2nd July 2000

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Search for an alternate party

By H. Chanda Nanda

As President Chandrika Kumaratunga celebrated her fifty-fifth birthday last Thursday, the words 'Many happy returns' must have had more meanings than one for her, for that would be exactly what she would be expecting in a few months time when the general elections are held.

President Kumaratunga will of course be in office whatever the outcome of the polls being elected for a second term of office which runs for the next six years.

Yet, a hostile Parliament and a Prime Minister from the United National party will be the least she wants, when she is finding governance increasingly complex, with her own coalition of not-so-efficient ministers.

As we said last week, though campaigning for the polls is still decidedly low key, the groundwork is slowly but surely being laid for what promises to be a hectic and hostile campaign, despite all the camaraderie that prevails over that oval table at Temple trees.

This week, Trincomalee District United National Party MP, Ariyapala Walpita joined the so-called 'Vikalpa Kandaayama' of Wijeyapala Mendis and Sarath Amunugama. The hitherto relatively unknown Parliamentarian then had to do the customary media appearance where Ranil-bashing is the norm- a performance given wide publicity in the state media after which many came to know such an MP existed!

The media, of course, will be at the forefront of the campaign at the next elections and there are already significant indications to this effect. The state media has already entered the fray with Rupavahini launching a vitriolic attack on the publisher of the Wijeya group of newspapers, and its publications, the Sunday Times and the Lankadeepa, mentioning them by name.

It must have been a rude present too for the publisher who celebrated his birthday a day after the President!

These attacks obviously are not the flights of fancy of a fanatical script writer or programme editor. They would have been sanctioned from some higher authority.

The 'crime' committed by the newspapers was highlighting what Rupavahini called a non-existent cost-of-living problem!

Clearly, the truth hurts and the reports on the hardships faced by the public in the wake of the recent price hikes has irked the government. Then, on Thursday, the state-controlled newspapers made a hue and cry about arresting the alleged killers of Rohana Kumara, the editor of the 'Satana' tabloid who was gunned down outside his home in Nugegoda, late last year. That was excusable but what was unpardonable was the airing of a confession by the alleged assassin who appeared on the Rupavahini news broadcast on prime time, replete with hood and peep-holes, claiming the murder was a contract killing of a personal nature unrelated to political motives- recalling to mind the ghostly appearance of Rohana Wijeweera on TV after his capture and hours before his death.

We are not doubting the merits of the confession, but such a public performance must surely be in violation of all ethics and norms of police and judicial procedures. It may even be sub-judice. But one thing is now becoming clear, in the media war for the general election, there is no depth to which the state media will not stoop to. The killing may not have had a political motive: but the broadcast of his confession had. But all these media antics will not suffice to detract the masses from the main issue of the day the rising cost of living which, for many, has displaced the war in the north as the No.1 issue in their personal agenda.

Traditionally, governments led by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party they have always governed in a coalition have been poor economic managers. And when the last United Front government fell in 1977 it will be recalled that the major if not the only issue the voters were concerned with was the economy. That was the time when food and clothing was rationed, people were forced to eat manioc on Tuesdays and Thursdays, rice could not be freely transported and the 'cheeththa' smelled of kerosene oil.

The then UNP capitalised on these economic woes and the rest is history. The economic system has since changed and Sri Lanka has drifted into irreversible capitalism but the basic problem of the voter- that of making ends meet with a meagre pay packet- still remains. It is true that a class of the 'new rich' has emerged but this wealth has not trickled down to all and sundry.

Already, government MPs are fearing there might be a repeat performance of that which is why a delegation of PA Parliamentarians met President Kumaratunga and asked whether any redress was possible for the people, if only for the sake of their own political survival. The President in all probability realises the need for remedial action but is hemmed in by the burdens of a war which has been ill managed for a half-dozen years, with herself as Commander-in-Chief. Even then, a surprise economic package for the people may still be in store, perhaps just before the poll, to remind them what a caring government this is!

But, if the People's Alliance is anxious, the United National Party is complacent. They believe that the PA has committed enough errors for the UNP to win, not by merit but by default- a line of thinking that may not be shared by the voter.

