The Political Column
7th January 2001
A battered economy atop a battered people
By our Political Correspondent
cost of living and the high incidence of crime and violence paint a bleak
picture of the country. The recent fuel and gas price hikes have infuriated
people who find it increasingly difficult to make ends meet.
The government has tried to justify its action citing world price increases, but their is understandable anger because gas prices were increased three times and diesel prices four times within the past 12 months.
Critics say the government does not have a proper assessment of the macro-economics to cushion the burdens heaped on the people who, however, remain largely passive.
When fuel prices reached unbearable heights in Britain, truck drivers and concerned citizens blocked the streets demanding that tax on oil be reduced to keep the prices low. Their protest continued until the government found a solution. In India, too, similar protests took place when fuel prices were increased but in Sri Lanka people are yet to come together against structural injustice or to form consumer resistance groups.
The main opposition UNP blamed the government for the economic mess the country is in today. But the government was quick to respond with state media intensifying its-UNP bashing, gloating over victories in the north and rekindling charges linking the UNP and the LTTE.
All this shows that the government has no ground to stand on. It could not even say with any certainty how much aid the Sri Lanka Development Forum pledged to the country.
On top of all this, bus operators demanded to increase bus fares by 33 per cent. Transport Minister Dinesh Gunawardena tried to reach some sort of compromise but he was on a bad wicket with two diesel price increases within a few months. After a series of talks with private bus operators who threatened to implement the fare hike arbitrarily, a compromise was finally reached to increase the fares by 15 percent. Besides soaring prices, we also see an increasing cycle of violence that is shaking the very foundation of civil society.
Murder, rape, robbery, and extortion had become the order of the day. Wattala for example, a once peaceful Colombo suburb, has now become a hotbed of all types of crimes. There have been several armed robberies with one bank being robbed twice within a year in this area. The police have not made few inroads in their investigations in tracking down the culprits. This scenario is universal throughout the country and not least because in some cases there is a nexus between ruling party politicians and the criminals.
One news item reported last week how a PA politician had demanded that the Bulathsinhala police release some suspects. Another report spoke of a similar incident in Puttalam.
Even in last week's Madampe incident where a hartal was staged after some soldiers allegedly assaulted a bus crew and terrorised the villagers, there was a political connection. It is learnt that a deputy minister had allegedly orchestrated the hartal as his shops had been affected by the military men's acts. It is further alleged that the shopkeepers have been forced to close down shops by the thugs who are operating under the patronage of politicians.
Political thuggery has divided our society so badly that people believe that they cannot get any thing done if they do not show affiliation to the ruling party politician. It is alleged that UNP supporters who are Samurdhi beneficiaries are being identified and their names are being struck off the list with the help of divisional secretaries.
Lawlessness and disorder is the order of the day and the time is appropriate for the government to take stern steps to put the country back on track, concentrating especially on disciplining the rural politicians who are becoming a law unto themselves.
The killing of an attorney near the courthouse in Avissawella is yet another incident which shows the depths to which the society has plunged into.
It appears that even attorneys are not safe in our society. People will not be surprised if criminals next take on judges. The killing of attorney W.D. Pathmaperuma followed a bomb throwing incident in the Avissawella police cell where a suspected criminal succumbed to his injuries. Now a suspicion has arisen as to whether a policeman was instrumental in throwing this bomb to kill this criminal who would have otherwise exposed underworld kingpins and their political and police connections.
Mr. Pathmaperuma was an innocent by-stander near the courthouse. It was apparently a case of mistaken identity and the police believe that the lawyer who watched the interests of the suspect who was killed inside the police cell had similar features.
Can the police bring the culprits to book or will it be yet another murder where they draw a blank? Police Chief Lucky Kodituwakku should act fast to direct his men to arrest the culprits and bring them to justice, but his term in office is also drawing to a close.
On the political front, too, the government is facing tough battles. In the ongoing battle for the chair in the Western Provincial Council, UNP Assistant Leader Gamini Atukorale is challenging the government to dissolve the Western Provincial Council and go for elections, if the PA is averse to the appointment of Dixon Perera as the chairman of the council. The central committee of the SLFP which met over the weekend discussed this matter at length. But the dissolution of the council hardly came up though a committee was set up to look into the problem there.
The President also entered the fray last week. She is reported to have told PA councillors that the WPC would be dissolved and run like the north-east province under a governor if the matter was not resolved by Monday. She said a dissolution would be inevitable if the council did not elect a PA member as chairman.
The President also told them that the people are fed up with elections and she did not want to incur more expenses on elections because the local government elections were also round the corner.
But the UNP scored a legal victory on Friday when the Colombo District Court issued a restraining order preventing the PA moves to call for another election for the post of chairman.
The President was obviously averse to an election when she reportedly said the council would be run like the north-east province. The rising cost of living and the lack of commitment by the government to stem the spiralling wave of violence could certainly push the PA to the corner. As regards the local government elections, the government is likely to shelve a proposal to reintroduce the ward system (the first past the post system). The government apparently feels that under the prevailing circumstances, the PA would fare badly if elections are held on the first-past-the -post basis. One analyst pointed out that the PA would not be able to secure a single seat in the Colombo Municipal Council area.
However, it is now more likely that the government would postpone the local government elections by another year under the provisions of the Local Government Elections Act. Postponing elections could be a favourable decision if the government plans to improve the economic situation of the country within the next year or so. But as things stand today, it will be an uphill task. The dollar rate is likely to rise further putting the country, which is heavily import dependent, in the economic doldrums.
