The Political Column

11th March 2001

Rs.400 demand has UNP divided

By our Political Correspondent

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The PA government on Thursday presented its seventh budget, which, according to analysts, offers little to prop up the ailing economy.

Minister G. L. Peiris waxed eloquent about the government's performance and plans but in the end it was a damp squib that dashed the hopes of ordinary masses who were expecting some sort of relief. On the contrary, the budget 2001 imposed a 20 percent surcharge on corporate income tax and increased the existing defence levy by one percent. A portion of this additional burden on the corporate sector will be passed on to the consumers who are already paying more for virtually everything they buy.

In short, the budget focuses on the defence expenditure how to finance the war. It is in this light that it becomes imperative to find a solution to the 18-year-old war.

The ongoing war is standing in the way of achieving the desired economic growth.

The main opposition UNP in its initial reaction to the budget says it contains lies, damn lies and statistics and has decided to vote against it.

The UNP also boycotted the traditional tea party hosted by Deputy Finance Minister G.L. Peiris saying that it was unbecoming of a responsible opposition party to enjoy tea with government members as the budget offered little or no relief to the suffering masses.

Some UNP parliamentarians had their tea at the guest canteen. They made their way to the guest canteen through the MPs' canteen where the tea party was held.

Though the UNP was not happy about the budget, it savoured a mini victory when its nominee was elected chairman of the 12-member Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE). This was possible largely due to the absence of five of the seven PA members. John Amaratunga who contested the Deputy Minister Tudor Dayaratne won 5-3. Of the five opposition members in the committee, three are from the UNP.

Mr. Amaratunga's name was proposed by UNP's Ravi Karunanayake and seconded by Rohitha Bogollagama.

A similar situation was witnessed at the Public Accounts Committee, but the meeting was put off for next Thursday. There, the UNP has four members while the government has three. UNP parliamentarian Karunasena Kodituwakku told the PAC members that it was the tradition in the Britain and Sri Lanka to appoint the chairman from the opposition. In Sri Lanka, till 1983 this tradition was maintained to ensure proper accountability.

Mr. Kodituwakku was ably supported by Milinda Moragoda. However, PA's Raja Collure opposed Mr. Kodituwakku's views citing Erskine May.

Mr. Collure said the matter had been discussed at a parliamentary select committee and its views should be sought. The PAC members then agreed to obtain the advice of the select committee. When the PAC met on Friday, there were four UNP members and three government members present.

The election of Mr. Amaratunga to the COPE chairmanship is a positive development which will allow the UNP to play an active role in public affairs.

The UNP strategy meanwhile is focused on the government's poor economic show. Though its recent Janabala Meheyuma protest march from Kandy was a success, its follow-up campaigns did not make much impact. The Kataragama Satyagraha was one such event.

Thus it seems it is business as usual for the government though it has not embarked upon any major development project or offered any relief package to the ordinary people.

To cover up its failure, the government uses the state media, slinging mud at the UNP. The affairs of the Ceylon Electricity Board are indeed a severe indictment on the government.

On top of all these matters, Minister Mangala Samaraweera justified the building of a presidential complex in Kotte at a colossal sum.

Mr. Samaraweera was very vociferous at the news conference. Claiming that the Mahawalatenne Walauwa, the Horagolla Walauwa and the "Tintakel" Walauwa at Rosmead Place, the residence of the Bandaranaikes, were also palaces, he said a head of state also needed a palace.

Yes the head of state requires a decent dwelling, but it has to be built when the economy was blooming. The government cannot dump money on a project which will not generate anything for the economy. In a way it is good if the President could shift to a location in Kotte instead of staying in the city causing a host of problems to businesses and ordinary people.

Since the government is engaged in an exercise to cut down expenses, is the President's thinking of investing a huge sum of money in building a complex prudent? If we are to reduce public expenditure, that can come through measures such as improving the road networks.

Traffic jams in Colombo for hours cost the country money and affect the productivity. A contributory factor is the closure of many roads for security reasons.

If the VIPs move out of the city and huge security installation such as security forces headquarters are located outside Colombo, it will help to a great degree to ease the traffic congestion.

When the UNP protested against the government move to build a presidential complex, the PA says it was the UNP which first shifted the administrative capital from Colombo to Kotte.

The UNP's move was nearly two decades ago. It was largely to develop the suburbs of Colombo at a time when the economy was sound. The UNP regime also carried out development projects, built roads and a well-equipped hospital, thus giving immense benefits to the people.

Meanwhile, the UNP has organised a series of programmes, including meetings with diplomats, for its MPs. Recently US Ambassador Ashley Wills addressed UNP MPs at the Mayor's centre.