Consider the UNP's campaign. It is still confined to Colombo when the city has always voted green. In fact, now most cities vote green- as was evident at the last local government election while the villages vote overwhelmingly blue. So, there is no point in preaching to the already convinced that they should vote with the UNP. What the UNP needs to do is to boost its image in such a manner that it has appeal for the rural voter who now somehow fails to identify with the new yuppie UNP Besides, those are not all the problems the UNP is faced with. The defection of a political non-entity such as Ariyapala Walpita may be negligible in terms of electoral consequences, but also this week Sirisena Cooray announced the formation of his Purawesi Peramuna and the new party's intentions to contest the general election in twenty one districts- and that will not erode PA votes either.

Eventually, the Peramuna's performance is likely to be dismal. Ex-economist Wimal Wickremasinghe and entrepreneur Patrick Amerasinghe are leading lights of the Peramuna, but every vote taken away from the UNP will only help the PA in what points to a close finish.

Then, despite all the denials there are serious differences of opinion among even high-rankers of the UNP as to whether the party is on the right track. Only last Tuesday, Anura Bandaranaike, SLFPer turned UNPer and a strident critic of his sister President Kumaratunga, met UNP leader Ranil Wickremasinghe for a private meeting after the state run Daily News ran a story on its front pages claiming there was friction between the two even hinting that the prodigal son might return to the SLFP.

Mr. Bandaranaike, it is understood is not the most satisfied with the way affairs are conducted in the UNP and conveyed his sentiments to the Opposition Leader. Nevertheless, the President's brother did indicate that, whatever the differences of opinion, he would support the UNP, come what may. Even then, the contribution Mr. Bandaranaike can make to the campaign hangs in the balance because of serious health concerns and that too would be a loss for 'AB' is a good platform orator with his gruff voice and clever lampooning of his sister. The bottom line then is that if the government has not kept its promises to the people, the UNP has not shown promise as an alternative government. Both parties are still groping for the public mood- the PA, apprehensive that it has a sorry record to show and UNP perhaps over-confident of its chances on account of the PA's lapses. But what is most in need is a level playing field for the poll.

And, if first indications are anything to go by, it would only be an incurable optimist who would hope for a level playing field at the general elections of the year 2000.

At the expense of the poor

By Kumbakarana

Francis Fakuyama a Pentagon intellectual guru declared in a much publicised article titled 'The End of History' an end to all of the outstanding problems facing humanity. This was when the Berlin wall and the old Soviet empire was crumbling and it appeared that America and its allies would be left to rule the world. The poor are getting poorer

He did concede that there would still be some tinkering to be done in the museum of human history, and the Sri Lankan 'Tamil question' he mentions as being such a left over problem. Nothing in fact could be further from the truth.

There is a major human problem yet to be solved; that of gross inequity in the modern world. The massive gap, between a few privileged lot and the people of the world, ever widening is unparalleled in human history.

It is unparalleled in two significant ways, firstly the gap itself in quantitative terms is widening since the industrial revolution. The UN report on human development, states, that the difference in incomes between the richest and poorest nations of the world was 1:3 in 1820 , while by 1999 it had grown to a massive 1 to 73. The rich have grown richer heaping upon themselves of untold treasures, while the poor of the world have remained locked in a time warp. Within the last two centuries almost all of the 'goodies' of the technological revolutions have been taken up and consumed by a few, while the rest have mainly been the recipients of its noxious fallout. This is both a literal and metaphorical actuality. Consider environmental pollution; who drives around and lives in air-conditioned luxury ? And who may I ask is effected by the warming ? Who gets pumped water to flush their toilets and who is left to live and wash along the polluted waterways of the world ? Who fights the many internecine and brutish wars around the world, and who gives the commands to fight or die ?

This inequality of wealth and power is, at the same time national, regional and urban. If it is ethnic, then it is by and large between whites and non-whites, and not as portrayed by some to be between the Sinhalese and the Thamil. One can see evidence of this in Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka , East Timor or in the backstreets of New York or London.

There is also a qualitative shift downwards in the lives of the poor. This arises from the fact that, the luxuries of the few depend in modern times on the miseries of the poor. Thus, one could find thousands working long hours, to produce a shirt, a dress, an electronic gadget for a few. One has today, the strange economic doctrine that the rich have to get richer, for the poor to have a livelihood ! This is termed employment generation, by means of attracting 'capital' at give away conditions.

