It was an year ago that a motion to impeach President Premadasa was rejected by the
Speaker of Sri Lankas Parliament Mr. Mohamed. Last month, President Premadasa was
let off the hook again - this time by Sri Lankas Supreme Court.
The Court dismissed a petition by Srimavo Bandaranaike, the opposition leader,
challenging President Premadasas election in the controversial poll of December
1988. The election petition sought to unseat President Premadasa on the ground that there
was widespread violence and intimidation of voters.
Judges under police protection
Unsurprisingly, the judges ruling was not received with popular enthusiasm. An
attempt by the Government to celebrate the judgment did not quite take off the
ground when a large supply of fireworks mysteriously disappeared. And the judges
themselves have been provided with round the clock protection.
Sources in the international media have described the situation in Colombo as
tense. However, to what extent this is self serving remains to be seen.
Recently journalists, including foreign correspondents, were assaulted when covering a
meeting of the Democratic United National Front, the party of Lalith Athulathmudali and
A correspondent of Asia Week was questioned by the police because he had in his
possession a cartoon poking fun at the President. One of Sri Lankas top cartoonists,
Jiffry Yoonoos, was stabbed and his home and vehicle were wrecked. The inference is being
drawn that the attack was because Yoonoos had been drawing cartoons which did not show the
President in a good light.
DUNF being promoted?
A section of the international media have said that DUNF is making rapid strides
in the country. Given the infighting within the opposition ranks, whether DUNF is in
fact making an impact is another matter. What is perhaps more significant is that sections
of the international media are saying so.
At the end of August, ex National Security Minister Athulath-mudali was fired on twice
while canvassing voters. He and his sup-porters were then assaulted with iron bars and
cricket stumps. Athulathmudali suffered relatively minor injuries but a guard had his
The use of violence by Sinhala political parties in Sri Lanka is of course nothing new.
But the systematic increase in its open use is symptomatic of the deep seated ills in Sri
Lankas body politic. The last year has witnessed the destruction by police of an
anti government printing press, a grenade attack on an opposition meeting, death threats
against human rights lawyers, confiscation of cameras of press photographers and assaults
on opposition local government politicians.
Athulathmudali has proposed an impeachment motion in Parlia-ment accusing President
Premadasa of treason, corruption and gross abuse of power. Meanwhile, Gamini Dissanayake
has report-edly gone on a visit to the United Kingdom. It is also reported that at a
recent DUNF meeting, Lalith Athulathmudali offered to resign and Gamini Dissanayake played
the role of peacemaker (and future leader?) and called upon Lalith to stay.
Ex President J.R. Jayawardene cautiously distanced himself from his erstwhile
lieutenants. I am not connected with any political party, even in
an advisory capacity. he said. He dismissed as an outright lie a
report that he had advised Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake to resolve their
differences. In fact I havent even met them. I advised them to avoid
visiting me as it could be misunderstood.
But J.R.s understandable efforts notwithstanding, President Premadasa continued
to be under attack from former D.I.G. Premadasa Udugampola whom he sacked. Udugampola made
allegations against the President and called for a Commission of Inquiry. The President
responded by having a warrant issued for Udugam-polas arrest. Udugampola went into
hiding but continues to taunt the President through the Cololmbo newspapers.
Downward spiral of economy
While all this goes on, the Sri Lanka economy continues its downward spiral. The IMF
has broken off negotiations over a $160m loan to be disbursed this month. The World Bank
called off negotiations for a $100m loan to have been made available last month. The World
Bank sponsored Aid Consortium due to meet in Paris in November, has postponed its meeting
for May next year.
The Colombo stock market does not know whether it is coming or going: subscriptions to
three of the four new issues during the past six weeks did not exceed 18% and the fourth
reached 50%. Earlier in the year, new offers were heavily over subscribed.
The death of the top commanders of the Army in the landmine explosion in Kayts has not
helped President Premadasa. The opposition DUNF continues to stir up disaffection by
al-leging that soldiers are being killed with arms and ammunition sup-plied years ago in
different circumstances by the Colombo government. And the Sinhala Buddhist supremacists,
the Hela Urumaya, continues its vicious anti Tamil campaign.
