Polls in Jaffna: It’s a fight between two ‘devils’

Voters give demonic titles to the main contestants

Proliferation of drugs in the Northern coastal belt

Amidst heavy opposition, Mangala reveals draft MCC agreement

Sajith hits back at Ranil over remarks of continuing as PremierJAFFNA – Thirty-five may be in the fray for the presidential election in this former war-torn northern peninsula but the voter interest is clearly between two – Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sajith Premadasa.

And funny enough, most refer to the duo by different demonic titles. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is Achchakkara Pei or frightening devil. Sajith Premadasa is Verukkira Pei, a hateful devil. The voters talk to each other about which devil is less ‘dangerous’ and better for them as President.

In many ways, in the peninsula, they are caught between the devil and the deep Palk Strait and Gulf of Mannar sea. Rajapaksa has won the dubious title not only for his controversial reputation in the past. This was particularly over the separatist war that he supervised to a conclusion. A serious flaw in his polls campaign here has revived the issues. Some highly controversial retired military officers who served here, now in his election campaign, have opened old wounds. It is in the families who bore the brunt of the war. So have some of the retired military officers who were placed in charge of civilian responsibilities in these areas. They were unpopular if not hated for their alleged role in these neck of the woods.

Many civilians I spoke with insisted that they should not be identified. They feared reprisals. One complained about a brutal murder of a family member who was reportedly a non-combatant. Others displayed physical wounds which left them incapacitated, or now healed and yet others blinded. A few cases are too gory to explain. Joining in were a sizeable section of state officers. Their complaint? A retired officer posted to a top position used his power of office to “threaten” and “intimidate” them to get jobs done. Now, they fear if Gotabaya Rajapaksa becomes President, there would be a repeat of a similar situation. In the absence of more SLPP local campaigners, what the retired officers said and did turned counterproductive. It was like unleashing a fox to campaign in a chicken coop.

Rajapaksa era achievements

There is a tragic irony in this. It was the Rajapaksa administration that developed the asphalt road network beyond Vavuniya to Kankesanthurai, the furthest northern end of this peninsula. It also developed the intricate road network within. In addition, that administration was responsible for introducing a new rail track from Vavuniya to Kankesanthrai. What remained until then was only a non-paved, rugged road with overgrown bushes and large craters. The Tiger guerrillas, during the war, had removed the rails and the sleepers to build bunkers.

With assistance from the Indian government, a more stable track to facilitate speedy travel was built. That these two measures contributed immensely for people in the north and south is to say it mildly. It was the main contributory factor for a new Jaffna. The railway stations in the south pale into insignificance compared to these nearly new stations in the north. For those in the south, it was like laying the paavada or a white cloth on the ground for guests to walk. They came in their hundreds from the south to an area denied to them for almost three decades with the ‘north-south’ bridge former President Rajapaksa built. And then, they restored democracy in the north by establishing the provincial council. The SLPP did not exploit that unique achievement that tremendously changed the lifestyles of residents here.

“After these achievements, the Rajapaksa regime forgot us. They did nothing for peace. We faced social evils like the growth in drug addiction and increased liquor consumption,” said Arul (not his real name). He said unemployment was on the rise. “Our educated youth have no jobs and are forced into menial work as labourers or waiters to earn a living,” he said. Adding to this were remarks by National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa that a new government, after candidate Rajapaksa wins, would change the name of Jaffna International Airport.

With northern residents complaining of an excessive number of security checkpoints, our picture shows a man being checked before he was allowed to attend the meeting in support of SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Exacerbating this situation further is another extraordinary factor. In any part of the world, if there are newspapers with different publishers, one need hardly say, different views are expounded. In adopting an editorial policy, they are understandably conscious of the economic viability lest they go bankrupt. Amidst this, the three widely read Tamil newspapers here differ in their views on most issues. But, when it comes to the Rajapaksas they are united and opposed them, some virulently. They have created a moronic image.

These newspapers have, in recent weeks, reminded readers of what they describe as “atrocities caused earlier” and the pitfalls in voting for candidate Rajapaksa. This peculiar unity led security circles here to suspect a ‘hidden hand’ orchestrating the exercise. A senior security official said “we know it” but declined to elaborate. The SLPP appears to have failed to address these issues.  Many I spoke with favoured the frightful devil Premadasa as a ‘lesser evil.’ However, there are those in support of his rival, the fearsome devil.

