Views of the Periphery – Competing Views on Thoppigala

In his Mahaweera Day speech in 2005, Vellupillai Pirapaharan, the LTTE leader, depicted Ranil Wickremesinghe as a calculating fox who tried to deceive everyone by entering into a ceasefire agreement with the LTTE. Ranil Wickremesinghe has once again shown his foxy behaviour in his comments on the capture of Thoppigala by the security forces of the Government of Sri Lanka. His initial position was that capturing Thoppigala would be a useless exercise as it is worthy only for collectors of fire-wood.

However, at the signing of a MoU with the SLFP (M), Ranil Wickremesinghe claimed that under the Wijetunga-Wickremesinghe regime, Thoppigala was captured by the security forces. Did he mean that Thoppigala was strategically important then but not now? As I have no knowledge in military strategy and I have no idea to get an access to that sphere of knowledge, I do not wish to comment on his current position on the strategic importance of Thoppigala.

The UNP leader has said repeatedly that the security forces allowed the LTTE leaders including Ramesh and its cadres to escape from Thoppigala with military hardware that includes multi-barrel rocket launchers. Wickremesinghe told the press that this order that the LTTE leaders and cadres should be allowed to escape through an arranged route came directly from Colombo, allegedly from the political leadership of the Mahinda Rajapaksa government. In other words, the UNP leader is worried that the security forces failed to “annihilate the enemy” so that the victory became uncompleted and unfinished. It appeared that Ranil Wickremesinghe was highly worried because Thoppigala and its surrounding areas were not adequately littered by the dead corpses of LTTE cadres. He may recollect his memories about the operations by the security forces in the South in the dark days of the late 1980s and may be sad that it did not recur this time around Thoppigala. One may also pose the question: was the victory under the Wijetunga-Wickremesinghe regime a complete and finished affair?

On the other hand, the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime organized a big ‘thamasha’ to mark the military victory over the LTTE in the Eastern Province although there was no great enthusiasm among ordinary folks. The developments in the last few weeks have shown that his government’s parliamentary majority may dwindle in the immediate future as there is a possibility of SLMC and CWC changing their allegiance. The SLMC leader has already expressed his dissatisfaction about the way in which things are being handled in the Eastern Province. Thoppigala poses Mahinda Rajapaksa two options:

The first option is an extension of the Military victory beyond the Eastern Province to the Northern Province by attacking tiger strongholds there. Such a policy would please the JVP and JHU. It would also please, for different reasons, the UNP and SLFP (M). IF Mahinda Rajapaksa refuses to follow this option, Ranil Wickremesinghe would say that it proves their allegation that there is a secret deal between the GoSL and the LTTE.

The second option is focus on socio-economic and political reconstruction of the Eastern Province thus delaying the military campaign against the LTTE in the North even with or without a deal with the LTTE. This policy package includes inter alia holding of Provincial Council election, handing over the reconstruction and development efforts to newly elected PC, addressing human right issues. Reconstruction effort would face two main contradictions. As the event in Mavil Aru shows, the government politicians and their bureaucratic allies would engage in corrupt practices so that the people in the area will not be allowed to reap the benefits of the process. Secondly, there is a possibility of grabbing the control and the ownership of the process by the Colombo-centred government and its line ministries, I/NGOs and Colombo-based NGOs. These two problems can be avoided if the sole responsibility of the process is handed over to an elected Provincial Council or to an interim authority that comprises the Parliamentarians of the Province.

If Mahinda Rajapaksa goes for the first option, his government will be made unpopular in the South and it will be rejected as a legitimate government by Tamils especially in the North and East thus allowing new alliances to emerge and to topple the government. Increasing war expenditure would have adverse effects on the living standard, inflation and economic growth. So it is a trap. The UNP, SLFP (M), JVP and JHU intentionally or unintentionally are seeking to place the government in this trap. And all the indication suggests that Mahinda Rajapaksa would fall into it for multiple reasons. First, his own chauvinistic thinking would not allow him to develop an amicable solution to the national question as shown in the recent SLFP proposals that are regressive and backward. Secondly, as the concept of entrapment in conflict literature suggests that parties who have made investment in fomenting violence incur certain ‘sunk costs’ so that they are forced to continue in order to “make good” on prior investments.

If MR prefers the second option because of the pressure of the economy or the international community, he would be able to get a breathing space and use that respite to reorganize the economy, the international stature of the country, and to receive foreign assistance for Eastern development. So it has, as I call it, an instrumental rational basis, but it at the same time transcends instrumental rationality because it gives new space for Tamils to negotiate with the government and Sinhala politics. So it would be a best confidence-building measure to win over the Tamils.

Mahinda Rajapakse can either choose the path of destruction or the path of reconstruction.

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This article first appeared in Montage Vol 1 Issue 8, published by Counterpoint. To get in touch with Montage, please email montagesrilanka [at] gmail.com

  • kbob

    I disagree with the author on one point. Surveys and polls have proven that for as long as MR can deliver military victories, the southern masses are willing to tighten their belt to surprising degrees, no matter how severe the consequences (inflation, investor flight etc.). In SL, the phrase ‘It’s the war, stupid’ seems to overpower the well known ‘It’s the economy, stupid’.
    So taking the battle to the north will be the deciding factor in whether Mahinda can firmly rally the electorate behind him, or completely be rejected by it. In the face of unbearable cost of living, the outcome of the northern theater will polarize the voter to one extreme or the other.

  • Melvin Ally

    It really amazes me to think of the mindset of the average Sri Lankan voter. We wonder how on earth politicians of such low calibre get into Parliament and the truth is that the Sri Lankan voter is to blame for this. Let’s not forget that almost every politician in Parliament is voted into Parliament – so the reason for corrupt politicians, malpractice and abuse is the very people itself.

    MR came into power on a pro-war agenda and he knows fully well that military victory is the only way he will get re-elected – a sad state of affairs indeed. My money would be that MR would pursue the first option i.e. frontal attack on the rebel-held northern territory.

    A note to every rational citizen, if you thought things were really bad, chances are its about to get a lot lot worse…