By H.L.D.Mahindapala

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe hitched his wagon to Velupillai Prabhakaran's juggernaut when he signed the MoU. It was the riskiest gamble of his life. He staked his career and future relying on the goodwill of Prabhakaran even though he knew that those who try to ride the tiger, according to the Indian proverb, end up in the beast's stomach. Killinochchi set the stage for Prabhakaran to reconfirm that tigers do not change their stripes because they sign a piece of paper which claims to be full of understanding. As stated by J. N. Dixit, the former Indian Foreign Secretary, Prabhakaran is "consistent". (Sunday Times - April 14, 2002) He has not changed his strategies, policies or Objectives - not one bit!

It could be argued that Prabhakaran uttered those words purely to boost the morale of his cadres. But his rush to stockpile smuggled weapons (Confirmed by Prime Minister in his interview with TIME- April 17, 2002 ) revealed unequivocally that he is "consistent". His blunt words at Killinochci cannot be interpreted as comforting words to keep his cadres happy. No way. At Killinochchi he grabbed the sword of Damocles hanging over the head of the peace process and plunged it deep into the heart of Ranil's future. Prabhakaran's intransigence, his insatiable demands, his arrogance in rejecting Ranil as the prime minister of whole of Sri Lanka sent shock waves through the nation which had accepted Ranil's assurances that everything was going to work out well in the end.

Earlier, Ranil went out of his way to allay the fears of the majority electorate, consisting of Muslims, Sinhalese and even the frightened Tamils. He even won over the Maha Sangha with a well-orchestrated public relations exercise. Just when Ranil thought that everything was going according to his plans Prabhakaran killed all hopes of peace at his disastrous press conference in Killinochci. The utter dismay and disillusionment of the international media was the first signal. The internet edition of THE DAWN, Karachchi, (April 18, 2002) reflected the Asian reaction. It said: "And if Sri Lankan Tamils were hoping that his media event - including an image makeover as the Tiger leader traded his customary military fatigues and Browning pistol for a grey safari suit - would help their cause, they have been sorely disappointed." It added: "Changing perception of him and the Tigers will not be easy for Prabhakaran, given his brutal record in leading the Tamil Tigers in their separatist struggle. The Indians, for instance, will not let him forget his assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. Equally indelible is the perception of his as a "fiendish monster" - a cross between Pol Pot and Osama bin Laden," one British journalist described Prabhakaran. .Sri Lankan Tamils may want to ask: Is Prabhakaran an asset or liability to the Tamil cause?"

TIME (April 17, Asian edition) did not mince its words either. In a scathing report Alex Perry condemns Prabhakaran in no uncertain terms. He wrote: "The paranoia of a man who for 12 years has secreted himself away from the world, building up a cult of godlike reverence that prevents Tigers from even referring to him by name, cannot be overstated. He emerged from hiding last week dressed in a suit that could only be described as North Korean chic, flanked by a trio of mustachioed goons in sunglasses and a host of cameramen whose apparent task was to record the faces and question of every report. Whatever the intended message, the impression was clear: as a politician, Prabhakaran would make an excellent military dictator. Asked if he still stood by a long-standing vow that his men should kill him if he ever gave up his goal of an independent state for the country's Tamils, who make up 18% of Sri Lanka's population, the 47-year-old Prabhakaran said: "That statement still holds."

TIME added: "Ashley wills, U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka, suspects Prabhakaran may find it impossible to leave behind his days as a guerilla despot, always on the run, always planning the next military ambush or presiding over yet another farewell dinner for a cadre being sent off on a suicide bombing mission, one of Prabhakaran's signature rituals. "There's nothing I'd like more than for him to prove me wrong," says Wills, "but I have my doubts."

Ambassador Wills doubts were echoed in unison by the entire Maha Sangha and the Buddhist laity when, after placing all their trust in Ranil's words and accepting his assurances, rejected his appeasement of the "guerilla despot" in toto last Saturday. It was Prabhakaran's press conference that turned the Maha Sangha against Ranil. Whatever assurances that were given by Ranil in private were denied by Prabhakaran in public. The commonsense assessment of the two contradictory statements coming from two ends of the same peace process led to only one predictable conclusion: Prabhakaran's words sounded more menacing and credible than that of Ranil.