Nevertheless, there was kudos for Namal Rajapaksa MP who addressed professionals at a meeting just last week at Thinnai Hotel, located just two kilometres away from the 15th century much venerated Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil. He gave them a brief of the SLPP economic policies and took questions from the audience. Participants praised the way he handled the event with no controversial references. There were also comments to say he had the makings of a future leader. That the view came from Tamil professionals from different trades is noteworthy.

Candidate Rajapaksa’s meeting here Tuesday, amidst sporadic outbreak of rain, therefore, came in this backdrop. Busloads of Police Special Task Force (STF) personnel and plainclothesmen arrived here from Colombo. They formed a security cordon covering Rikka playground, just near the Jaffna District Secretariat. The venue was almost the size of Colombo’s Muttiah Park and belonged to the Bharath Community Centre. For security reasons Mahinda Rajapaksa made his speech and departed before the arrival of candidate Gotabaya.

Ahead of the meeting, two power brokers vying with each other, led their way to the venue. Eelam People Democratic Party (EPDP) leader Douglas Devananda stood before his supporters, who were carrying their small red and black flags. Similarly, Angajan Ramanathan led his backers with the maroon Pohottuwa flag. If candidate Gotabaya is campaigning to become president, the duo vied with each other to showcase their own support base. Police estimated the crowd at anything between 3,500 and 4,000 both inside a specially built white canopy and those outside. By Jaffna standards, that was good attendance.

The bustling city is growing rapidly infrastructure-wise. Broken buildings are repaired and only a few remain dilapidated. There is rising economic activity. The Pizza Hut is packed at nights with young people. The Food City and Cargills supermarkets are well stocked, surprisingly with more fruits and fresh vegetables than some of those in Colombo. Liquor shops are doing brisk business.  BMWs, Mercedes Benzes and other luxury cars are parked outside hotels and in the town. Motorcyclists have replaced cyclists. More expatriates are visiting their relatives though the Sri Lanka Railways have done little to improve the very poor quality of service they render travellers. The next choice is luxury buses operated from Wellawatte by private operators. Women use bicycles and scooters to travel, perhaps more than in any other part of Sri Lanka.  Motorists including motor cyclists, some without helmets, do not observe road rules and cause chaos on main streets.

In just ten years after troops militarily defeated the Tiger guerrillas, the change of face is remarkable and showing. When I visited the guerrilla held peninsula during the war, only walls of buildings damaged by artillery and mortar remained. Almost every wall had bullet holes. They are all gone. Rows of new buildings have sprung up. Television in hotels have 80 channels, most from Tamil Nadu compared to a handful earlier. They are clear on the screens whilst Colombo channels are somewhat distorted. Some receive through cable whilst others have antennae to catch telecasts from South Indian service providers.

If the war time troops brought this change of normalcy, there is something noteworthy. Even during peace times, the military has been playing a major role in civilian life after a vacuum left by those in power. They organise public events, essay competitions for schoolchildren and many other events. Their respective media outfits have been successful in projecting their role increasingly in the local media. This is proof that they are effective where politicians have failed.

Premadasa’s prospects

Now to Sajith Premadasa, the “Hateful Devil.” Fears about him among voters here stem from an unfounded issue that he would retaliate against the Tamils. This is in revenge for the murder of his father. Ranasinghe Premadasa was assassinated by Tiger guerrillas at a May Day rally (in 1993) bringing a violent end to his remarkable and sometimes controversial political career. Young Sajith took to politics thereafter since his father forbade him earlier. Premadasa will come here on November 8 and has the task of allaying fears in the Tamil community.

Other than a large support base for him, some voters are waiting for the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to announce whom it would back. Five Tamil political parties, which put forward 13 political demands, met here on Tuesday but put off a decision till a later date. In the light of new political developments, it is not clear whether they would insist on their new demands or stay neutral. If they do extend support, the prospect is clear that it would be for Premadasa. The degree depends on whether there is brisk polling. In any event, contrary to speculation in Colombo, moves to boycott the elections have misfired. Vast number of voters are not in favour of a boycott.

The TNA support base here, it becomes clear, has two sides. One section is backing it whilst the others criticise it bitterly for not winning anything for the Tamil community during the past almost five years. They are also livid that the TNA has served as proxy to the UNP. They were critical particularly of Abraham Sumanthiran who is playing the role of a de facto leader. This is in the light of the poor health of leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan.