The poor have no choice except to accept those downside sized jobs, since the waterways, airways and the soil of the earth, are no longer able to provide the means for dignified human living. They have been either demarcated as private property, destroyed by direct warfare or polluted beyond use to satisfy the desires of the already privileged. This was not possible in ancient times, the modern day 'Genghis Khan' has the ability to reach out around the world, extract resources from far off lands, overwork the poor in unknown lands when they protest, drop smart bombs using pilotless missiles. Various puppet regimes whose interest lie solely in their own aggrandisement, are termed 'friendly' and used to control the dispossessed. The modern despot has even acquired the ability to reach out to the future and grab the resources of unborn generations; an unusual ability which no ancient regime could even dream of. The above description of modernity is admittedly polemic, but it is a grounded polemic, that is in practice.

The Sri Lanka Thamil question should be looked at with this picture of modernity as a backcloth. The British colonial ruler was masterly in the art of control. He carefully nurtured the minorities, especially those Thamils who had shown their allegiance to the crown by disowning their rich culturally entangled religion. There was a call when the masters left, that those so privileged, should be allowed to maintain them. This was by a gross misuse of language called equality ! Hence, the call for fifty-fifty representation in parliament, and the simultaneous disenfranchisement of the Thamil estate worker, with those privileged parliamentary Thamils voting for creation of a stateless Thamilian.

Historically the Sinhala peasantry were dispossessed of their lands by the British, leaving them impoverished, while tea was grown to satisfy the finer pallets of the British upper class. The slave labour needed for such an arduous task was imported from the arid lands of South India. The local regimes have not handed over any of these lands either to their original heirs, the Kandyan peasantry or the Thamil worker; but instead to plantation companies, whose sole object is to satisfy the markets created in far off lands.

Meanwhile the Sinhalese and the Thamil are left with little land to grow their own food. I have cited the above case as an example for its illustrative value, to show the bogus claims of ethnic discrimination. Let us therefore resist with whatever talent we possess the division of this land on the basis of ethnicity, as this would only create a real ethnic conflict. It has done so in Indonesia with the creation of East-Timor, and a Serbian Yugoslavia, these examples demonstrate that division along ethnic lines do not solve but only create non-existing ones. Let us instead, begin by calling for compensation from the British for lands taken. These we will use to buy back land and give over to their original heirs, the Sinhala peasantry, and the poor Thamil estate worker whose poverty is not due to lack of industry.

Let us with these same resources, help them to cultivate their own livelihood. Be assured, that in this event there would in fact not only be a lack of conflict, but a celebration of cultures between the Sinhalese and the Thamil.

Japanese firm out of Eppawela?

Tomen Corp. is reconsidering its planned investment in a huge phosphate mine in Eppawela, an ancient village in central Sri Lanka, according to members of a Japanese nongovernmental organization supporting residents who oppose the project.

The NGO, Japanese Citizens for Eppawela, has received replies from Tomen after sending letters in May and June urging the company to halt investment in the project because it will destroy the environment and threaten residents' lives.

As part of a project with U.S. fertilizer firm IMC Agrico Co., Tomen and the Sri Lankan government-owned body Lanka Phosphate Ltd. are to explore and mine for phosphate around 56 sq. km of ancestral lands, destroying 26 villages and 23 major irrigation tanks, the NGO said.

Tomen planned to put up 25 percent of the estimated $500 million needed for the project, while IMC Agrico intends to put up 65 percent.

Tomen replied in a letter dated June 21 that the firm was currently reviewing the plan in compliance with Sri Lankan law and a Supreme Court decision on a suit filed by seven Eppawela residents demanding that the project be halted.

On June 2, the Sri Lankan Supreme Court decided that the defendants could not take any further action until the geology and mineral department concluded a comprehensive investigation into phosphate in Eppawela.

The investigation should include the amount of phosphate and the mines' effect on the environment, and its results should be made public, the court said.

Tomen told a member of the NGO in an October letter that it was conducting a feasibility study of the area.

The project could destroy the area, which includes the ancient 54-km Jaya Ganga canal, listed by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as a World Heritage site, and will threaten more than 12,000 residents with forced relocation. Tomen currently holds 25 percent of the shares in Sarabhoomi Resources Ltd., which was set up to mine for phosphate in Eppawela.

Courtesy The Japan Times

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