WEEK OF MASQUERADERS | Sunday Observer

WEEK OF MASQUERADERS

The Joint Opposition, led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his close associates, often tries to project itself as the sole protector of all ‘war heroes’ who fought during the final phase of the war.

It often castigates the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government for agreeing to engage with global bodies, such as, the UN Human Rights Council, to ascertain the veracity of war crimes allegations.

It is abundantly clear that the Rajapaksa group, which fell out of power in January 2015, attempts to base its comeback bid on populist nationalism – an ideology that is seemingly marketable to the rural and suburban Sinhala-Buddhist electorate in the South.

It can be assumed that the Rajapaksa group has resorted to populist nationalism based on the calculation that it is more convenient for them to fully rely on the support of the traditional Sinhala-Buddhist electorate in the South, than to ‘patch up’ with minorities to win over their support.

Bombshell

It is against this backdrop that former Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa, a chief architect of the Joint Opposition’s political campaign and a founding member of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, dropped a bombshell while addressing a meeting at the Press Club in Jaffna, on Sunday (Oct 1).

Rajapaksa said, members of the security forces committed ‘crimes’ during the final stages of the war.

It was the first time that a kingpin of the Rajapaksa administration admitted, in the former war zone, that the armed forces had committed crimes.

Asked for his views on Field Marshal Fonseka’s remarks, including his willingness to testify before any war crimes tribunal, Rajapaksa said, he was reluctant to comment, but ended up admitting to ‘crimes’ by security forces.

“I think our forces didn’t commit war crimes, but individuals might have done. It is not war crimes. We can call (it) crimes,” Rajapasksa said, dispensing with a Sinhala-Tamil translator and switching to English.

What Rajapaksa said, at the Press Club in Jaffna, was fully in sync with the current government’s line of thinking on the matter.

At various international platforms in the recent past, the government representatives said although the Sri Lankan government, as an entity, did not commit war crimes, but there might have been individual incidents.

The government also assured to investigate into such incidents and bring the perpetrators to book according to the law of the land.

These assurances were greeted with harsh criticism by the Joint Opposition group, which clamoured that the government was attempting to ‘betray’ war heroes by investigating into alleged crimes and unlawful acts.

The Rajapaksa group even protested for investigations into the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunga, the disappearance of journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda and the assault on Keith Noyahr on the basis that certain of the ‘war heroes’ were allegedly involved in these cases.

It is against this backdrop that one has to analyze Rajapaksa’s statement: It shows that while resorting to blatant populist nationalism in the South, the Rajapaksa group has no qualms about wearing a completely different mask in the North.

Lands

It is not the only bombshell the former Minister dropped, speaking after the formation of the Jaffna branch of the Sri Lanka Podujana Party- Rajapaksa also said he was in favour of the full return of all occupied private land in Jaffna.

He said, occupied land should not only be returned to Tamil owners, but those who did not originally own property should be given state land, a position that is in sharp contrast to nationalist elements supporting his brother.

“We returned nearly 80 percent of the lands. All private lands should be given to their owners. Issues involving lands and housing are prevalent in every part of the country. But, special attention should be paid to resolving such problems in the Northern Province,” he said.

The former Minister, who led a program named ‘Uthuru Wasanthaya’ soon after the end of war, did not forget to blame the TNA for not offering the Rajapaksa government support to resolve issues in the North.

“They did not support us when we attempted to resolve issues in the Province. But, now we see how they work hand in hand with the current government,” Rajapaksa said.

He also added that the issue of people who had disappeared during and after the war should be addressed ‘humanely’ and a solution found at the earliest.

“It is an emotional issue that must be addressed. We were trying to solve it, during our time. It must be solved in a humane way,” he said without going into details.

Basil Rajapaksa’s 180 degree turn with regard to issues in the North does not reflect a significant policy change in the Joint Opposition camp. It is clear that Rajapaksa was attempting to wear a different mask in a desperate bid to win over the support of the people in the Northern Province.

Rajitha praises

In an interesting turn of events, however, Cabinet Spokesman Minister Rajitha Senaratne fully praised the former Economic Development Minister for his statement on returning lands to the people in the North.

“Basil is one person in the Rajapaksa family who knows there is a world beyond Sri Lanka,” Senaratne said.

“Had Rajapaksa listened to Basil’s advice, he would have been in power today,” the co-Cabinet spokesman said, describing the former Minister’s statement as ‘very positive.’