“He wrongly believes that all the Tamil voters are in his pocket and he could bargain on any issue on their behalf. The TNA has done little or nothing. It has only given jobs to a few close supporters and laptops to professionals in one sector,” declared Arul. He said that the TNA had openly backed amendments brought by the UNF government to put off Provincial Council elections. “This will help any future Rajapaksa government to abolish these councils,” he pointed out. According to him, the TNA’s support is mainly in Kokavil (south of the peninsula) and Ariyalai (northern sector). There is also some disappointment over vesting of the old Dutch Fort in Jaffna in the Department of Archaeology.

However, a factor for which Premadasa was not responsible, is also causing considerable damage to him. This is the introduction of military and police checkpoints surrounding this peninsula. In one sector, I counted three different roadblocks with checkpoints within a short distance of five kilometres on the road from Chavakachcheri to Mannar. That such roadblocks and checkpoints with heavily armed military personnel becomes necessary at times particularly during battles for ground control or in a crisis is accepted. There is no such case now. In the current situation, does it not rekindle bad memories for civilians who faced hardships at checkpoints? Is it not an admission that the military and the police are not in full control of this peninsula? Does it mean that every person entering or leaving should be “sanitised” security wise?

I spoke at length to a senior intelligence official. He said these roadblocks and checkpoints have been introduced after the April 21 Easter Sunday bombings where 268 innocent civilians were killed. I asked whether any “war like items were discovered since their deployment other than passers by being grilled on where they were going. His reply was shocking. “There have been no such known incidents,” he disclosed but added that “orders are orders” – meaning that orders of the higher command had to be followed.

It is clear the checks are being carried out with the blessings and consent of the political establishment. That is with the authority of President Maithripala Sirisena. He is the Commander-in-Chief. There are two reasons why this is an exercise in futility and is doing great damage. Firstly, anyone who has visited here is aware that the landscape is made of very vast open areas, occupied and unoccupied. Neither a terrorist nor a perpetrator of violence is going to be foolish enough to go past a roadblock and disclose his arsenal saying he was on a bombing mission. Not unless he is mentally deranged.

They would naturally smuggle them through an area that is porous, which is aplenty here. Hence, what is the purpose served by these roadblocks and checkpoints. What does it achieve? Secondly, contrary to the claim that it is a fool proof safety measure, due to many porous routes, it only ends up largely in the inevitable harassment of northern civilians. Far from helping a free movement of people from north to south and vice versa, this measure only sows the seeds of segregation and hatred. Not all soldiers are alike and not all police officers are alike. Therefore, in handling the public, just a few of them treating the passers-by as a suspect only worsens the situation. This is clearly a repeat of the signs of the separatist insurgency which the military crushed. Is it worthwhile to lay the breeding ground for more unrest?

This is not to say that security is not necessary. What is necessary in abundance is an efficient intelligence system, so the security authorities and the police know where the trouble spots are and who would cause such trouble. A disturbing development under the UNF regime, caused by pressure from a Tamil political party, was the withdrawal of Military Intelligence personnel from deployment tasks. Who then gathers the intelligence? Surely, people at checkpoints cannot do that. There are also top ruling UNF politicians who dislike the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) for personal reasons. Even they seem unaware that their actions are causing an entirely different mind-set here.

Despite the existence of roadblocks and checkpoints, another worrisome development in this peninsula has been the proliferation of drug abuse, particularly the influx of Kerala ganja (Cannabis Sativa) in large quantities. From here, it has spilled over southwards to Mannar, Puttalam and even Chilaw where they are readily available. Consumption has grown. This again is proof that barring occasional detection, the barriers have failed to serve even the purpose of stalling drug smuggling. There are fears here that in recent months the menace has grown manifold.

The April 21 Easter Sunday massacre is an example of unforgivable intelligence failure. The primary reason of intelligence services is to identify threats to national security and warn the political leadership. It has transpired that the State Intelligence Service (SIS), the premier intelligence outfit, had the information but did not intimate it on time. Thus, there is an imperative need to re-think on the roadblocks and checkpoints. The focus should be on having a robust intelligence mechanism. This measure has in a way taken away a part of the benefit of militarily defeating the Tiger guerrillas. Many say they are not free despite the claim they have been liberated from the clutches of the guerrillas.

Whichever ‘devil’ wins the peninsula; the people of Jaffna have become more resilient.  They are a different breed from the politicians who represent them in Colombo and voice hoarse rhetoric. For the civilians, life is relatively easy, and their needs are mostly available. They seek little except the comfort of travel to and from the south. The UNF government nor its proxy, the TNA, has adequately addressed the silence that goes with this resilience. It would be incumbent on the new President, to be elected in the next 13 days, to take this into account. It is because this silence, which is deafening, is an indicator of things to come.

