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Selected Writings by Nadesan Satyendra
- நடேசன் சத்தியேந்திரா

President Premadasa’s Dilemma

October 1992

It was an year ago that a motion to impeach President Premadasa was rejected by the Speaker of Sri Lanka’s Parliament Mr. Mohamed. Last month, President Premadasa was let off the hook again - this time by Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court.

The Court dismissed a petition by Srimavo Bandaranaike, the opposition leader, challenging President Premadasa’s 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 Gamini Dissanayake.

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 Lanka’s 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 skull fractured.

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 Lanka’s 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. Lalith stayed.

Cautious J.R.!

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 haven’t 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-pola’s 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.

The Dilemma

But herein, lies President Premadasa’s 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 opposition.

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 procure stability.

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 master’s 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.

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