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15th February 1998


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The 50th Independence Anniversary exhibition at the BMICH is attracting large crowds. Of special interest is the Defence Ministry stall where the army's latest weaponry is on display despite criticism that it is being exposed to LTTE spies who may be among the crowd. Thousands of young people, including young monks, visited the stall. Pic by Sajeewa Chinthaka


Estate workers defy wage deal

By Chris. Kamalendran and M. Ismeth

Thousands of estate workers alleging a sellout by their union leaders launched fresh protest campaigns yesterday and burnt effigies of CWC boss Saumayamoorthy Thondaman.

The fresh protests cast doubts about the settlement of the nine day plantations strike as more than 80 per cent of the workers did not turn up to work yesterday despite the announcement that the strike was over.The protesting workers claimed their union leaders had led them down by agreeing to settle for a daily wage of Rs. 101 instead of Rs. 105 as demanded earlier. There was speculation in the estate sector that Deputy Minister, Periyasamy Chandrasekaran, who also heads a plantation union was spearheading the campaign against the settlement. His union the Upcountry People's Front had not agreed to the daily wage of Rs. 101.

Posters sprung in Thalawakele, Nanuoya, Bogawantalawa and Nuwera Eliya claiming the union leaders had betrayed the workers when they reached an agreement with President Kumartunga and management companies after several hours of talks on Friday night. Black flags also were put up in some towns and estates.

The protests were mainly directed at the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) which claims to be the biggest union in the estate. Crowds broke into the Thalawakele CWC office and manhandled the staff. However other major unions including the UNP backed Lanka Jathika Estate Workers Union (LJEWU) which took part in the talks on Friday were also targeted in the protests.

Plantation company officials, commenting on the fresh and unexpected wave of defiance and failure of workers to return to work yesterday, said most of the workers had perhaps not been yet informed to return to work since the decision had been taken late on Friday.

"We expect all of them back at work by tomorrow,"an official of a plantation company said.

LJEWU General Secretary Raja Seneviratne, reacting to the protests said members of his union would return to work in response to the decision made by the leaders. "The plantation industry has to survive. We need to be reasonable," he said.Under the deal worked out after several rounds of talks, estate workers will get a daily wage of Rs. 95 and a price share supplement of Rs. 6, totalling Rs. 101.

On rubber estates, the workers will get a daily wage of Rs. 95 plus 30 cents for each rupee when the RSS 1 price goes higher than Rs. 65 a kilo.

The giant CWC which supports the government, the LJEWU and some 16 other unions in the Joint Plantations Trade Unions Committee, had in a rare show of unity launched the strike together on February 5 in support of a daily wage of Rs. 125. During negotiations, the unions agreed to come down to a daily wage of Rs. 100-105.

But plantations companies refused to go beyond Rs. 95 till the President intervened.

TV chief quits over political shows

State television Rupavahini, the government's propaganda flagship, has run into a storm with the resignation of its Director General W. T. Jayasinha after a heated argument over programmes which are allegedly intended to slander political opponents.

Mr. Jayasinha, a senior officer of the Sri Lanka Administrative Service confirmed that he had submitted his resignation from the top post in Rupavahini but declined to give details.

Political sources told The Sunday Times the immediate cause for his resignation was Mr. Jayasinha's strong objections to a Rupavahini programme on the life of business tycoon Upali Wijewardene and his family.

The programme coinciding with the anniversary of Mr. Wijewardene's mysterious death was produced by a private company with no connection to the national television.

Mr. Jayasinha had earlier objected to certain aspects of a programme on military operations in the north.

Meanwhile, a dispute over political misinterpretation or mudslinging in a golden jubilee cultural show is continuing while the show itself ran into all sorts of problems when it was staged opposite parliament at Sri Jayewardenapura on Friday.

The script for the post-1977 period was altered after the UNP protested that it focused far too much on the politics of terror and ignored all the development projects.

The cultural pageant depicting Sri Lanka's history was originally, like the main independence show, to be staged in Kandy but the location was later shifted.

As in the independence ceremony, the lack of facilities and extra tight security arrangements created various problems for some 600 artistes who took part in the pageant.

Artistes complained there was only one toilet for all of them only a little better than the situation on February 4 when hundreds of VIP invitees had to hold tight for several hours without even a single toilet.

Artistes at Friday's show also said they had no changing rooms while some artistes who were dressed like policemen to play a part in the pageant were stopped at the security barriers.

This was probably because of intelligence reports that some suicide bombers might surface in the guise of policemen.

The actor-policemen were however allowed to enter the area after it was disclosed that President Kumaratunga would not be coming for the pageant.

Lanka protests over court remarks

Suresh case in Canada

Sri Lanka this week lodged a protest to Canada following terse comments made by a Canadian court against the government over the non-deportation of a hard-core LTTE activist, Suresh Manickavasagam.

Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar on Wednesday summoned Canadian High Commissioner Conrad Sigurdson and conveyed the govt.'s displeasure over the remarks when the govt. of Sri Lanka was not even represented in the case.

Suresh was found guilty by the Canadian Federal Court of being an LTTE activist and involved in extortion and other criminal activities.

He was to be deported to Sri Lanka or a third country. The Canadian govt. made overtures to several countries, including, Norway and South Africa, but there were no takers.

In the meantime, a lower court, the High Court of Ontario, issued a strong order preventing the deportation.

In issuing the strong order the judge had made scathing remarks about the security situation in Sri Lanka, even disregarding an affidavit sent by High Commissioner Sigurdson. The Sunday Times learns that the Canadian authorities are now making fresh moves to coax a third country to accept Suresh.

In the meantime, Canadian authorities are considering the options of appealing to the Constitutional Court against the Ontario High Court order.

The landmark case attracted wide publicity in Canada with the LTTE employing top lawyers to fight the case.

Attack on journalist widely condemned

Journalists and politicians have universally condemned Thursday's armed assault on the residence of Iqbal Athas, the veteran defence correspondent, as a stepped-up onslaught on media freedom in Sri Lanka.

But, at the same time, some of the main political parties, while expressing revulsion at the attack, appeared to be using it to attack each other.

In the Thursday night attack, up to 15 unidentified gunmen took part in a stake out and raid of his Nugegoda home, assaulting and menacing at gunpoint occupants including Mr. Athas and his seven-year-old daughter. Mr. Athas swiftly went public on this, and has since expressed suspicion that these were military personnel disguised in civilian clothing who were carrying out a vendetta hit, or threat of such a hit, on him. He also believes they were acting under orders from armed services brass, whose integrity and professionalism he has questioned in his Sunday Times "Situation Reports" and who he says have since launched a media blitz to discredit him.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, whose directors include such heavyweights among American anchormen as Dan Rather of CBS News, Tom Brokaw of NBC, and Bernard Shaw of CNN, was the first to respond to the attack. Within hours the CPJ faxed a two-page statement to President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, attaching copies to at least 20 other such worldwide media groups.(See text of CPJ message)

On Friday and Saturday, local media groups, including some of Sri Lanka's most outspoken journalists, joined their American counterparts in condemning the attack. The Editors Guild of Sri Lanka, Prajathanthra (Foundation for Freedom of Expression), and others called on the government to punish those who masterminded and perpetrated the attack, and to abide by its 1994 campaign pledge that a reform of the nation's media law and policy, would ensure that they freely, and without fear, go about their duties.

The Editors' Guild said it was particularly concerned that a defence correspondent whose reports might not be palatable to some sections of the security establishment had been thus targeted by an armed group.

"We call uponthe government to closely investigate and identify the forces responsible in what appears to be systematic intimidation of this correspondent. it is the obligation of the concerned authorities to ensure that journalists can engage in their legitimate duties, without his kind of intimidation and interference," the Guild said in a statement.

"Such attacks, especially if coming from the security services, place the lives of journalists at stake, and can also pose a major threat to the freedom of expression and democracy itself," Prajathanthra's convenor Lucien Rajakarunanayake said.

"The information as given by Mr. Athas is reminiscent of the manner in which members from the police abducted Richard De Zoysa, who was later murdered, under the previous government.

"We are aware that the prevailing conditions of war, and the emergence of a war mentality could make members of the armed services think they should be free from criticism, and even become a law unto themselves....," he said.

On the political front, in what seemingly has become a set pattern in Lankan politics, the SLFP and the UNP expressed similar outrage over the attack on Mr. Athas, but then traded apparent snipes at one another.

After Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera issued a statement assuring tough action against the offenders, The UNP, for its part, released a statement devoid of any mention made of alleged media freedom abuses and other restrictions imposed on the Fourth Estate by previous regimes.

"We believe that the government is trying to suppress information by threats and intimidation," the UNP said. "The government is following a fraudulent policy regarding media freedom."

Leaders of other political parties, including the United Lalith Front, the Tamil Congress, TULF, and the PLOTE, also condemned the attack.

"In a city where there are security checks every few hundred yards, it is strange that this band of thugs were able to roam around unimpeded," remarked Srimani Athulathmudali, leader of the ULF.

Different views by top ministers

'Occupational hazard' Anuruddha

Deputy Defence Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte has dismissed the raid on 'The Sunday Times' Consultant Editor Iqbal Athas' residence by unidentified gunmen as an "occupational hazard for journalists".

Addressing a news conference after opening the Swarna Jayanthi exhibition at the BMICH on Friday, Gen. Ratwatte said journalists had the freedom to write what they wanted and thus such attacks were "occupational hazards."

Asked why state protection was not given to Mr. Athas despite previous incidents of armed intimidation at his residence, Gen. Ratwatte said the state could not provide protection to each and every person facing this kind of threat.