Ranil’s ‘I will be the PM’ remark

In Colombo:The New Democratic Front’s election campaign suffered a severe drawback this week triggering a public confrontation between its candidate Sajith Premadasa and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The latter is the leader of the United National Party (UNP), the dominant partner in the NDF.

It came after Wickremesinghe told a news conference at his official residence ‘Temple Trees’ on Wednesday that “Sajith Premadasa will be the President and I will be the Prime Minister and take forward our development activities.” His answer came in response to a question. The occasion was a media presentation illustrating the progress his government has made in the past five years.

The remarks angered Premadasa. He told confidants that it was unwarranted since many comments in the social media had highlighted it. Moreover, they had also sought a response from him. The result – Wickremesinghe was not given an opportunity to make a speech when the Premadasa manifesto was released at a ceremony at the Queen’s Hotel in Kandy. Besides Premadasa, those who made speeches were Minister Lakshman Kiriella, State Minister Eran Wickremeratne and activist Victor Ivan. The latter has earlier been a backer of Wickremesinghe after having backed Chandrika Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa before.

It did not stop at that. Premadasa fired veiled salvos at the event. Here is the text of an English translation from the recorded speech he made in Sinhala: “We have only announced one cabinet portfolio. That is to safeguard our national security as well as maintaining law and order. I did not give that responsibility based on personal relationships. I gave that position because our heroic commander Sarath Fonseka provided an honourable service to the country by ending the war.

“I must tell all the people to take this as an example. I would not place my signature to appoint people who have engaged in corruption, fraud or theft. They will not receive positions. I will not give any appointments to anyone who has gone against the country and its culture. Everyone should understand that only Sarath Fonseka has been named. When the rest are given appointments, I will see whether their hands are clean. I would check whether they have engaged in corruption and stolen government assets. Only if they are clean, I would appoint them.”

Premadasa loyalists claim that Premier Wickremesinghe’s remarks were very damaging to his campaign. One of them said that as a result, Premadasa was forced to “set the record right.” This only means that the rift between the leader of the UNP and his deputy would widen even further. More so after Premadasa’s strong remarks which reflect his anger. This is notwithstanding a win or lose for him.

There were some issues for the SLPP too. Its leader Mahinda Rajapaksa’s remarks at the launch of the party’s election manifesto last week caused ripples in the SLFP. He said a vote for candidate Rajapaksa would be a mandate to hold early parliamentary elections. Sirisena, now de facto leader, since he is staying “neutral” at the elections, on a private visit to Singapore (en route to Colombo from Japan), had been told about it. He was not happy. He telephoned UPFA General Secretary Mahinda Amaraweera and asked him to clarify with the SLPP leadership. The SLFP appeared to be not in favour of an early election. Some MPs fear they would not be able to qualify for pension rights.

However, such a pledge is contained in the SLPP manifesto, too. Hence, its leaders have said that the matter could be examined after the presidential election. A top SLPP leader said they are confident of mustering a two thirds majority in Parliament to resolve to conduct parliamentary elections. Their pledge notwithstanding, he said, such a move was necessary in accordance with the Constitution. “We are looking at ways and means to overcome the pension issue,” he said. The claim of a majority, no matter whether there are two thirds or not, is significant if the claim is accurate. That means, soon after the presidential elections, the SLPP will be able to form its own government if their candidate wins. That is until the next parliamentary elections are held.

On Thursday, 17 registered political parties signed an accord forming the Sri Lanka Podujana Nidhas Sandanaya, (People’s Independent Freedom Alliance), the third time the alliance’s name has been changed. The parties include the SLFP and the SLPP among others. They acknowledged that Maithripala Sirisena will be the co-leader of the alliance headed by Mahinda Rajapaksa. Whilst Rohana Luxman Piyadasa, now acting chairman will serve as acting Co-leader, Sirisena is expected to assume this office. That is when he lifts the self-imposed “neutrality” at the presidential election. The move by the SLFP to join hands with the SLPP has angered former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. She is now a nominal patron of the SLFP. A group styling itself Api Sri Lanka or we are Sri Lanka signed an MoU with the New Democratic Front at a ceremony at the Taj Samudra Hotel on Friday. Associated with it was Ms Kumaratunga.