The upshot of this media event is that Prabhakaran had successfully derailed the smooth run that Ranil enjoyed so far. The silent opposition to Ranil's moves had turned into a vocal resistance. The Maha Sangha who was willing to go along with Ranil has turned against him overnight and has come out in full force. The joint memorandum signed by the heads of all the Nikayas, presenting non-negotiable conditions is a landmark event. It "is the first time that this degree of cooperation among the highest monks and lay organizations has occurred since Independence," states the Memorandum signed by all senior Buddhist Monks and the laity.

It has specifically targeted 1) the lifting of the ban on the LTTE (2) the merging of the north and east (3) the removal of security forces and police from the north and east (4) the need to strengthen "the Unitary character of the Constitution" (5) the proposal of a federal or quasi-federal systems or confederacy and (6) the proposed Interim Administration for the north and east. This Memorandum of the Buddhist sangha and the laity has given a voice to the silent majority who were mesmerized by the magic mantra of "peace". They now see it as appeasing the "guerilla despot".

Ranil too has to take the blame for the u-turn of the Maha Sangha by playing his card too close to chest. His plans were to sell bits and pieces in the hope of taking away the shock that would result from a wholesale transfer of power. Besides, the perception was that Ranil had no intention of resisting the unceasing demands of Prabhakaran. In the name of "creating conditions for peace" he bargained away all his chips with nothing left for him except the shirt on his back to be presented at the Thai table. While this appealed to Prabhakaran, the Norwegian-led facilitators and the NGOs, serious commentators were having considerable reservations about the tactics -or rather the lack of tactics - of Ranil

Dr. S. Chandrasekharan of The South Asia Analysis Group (Note 147 - 28.02.2002 - 147/.html) stated bluntly that "a reading of the agreement (MoU) gives the feeling that the LTTE got more than what they would have expected." On the issue of the President complaining that she was not kept informed of the negotiations, he says: "Whatever may have been the differences, political or otherwise, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe on his part should have kept the President formally informed of the negotiations and the sticking points instead of surprising the President a fait accompli".

Because of the initial euphoria generated by the removal of the barricades and the subsequent win at the local elections Ranil was confident that he could sail unopposed, eventually presenting his plan as the plan of the nation. He did not calculate the cumulative effect of his appeasement. While he was confident that he was advancing towards peace an undercurrent of fear was generated, reinforcing the belief that the MoU was the prelude to betray the collective rights of all the communities. The logic of the MoU was that only one minority community was entitled to all the rights at the expense of the other communities.

The speed and haste with which unfolding events trapped Ranil confirmed the worst fears of the public. Consider, first the way Ranil was caught unawares with the MoU. Dr. Chandrasekharan decribes it faithfully: "The LTTE on its part moved with alacrity and speed. Balasingham approved the final text on 19th, Prabhakaran signed it on the 20th February and Wickremesinghe had to sign it the next day.." Why? Since there was a cease fire in place and since peace talks have been postponed by the LTTE till June what was the hurry to sign it? Who was pushing whom? The LTTE would have been naturally overanxious because it was getting more than what it expected. In signing the MoU, Ranil gave the distinct impression of caving into the pressures of the LTTE, without even consulting the President.

Consider also another aspect of the MoU in which he surrenders his rights. He hands over Killinochci and Mullativu as two districts that do not come under his authority. He goes further and agrees that it should be excluded from inspection even by the international observers. It is an act that made Ranil look like a puppet dancing on the strings of the LTTE. Last but not the least comes the return of Anton Balasingham from London via Maldives and landing in the Iranamdu tank. The Norwegians stamp his passport and he disembarks signalling that he has flown over Sri Lankan airspace and landed in Eelam territory. In allowing the Norwegians to sign Balasingham's passport Ranil was seen, rightly or wrongly, as surrendering the sovereignty of Sri Lanka to the LTTE and he Norwegians. As if to re-confirm this Balasingham declares from Killnochci that Ranil is not the Prime Minister of the north and east. Ranil takes it lying down. His image as the leader of a nation making peace with a firm resolve took another beating.

Ranil has yet to win a major battle with Prabhakaran. The big picture does not show him as a leader capable of standing up to Prabhakaran. His bending over backwards, making endless concessions to Prabhakaran, has undermined his own power and authority. Ranil, the so-called Prime Minsiter of Sri Lanka can't lift a finger without the approval of PrabhakaranThe battle to open Route A9 to Jaffna is another example. Prabhakaran has issued a warning to the UNP Minister not to talk about this sensitive issue and they are silent as mouse. Not even the intervention of the Norwegians has cleared the route so far. Perhaps, Ranil dismissed these as peripheral issues that did not affect the main route to the Thailand. He also assumed that with no credible opposition to him he could ride the storm and present a fait accompli to a numbed nation.

