By Our Political Editor
At Temple Trees on Esala Poya Day, it was a star-studded event. President Mahinda Rajapaksa sat together with the country's leading film idols, the heroes, heroines and villains of the Sinhala screen to hear religious sermons from the Buddhist clergy.
With that over, the film stars were treated to a different show. The Governor of the Central Bank gave them a talk on the economic situation. He was to refute claims that the country is on the downturn and that more and more money was being printed. "It is true we are printing money. But only the required quantities are being printed in keeping with the regulations that govern them," said Governor Nivard Cabral. He forecast that when the war was won, the economy would become even more robust.
The Army's Director of Military Intelligence (DMI), Brigadier Amal Karunasekera, gave a briefing on the successes made by them. He said it began with the soldiers attacking the Tiger guerrillas to break the siege they had placed on the Mawil Aru irrigation anicut in the Trincomalee district. Since then, troops have been causing heavy damage to the guerrillas. He listed out the successes made by the Army until they re-captured Vidattaltivu where the Sea Tigers operated a major base. Brigadier Karunasekera, in addition to his duties, is now acting Director of Operations for the Sri Lanka Army. The Director, Brigadier Udaya Perera, is now on a visit to the United States on a United Nations related task. More such economic and military briefings for other groups are also on the cards.
|British Minister Malloch Brown being welcomed by Chief Minister Pillayan at the Provincial Council Office in Trincomalee where the visiting dignitary said Sri Lanka faced an uphill task in retaining the EU's GSP+ concessions. Pic by Amadoru Amarajeewa
With the religious ceremonies, the economics lecture and military briefings over, President Rajapaksa sat down with the film stars for a Poya Day lunch. Most of the film idols were pleased and spoke of the need to ascend the political platform and tell the people the story about the economic and military progress the Government was making. Their immediate focus, no doubt, is the upcoming Provincial Council elections particularly in North Central Province and Sabaragamuwa. The priority was the UPFA's polls campaign in the Sabaragamuwa.
By nominating actor, Ranjan Ramanayake to contest there, the United National Party (UNP) had declared that he would garner the votes of the youth. Ramanayake was a "hero" in their hearts, according to top rung UNPers.
With one shot, the Government expects most actors to counter their colleague, Ramanayake with the facts they have learnt on Esala Poya Day. That is not all. They also want them to speak out at meetings in the North Central Province where the Sri Lanka Army's one time Chief of Staff, retired Major General Janaka Perera is contesting. To the decorated soldier turned diplomat, the campaign has become an arduous task.
His friends and foes alike agree that he had been at the forefront in the military campaign against Tiger guerrillas. That he became a high profile target as a result, is no secret. However, despite Police warnings of a serious threat against him, no security cover has been provided. The move is not surprising. Provision of security today is not based on threat perceptions but rather on how the person to be protected is disposed towards the Government.
In the case of Janaka Perera, the issue is further compounded by the fact that the Government's nominee for the Chief Ministership in the North Central Province, Berty Premalal Dissanayake, is surrounded by security personnel provided by the Government. The Opposition puts the figure as high as 200.
The UNP High Command has recognised this as a tactic adopted by the Government to use security as a lever for bargaining purposes with the Opposition. Repeated letters from the party's General Secretary to provide security to its high-profile organisers are being ignored, and they believe the Defence Ministry is monitoring these requests with political objectives.
These developments come at a time when security issues have become the primary preoccupation not only for the Government but the security details of visiting dignitaries for the SAARC summit which begins on July 27. Security considerations have prompted Afghan President Hamid Karzai to call off his visit to Colombo.
This is the first time Afghanistan will be attending a SAARC summit after its admission to the south Asian regional grouping at the New Delhi summit last year. But Karzai is a high profile target, especially of the al-Qaeda group. He was scheduled to stay at the Cinnamon Grand Hotel, but the hotel was informed that he would not be coming, which indicates that originally, there were plans for him to come, and for some reason, these plans were changed. The fact that another high-profile al-Qaeda target, Pakistan President Pervez Musharaff, is also not coming for the summit, though for different reasons, puts less pressure on the Sri Lankan security establishment.
Indian security authorities are also in close consultation with their Sri Lankan counterparts over developments related to security. Causing an element of uncertainty over the visit of Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, is the trust vote his Congress Government is facing in the Lok Sabha this coming Tuesday.
This followed the Communist Party of India, a constituent partner in the Congress-led Coalition Government, withdrawing support in the light of New Delhi's nuclear deal with the United States. Whilst winning the confidence vote would in all certainty pave the way for the visit of Manmohan Singh, questions are being raised whether he would chose to come to Colombo if his Government is defeated. However, there is no impediment to such a visit even in the event of a defeat since he would most likely remain Prime Minister by next weekend when the SAARC summit takes place, or in the least, should he dissolve the Lok Sabha, be caretaker Prime Minister until elections are called.
