Rice and JVP in boiling pot
- ack of buffer stocks leads to biggest crisis in Lanka's staple food
- JVP split widens to point of no-return; both sides exchange charges
- Eastern election campaign assumes ethnic undertones
Even if it was a family social last Tuesday, it had the trappings of a summit of the country's two main leaders - President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe.
They met and sat at the same table in the glittering Grand Ballroom of the Colombo Hilton. The occasion was the wedding of Navindra, the son of the Commissioner of Elections, Dayananda Dissanayake. Wickremesinghe signed as witness for the groom and Rajapaksa as witness to the bride. Also at the same table was Karu Jayasuriaya, head of the UNP pole-vaulter group and now Home Minister. The two leaders took the opportunity to talk. Wickremesinghe raised issue over the upcoming Provincial Council elections for the East and the logistical handicaps faced by him.
|The signs of the brewing battle: Wimal Weerawansa (left) with leader Somawansa Amerasinghe before they split.
As is the practice, the United National Party (UNP) had made a request to the Ministry of Defence to hire an Air Force helicopter for its leader to fly to the East to take part in political rallies. The party made the request only after some of its senior members sounded out the Air Force top brass informally. "No problem. Obtain MoD clearance and the rest can be arranged," one of them was told. However, the MoD, instead, took up the position that it would not be possible in the light of operational requirements in the ongoing Eelam War IV. This enraged UNPers who said some bureaucrats were using Air Force helicopters to hop from their offices in the City to their homes also in the City, separated only by a few kilometres.
The opposition leader has also been 'down-graded' security-wise, from A to B, i.e. a lesser degree security-risk based on the threat assessment of political leaders carried out by the State's Intelligence agencies. Many others have been up-graded. For instance, Transport Minister Dulles Alahapperuma, a close political associate of the President is now in the A Group, while Rauff Hakeem has got a further demotion to the C Group.
When Wickremesinghe raised issue with Rajapaksa, the latter had expressed unawareness. He had asked if any of the helicopters were under repair. He had agreed to go into the matter. The UNP leadership did not want to let the issue rest. Their Chairman, Rukman Senanayake, shot off a letter to President Rajapaksa citing the conversation Wickremesinghe had on Tuesday and reiterating the party's request. Of course, the UNP, like in the past, had agreed to pay the Air Force the charges for the trip.
The UNP hierarchy was quick to point out that Wickremesinghe had twice given Rajapaksa helicopters to fly to the Eastern province when he was Prime Minister and Rajapaksa was Opposition Leader.
With that done, Wickremesinghe left for Sydney, Australia to attend a meeting of the International Democratic Union (IDU). He is a Vice President of this organisation and is tipped to become its head. He will be back and will take part in polls rallies in the East from next week. Wickremesinghe is also skipping a meeting with a senior US State Department official visiting Sri Lanka for two days beginning today (Sunday) to assess the prevailing situation. Ravi Karunanayake, UNP parliamentarian for Kotte, will instead meet Donald Camp, an old Sri Lanka hand and now desk officer for the country.
Wickremesinghe also sounded out Rajapaksa on his latest visit to China. But a detailed response was not forthcoming. If UNP pole vaulter and International Trade Minister G.L. Peiris's conduct is any indication, there was not much to crow about. At a news conference at the Government Information Department, the media questioned Peiris on the visit to China. He was a member of Rajapaksa's entourage. He was asked whether the Government's "war on terror" was discussed. "No," he replied. More questions followed from journalists who were trying to elicit answers to questions whether any military deals were decided upon. That saw Peiris, known for his mastery with the spoken word, speechless for once, abruptly terminating the news conference and walking out.
Wickremesinghe and Rajapaksa also talked of the rice crisis, a political tsunami that threatens to hit the Government harder. From midnight Wednesday, the Government introduced price control on rice. The result: stocks available with most traders have gone underground. The ill studied Government action would not only create a flourishing black market for rice but also plummet sky high the price of a packet of rice and curry, the common person's diet in Sri Lanka for centuries. Thus, an economic crisis escalated by the ongoing separatist war will be further exacerbated by more price increases. The Water Supply Board said on Thursday it would introduce a 15 per cent VAT on water bills, but suspended it amidst a public storm. Increase in fuel prices are also round the corner.
That would lead to a spiral in transport costs, one that will reflect in prices of consumer goods. So are the prices of gas and milk food. During previous governments, such price increases would see the birth of highly publicised Cabinet Sub Committees going into various aspects to give relief to the consumer. Instead, now there is more propaganda to assert that there are no price increases and a resultant cost of living. A key proponent of this new logic was Cabinet rank Media Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa who said there is no rise in the cost of living. If his learned assertion is correct, at least some of the country's politicians seem oblivious to the suffering of the masses, most of them who voted the Government to power.
There is a tragic irony about the current rice crisis. The Government whose leaders and officials blame all others for their ills has not maintained any buffer stock. This is a standard practice followed by many countries including Sri Lanka in the past. The guaranteed price for paddy has remained at Rs 22.50 a kilogramme. However, paddy growers have been selling their harvest at higher prices, anything between Rs 30 to 35 to millers who form a cartel.
They in turn have sold at prices averaging Rs 65 to Rs 75 a kilo to the distributors who market them. Because of the price control, most distributors in Pettah have put up shutters. They complain that if they open, they would have to sell the rice at controlled prices or face raids by Price Control Inspectors. Traders complain they cannot reach any Government Ministers to seek a solution. A report on the rice crisis appears elsewhere in this newspaper.