One way of improving the economy is by bringing the ongoing war in the North and East to a speedy end. The government is now ready for unconditional talks with the LTTE and the process could lead to a genuine de-escalation of the war once the two parties get involved in the peace talks seriously. Minister G. L. Peiris is confident that the talks could begin without any conditions at the moment.
Donor countries, it is learnt, have attached several strings to the aid package. They showed a keen interest in democratising the election process which has shown a clear erosion from 1994 onwards. They were also interested in the implementation of independent commissions of elections and the police in a bid to de-politicise the Sri Lankan administrative structure. At a time when every step should be taken to boost the country's income generation, a Defence Ministry move has reduced the revenue earned by the Colombo Port. Defence Authorities have ordered that vessels anchored outside the harbour should move further south towards Panadura, 30 kilometers away from Colombo. A 5 percent drop has been recorded after the decision was taken by the Defence Authorities as a security measure around the Fort area.
At present, President Kumaratunga is occupying the President's House in Fort. The security of the President's House had been given top priority among other things especially after an assassination attempt on her in December 1999.
The Chairman of the Ports Authority has apparently written to the Defence Ministry to review this situation since it could affect the arrival of cargo vessels to the Colombo Port and the use of the Colombo Port as a transshipment base. Be that as it may, the controversy over the Basnayake Nilame stakes at the Kataragama Maha Devalaya has been resolved with the intervention of the President. It has been reported that the son of Presidential Secretary, Kusumsiri Balapatabendi who canvassed support for his candidature had been asked to step down paving the way for others.
The post of Basnayake Nilame has been politicised over the past few years and there have been hectic campaigns for this post on earlier occasions, too. The candidates for this post on many occasions threw parties and dinners to the electors who are mainly government officials in the area.
On some occasions, even ministers have taken a keen interest in supporting particular candidates. The government's decision to ask the Presidential Secretary Kusumsiri Balapatabendi's son to step down came after the arrival of the President in the country, ending a month's long tour of Europe. It is learnt that some powerful ministers have lobbied for the removal of Mr. Balapatabendi's son from the fray.
A similar battle is looming in the Cricket Board too. The next annual general meeting of the board and the elections are likely to be held after the England's tour in Sri Lanka. It is now reported that a section is trying to promote the candidature of Anura Bandaranaike to the Board's Presidency while the Thilanga Sumathipala camp may put forward Minister Mahinda Wijesekera in the event of Mr. Sumathipala's candidature being denied him by Sports Minister Lakshman Kiriella.
Meanwhile, another dispute has erupted between Mr. Sumathipala and former board president Upali Dharmadasa.
The Cricket Board's Disciplinary Committee has called Mr. Dharmadasa to provide an explanation before January 14 for criticising the board and its officials.
It is alleged that Mr. Dharmadasa had made certain remarks concerning the Board after he had been elected the new president of the Bloomfield Club. He allegedly told a press conference that he was disappointed over the incidents that took place at the Board's election to pick officials for the 1997-98 term and would not even dream of contesting the board's presidency. He reportedly said that the image of Sri Lankan cricket has been tainted by the unpleasant incidents at the election and did not even want to tread on the soil of the board premises.
Angry board officials are now trying to pressurise the Bloomfield club to remove Mr. Dharmadasa from the post of presidency.
If the club fails to do so, a board's spokesman told this column that it would face suspension — which means a lot of trouble for Bloomfield. But it has yet to take a decision since Mr.Dharmadasa has to tell the Board his side of the story and defend himself. If the Board takes arbitrary action to suspend Bloomfield C and AC, there is likelihood of another legal battle cropping up.
In the meantime, a letter written by Clifford Ratwatte to Minister Kiriella has also caused displeasure among the board officials who are consulting their lawyers as to what action they could take on the matter.
UNP parliamentarians are up in arms over a decision taken by party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to submit themselves for a medical check-up before the end of this month.
UNP chief whip Tyronne Fernando has conveyed this to all MPs individually by a letter dated December 20. The letter states that arrangements have been made with the Sri Jayewardenapura Hospital for the check-up at the convenience of the MPs on payment of a sum of Rs. 2000. The MPs have been told that the UNP has made arrangements with Dr. H. H. R. Samarasinghe for the medical check-up.
Mr. Fernando told this column that as far as he is personally concerned, this is only for the good of the parliamentarians so that they know the state of their health. "What they do is their business. I have only conveyed the leader's decision to the MPs," he said.
But some UNP MPs see the move as an invasion of their privacy. One young MP told this column that he believed nowhere in the world had a political party required its members to go for a medical check-up. One fairly senior MP told this column that he had been in politics for a long time and no one wanted any kind of medical check-up. "I know how to manage my health as well as my politics." While this is being voiced by senior MPs, some others are asking whether this exercise is the beginning of an elimination process of MPs. If somebody finds that he has a terminal illness, his whole future would be destroyed, one MP said.
The government may leak this out at some point of time and they may use it at any election campaign. Young MPs who have access to these records can use it against an older one at the 'Manape' battle at the next elections. So nobody wants to go for such medical checks since a copy of the medical report will be retained by the hospital. The UNP leader will find it difficult to convince the MPs to go for checks unless the leader makes it mandatory by way of an order.
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