Hyde Park: Mahinda gathers further momentum
Posted on March 20th, 2016

Courtesy The Island

Two shows of strength were put up in the environs of Hyde Park last week, by the UNP on Tuesday (Mar. 15) and the Joint Opposition two days later and that just about shows the political division in the country today. There is the UNP on the one hand and the Joint Opposition on the other, with not much else in between. The SLFP rump controlled by the Maithripala Sirisena faction and the JVP are residual groups. It can be stated with some certainty that barring some miracle the SLFP (MS faction) cannot even dream of organizing anything that comes even close to the show put up by the Rajapaksa camp last Thursday at Hyde Park. Even the UNP show at Lipton Circus on Tuesday was dwarfed by the crowd that attended the Joint Opposition rally.

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LSSP leader Professor Tissa Vitarana speaking to this columnist claimed that the Joint Opposition’s rally drew the biggest crowd ever seen at a meeting held at Hyde Park and that this was even bigger than the meetings held in the run up to the 1970 United Front victory. Vitarana is uniquely qualified to comment on Hyde Park matters as his party is headquartered just yards away from the location. Dayan Jayatilleke has also written in his post-Hyde Park piece that this meeting was bigger than anything he had observed at the location since the late 1960s and that even Rohana Wijeweera’s much written about rally at Hyde Park in early 1971 was ‘a mere fraction’ of the Joint Opposition meeting.

 What can we say about the meeting itself? It had all the usual features of a pro-Mahinda rally. At one point the present writer found himself among a group of party supporters from Attanagalla, one of them was squatting on the road with his palms joined above his head in the attitude of worship as he listened to the speeches. One of his companions pointed to him and stated the obvious saying ‘he’s a very loyal party member’. All of them were cold sober. One of them gave me a surprisingly sophisticated analysis saying that after S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, it was Mahinda Rajapaksa who had won the hearts of the SLFP rank and file – even more so than Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike because the people had not rallied to her side in quite this manner even when her civic rights were suspended. Food for thought, indeed.

Loosely organized traditional political parties like the UNP and the parties that make up the Joint Opposition don’t have the capacity to summon their entire membership to rallies the way the cadre based JVP does. In such circumstances, when the Joint Opposition obtains a lead over the UNP in drawing crowds, we have to stand up and take notice. The Joint Opposition does not have the support of either of the two main political parties the UNP or the SLFP, and it’s just a collective of small political parties and four dozen individual MPs of the SLFP. Yet their crowd pulling ability outstrips that of the UNP and the SLFP rump led by President Sirisena.

As far as the Joint Opposition is concerned, they were not really planning a major show of strength. The series of public rallies that has now begun with Hyde Park was started by the Joint Opposition mainly as a reaction to the fact that they were not able to take the upper hand on the fertilizer subsidy matter and the ETCA issue. The Joint Opposition had come in for a lot of criticism from professional groups for not helping them enough in opposing ETCA. Similar criticism was being aimed at them by rural politicians and farmer groups for not taking up the fertilizer issue in a big way. The present series of rallies was organized by the Joint Opposition mainly as a response to this criticism. What turned out to be an all time record breaking meeting at Hyde Park and a game changing political event was just the Joint Opposition’s first ‘fertilizer subsidy and anti-ETCA’ meeting!

There is no election anywhere in sight and this is not a pre-election build up but a routine round of meetings to take up current issues. Due however to the immense unpopularity of the government, it became a mammoth anti-government rally. The signs are that the district level continuations of these ‘fertilizer and ETCA’ rallies will also be large anti-government gatherings. The UNP had been saying for quite some time that they would be ‘bringing the people onto the streets’ on March 15 in a show of support for their programmes including the proposed ETCA with India. They had been saying this at least from the time that the professional groups (led by the GMOA) held their protest march against ETCA at Town Hall.

The Sirisena faction was doing everything they could to avoid holding the local government election due to the fear that the Joint Opposition may put up a better showing than them.

But an election is not the only event that can seriously undermine the Sirisena faction. The question that now emerges after the Hyde Park event is what will happen on May Day which is only six weeks away? The Joint Opposition is definitely going to have a separate May Day rally which going by the Hyde Park show, will reduce to insignificance anything that the Sirisena faction may organize. The UNP may also mobilize all their resources and hold a large rally to offset the embarrassment they had to face last week. The Sirisena faction cannot afford another fiasco like last year’s May Day rally. So they will have to put their thinking caps on and figure a way out. One way out for both the UNP and the Sirisena faction of the SLFP may be to have a joint ‘yahapalana’ May Day rally under the Swan symbol.