A disturbing feature of the rice crisis is the inability of traders to provide stocks of rice to the Armed Forces and the Police at the new controlled prices. This would leave the Government with little choice but to raid shops and warehouses. Otherwise, the lack of supplies would hit troops now engaged in Eelam War IV. The rice crisis is not the only one that has hit the country's political firmament. Equally bad is the crisis within the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). There is almost certainty now that the party would split in two with both sides accusing each other of wrongdoing.
On Thursday, the ten MPs of the dissident faction met under the leadership of Wimal Weerawansa for a lengthy discussion. Piyasiri Wijenayake was to complain that some leaders of the party were carrying out a mud slinging campaign against them. He said the group should target those persons instead of trying to take on the entire party. Jayantha Samaraweera warned that attempts would be made to place bombs in the vehicles of the dissident group and warned them to be vigilant.
A resolution to establish a Patriotic Front if there is no rapprochement possible with the party leadership was adopted. For this purpose the dissident group is to hold talks with trade unions and other civil society organisations. Weerawansa was to point out that there had been media reports of their faction joining the Government. He said there was no such move and the coming weeks and months would prove their position.
Yet, the fact that the Government was staunchly backing this group was evident. The Police, which looked the other way in the case of non-CabinetLabour Minister Mervyn Silva, when he and his goons attacked senior management at the Rupavahini Corporation, moved at the speed of greased lightning to arrest JVP's Trincomalee District MP Jayantha Wijesekera over the alleged robbery of two vehicles of JVP parliamentary colleagues last week at the Parliament car park.
Weerawansa told The Sunday Times "we will take an important step next week" but declined to say what it was. The remarks seemed to suggest that the breakaway group was drifting away further and efforts at reconciliation were now becoming impossible. The dissidents are demanding that the party leadership should remove those closely associated with the UNP if they were to 'rejoin'. That seemed an impossible task for the JVP leadership. They in turn accuse the Weerawansa faction of "flirting with the Government." It was only last week JVP leader Somawansa Amerasinghe declared that the Weerawansa group was helping the Government and the latter in turn was helping that group.
The JVP leadership headed by Somawansa Amerasinghe is insistent that Weerawansa should answer questions raised by the party's Central Committee on March 21. On this day, the Committee decided that Weerawansa should be suspended with effect from May 10 - the date of the Eastern Provincial Council elections.
Amarasinghe told The Sunday Times yesterday that the only condition under which Weerawansa could remain in the party was by answering the charges preferred against him. "He has to come before the Central Committee and explain. If he does not do this, it is not I who will decide on the next course of action. It is the Central Committee that will take a decision. Of course, the role of the other MPs who have been misled to support him is entirely different," he said.
The JVP leader accused Weerawansa of bringing an internal matter of the JVP openly in Parliament. "We will tolerate it if he raised issue through the media. We also resorted to the media to respond to his wild accusations. This is because the media keeps the public informed. But he lost sight of the fact that the Speaker who gave permission for him to raise issue in Parliament was a former powerful Minister of the then UNP Government. Our martyrs, including Rohana Wijeweera, were killed during his tenure of office," he added.
He said more of the Weerawansa saga would unfold and "the people of Sri Lanka will soon know what he was up to. If he still has the courage as he claims he has, let him come before the Central Committee. He cannot only answer the charges against him, but he can also level charges against the party leadership at the Central Committee, which is the appropriate forum".
Since Amerasinghe made the anti-Weerawansa declaration, grassroots level membership of the JVP are now being briefed on alleged misdeeds of Weerawansa. Reacting to this at Thursday's meeting by the group of MPs, one of the speakers was to accuse an unnamed leader of the JVP of utilising party funds to build a private house. Such charges would no doubt deepen the division within the JVP and see the parting of the ways of the two groups.
One of the JVP MPs under rehabilitation, Sunil Handunnetti, came out this week criticising the Rajapaksa administration for scuttling the party's Eastern Province campaign by the incarceration of Jayantha Wijesekera. The party is looking for votes among the majority Sinhala voters in the Trincomalee District, and in the Digamadulla District. Its chances of winning the Council are remote, to say the least, like what has happened in the Councils elsewhere. But when the two main parties contest and end up with almost equal number of seats, the third party could play king-maker. They can decide which party will finally sit on the throne through their small numbers tilting the balance of power.
The Eastern province elections are already taking an ethnic approach to votes, unfortunately. The pro-Government Pillayan Group is canvassing Tamil votes by asking them if they want to have a Muslim Chief Minister, a reference to the Muslim Congress leaders who are heading the Districts on the Opposition platform. The Muslim Congress in turn is asking the Muslims if they want Pillayan, the successor to Karuna, the one-time LTTE Batticaloa military commander who wrecked havoc among the Muslim population in the East, as their Chief Minister.
The Sinhalese voter is split between the Government, the JVP and the UNP, in what appears to be in that order.
Charges of bias were being already levelled against the Police in the East. While, Police top-brass called the candidates soon after Nomination Day and explained to them the Election Laws, accusations of allowing pro-Government cut-outs to remain in tact while Opposition cut-outs were being pulled down were being thrown at the Police. Fears that the pull-out of the Special Task Force (STF) was to permit the Pillayan Group a free-hand remain ever-present among Opposition campaigners, who are yet to come out to the streets to canvass votes.
Many MPs used the National New Year holidays as a convenient excuse to skip the gruelling campaigning to be done in the East. Now, the time has come for them to trudge it to the volatile dust-bowl of the East, in the first major litmus-test for all the parties since the local government elections that were held shortly after Mahinda Rajapaksa became the President.