The Ambassador said that economic development targets could be accomplished if peace was restored in Sri Lanka and expressed hope that the Norwegian initiative in Sri Lanka would succeed.

There had to be a greater emphasis on information technological development in Sri Lanka and the country should open its windows to the outer world, he said adding that US investment would only be possible in a conducive environment where investors could move freely.

Nearly 50 UNP MPs attended this meeting which was initiated by Rohitha Bogollagama, a man believed to be having much connection with the Americans. Initially, some Muslim MPs did not want to attend the meeting in protest against the US attack on Iraq, but later they were persuaded to attend the meeting.

Some MPs took the US envoy to task pointing out that America had no UN Security Council sanction to supervise a no-fly zone over Iraq and even the European Union had condemned the American's move.

K. N. Choksy remarked that the US action tantamounts to interference in internal affairs of another country when Mr. Wills said that they were defending the Kurdish minorities.

The US envoy, was however, harsh on his condemnation of international terrorism.

The US government policy on international terrorism received a boost when the US Supreme Court left intact provisions in the 1996 Statute that prohibited people from sending aid to foreign terrorist groups.

The court on Monday turned down an appeal by organisations that provided cash and other support to separatists in Sri Lanka and Turkey before the Anti-Terrorist and Effective Death Penalty Act was enacted. Provisions in the Statute aimed to cut off the flow of money to overseas terrorists by prohibiting people in the US from offering material support and/or resources to such groups. Violators can be punished up to ten years in prison.

Barely 48 hours after the court's decision, the American Ambassador in Sri Lanka who met a group of Jaffna citizens at the Jaffna Public Library urged them to support a negotiated settlement for the ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka.

He said the LTTE and its quest for a Tamil Eelam could not be achieved and the only way out was to give up violence and negotiate.

"The heroes of the coming months will be those who advocate tolerance and not violence, those who see the need for compromise and moderation rather than those who wish to push ahead towards unattainable visions of separation and exclusivity," he said.

Mr. Wills said the US did not view the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamil people of Sri Lanka. He also noted that Sri Lanka could not be termed as a country solely for a single ethnic group, and offered the US help in "ways the principal parties find it appropriate" to end the war.

The US envoy reminded the LTTE about Americans reckoning their organisation as a terrorists group and their rejection of the LTTE's claim as the sole representative of the Tamil people.

So it is clear that the LTTE will not be able to depend on resources or moral assistance from the US. This, combined with the recent banning of the LTTE activities in Britain, is a setback for Velupillai Prabhakaran's organisation. The LTTE has no alternative but to choose the path of peace and all this is for the advantage of President Chandrika Kumaratunga's government.

The high cost of living, and the high incidence of crime have also been masked by the emphatic diplomatic victory of the government in the West, forcing some western governments to rethink their attitude towards the LTTE. The government is now harping on this to cover up its blunders back home.

The UNP's silence over the ban of the LTTE in UK baffled many people. True that the UNP issued a statement after the ban, but the UNP was in two minds before the British government decided to include the LTTE in the list of terrorist organisations.

With the diplomatic victory, the government should think rationally and solve the ethnic crisis without delay. If not it would help the LTTE in its appeal against the ban in Britain.

In this light, it is worth mentioning some sentiments expressed by Justice C. V. Vigneswaran at the ceremonial sitting to welcome him to the highest court in Sri Lanka. Justice Vigneswaran blasted the existing order and called for the restoration of the rights of the people of the North and the East. The vast majority of citizens of the North and the East seek the restoration of rights and not devolution of power.

Justice Vigneswaran said these were the rights which were snatched away from them by virtue of mathematical innovation where the majority in two provinces were added to the majority in seven provinces and it was made a minority in nine provinces.

In another development, leaders of the PA's constituent parties met last week to discuss the wage demand put forward by the Ceylon Workers' Congress.

Batty Weerakoon, Dinesh Gunawardena and D. E. W. Gunasekara were among the speakers who defended the CWC's demand for a Rs. 400 cost of living allowance.

They reportedly expressed the view that the plantation companies were trying to mislead the government and decided that the President should intervene to resolve the matter.

The PA leaders also expressed the view that while the plantation companies were making huge profits they did not trickle down to the labour force, the life blood of the plantation sector.

But now the question asked by some interested parties is as to why the UNP has maintained a deafening silence about the whole matter.

Some say it is because some UNPers have a stake in the plantations. Others say that the UNP is not sensitive enough to the needs of the poor plantation workers.

However what is seen is a division in the party over the plantation problem. While some members are openly in support, others remain mum.

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