As President Premadasa increasingly resorts to overt repression to stem the political
tide against him, the Sri Lankan army (even without Kobbekaduwa) may begin to play a more
decisive and di-rect role in the Sinhala political arena. That after all is the classical
pattern. You first have ballot boxes, then you stuff the ballot boxes, and then you get
rid of them altogether, and the army takes over, in the name of democracy and
the promise of free elections in a conveniently distant future.
Ofcourse, nowadays the international community tends to be reluctant to support a naked
army take over as this tends to po-larise a people and creates even greater
problems in the medium and long term. The preferred option would be to go the way of
Be-nazir Butto and Cory Aquino with the army, in the background, but with its hands on the
levers of real power.
But herein, lies President Premadasas dilemma. He can no longer keep the rising
Sinhala opposition at bay by keeping a low level conflict going in the
NorthEast. He faces a restless army in-creasingly concerned with the number of casualties
inflicted on it by LTTE ambushes and attacks and a crisis laden economy which cannot
continue to sustain a low level conflict endlessly.
But if he relies on the army to try to finish off the LTTE, he knows that
even if Jaffna is captured, he may end up with a pro-tracted guerilla resistance,
increased dependence on an army made more powerful by whatever successes it achieves,
coupled with Goigama Sinhala opposition forces, which have always re-garded him as an
outsider. He knows that he cannot do a JVP on the entire Sinhala
Exacting logic of events
Western aid donors have clearly begun to see the exacting logic of events. They are
reluctant to pump in more and more aid to a Government which is compelled to resort to
more and more repression to hang onto power. They know well enough that money alone cannot
Again, the I am your best bet - if not me who else line has also begun to
wear thin. Presumably, the Shah of Iran and President Marcos may also have said something
similar from time to time. But there comes a time when hard decisions may have to be
taken, if some semblance of control and direction is to be secured.
Western aid donors would clearly prefer a just political solution to the
conflict which they may then sweeten with development aid in the coming months
and years. And, then every body can be happy.
Who then are the parties to the negotiating process?
But a political solution pre supposes a negotiating process. Who then are the
parties to the negotiating process? On one side of the armed conflict stands the Sri Lanka
Government. On the other side stands the Liberation Tigers. It is the LTTE who today leads
the armed resistance of the Tamil people. It is an armed resistance which arose in
response to decades of systematic, gross and consistent violations of the human rights of
the Tamil people. It is an armed resistance which is just. It is an armed resistance
which, by any and every test of interna-tional law, is also lawful.
The sporadic violations by the LTTE of the humanitarian law of armed conflict, though
not to be condoned, cannot take away from the legitimacy of
the armed struggle that it leads. The words of Federation of Associations of Canadian
Tamils (FACT) are apposite: the human rights violations by the Sri Lankan
government are "gross and systematic" whereas the violations by the combat-ants
are sporadic. Moreover, due to the nature of liberation wars - asymmetrical
conflicts - the government controls the state ma-chinery and all that goes with it,
including the administration of justice; whereas the other party is significantly worse
off in terms of material resources at its command.
The legitimacy of the leadership of the Liberation Tigers springs from the
legitimacy of the armed resistance that it leads. It is they who are today, the leaders of
the Tamil people - and not the quisling groups who hang around in Colombo for crumbs from
their masters table.
And of course, it may well be asked: talk to what end? Here let it be said that any
political solution which does not recognise the right of the Tamil people to choose their
political status is a non starter. The Tamil national struggle has been fertilised by the
blood of a people and by their suffering and for anybody to imagine that a political
solution can be somehow worked out except on the basis of recognising the inalienable
right of the Tamil people to self determination, is but to dream in never never land about
never never land.
The question is whether the dilemma that President Premadasa faces will help to
concentrate his vision and persuade him to see (1) that recognition and legitimisation
will pave the way towards negotiation; and (2) that, in the end, self-determination is not a dirty word.