Tuesday, March 17, 2009

View: Lessons from Colombo

(by Shahzad Chaudhry, a retired air vice marshal of the Pakistan Air Force and a former ambassador)

During a short tour, Colombo seemed remarkably calm for all the mayhem that has been taking place in Sri Lanka, especially in the northeast where the LTTE, the most ruthless guerrilla group in the region, gasps its last few breaths. From controlling an impressive one-third of the Sri Lankan landmass, the Tamil Tigers are now down to the last few square kilometres. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, head of the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party, has led the war more by default than by design, through a policy of confronting terrorist with a commitment that has grown with time.

Rajapaksa, an affable, rustic man with southern rural roots — the Tigers’ choice for exactly this reason — won the closely contested presidential election of November 2005 almost as a gift from the LTTE, whose political leadership had abstained from voting in the two provinces under their control.

The unexpected loser was the leader of the opposing United National Party, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, an intellectually inclined man and the favoured option of the West. Wickremasinghe had contrived a two-year-long peace with the Tigers on the back of insistent diplomacy by Norway, Switzerland and other European countries. Rajapaksa had both favour and fortune knocking at his door.

One of the first challenges the LTTE threw at the new, mild president was the murder of Muslims in the eastern province, connived to appear as a deliberate communal massacre conducted by a chauvinist Buddhist-nationalist president. Rajapaksa had his job cut out against the scheming Prabhakaran, the revered leader of the Tamil Tigers. After some prevarication, the government decided to meet the challenge: first, though, as a response to the threat to its political credibility.

Soon, the initial steps were to lead them to a full-scale war, and Wickremasinghe’s peace treaty was abrogated. Rajapaksa, dealing with the political fallout, let the war be fought by his commanders under his younger brother, a retired lieutenant-colonel and now the secretary of defence. This unity of purpose, clearly supported by political direction, and undiluted focus on the national objective has placed Sri Lanka within touching distance of the finish line in this war.

However, on the political front, the going has not been easy. Rajapaksa has had to run a contrived coalition and sustain a majority. Not only has he skilfully fractured the opposition, he has also increased his support in parliament. It may well be Machiavellian politics at its best, but then what is politics if not Machiavellian.

Internationally, though, the challenges have been far too unrelenting. From the outset, a hostile diplomatic presence in Colombo, including India and the United States, has been insistent that the war be stopped. Various pressures have been brought to bear on the government under the garb of human rights violations, economic isolation as well as through naked diplomatic pressure. But Rajapaksa and his government have withstood the onslaught. There is an understanding there that while there is no such thing as a perfect policy, when the best possible policy is chosen, stick with it till the ends are delivered. And delivered they shall be with persistence and undiluted focus. To this end, enormous credit is due to Rajapaksa, the rustic, reluctant warrior.

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