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View: Lessons from Colombo

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.

Terrorism, with notorious suicide bombings, has almost reached the end of the rather long tether it has enjoyed in Sri Lanka since 1983. This is no mean achievement; remember, the LTTE was fighting for secession on the back of unqualified support from the Tamil diaspora and some significant neighbourly assistance, howsoever couched in doublespeak.

Closer to home, as Monday arrives, one is sceptical about the level to which brinkmanship might go. Will there be some blood before a decision emerges? Will a resolution be imposed again, recommended and gleefully accepted, or will it evolve as sound political judgement? There are reports that General Kayani may have gotten into the act; does that in any manner indicate a paralysis of the decision making process or the simple bankruptcy of political thought? Somewhere in all this, the former chief justice and his supporters continue to seek some unknown frontiers. We as a national are a comical tragedy in the making.

Meanwhile, President Rajapaksa is grappling with the last bit of complexity in the game that is about to finish. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke to him on the US’ concern about the human rights of the fifty to seventy thousand civilians forcibly retained by the LTTE as a human shield in their rapidly shrinking area of control; while India, playing the godly neighbour (I hope you can sense the jest), is constantly reminding the Sri Lankans that Tamil Nadu is a persistent thorn in its side, especially with elections around the corner, and that good neighbourly relations should be considered. That their protégé Prabhakaran is on the verge of extinction, someone they may want to salvage for future needs, is but only an unintended consequence.

Rajapaksa did well with Secretary Clinton by reminding her of the great achievement of the Sri Lankan people and armed forces in defeating a deadly terrorist group, which should be applauded by her country. With the Indians, the president is most polite and considerate, but somehow manages to persist on his chosen route. Maybe that is what true leaders are made of, particularly in crises. Time will tell.

Our own President Zardari has been spoken to by the redoubtable Secretary Clinton as well, and as a consequence, the government will possibly end Governor’s Rule in Punjab. More is likely to follow. The climb-down is most opportune, though considerably late, and it would have looked better had it come as a result of some introspection and sane political thinking. Perhaps Machiavelli should, for some time, be declared persona non grata in Pakistan!

The writer is a retired air vice marshal of the Pakistan Air Force and a former ambassador. He can be contacted at

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