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Attacks abroad strengthen Mahinda’s image at home

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Nearly 20 years ago my late brother Mervyn told me of a fascinating encounter he had with the then President Premadasa. If I remember correctly now, during this one –to- one meeting that lasted some 2 ½ hours Mervyn had the impression that President Premadasa actually enjoyed India’s criticism of him and the attacks against him by the Indian media. In fact President Premadasa seemed to invite criticism by sometimes actually baiting India. This was at the height of the JVP inspired anarchy that appeared to grip the country, and Premadasa wanted to legitimise his rule by being seen as a true nationalist demanding Indian troops quit Sri Lanka.

After a month long stay in Colombo coinciding with the SAARC Conference I had this inescapable impression that Mahinda Rajapaksa had only one constituency in mind. That is the one at home and that is the constituency he is appealing to. He, unlike Premadasa, is not deliberately inviting criticism from the world at large. He would like to see such criticism muted and be acceptable to the international community, meaning the West. But if the choice is between international popularity and acceptance abroad and the prosecution of a war against a ruthless enemy then for him the choice is very clear. He will resolutely follow the latter because that is what he wants and believes the people want too.

Opinion polls have shown that he is correct in his assessment. The public, except perhaps some elite circles in Colombo and elsewhere who find life rather an annoyance in today’s Sri Lanka, would want an end to this conflict one way or another, preferably by making the LTTE militarily impotent. Still many would like to ensure that in pursuit of this goal basic rights are not violated, that collateral damage as the American’s so euphemistically put it, is reduced to a minimum and sections of the Tamil community who have no truck with the Tigers or their aspirations are not marginalised.

Western governments and their agencies do not seem to understand this. The more they castigate President Rajapaksa, the more the people close ranks round him. The people see a small nation being intimidated by a bullying Goliath. Yet there are obvious dangers springing from the current Sri Lankan policy. The dangers are not so much at home but in the world outside. The sooner that is recognised and dealt with as effectively as the government could, the more it could concentrate on economic and social reconstruction at home and cementing a fractured society.

One thing I gathered from official and military circles and from visiting journalists from the subcontinent, especially India, who are well versed in our conflict, is the perception that the LTTE is facing a severe recruitment problem. The split with Karuna, the loss of the Eastern province and now apparently Mannar and the lack of free access to Jaffna, have all cost the LTTE in terms of available manpower. Even if they have the weapons, the Tigers don’t have the cadres to use them. With what seems like relentless pressure on the LTTE’s remaining strongholds, the Tigers are being hemmed in, if the military assessment is correct.



 

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