When journalists quizzed the Deputy Defence Minister as to why only a solitary policeman was placed outside Mr. Athas' residence after the raid by 15 armed gunmen on Thursday, Gen. Ratwatte said: "The police are very competent."

Diabolical act Mangala

Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera has expressed "shock, disbelief and regrets over the incident where about 15 armed men raided the residence of The Sunday Times Consultant Editor Iqbal Athas and threatened him and the family.

Condemning what he called " the atrocious behaviour" in unequivocal terms Mr. Samaraweera said the attack on the journalist was a diabolical attempt to mar the relationship that the government was trying to build with the media.

The Media Minister assured that in terms of orders given by President Kumaratunga, a full investigation would be held and action taken against anyone involved in that unlawful act, whatever position he might hold or influence he might wield.

Saying he understood the trauma the family had gone through, Mr. Samaraweera on behalf of the government expressed deep regrets to Mr. Athas and the family.

Predictions point to a minority government

By our Special Correspondent

The world's biggest democratic exercise, the Indian elections, is to begin tomorrow.

The elections to the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, and four state assemblies, are to be held in four phases till March 7. But counting would begin on March 2 and the results should begin to trickle out from the night of March 7.

Pre-poll surveys have consistently pointed to a hung parliament, though they did bring out significant, if not decisive, shifts in the fortunes of the parties in the fray, especially after Rajiv Gandhi's Italian born widow, Sonia, plunged into the Congress campaign in earnest.

The India Today/ORG/Marg survey, one of the earliest, had given the BJP combine 234 to 249 seats in a house of 543.

The Congress and its allies were given 150 to 165, and the United Front led by the Janata Dal and supported by the Left Front, was credited with something between 120 and 135 seats.

Towards the close of the campaign, a survey conducted by A. C. Nielsen for the Outlook magazine reported a significant shift away from the BJP and towards the Congress.

The BJP and its allies were credited with 231, and the Congress, 172. The UF-LF combine was a poorer third than before.

Though still ahead of the pack, the BJP was still nowhere near the 272 seats needed to have a simple majority.

The BJP juggernaut's roll had been stemmed by Sonia's charisma and her appeal to women and the minorities, especially the Muslims, who were apprehensive about the BJP's "Hindu nationalism." The unpubilcised but well known fact that Sonia a Catholic had endeared her to the minorities.

Sri Lanka factor

What does a minority government in New Delhi mean to Sri Lanka? More specifically, what does it mean to the government and the Tamil minority?

A weak government in New Delhi, dependent on the support of regional/ethnic parties, might well yield to pressure from the latter. In the present context, a weak BJP government might come under pressure from its new found, pro-LTTE allies like the PMK, MDMK, and the Samata Party. The AIADMK is unpredictable.

But at the same time a weak government might not be able to carry out the dictates of these ethnic parties, simply because it does not have a decisive parliamentary majority to effect a major foreign policy shift.

The experience so far has been that minority unstable coalition governments at the centre have actually softened India's attitudes towards its neighbours.

It was when A. B. Vajpayee was Foreign Minister in the Janata Party government in 1977-79, that there was a rapprochement with Pakistan.

It was when a coalition with the DMK in it was in place in New Delhi (the V. P. Singh regime), that India withdrew the IPKF and a hands off policy vis-a-vis Sri Lanka was put in place. This policy was adopted by subsequent governments.

However, one could not ignore the fact that the weakness of the V. P. Singh regime had an unintended side effect it was exploited by the DMK, which in its own fiefdom of Tamil Nadu, began supporting the LTTE unabashedly.

This would have spelt disaster for Colombo if the LTTE had continued to have bases in Tamil Nadu, when the Prabhakaran-Premadasa honeymoon abruptly ended to give way to Eelam War II.

Fortunately for Colombo, the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi had a dramatic effect on the fortunes of the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Tamil issue in Tamil Nadu and India as a whole.

The aftermath of the assassination in May 1991, showed clearly that the people of Tamil Nadu would not brook any truck with terrorism and the cult of violence, no matter what the cause.

The DMK and AIADMK saw the writing on the wall. Colombo and the mainstream Sri Lankan parties were the gainers. But the LTTE and the Tamils were the losers, because Tamil Nadu and India washed their hands of the ethnic problem.

This distancing was reflected in the manifestos of the parties for the current elections. The top dogs of Tamil Nadu politics, the DMK and the AIADMK, had totally avoided the issue, as did the TMC.

The Congress did mention it, but only to say that it was determined to book those who had helped the LTTE kill Rajiv Gandhi.

The BJP's manifesto pledged its support to a solution within a united Sri Lanka and expressed goodwill for all Sri Lankans, not just the Tamils.

The Tamils had been hoping that the Hindu Nationalist BJP would side with them vis-a-vis the Buddhist Sinhalese and that the BJP would provide a strong government. Both hopes are now dashed.

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