Meanwhile, allegations in India that the Sri Lanka Navy fired at Tamil Nadu fishermen killing two and wounding one off the seas of Point Calimere, in Indian territorial waters have become an irritant in relations between Colombo and New Delhi. The Sri Lanka Government has denied Indian allegations and has, through diplomatic channels, offered a detailed explanation. On the opposite page our Defence Correspondent deals with this aspect in the Situation Report.
With this development, there was more disappointing news. Though Sri Lanka and India on Wednesday finalised the draft of the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) to boost trade ties and open up services and investment sectors, it has now become clear it will not be signed by President Rajapaksa and Premier Singh on the sidelines of the SAARC summit. Indian Commernce Secretary G.K. Pillai was in Sri Lanka to finalise the draft.
Government sources said the move is the direct outcome of protests by a constituent partner of the Government, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and Wimal Weerawansa's National Freedom Front that is backing the Rajapaksa administration. In the wake of moves to conclude the agreement, the two parties have campaigned vociferously urging the Government not to go ahead with the CEPA deal.
Singapore was the first country with which India entered into a CEPA agreement. Officials say New Delhi is negotiating with Japan, South Korea, ASEAN and the European Union to formulate similar agreements. The volume of trade in goods and services between Sri Lanka and India is projected to rise from US$ 516 million to US$ 1.5 billion when the proposed CEPA agreement becomes fully operational. The CEPA is a follow up of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the two countries. The FTA was confined mainly to trading goods. CEPA, however, is to cover a whole range of services and investment sector. Since Sri Lanka and India signed the FTA nine years ago, the volume of trade has jumped from US$ 46 million to US$ 516 million.
Indian officials say the bulk of Indian exports to Sri Lanka include petroleum products and transport equipment amounting to almost half of the total. Semi finished iron and steel are also fast growing export items from India. Among import items from Sri Lanka are coffee, tea, edible oil, non ferrous metal, spices and electrical machinery. The Commerce Secretaries of the two countries are expected to review the CEPA every six months and the Ministers every year.
Now that the agreement will not be signed on the sidelines of the SAARC summit, the question remains how the two sides would officially explain the matter.
Whatever Governor Cabral may say about the economy, the signs are ominous. In recent months, the Government has been forced to stave off a collapse in the economy by resorting to foreign commercial bank loans at high interest rates, and thanks to the infusion of some funds at low interest rates from countries like Iran.
But this week, a stunner remark came from the visiting British Under Secretary for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Lord Malloch-Brown during a visit to Trincomalee where he met the newly elected members of the Eastern Province Provincial Council.
During the discussion, presided over by Chief Minister Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias Pillayan, UNP's Ampara district councillor Daya Gamage raised the question of the GSP+ issue -- the special European Union duty free concessions on thousands of items that are exported by Sri Lanka to the many countries in Europe giving Sri Lanka a distinct advantage over its competitors from other countries. This was a concession won by previous Sri Lankan Governments for her exporters. Apparently, UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, accused by the Government of roaming around Europe in recent months canvassing against the extension of this concession when it comes up for review next month -- an accusation Wickremasinghe has denied -- had asked that the subject not be discussed with the visiting British politician.
Gamage however is a businessman who owns several garment factories, apart from private planes, and employs 4,000 workers. He could not resist asking the question. Lord Malloch-Brown lost no time in responding.
"No, no..nothing doing", he said, "London nor the EU will agree", and went on to refer to the string of human rights violations and corruption. Joining the chorus was the British High Commissioner Dr. Peter Haynes, who began referring to the abductions, assaults on media personnel, abductions of businessmen, the 'white van syndrome'. The Provincial Councillors were taken aback, even though the GSP+ issue was not something common to all of them, nor something that interested them. They were asking for British help for schools, hospitals and computer classes. But the Malloch-Brown message on the GSP+ matter would surely have its reverberations in Colombo rather than in Trincomalee, and have the Government pondering how to explain all this to the people.
During this week, a World Bank delegation was also in the country meeting Government officials. They too visited the East, and in Colombo had a luncheon meeting at the Cinnamon Grand Hotel with Opposition provincial councillors from the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the UNP. The Government had asked the World Bank for financial assistance to develop the newly-liberated East. The delegation asked the opposition politicians about the future of the Eastern Provincial Council.
The four-member World Bank delegation asked whether the Council can come up with even a five year plan, and whether the Opposition is consulted on these developments plans. They were told that the Council has no money, and has no budget.
The Opposition is planning to walk out of the Provincial Council meeting scheduled for Tuesday to protest a grenade attack on the residence of Arasaratnam Sasitharan, a UNP councillor, the previous Friday night (July 11). Chief Minister Pillayan had telephoned Sasitharan soon after the attack and promised additional security, but it will be harder for him to shake off the accusations that his party cadres were involved in the attack which resulted in two policemen on guard duty being injured.
With campaigning for provincial elections in Sabaragamuwa and the North Central Province now in progress, how the underlining message that the world community is distancing itself from the Government, and the Government from them - given this week's tough guidelines on United Nations employees working in Sri Lanka, will play out with the rural voters, some of whose jobs depend on the world economy, is something to be seen.