“Unfortunately, Mahinda always listened to Gotabaya. I have always said Gotabaya is responsible for his brother’s election defeat.”

Sarath Fonseka

Former Army Commander Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka too was quick to respond to Basil Rajapaksa’s statement. In fact, Fonseka convened a special press conference at his Ministry to share his views on the matter.

“When I said, members of the military forces committed crimes, some elements were up in arms against me. What do they say about Basil Rajapaksa’s statement?’ Fonseka asked, stating that the former strongman of the Rajapaksa administration clearly re-confirmed his statement.

“When I made the same statement, the Rajapaksa supporters set fire to my dummies. Now what are they going to do to Basil Rajapaksa? Basil is from their camp and they have access to Basil. Probably, they can set Basil on fire now,” Fonseka said, with his trademark dry humour.

“Basil did not level allegations against a specific person. His allegations were levelled against the entire Army, which I commanded, during the final phase of the war.”

“We all know how the Rajapaksas despised the minorities in the past. They reaped the results of their conduct on January 8, 2015. This remark shows a desperate need to win over the support of the Tamil community in Jaffna,” the former Army Commander, now a Minister of the national unity government, said.

The Joint Opposition group, which has already launched a propaganda campaign against the new constitution, suffered a major ‘PR setback’ this week, following MP Dinesh Gunawardena’s unsuccessful meeting with the Chief Prelate of the Malwatte chapter, Ven. Thibbatuwawe Siddhartha Sumangala Thera, a senior Buddhist monk known for his cogent and moderate views on national issues.

JO debacle

UPFA MP Dinesh Gunawardena travelled to Kandy to meet the Mahanayakes of the Malwatte and Asgiriya Chapters and brief them on the interim report of the Steering Committee involved in the constitutional drafting process.

Gunawardena, an ardent supporter of the Rajapaksas’ met Sumangala Thera with the sole intention of eliciting a negative response to the interim report.

His argument was that the interim report would affect the unitary status of the current constitution and pave the way for a federal state in the future.

The Mahanayake Thera shredded Gunwarandena’s argument into pieces saying, the President and the Prime Minister had made repeated assurances about the unitary status of the country.

“The President has clearly said the Constitution won’t affect the unitary status of the country. We can have faith in his assurance,” the Mahanayake Thera said, in response to Gunawardena’s argument.

“The President has also assured that the place accorded to Buddhism in the current Constitution will remain unchanged. So, there is no problem,” the Mahanayake Thera continued.

“You too are a member of the Committee. So, haven’t you admitted that Sri Lanka is a unitary state?” Mahanayake Thera asked. At this point, Gunawardena, a firebrand MP, was at a loss for words.

“Suggest amendments to necessary areas and proceed with this. Act in a manner that would benefit the country, the nation and the religion. There won’t be another chance,” Sumangala Thera stressed.

“We all know what happened to the Bandaranaike- Chelvanayagam pact: They stood in the way of implementation of the Pact and as a result, the country had to pay a huge price. We lost so many lives, and the country suffered a major setback. It’s our responsibility to prevent the recurrence of such a disaster. That’s why everyone should assist the government in this regard,” he further explained.

Fanning communal flames

It was clear that Gunawardena’s attempts to fan the flames of racism were quelled by the Mahanayake Thera’s remarks - it was also a severe blow to the Rajapaksa camp as they unabashedly used Buddhist monks, in the recent past, to promote their political agenda.

While the Mahanayake Thera’s statement was widely praised by moderate citizens, the Joint Opposition, was quick to realize that the Mahanayake Thera’s sensible remarks would be detrimental to their campaign against the proposed new Constitution.

As a damage-control measure, the JO urged its allies to hold several press conferences in Colombo to counter the Mahanayake Thera’s claims.

As a result, some pro-Rajapaksa Buddhist monks, including, Medagoda Abhayathissa Thera, told the media that the Mahanayake Thera had been misguided about the constitutional reforms. He urged the Mahanayake Thera to retract the statement and pay attentions to the concerns raised by the Opposition.

However, Abhayathissa Thera’s remarks did not elicit any response from the Mahanayake Thera. Instead, the Thera reiterated his views during a meeting held with the civil society on Tuesday, in Kandy.

