle-classes. Universal male-suffrage was equated with revolution and dreaded as the harbinger of mob-rule. Female-suffrage was anathematic, even to many supporters of male-suffrage; the Six Points of the great Chartist Movement, for instance, asked for just universal male-suffrage. The upper and middle classes, seeing in universal suffrage the violent end of state, family and private property, put up a long and a venomous resistance. Democracy, as we know it, was won with blood, sweat and tears (plus some acts of individual-terrorism!).
Bakunin, the Anarchist leader, opposed universal-suffrage because he realised it will not end capitalism but stabilise it. History proved him right. Contrary to the predominant phobias, universal suffrage turned out to be the ultimate systemic stabiliser. The same is true of devolution. It is excessive centralisation rather than excessive devolution which breeds separatism.
Sinhala extremism’s fear of minority-empowerment, conjoined with Rajapaksa determination to keep all power within the Family, has created a near insurmountable impediment to devolution, post-war. With the offspring of 1956 in control of the state, moderation and compromise have become impossible.
Currently only the North is at the receiving end of this Rajapaksa-maximalism. Not for long, though. STF camps “are to be set up in every administrative district on the orders of the Defence Ministry, said STF commandant DIG R. W. M. C. Ranawana. If the need arises, more than one such camp will be opened in one district” (Sri Lanka Mirror – 15.8.2011). Minister Sirisena warned that if corruption continues, the people will ‘soon begin to question the government’. Perhaps the regime is readying its answer.