Wednesday, April 16, 2014

War’s End in Sri Lanka: Bloody Family Triumph

By SOMINI SENGUPTA–

NEW DELHI – The Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, on Tuesday savored a victory that had eluded every Sri Lankan head of state before him: he declared on television that after more than 25 years, his troops had defeated one of the world’s most enduring guerrilla armies on the battlefield.

Behind that victory speech was a historic and bloody family triumph, guided by two of the president’s brothers: Gotabaya, the influential secretary of defense, and Basil, a so-called special adviser who devised the political strategy around the war effort.

Together, the brothers Rajapaksa defied international pressure to stanch civilian casualties, squelched dissent, blocked independent reporting of the war and achieved what many had thought all but impossible: they vanquished the Tamil Tigers, who had waged a pitiless war of terror and once ruled swaths of Sri Lankan territory as a de facto state.

With Gotabaya Rajapaksa in charge of the defense portfolio, the government sharply increased defense spending; bought new weapons, primarily from China and Pakistan; and nearly doubled the size of the armed forces, to roughly 160,000.

The political cunning of Basil and Mahinda Rajapaksa was put to use. The president asked India for weapons first. Only when it refused because of domestic sympathy for the Tamil cause did he turn to its rivals.

The military strategy paid off, too. Starting in 2006, the government forces staged intense air, sea and ground assaults against rebels in the east and the north, sustaining the attacks even though the two sides were still officially engaged in cease-fire negotiations. The government also adopted some guerrilla tactics from the Tamil Tigers, using small groups of troops to penetrate deep into the jungle and assassinate rebel leaders.

The brothers, who come from upper-caste landed gentry, are not part of the English-educated elite of Colombo, the capital. Snubbing pressure from the West did not hurt them; it helped them consolidate their southern Sinhalese nationalist base.

“There was no vacillation as there has been with previous governments,” said Nilan Fernando, the country director for an American nonprofit, the Asia Foundation. “Previous governments were always playing for a draw. This time, they were playing for a win.”

They won.

The victory, like Russia’s smothering of Chechnya’s separatist rebellion, comes at a high cost. The United Nations says 7,000 civilians have been killed since January alone, and more than 265,000 ethnic Tamils who fled the war zone are now interned in overcrowded camps. Some civilians are missing, including three government-employed doctors who worked in the rebel-held area and regularly spoke out about the shelling of hospitals there. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly said the government shelled civilian areas, even as the rebels held tens of thousands of ethnic Tamils as civilian shields.

Now, some of Sri Lanka’s erstwhile allies, including those that had banned the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist organization, are calling for an international commission of inquiry into possible war crimes. Sri Lanka desperately needs foreign aid for postwar reconstruction.

In prosecuting the war, President Rajapaksa, a lawyer and member of Parliament who was elected, narrowly, in 2005, cultivated tacit backing from India. Though India did not supply offensive weapons, it became less active in seeking to stop the fighting. Sri Lanka’s success in intercepting supply ships in the Indian Ocean is frequently attributed to Indian intelligence.

The chairwoman of India’s governing Congress Party is Sonia Gandhi, whose husband, Rajiv, a former prime minister, was assassinated by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber.

The Sri Lankan president dresses in the traditional white tunic and sarong of the Sinhalese. In the 1980s, when anti-government ethnic Sinhalese activists were being abducted and killed, he was one of their most vocal champions, appealing to the United Nations for support.

After his election, however, he put defeating the rebellion ahead of protecting civil liberties. The Rajapaksas treated dissent as support for the enemy. Some journalists were jailed under an antiterrorism law; some were mysteriously killed, including one newspaper editor, Lasantha Wickrematunge, who in a chilling essay, foretold his death and blamed Mr. Rajapaksa for it.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the defense secretary and a former computer systems administrator in Los Angeles, accused international aid agencies working in Tiger-held territory of helping the insurgents. Last fall, he ejected nearly all of them from the area.

In June 2007, the defense secretary was instrumental in ordering the expulsion of nearly 400 Tamils living in low-cost hotels and boarding houses in Colombo, on suspicion that they were helping ethnic separatist rebels plot bombings in the city. Sri Lanka’s highest court later overturned the deportation order.

On Tuesday, in his speech to the nation, the president said a new political solution for minority Tamil rights could not be dictated from abroad. “We do not have the time to be experimenting with the solutions suggested by other countries,” he said.

He spoke in generalities about forging a peace settlement, but he gave few details beyond saying it had to be acceptable to everyone in Sri Lanka.

That is, of course, the Rajapaksas’ next challenge: reconciliation.

Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Policy Alternatives here, said the president had “struck the right notes by making the distinction between the Tamil people and the Tamil Tigers.”

“What was missing was more details about the post-conflict phase,” Mr. Saravanamuttu said. “I would have liked to have seen him make a real commitment to a political settlement and human rights by addressing some of the serious allegations that have been made against the military.”

The Tamil Tigers’ missteps contributed to their downfall.

They helped elect Mr. Rajapaksa by enforcing a boycott of elections in November 2005 in Tamil-majority areas. Almost immediately after he took office, they provoked his government with deadly strikes on his forces.

Their suicide bombers tried to kill Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his army chief, Gen. Sarath L. Fonseka. Friends say the attempted assassinations strengthened the Rajapaksas’ resolve.

On Tuesday, Sri Lankan television flashed an image the government had pursued for three decades: the corpse of a man the military identified as the ethnic separatist chief Vellupillai Prabhakaran, dressed in battle fatigues, his eyes wide open, his mouth agape, as though he, too, were in shock. There were no Tamils left in the homeland he had fought so fiercely to create, only plumes of smoke, and soldiers.

