ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday June 01, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 53
Columns - Political Column  

Cock and bull stories for trapped people

  • UNP resorts to JR-style bullock cart protest, but offers no effective alternative
  • Fuel prices, cost of living soar as Govt. makes late start on austerity measures
  • JVP charges Govt. moving towards Marcos-style family dictatorship

By Our Political Editor

No Go: The UNP's Bullock Cart protest. Pic by M.A. Pushpakumara

Thirty-five years ago, the then Government of Prime Minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, had increased fuel prices by cents than rupees. Bus fares rose consequently. The official slogan then declared that bus fares were raised only by a new quarter (bus gaasthu aluth kaalakin). That averaged some ten to fifteen cents.

The then Opposition Leader J.R. Jayewardene had only weeks earlier assumed the mantle of the United National Party (UNP) leadership. That was after the demise of Dudley Senanayake in April 1973. Jayewardene was proactive and assertive. From his residence "Braemar" at Ward Place, a bullock cart procession was organised. It was to wind its way to opposite the old Parliament (now the Presidential Secretariat) over looking the Indian Ocean. That was to demonstrate the opposition's protest over the fuel price increases. The event was not without moments of humour.

One of the organisers was then MP for Kesbewa, Dharmasena Attygalle, an Ayurvedic physician by profession and a man popular with the proletariat in his electorate. He had assembled several bulls and carts on the road outside "Braemar." One cart, however, was inside the premises and lay on a prop. The bull tied loosely to a tree was feeding on some grass.

It was time for the procession to leave. When Jayewardene emerged through the door, the bull that was to draw his cart was gone. Together with another, they were heading in the direction of Borella. "They are also like some of our politicians. They go all over," remarked a Jayewardene aide. He had to wait until carters rushed, brought them back and tied them to the cart. It was different from the regular chauffeur pulling the car to the porch.

When the procession got under way along Ward Place, it was bad news for one of the main organisers, Attygalle. Just opposite the then Accident Service of the General (now National) Hospital, he wanted to accelerate the bull to move fast. For that, he did what the carters do - place their own leg between the rear legs of the bull and tickle the animal. The angry beast retaliated by spraying dung on Attygalle's immaculate white sarong. Jayewardene and one time Colombo Mayor turned politician V.A. Sugathadasa, who were in the lead bullock cart ahead, reached Parliament. Attygalle, however, had to go for a change of clothes.

Last Wednesday, there was a repeat of this bullock cart procession by a new generation of UNPers. That was not without comical moments either. A dozen bullock carts wound their way from opposite the Fort Railway Station to the Town Hall grounds. Keeping pace with these carts were Prados, Pajeros and BMWs of the parliamentarians who took part. Whilst the bulls toiled with the heavy load of the politicians, their vehicles burnt petrol and diesel running empty. A prominent woman participant who rode one of the carts shouted hoarsely "apey gona apita hondai" (our bull is good for us).

Non-cabinet Labour Minister Mervyn Silva, the Government's hit man on most issue, was to add a mischievous and uncharitable aside to the episode. Addressing a meeting in Kelaniya that followed the opening of a bridge on Friday, Silva charged that the woman participant should be sacked immediately from the UNP. It was his tongue in cheek contention that she made those ugly references to her party leader. Silva, known for his tart tongue, was still using crutches after the motor accident in Mahiyangana.

Thus, for the UNP, the second oldest political party in Sri Lanka, public campaigns have become just a repetition of those that occurred 35 years ago. That the party has not been able to formulate new, cohesive strategy to win public confidence at a time when there is seething public discontent is an indictment. More so, when further hardships have been placed on the people because of last week's fuel price hike and the resultant impact on the already high cost of living. Coupled were other issues like moves to stifle media freedom and thus restrict what the people want to know, not to mention the brand new theory that state sector employees cannot join "anti government" protests.

There is also an equal indictment on the Government on the way the fuel price hike was handled. It was well known that fuel prices in the world market were on an upward trend. Weeks earlier, forecasts said crude prices would spiral to over $200 by the end of the year. Yet, no Cabinet Sub Committee or a panel of energy experts were appointed to examine the impact the rising crude oil prices would have on the country's economy and the best way to cope with it. Austerity measures to curtail use of fuel could have been examined. Such a move was long over due.

It is only after the prices were increased that such measures are now being gone into. It was a case of locking the cart stable after the bull had bolted. And, yesterday the Government effected steep increases ranging from 60 to more than 100 percent in railway fares. Despite this increase, Railway authorities said they would continue to run at a loss.

In this backdrop, it is still too early to assess the full impact of last week's fuel price hike. That is particularly on the cost of living. The price of practically all consumer items will go up if they have not already. Transport hikes are already in place. The Government is yet to put into effect austerity measures to curb consumption of fuel. On the other hand, the opposition is yet to seize on the mounting public discontent with an innovative campaign.