Even though there may be grounds to think that it would be advantageous for the UNP to hold the local government elections now in order to capitalize on the split within the SLFP, the reason why the UNP is not pushing for the local government elections to be held any time soon is probably due to the realization that if the Sirisena faction of the SLFP gets wiped out at the local government level, that will undermine Sirisena’s legitimacy and most probably turn him into a lame duck president who nominally holds power but nobody takes any notice of. Such a situation will seriously undermine the UNP as well because they derive their power from Sirisena.

Even if the UNP were to ‘win’ the local government elections by being the largest single group in the LG institution, that still would not help them much if they don’t have a clear majority in each body. The UNP cannot be sure of their ability to win the LG elections even if the SLFP splits if the MR faction keeps up the Hyde Park momentum.

In the present situation, the greater likelihood is that the government will try not to hold any election at all for the rest of their duration in power. A provincial council election is the diciest of all elections because the Tamil and Muslim vote on which the UNP relies heavily will not be of much help outside the north and east. This columnist has pointed out previously that at the January Presidential election and the August Parliamentary election the ruling coalition did not get the majority of the Sinhala vote.

The point to note in all this is that though the Sirisena faction of the SLFP has more than half the portfolios in the cabinet and good ministries, they still have not been able to retain the support of the SLFP rank and file. The Hyde Park crowd was hard core SLFP supporters. The conventional wisdom is that you can build up a support base by doling out patronage. In fact many people follow politicians with the hope of benefiting in some form or another. This formula however has not worked in relation to the SLFP since last year. All those SLFP members who served in the 100 day government (which actually lasted seven months) barring three – Duminda Dissanayake, Mahinda Amaraweera and Ranjith Siyambalapitiya – were defeated at the August Parliamentary election.

At that time however, the UNP had the best portfolios and the SLFP members had just the leftovers. Now the SLFP members have the best portfolios but they still have not been able to rally the party rank and file. Why things have turned out that way is an interesting question. Many people are fiercely loyal to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa no doubt but that alone can’t explain why the Sirisena faction has not been able to get its act together. In actual fact they should be doing much better than the UNP because the executive presidency as well as half the cabinet and the best ministries are in their hands. One factor contributing to this situation could be the fact that nobody sees any long term prospects in Maithripala Sirisena as a leader.

Another factor would be Maithripala Sirisena’s incapacity. He has never been known as a politician who ever did anything of any significance. So it is unlikely that he can derive any advantage from the position he finds himself in. If the Sirisena faction with the executive presidency, half the cabinet and the best ministries can’t make any headway, how is the UNP with fewer advantages going to cope? Because the UNP ministers have ministries without employment muscle, UNP supporters at the village level have no jobs and thanks to the Public Services Commission most of them can’t even get a transfer done. On May Day last year, the UNP put on a good showing but that obviously placed a massive strain on them and that was the only proper show of force the UNP put up since January 8, 2015. However the Mahinda faction put up many such shows between February and July last year although it didn’t score a majority at the August parliamentary elections.

After the Hyde Park show, some have been saying that Mahinda drew similar crowds before the parliamentary election but that did not help him win the elections. True. But this time there is no Sirisena to write letters saying that he will not appoint Mahinda as PM even in the event of a UPFA victory, and no one to sack the general secretaries of political parties on the eve of the poll. Conversely of course there is no election anywhere in sight. When asked about this, the members of the Joint Opposition this writer spoke to were unfazed. None of them seem to be seeking a quick short cut to power. Politicians become very patient when they sense that the public mood is shifting in their favour. They become desperate only when they know that the people are not with them.

Sarath Fonseka’s lopsided magnanimity

On the day that the Joint Opposition held their Hyde Park rally, Minister Sarath Fonseka was also in the news having requested the President to give an amnesty to the LTTE operative who was an accomplice in the attempt to assassinate him inside army headquarters. This was hailed by some quarters as an exemplary act on his part which would make a major contribution towards reconciliation. Other security conscious individuals however were less enthusiastic about it because this particular LTTE operative had not just tried to assassinate Sarath Fonseka but had also been involved in carrying out many other operations in Colombo.

Yet there is the fact that most of those who were actually involved in terrorist operations unlike the armchair Eelamists know the practical difficulties and the hardships involved in living the life of a terrorist and would be unlikely to go through the difficulties of reviving an outfit like the LTTE again. There is the possibility that even the most dangerous LTTE terrorists may just opt to fade away and lead a normal life if they are released. By now many of these operatives would have seen the way the Tamil people themselves reacted to ex-LTTE cadres. When N.Vithyatharan the former editor of Uthayan tried to field a list of ex-LTTE cadres at the last general election, they were all rejected outright by the people. Those who have been enthroned once again after the demise of the LTTE are the armchair Eelamists and not the young idealists who fought for their ideal.