But Ranil's failure to inspire confidence among his own ranks questions his ability to assert his authority as the source of power in a sovereign state. The first to be alarmed were the Muslims who did a deal with Prabhakaran for their security - task that falls primarily within the ambit any credible government that claims to rule. The situation has deteriorated to the point where his own Minister, T. Maheswaram, the only UNP MP from Jafffna, told the press that he will take his orders from Prabhakaran. Does this make Ranil a Prime Minister or wimp?

The Memorandum of the Maha Sangha and the Buddhist laity, expresses these basic fears. It is a Memorandum in which the majority Sinhalese, who cannot go to Prabhakaran, are asking their leaders to protect them. Ranil can be happy that the Muslims settled it with Prabhakaran because it has saved him the trouble of dealing with it. But the Memorandum of the Sangha and the Buddhist laity is sending him the clear signal that his troubles are taking a new shape and form. Earlier his troubles were only with the President and Prabhakaran. Now he has to face the electorate that will determine his future.

If the backlash gathers momentum it would either make him a one term prime minister or a short term prime minister. The surprise is that this backlash did not surface earlier. The latent fears were allayed by the regular pilgrimages of the Ranil's emissaries to the Maha Sangha who trusted him and went along with him to give peace a chance. But Prabhakaran pulled the rug from under Ranil by playing his cards true to form. J.N. Dixit, when asked whether he has seen any changes in Prabhakaran at the press conference gave a direct and succinct answer: "No. Only that his stance this time is harder than 1987. At that time he did not stress so hard on Eelam." (Sunday Times - April 14, 2002)

This message came through, loud and clear at the press conference. Consequently, the Killinochchi press conference was a public relations disaster for the UNF government's peace process - a process on which hangs Ranil's future. Prabhakaran is not likely to hold another press conference - at least not in the foreseeable future. His minders told TIME never again will they have another media circus like this. But that is irrelevant now. It is the future of Ranil and the war-weary people that is now in the balance.

Ranil can hold the course only if he accepts the advice of the President and starts some hard bargaining. For one thing, he has given more that what the LTTE expected, as stated by the South Asian Analyst Group. Second, Prabhakaran's "fatherland" is moving decisively against him with three South Indian states - Pondicherry, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu - passing state resolutions demanding his arrest and extradition. If by any chance Sonia Gandhi returns to power he would have to increase the depth of his mohole in the Wanni to escape the wrath of the RAW. Third, he is on the wanted list of the Interpol. It is only a short step from that to indict him in an international criminal court on the identical lines of Milosevic. Fourth, the suspicions of the international community, as expressed by Ambassador Wills, have virtually damned him as an unreliable partner in peace. His only tried and tested strategy has been violence and he is not likely to give it up in a hurry, as stated by the American Ambassador. But in the post-September 11 his terrorism will damage the image of the Tamils and his own interests. He has run out of political excuses to justify his terrorism based on the painful claim that he is the "liberator" of the Tamils. Finally, Ranil, by going the extra mile, has shown his goodwill to the world and the LTTE that he is sincere about "creating conducive conditions for peace". These factors make it apparent that this is not the last chance for peace but the last chance for Prabhakaran.

The new reaction coming from his own backyard should sound warning bells to Ranil. He has to wake up to the new realities, particularly Prabhakaran's vulnerability in the post-September 11 wave against terrorism. He has enough political experience to calculate that he cannot go on and on down this track "creating conducive conditions for peace" - conditions which are co-terminus with the Thimpu demands. The meaning of the Memorandum of the Maha Sangha and the Buddhist laity is that Ranil has undermined the confidence of the majority and hurt their dignity by forcing them to surrender when there are viable alternatives. Appeasing is not one of them.

The Killinochchi press conference now leads to the next phase. Prabhakaran is armed well to start the next war. But Ranil still has the upper hand. He has the international community behind him. And Prabhakaran cannot start his next Eelam War without incurring the wrath of the international community and his own people who are beginning to taste the dividends of peace. The time has come, therefore, for Ranil to start bargaining hard for peace. The alternative is to appease. If he goes down this track he will neither win Prabhakaran nor his own electorate.


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