A reporter for The New York Times contributed from Colombo, Sri Lanka.

source: The New York Times

Hot Issues at the United Nations

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Vote in India Reshapes Landscape

By SOMINI SENGUPTA–

NEW DELHI – Eleven years ago, when she took over as president of India’s oldest political party, Sonia Gandhi was seen as India’s most improbable politician: a foreigner with a shaky command of Hindi, reclusive to the point of seeming aloof, a wife who had fought to keep her husband from joining politics and who lost him to an assassination.

Today, Mrs. Gandhi, 62, is credited with having scored a stunning political coup. Her Indian National Congress party made its best performance in 25 years in the parliamentary elections completed last week, picking up 205 of 543 seats on its own, and with its coalition partners coming only 12 seats shy of an outright majority. All it needs to do now to form a government is stitch up alliances with a handful of independents and small parties.

No longer would it be beholden to the many small party bosses that it needed during the first five-year term a Congress-led coalition was in office. Most important, for the sake of foreign and economic policy, it would no longer have to rely on India’s Communist parties to stay in power, as it had for most of that time.

“Cong Gets Free Hand,” screamed the front-page banner headline in The Times of India on Sunday. It featured a photograph of Mrs. Gandhi dressed in a red-ochre sari, ushering the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, to a podium to address the news media.

Meghnad Desai, an Indian-born economist and a member of the British House of Lords, went as far as to compare her to Catherine the Great, the powerful German-born empress of Russia.

Mrs. Gandhi is the Italian-born wife of the slain former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and the daughter-in-law of the prime minister before him, Indira Gandhi. She is known for rarely giving interviews, and she declined to be interviewed for this article.

She has said she joined politics to save the legacy of the party, which her husband’s family has been associated with since before independence. “I had to accustom myself to the public gaze, which I found intrusive and hard to endure,” she said in a speech at the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands two years ago.

Critics say she is simply paving the way for her son, Rahul, 38, who is expected to take a cabinet post in the new government. The party’s often-slavish devotion to the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty, perhaps its biggest albatross, was evident over the weekend.

On Saturday evening, hours after the election results signaled the victory of the Congress-led coalition, a party leader and minister assigned to Mr. Singh’s office, Prithviraj Chavan, declared on television that Mr. Gandhi could become prime minister whenever he wished. This was after Mrs. Gandhi and her son had repeatedly endorsed Mr. Singh as the party’s choice for the top post.

The Congress landslide was all the more remarkable because it defied an Indian tradition of anti-incumbency. The Congress-led coalition, which routed the government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2004, was not only re-elected but it picked up 57 seats.

Students of Indian politics pointed to several factors.

First, under Mrs. Gandhi’s leadership, the Congress-led coalition homed in on the rural poor. During its first term, buoyed by robust economic growth, it used record government revenues to increase social spending, not just raising health and education budgets, but also starting an ambitious public works program in the countryside and a costly loan repayment waiver for farmers.

Second, she masterly cast herself as a leader who relinquished power, turning down her party’s appeals to become prime minister, first in 2004 and again this time. Instead, she chose the soft-spoken economist, Mr. Singh, and between them, they divvied up the job: she took care of the hard-knuckles politics of keeping the coalition together, while he served as the chief executive, albeit one who was always seen as subservient.

“She remade him,” said Mr. Desai, a longtime friend of the prime minister. “This victory is as much due to him as to her. He has made dynasty palatable.”

During the election season, the Bharatiya Janata Party sought to portray the prime minister as weak. It accused his government of being ineffective against a spate of terrorist attacks and unable to tackle a worldwide economic crisis, which is beginning to be felt here.

The opposition strategy did not pay off. Its coalition trailed with 159 seats, while a third alliance, spearheaded by Communists, won fewer than 80 seats.

Even with a free hand, the Congress-led government will face formidable challenges. India needs to swiftly build roads, highways and power plants; improve public schools and build universities for a swelling young population; and hire nurses and doctors for its feeble public health system.

Most of all, it needs to address its abiding poverty. Despite over a decade of high economic growth in India, 300 million people remain below the poverty line. Large tracts of the country are racked by a Maoist insurgency. And for the first time in years, growth rates have dipped sharply and the deficit has ballooned.

Whether the new administration will fast-track economic reforms, as many business leaders urge, is questionable. Congress politicians, executives and analysts are already tempering expectations.

Kapil Sibal, a Congress member of Parliament from Delhi, said in a television interview on Sunday evening that he expected the new administration to “send a signal” that it would advance reforms that had been stalled during the past five years but would make no “sudden shift” in policies. It would be unrealistic to expect labor law reform in a country with no safety net to speak of, he said, or to expect a greater openness in the banking and insurance sectors in the face of the global financial crisis.

Nandan Nilekani, co-chairman of Infosys, one of the country’s largest technology companies, said Sunday that the government’s immediate priorities should be to raise economic growth and enact a broad set of reforms “that will widen access to both opportunities and public services.”

“We need reforms in higher education, we need reforms in empowering our cities, we need reforms in national security,” he said. “Reforms will cover a diverse set of issues, unencumbered by allies holding them back.”

Not least, Congress will have to keep its promise to the rural poor. Mrs. Gandhi and her son, Rahul, campaigned on a pledge to expand the public jobs program and deepen food subsidies for the poor.

Mother and son face a crucial political challenge as well: how to open access to a party that critics compare to a family-owned company. Mr. Gandhi has been most explicit in calling for internal party democracy. He says he can make that kind of demand because he is a Gandhi.

Hari Kumar contributed reporting.

source: The New York Times