The magnanimous request by Sarath Fonseka to release the LTTE suspect who tried to assassinate him sits oddly beside his maiden speech in parliament just last week, where he demanded that a war crimes inquiry with the participation of foreign observers be set up to examine war crimes allegations against the Sri Lanka army. He even demanded a separate inquiry into the alleged ‘white flag’ incident. The question is why is he asking for amnesties for dangerous LTTE operatives while calling for investigations against members of the very army that he led? One would think that even handedness would require him to ask for a general policy of forgiving and forgetting with amnesties for all those involved in the conflict from both sides.

Minister Fonseka’s speech in parliament had other contradictions as well. In a broadside against former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa he said that after migrating to the USA, Gota had been working as a tinker for about two years and that during this period a mutual friend had given a bicycle to Gota to get to work and one day the latter had come back complaining that the bicycle had been stolen. When his friend had chided Gota that he should have locked the bicycle Gota had said that he had in fact chained it to a ladder and that the thief had taken both the ladder and the bicycle! Fonseka’s point was that an individual who could not protect even his own bicycle could not win a war even though Gota had got books written about the way he had won the war.

Certainly Fonseka’s description of this episode was very entertaining. But in talking about Gota not being able to protect his own bicycle, Minister Fonseka is opening himself up for a much less funny and infinitely more embarrassing counter charge. When Gota lost his bicycle he was only a tinker in a foreign land and obviously did not even have a water pistol to protect himself and his bicycle. But when Fonseka was the army commander with tens of thousands of armed soldiers at his command, he was subjected to a suicide attack inside his own headquarters. Months before that attack took place, the State Intelligence Service had been issuing warnings to the army that there could be an attack within army headquarters because the security arrangements were so lax.

The ceasefire was in operation at that time and due vigilance was not practiced properly even in the high security zones. When the army kept ignoring these warnings the SIS had got one of their female officers to go into army headquarters through all the security checks with some mangoes hidden in her person to demonstrate how easy it was to pass through the security checks without detection of undeclared goods. Even this warning was ignored and significantly when the suicide attack on Fonseka took place it was by a female suicide cadre who had managed to get the suicide vest past the check points in exactly the same way that the female SIS officer had. The upshot of all this is that the then Lt General Sarath Fonseka became the only army commander in the world to be personally attacked by the enemy inside his own headquarters!

That certainly is much more embarrassing than having your bicycle stolen when your station in life was that of a civilian tinker in a foreign land. After he became a politician, Fonseka used to take the battered car in which he was attacked on the back of an open truck as an exhibit. But that may have been counterproductive because it would have reminded the public that this attack on the then army commander took place inside his own headquarters. Not that Gota also does not have to answer for similar negligence. Ranjan Wijeratne was assassinated while on his way to work. He would take the same route at the same time and he was therefore a sitting duck for an LTTE vehicle bomb. Despite that example, after becoming defence secretary Gota also took the same route at the same time to work and he too was subject to a very similar vehicle bomb attack. Fortunately, the LTTE had for the first time miscalculated the amount of explosives necessary to break the bullet proof glass and that is why Gota survived whereas Ranjan didn’t.

If the LTTE had succeeded that would have been the absolute height of ignominy for two defence establishment heads to be killed in exactly the same manner. At least in Gota’s case, he seems to be aware that it is an insult to have been attacked according to an old script written for Ranjan Wijeratne. So he has the good sense not to talk about the LTTE attempt on his life. But Fonseka in his manifestation as a politician seems to be oblivious to the fact that it is the height of ignominy for an army commander to be personally attacked by the enemy inside his own headquarters.

Lt General Cecil Waidyaratne resigned from the position of army commander in 1993 after the Pooneryn debacle which resulted in what was at that time a horrendous loss of life and a huge loss of armaments including two battle tanks. That debacle took place mainly as a result of negligence on the one hand and a lack of soldiers to defend the sprawling complex properly. The present writer at that time tried to persuade General Waidyaratne not to resign on the argument that if he resigns, the blame for the attack will be passed off on him and the causes for the negligence and shortcomings that led to the debacle would never be addressed. But Waidyaratne was adamant that he should resign. As an Armoured Corps officer what really broke his spirit even more than the loss of life was the fact that the terrorists had driven away two main battle tanks from the Pooneryn camp.

