All the world loves a parade and Thursday`s nationally televised tamasha ? that`s what it was ? certainly held the attention of audiences countrywide. Had President Mahinda Rajapaksa chosen the other option of merely addressing the nation over the electronic media, he would not have commanded the same interest. Whether people hung on to every word he said in a speech that was commendably shorter than others normally delivered on such occasions is a moot point. The pictures obviously were of greater interest than the words spoken and Minister Dallas Alahapperuma has won plaudits at least from some of his colleagues for stage managing the show.
The euphoria, however, was short-lived. Soon after the parade, Mr. S.L. Gunasekera, the anti-appeasement activist who is much admired by a constituency that helped elect Rajapaksa, told a Manel Mal rally that the government was wasting money on a tamasha to celebrate the military victory at Thoppigala. He underscored that nobody should try to gain political advantage from the victory declaring that its true owners were none but the security forces. Gunasekera would have undoubtedly struck a chord within the enlightened electorate with his remark that while the Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was trying to undermine the achievement of the military, the government was trying to over-value it. ``Both are crimes,`` he declared and striking a realistic note added: ``If anyone thinks everything ends here (at Thoppigala), he is mistaken. This is only the end of the beginning.``
Hard on the heels of Gunasekera`s speech, Bishop Duleep de Chickera of the Anglican Community did some plain speaking. ``The recent escalation of the war agenda and war euphoria through special commemorative events is cause for concern,`` he said in a statement. ``We respond to war best by striving to end war and we respect those who engage and die in war best by ensuring that more lives are not lost. In war there are no winners and losers. All lose including the ones who think they win.`` Those words encapsulated the feelings of pacifists. Nobody can fault the bishop`s assessment that on both sides of the lines those who die are mostly the young and the poor ``lured and coerced into battle by shrewd rewards and devices by both sides.``
The JVP too was not happy about the tamasha with Mr. Somawansa Amarasinghe, the party leader, asking that celebrations be postponed till the whole war is won. The Manel Mal Movement being very much a JVP show, Wimal Weerawansa was one of the chief speakers at the Nugegoda rally organized to fete the security forces. He warned that if the government thought they could cover up all their shortcomings through shows like Thursday`s, they should think again. Gunasekera acidly commented that public money splurged on such events would be better spent on the welfare of servicemen fighting the war. And to cap it all there was SLMC leader, Rauff Hakeem, who went public saying he attended the event ``reluctantly`` and faulted the ``invective`` used against political opponents on that occasion which he branded as most inappropriate on a national occasion.
Viewers of the live telecast of the grand show were treated to the spectacle not only of the bands, the marching and the spit and polish of the military on parade, with the combat units like the Special Forces and the STF given well deserved prominence, but also the political VIPs arriving for the celebration in opulent limousines. The only exception was Public Administration Minister Karu Jayasuriya who drove up in a modest Indian made Ambassador car which he often uses. He scored brownie points, particularly among the English speaking middle class which is most resentful about the extravagant manner in which taxpayer money is lavished on the political class.
How the public opinion scales will eventually tilt cannot be said with certainty. The president had the advantage over the statements made by the leader of the opposition alleging a deal between the LTTE and the government permitting hundreds of Tiger cadres trapped in Thoppigala to withdraw with their equipment. Whether Wickremesinghe had solid information to say what he did we do not know. He is too experienced a politician to go out on a limb like that without good reason. It can be said that nobody at first believed that President Premadasa gave the LTTE arms and money during the IPKF presence here. But that did happen whatever the rights and wrongs of his justification - that he wanted to better enable the Tigers to fight what he clearly regarded as an ``occupation force.`` However that be, in the present instance Wickremesinghe`s remarks would have certainly antagonized the military. The president seized the opportunity to extract what advantage he could by saying in his speech that whatever insults that are leveled at him and his family he would bear patiently, ``but do not insult our security forces.`` Rajapaksa also scored with his JHU friends by his passing remark about on those who hide their `stripes` by insulting the Maha Sangha ? another swipe at Wickremesinghe.
Shadow boxing aside, the gigantic task at present is to make what the government has called the ``new dawn`` in the East a reality. Whatever the claims, the Tiger presence in the province has not been eliminated as evidenced by the ease with which the LTTE took the soft target of the chief secretary of the province even as the trumpets blared that the East has been cleared. Allowing Karuna or any other paramilitary group to freely operate in the province is a `no no` which cannot be accomplished overnight. Attracting investors to the region will not be easy until stability there is clearly demonstrated. Until then the government will have to be the major investor restoring damaged infrastructure. Resettling the IDPs is also a major challenge. Quite apart from the elections promised before the year end, a lot of hard work remains to be done in an area in which the LTTE will retain, at the very least, considerable nuisance capability.