The Political Column

4th March 2001

Diplomatic war on LTTE

By our Political Correspondent

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Sri Lanka was savouring one of its biggest international diplomatic tri umphs this week with the long-awaited decision of the British government to move for the banning of the LTTE activities there.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar had for weeks personally led a diplomatic campaign to put pressure on the British government to name the LTTE as a terrorist organization.

Last month, Mr. Kadirgamar told newspaper editors that relations with Britain might be strained if the Blair government did not ban the LTTE under tough new anti-terrorism laws.

Some political and diplomatic analysts believe that Mr. Kadirgamar could have been more diplomatic in his approach, but the developments this week have proved that he had acted well and wisely.

In the afterglow of the success, Mr. Kadirgamar called a news conference on Friday to announce that Sri Lanka would continue its diplomatic offensive to get the screws tightened on the LTTE in Norway, Switzerland, Germany, Canada and other countries where the rebels are known to be active.

It appears that the government's international strategy is to corner the LTTE diplomatically so that it would not be able to take a hardline when negotiations eventually begin.

Mr. Kadirgamar expressed confidence that the latest developments would expedite the peace process and help find a solution hopefully by the end of this year. But there is a lot of scepticism over such targets largely because politicians are notorious for not keeping their deadlines or promises.

The LTTE's reaction to Britain's decision was predictably cautious. While stridently proclaiming that the ban would be a triumph for 'Buddhist racism and fascism', LTTE chief negotiator Anton Balasingham stressed that the rebels would continue the peace process with Norwegian facilitation.

Significantly, he said the LTTE's eventual response would depend on how leniently or how harshly the British government implemented the ban. He was apparently referring to a complicated parliamentary and legal process which the LTTE would probably exploit fully to filibuster if not undermine the proposed ban.

Hours before Britain's decision was announced in London, a PA-orchestrated demonstration was held outside the opposition leader's office to protest against the failure of the UNP to fully support the demand for a British ban on the LTTE.

Apparently placed in an embarrassing position, the UNP issued a statement which again indicated indecisiveness if not a Hamlet situation over what to do or not to do.

If there were cheers on the diplomatic front, there were tears on the economic front, especially over the rampaging cost of living and the government's inability if not unwillingness to act against the plundering traders.

With the first budget of the PA government's second term just four days away, people are expecting some sort of relief from the government to cope with the spiralling cost of living.

But the government appears to be taking cover behind heavy military expenditure and is reportedly implementing IMF/WB recommendations regardless of heavy burdens placed on the people.

The government is coming under severe criticism from opposition parties for its poor economic performance, especially after the PA's second term in office began in October last year.

The wage-earning middle class people, especially in the government sector, are the worst hit. Some travel to their workplaces in Colombo from places as far as Chilaw, Kandy and Galle, spending a large portion of their meagre salaries on transport alone. Many of them are now wondering whether it is worthwhile to do a job in Colombo.

The middle class wage-earning people are compelled to pay more for electricity, water, gas, transport, food and virtually everything they buy now but their income remains the same.

It is in this light that many see the Satyagraha launched by the Ceylon Workers' Congress and other unions demanding a Rs. 400 allowance for the plantations workers as just.

Even Minister Indika Gunawardene saw it as just and reasonable. He joined hands with the CWC and added his voice in favour of the plantation workers' demand.

Mr. Gunawardene's action, though it runs contrary to the collective responsibility of a minister, should be commended. Some say he acted in his capacity as a member of the communist party which sympathises with the trade union cause and not as a minister. Thus he avoided causing any embarrassment to the government.

But his action should be an eye-opener to the government or perhaps a warning that the government should think more than twice before heaping any more burdens on the people.

It also encourages government and semi-government employees to agitate for higher salaries.

Minister Gunawardene was not alone in his call for higher salaries for workers. He has an ally in Minister Arumugam Thondaman who is spearheading the protest fast campaign in Hatton demanding that the plantations workers also should be paid a 400-rupee cost of living allowance which the government ordered all private-sector firms to pay just before the October elections. Estate firms, however, claimed that the plantation workers would not qualify for this payment because they were covered by a collective agreement.

Now with two ministers voicing concern over the rising cost of living, tough times are ahead for the government. But the PA appears little worried over the situation, probably because it does not have to face a major election for another five years. Even the local polls which were scheduled for early this year have been indefinitely postponed.

But it is learnt that some other ministers are also expressing concern over the hardships people face though they were not as vociferous as Mr. Gunewardene.

PA apologists meanwhile say that if the President had not taken these harsh measures, the economy would have fallen apart. They say things would be back to normal in due course. Even President Kumaratunga appealed to the nation to be patient for a short while until the economy recovered. But Mr. Gunewardene, addressing the All Ceylon Post and Telecommunication Workers' Union at Gunasinghepura in Pettah last week, asked how long this short time would be.

"The officials in the Treasury should be reminded that the budget cannot be prepared without taking into consideration the plight of the working class.

"Some measures of relief should be presented in the budget this time. The government will not fall if the salaries of the working class are increased. Therefore, it is in their own interests to increase salaries in the budget. When one considers the high cost of living the present salaries are inadequate," he said.

While the President is advising the ministers to cut down expenditure, most of them enjoy all the benefits while the burden of maintaining them is passed on to the people.

If the government takes steps to minimize corruption and cut down expenditure on luxury items, the benefit could be passed on to the people by investing the money thus saved on development projects.

Corruption and waste seem to be the norm in state-sector transactions. To cite an example, recently the Treasury approved a proposal by the North Central Province to buy five luxury vehicles at a cost of Rs. 5 million each. The council resolved to buy these vehicles by diverting the money allocated for a development project. Now where does the priority lie?

Talking of corruption and waste in the government sector, the President herself recently pointed out that the Ceylon Electricity Board was reeking with corruption. The President also said in a TV talk-show that she had to remove one CEB chairman for corruption and the same fate would befall the present management.

Though the President did not mention names, it cast a reflection the present CEB management.

Mr. Deraniyagala in the meantime issued a media statement, giving reasons for the electricity surcharge from March 1. Among the reasons he cited was the purchase of electricity from private companies. CEB unions have alleged that there were mass-scale corruption in the CEB. Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte under whose ministry the CEB comes has also called for an immediate inquiry into the alleged malpractices.

He called upon the Auditor General to go into the matter in detail.

President Kumaratunga alleged that some officials had built mansions which they could not have done under normal circumstances. Her comments were fair enough, but she appears to be tackling the symptoms rather than the source of the sickness which is political interference. If the management of a government body comes under the command of political masters, corruption is inevitable.

The President also took the government servants to task on Tuesday when she gave them a stern warning that they should depart if they could not work.

She told them they needed to remember that they were paid by the people and they had a responsibility to provide an efficient and dedicated service to the people.

She warned that increments and promotions would be denied if they were found to be lethargic.

The President should be commended for turning the screws on the public servants. Today, an ordinary man has to go through much hassle to get some work done from a public institution, which have become people-unfriendly.

People who visit public institutions are sent from pillar to post or asked to come another day. But if a bribe is paid, the same work is done immediately.

Bribery is an offence under the existing law, but on the other hand one should go into the root cause of this evil. The main factor that sustains bribery is poor salary. The public servant clerk is virtually a pauper today when compared with the clerk in the private or banking sector. Thus in today's materialism-driven world with TV ads and the extravagance of the new rich testing the honesty of public servants, they are compelled to resort to earn money through whatever means.

Therefore, before bribery and corruption are tackled, the salaries of the public servants should be increased.

If the public institutions are devoid of political interference and public servants are paid decent salaries, then they could be taken to task if they are found to be indulging in corruption.

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