Purawesi Balaya

Some representatives of the Purawesi Balaya and other civil society bodies, including Wickramabahu Karunaratne, author Gamini Viyangoda and journalist K.W. Janaranjana, met the Mahanayaka Thera in Kandy, on Tuesday, to share their opinion on the constitution-making process.

They said, the proposed new constitution would not cause any damage to the unitary status and the place accorded to Buddhism, adding that the Joint Opposition was just rumour-mongering.

“The country should not be divided. But, power should be devolved,” Sumangala Thera explained, adding that this idea should be clearly communicated to the public.

“No one wants to divide the country. We all support a unitary Sri Lanka. Division of the country is out of question. But, certain elements are attempting to paint a wrong picture about the entire constitution drafting process,” the civil society representatives replied.

In response, the Mahanayake Thera said, there should be measures to educate the public on the “real situation.”

“E ayage sadde thamayi wadi. Oyalage sadde aduyi” (Their voice is louder), the Mahanayake Thera said referring to the rabble-rousing by the pro-Rajapaksa group.

Sampanthan Vs. GL

The proposed new Constitution was a hot topic in the political circles this week, especially, in the light of the interim report of the Steering Committee presented to Parliament recently.

It seemed like the Tamil National Alliance(TNA), the largest Tamil political party in the North, was determined to convince other parties on the importance of passing the proposed constitution, before the end of the current Parliament’s official term.

“It’s easier to pass a new Constitution during the first half of a Parliamentary term. That is why it is important to push all parties to finalize the passage of the new Constitution before the end of 2018. Otherwise, the task will be transferred to a new Parliament. That will shatter the hopes of many who voted for this government in January, 2015,” an informed political source said. The TNA’s keenness on expediting political reforms was reflected when Opposition Leader R. Sampanthan met Prof. G.L. Peiris, during a recent event in Colombo. Ministers Rishard Bathiudeen, Rauf Hakeem and Deputy Minister Dr. Harsha de Silva were also present at the event.

Prof. Peiris was a strong advocate of power devolution until he became an ardent supporter of the Rajapaksa group. When he first became a Minister in the Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga government, he was instrumental in introducing a power devolution package as a permanent solution to the North and East problem.

Due to his involvement in the process, he earned a reputation, especially among Tamil politicians, as a man whom the minorities could do ‘business with’. Under the UNP-led government in 2002, Prof. Peiris was a also member of the delegation which took part in peace negotiations with the LTTE.

During this time, he came under severe criticism from the SLFP and the JVP for being a supporter of a federal solution. In response to their allegations, Prof. Peiris, on many occasions, stressed the need for adopting a comprehensive power devolution mechanism as a permanent solution to the North and East conflict.

His views on power devolution saw a sharp shift after he aligned himself with the Rajapaksa-led political campaign. He was strongly critical of the new Constitution and those who spoke in favour of devolution of power. Peiris’ recent behaviour, needless to say, was a disappointment to many Tamil politicians, including those representing the TNA.

This set the background for the remark Sampanthan made to Peiris, at the event. A visibly distraught Opposition Leader told the former External Affairs Minister that misleading the Sinhalese people on the matter of the new Constitution was a ‘sin’.

It was clear that Sampanthan, who strongly pushed for constitutional reforms, was affected by the Joint Opposition’s recent remarks on the Steering Committee’s interim report.

Tweeting about the incident Foreign Affairs Deputy Minister Dr. Harsha de Silva said, ‘Sampanthan told Prof G L Pieris misleading innocent Sinhalese people on the constitution is a sin. Rauf, Rishard and I witnessed.’

He also shared a picture showing the Opposition Leader leaning over to make a point with the former minister, who is now the Chairman of the Sri Lanka Podu Jana Party.

Sampanthan, as the Opposition Leader, also made an important statement addressing a special sitting of Parliament to mark the 70th anniversary of parliamentary democracy in Sri Lanka.

“We were then (1947) a united people. All the people of Sri Lanka irrespective of ethnic or religious differences wanted independence from foreign rule. In fact, the Jaffna Youth League voicing the sentiments of the Tamil people were not happy with Dominion status (and) they wanted Poorana Swaraj (absolute Independence).”

While the country preserved democratic governance through electoral processes, that alone could not ensure democratic governance. Electoral processes by themselves quite often serve to retain majoritarianism,” the veteran Tamil politician said, adding that the country should now work hard to forge a national identity. 

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