Like the bullock cart protest, it has now requested motorists to stop their vehicles on the road at noon on Thursday and toot their horn. One is not sure whether to laugh or cry at this. Any motorist doing so in the middle of the road will surely be violating the law. Thus, he or she will face a fine or court action. Has the UNP prepared the ground for any such campaign of civil disobedience? The move, therefore, highlights a lack of a cohesive strategy by the UNP to win public support.

The only visible protest over the fuel price hike has come from the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). On Wednesday it began a countrywide poster campaign over the hike and the resultant rise in the cost of living. The party is also planning street protests. A JVP source told The Sunday Times these protests would be followed by strikes if the Government does not pay heed to alleviating the problems of the people. However, the rift within the JVP with the Weerawansa faction crossing over will be a big impediment for the JVP's protest campaigns. It will no doubt become a testing time for its strength.

Interesting enough, JVP leader Somawansa Amerasinghe was waxing eloquent on Wednesday at the departure lounge of the Bandaranaike International Airport. He was waiting to board a flight to London en-route to Sweden. A group had surrounded him and a Q & A session followed. The Sunday Times obtained highlights of what he said.

Amerasinghe: "Sri Lanka is going through a major transformation. The concentration of power in one family is growing. Soon, there will be a new Marcos in Asia. There could be more thuggery like what happened during the Provincial Council elections in the East. There will be polls for two Provincial Councils by the end of July. They say they will win it by hook or crook. They have tested it out in the East and learnt the doctrine. We do not accept the claim that there was free and fair elections in the East. People were prevented from voting in some parts of Dehiattakandiya. We are investigating it.

"This is the beginning of the establishment of a dictatorship. The Defence Secretary who is a member of the ruling family is cracking down on the media and the opposition politicians. The right to free expression is fast eroding. In a democracy, the media play an important role. In a dictatorship the media are muzzled. They use various ruses and excuses for this.

"We will not resort to violence. The Government is making use of people whom we expelled and those who left us to carry out propaganda that we are going to resort to violence. We are not. We will not be deterred by the actions of those who have betrayed the ideals of the JVP. Those in the so called National Freedom Front (NFF) who are among those who have done that will soon be exposed. The NFF's role is to provide disinformation and protect the Government.

"One of the resolutions we passed at our Convention on May 27 was to call upon members of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and other parties to reject the policies of the Rajapaksa administration. Our conventions are held every four years. At present we are strengthening our party cells. Thereafter, we want to focus our campaign on the continuing economic instability and the problems being faced by the people. Their main enemy is the Government. They should not underestimate our strength. We will not only prove to them that we are not weak but we are a party that would make sacrifices through democratic means to win benefits for the people.

"The next meeting of the JVP Central Committee will take up the case of dissident Wimal Weerawansa. The JVP has already picked on a new Parliamentary Group leader (Anura Kumara Dissanayake) and an Information Secretary (Vijitha Herath). Weerawansa has still not answered the charges we preferred against him. We sent him an invitation under registered cover to attend the May 27 convention. Since his new residential address is not available, we sent it both to Parliament and care of the Patriotic National Movement (PNM). He did not respond to it much the same way he has not responded to the charges preferred against him. The Central Committee did have a meeting after the convention. But that was to discuss procedural matters."

Against this backdrop, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who met editors of national newspapers on Tuesday vowed to continue the fight against Tiger guerrillas to the end. In other words, despite economic hardships, the battles to seize guerrilla-dominated territory in the North will continue. Both political and military leaders have re-iterated that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) would be "eliminated" by the end of 2008.

Yet, the Government has not altogether abandoned its dialogue with Norway, which remains the peace facilitator. In the recent weeks, two Cabinet Ministers - Milinda Moragoda and Mahinda Samarasinghe -- visited Oslo for meetings with International Development Minister, Erik Solheim and Special Envoy for the Sri Lankan peace process, Jon Hanssen Bauer. Samarasinghe who was there this week had briefed the duo on developments in Sri Lanka and stressed on the need to continue the dialogue between Colombo and Oslo. Opposition and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was on an European tour last week, also had a breakfast meeting with both Solheim and Bauer in Bonn, Germany last Wednesday.

Norway voted for Sri Lanka in its failed bid to retain its seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council last week. Diplomatic sources said this was on the understanding that Sri Lanka would support Norway, which will make a bid for the Council next year. Another related development is at the Secretariat Co-ordinating the Peace Process - a body that continues to function though the Ceasefire Agreement was abrogated in January, this year. The Peace Secretariat as it is better known is a by-product of the CFA. Its head, Dr. Rajiva Wijesinghe, is strongly tipped to become the new Secretary to the Ministry of Human Rights and Disaster Management. The present incumbent is to retire. It is not immediately clear whether he will also remain, as head of the Peace Secretariat or a replacement would be named.

Therefore, despite an aggressive war on several fronts - Tiger guerrillas, the media, the opposition and others who have dissenting views, the Government continues to keep its peace options open. With the cost of living dealing a crushing blow and growing public discontent, there are fears the situation could worsen. Nevertheless, what could the trapped public do? If they are badly off with what is becoming an increasingly authoritarian Government, they are worse off with an increasingly inefficient main opposition.

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