Election Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya was also cracking down those in public positions. He advised provincial governors that they should not indulge in activities of any political parties. This came as a local poll monitoring body identified them. Uva Governor Maithri Gunaratne, commenting on our report last week that he was backing Premadasa, said he had stood neutral and will continue to do so. A similar response also from another who was also quoted as backing Premadasa — North Central Province Governor Sarath Ekanayake. He said he was not backing any presidential candidate.

MCC controversy

Another issue that generated controversy this week was the approval by the Cabinet of Ministers of a memorandum submitted by Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera. His proposal was for the Government of Sri Lanka to sign a US$ 480 million deal with the US Millennium Challenge Corporation for a transportation project and a land project. President Sirisena who was strongly opposed to the move saying the issue should be taken up after the presidential election took a 180 degree turn at last Tuesday’s cabinet meeting.

There were hurried secret moves by sections in the government and US embassy officials to rush it through even before the people of Sri Lanka were able to study the merits and demerits of the project. That too at the time of an impending presidential election over which the public were preoccupied. A group filed a fundamental rights petition in the Supreme Court on Friday. Under pressure, Minister Samaraweera released the draft text of the agreement on Friday as opposition to the move mounted.

A three-member delegation from the joint opposition sought a hurried meeting with President Sirisena on Thursday. They were Wimal Weerawansa, Udaya Gammanpila and the Ven. Athureliye Rathana Thera. They complained there were moves to sign it before the presidential poll. President Sirisena telephoned Finance Minister Mangala Samraweera. He was at the residence of his ministerial colleague Malik Samarawickrema in Kandy having lunch. “Are there any plans to sign the MCC agreement before the elections,” he asked. Samaraweera replied that there were no such plans. Then the duo had a laugh at the expense of the media. Samaraweera said that reports of the signing were fake news and noted that this is not the first time it had happened. The two of them laughed.

Samaraweera said yesterday that there were no plans to sign. “We will table the agreement in Parliament and have a full debate.” he told the Sunday Times.

His remarks were also contrary by a news release from the US Embassy in Colombo. There was a distinct difference.

It said, “once the grant assistance agreement is signed, the Government of Sri Lanka will send it to Parliament for approval.”  It is a fait accompli by the time it reaches Parliament. The other fact – the news release speaks for the Government of Sri Lanka whilst local ministers and officials maintain a stoic silence. Are the Sri Lankan people being taken for granted? The only explanation offered is that the draft has received the approval of the Attorney General. He gives opinion on legalities and not on the far-reaching impact it would have.

Here is the full text of the US Embassy statement: “Consistent with the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s worldwide policy in all partner countries, once the grant assistance agreement is signed, the Government of Sri Lanka will send it to parliament for approval.  Inasmuch, Parliament will have ample opportunity to review the grant assistance agreement. During that review period, the Government of Sri Lanka will develop plans to implement the grant assistance agreement and design projects to improve transportation and land administration. This grant assistance agreement will directly benefit over 11 million Sri Lankans and meaningfully stimulate economic growth. Parliamentary review and approval are required by MCC to ensure the grant assistance agreement has the support of the government and the people.”

However, the decision to go ahead angered the SLPP and Opposition Leader, Mahinda Rajapaksa. He said in a statement: “The Cabinet has decided to enter into a pact with the Millennium Challenge Corporation of the USA. The Prime Minister in answering a question put to him by the media, stated that the government intends signing this agreement before the presidential election. It is now just over two weeks to the presidential election. We wish to stress in the strongest possible terms that no agreement should be hurriedly signed with a foreign government just days before a decisive presidential election. Any such agreement should be signed if at all, only after the presidential election.

“The contents of this proposed agreement are not known even to parliamentarians let alone the general public. Before this agreement is signed, its text should be made public, and presented to Parliament and debated. The information available indicates that this agreement has to do with road development and land reform. However, the government has not taken any steps to explain what exactly this entails and what its impact will be on the country. If this agreement will be as beneficial to Sri Lanka as is made out, why is everything shrouded in secrecy? We wish to emphatically state that the government should not sign this agreement behind the backs of the general public and Parliament.”

Thus, the outcome of the presidential elections is not the only worry for Sri Lankans. Not surprisingly, when President Maithripala Sirisena, the Commander in Chief, who put up a heroic, elephantine front has ceded like a little mouse. One will never know whether it is a quid pro quo for the severance package he received from the Cabinet a la Samaraweera just weeks earlier. What is known – a far reaching deal with the US has been bulldozed without public study.

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