General Waidyaratne died in late 2001 about eight years after he resigned from the position of army commander. Till the day he died whenever he reminisced about the past and came to the loss of those two tanks, he would get worked up into a towering rage just as he did on the first day he heard about the loss of the two tanks. He was a proud old school style soldier and the good name of his regiment meant a lot to him. Till his death he was never able to get over the loss of those two tanks. But the loss of those two battle tanks took place in a camp deep within the conflict zone. It is difficult to even imagine how he would have reacted if he had been personally attacked inside his own headquarters in Colombo! What is difficult to reconcile is the fact that Fonseka is asking for clemency for a terrorist who had insulted him (and the country) in such a gross manner while at the same time demanding investigations against the military personnel who helped him to salvage his self respect at the risk of their own lives.

6 Responses to “Hyde Park: Mahinda gathers further momentum”

  1. Sarath W Says:

    The fact Fonseka wants punishment for his solders who saved the country and clemency for the enemy shows he is a traitor no better then Judas. A ministry and all the perks that come with is enough for him to betray his own men to the enemies of the country namely India and the west.

  2. Dilrook Says:

    Fonseka makes foolish statements most of the time. He also keeps changing them. Trying to release terrorists is another utterly idiotic attempt. These terrorists did a crime against the nation, not Fonseka. Even if Fonseka died of the attack, the punishment would not have changed.

    However, his statement about war crimes is a clever one and nowhere he implicated soldiers or officers. Sri Lanka must take up his position on the war crimes matter. He clearly stated,

    (1). the chain of command was intact throughout the war
    (2). he takes responsibility for all acts by the army.

    These 2 conditions are sufficient to save all army personnel. That is all Sri Lanka as a nation needs – saving its military.

    What he didn’t say is the chain of command extends beyond him to the president. As the chain of command was intact, as the army commander takes responsibility for all acts by his army and because the chain of command extends to the president, ultimately, responsibility for war crimes (if any) rests with the president.

    This is the opposite of the Paranagama second report pages 108-111, etc. that pins responsibility for possible war crimes on individual soldiers. That never happened. All acts of the army were done under the instructions from the chain of command. Seven (7) years is far too late to say some individuals went against instructions and did war crimes. It is good the Sirisena government ditched the Paranagama second report. If Sri Lanka takes up this position, its army will be labelled an illegitimate militia that disregards International Law and Sri Lanka’s commitments to the Geneva Convention. Such an army will be dismantled or brought under “international” (western) control. Nationalists cannot let that happen. Politicians, not the military must take responsibility for war crimes (if any). Politicians come and go but the military must remain intact.

  3. Dham Says:

    “..at the same time demanding investigations against the military personnel who helped him to salvage his self respect at the risk of their own lives”

    He is asking for investigations because he hates Rajapaksas so much, not only sending him to jail but for ruining his familyand stealing credit ( as he claims 100% of it). He just want send Gota to gallows if that is possible.
    He is entirely living with personal grudges and people know this. They voted him out.

  4. Dham Says:

    “hese 2 conditions are sufficient to save all army personnel.”

    I don’t think Dilrook is right here.
    Officers themselves are also responsible for crimes against humanity. They can be prosecuted too. They are supposed to gogaianst the command if the command is asking for crimes against humanity. Even the drivers, cooks fo Hiter are prosecuted.

    “Politicians, not the military must take responsibility for war crimes (if any). Politicians come and go but the military must remain intact.”

    TRUE. But it is not happening. Politicians will do everything to steal the credit and tranfer the responsibility to soldiers.

    What happened to Sunil ?
    CBK did not save him.
    MR did not save him.
    MY3 want to hang him.

  5. Dilrook Says:

    @Dham,

    That is partly correct. Officers are supposed to go against wrongful instructions and soldiers too depending on the circumstances. However, they have a number of mitigating factors including battlefield conditions, compulsion with the threat of violence, wrong interpretation of the complex Geneva Convention by superiors and contributory factors caused by the victims (if any). Some of these are relevent in the Sri Lankan case (if war crimes were committed).

    Crimes against humanity and genocide are more complex war crimes. These are very unlikely in the Sri Lankan case.

    Sirisena’s role as acting defence minister (May 15 – May 17) is an interesting one. He seems to have been advised by knowledgeable lawyers and probably Chandrika too. Mahinda should not have left for a useless meeting in Jordan, and Fonseka to China, when the war was nearing its end. However, when alleged excesses happened, both were back in Sri Lanka. Sirisena’s testimony will also be important in a war crimes trial. Their fallout is costing the country.

  6. Fran Diaz Says:

    What the Rules of Engagement for the LTTE for nearly 30 yrs of Terrorism ?

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