Wars and woes of 2008

As another year winds down, it is perhaps timely to look back and also ponder what lies ahead for us. Clearly, the 'war' in the North-East theatre has been the single-most crucial issue before the country.

It is costing lives, money and the destruction of the habitat - but there is overwhelming consensus that it has to be endured, and finished. It has gone on for far too long -- its terrible legacy a whole generation that knows nothing other than young men and women, even children killed in battle, innocent civilians caught in the crossfire and in bombings, a whole mass of Sri Lankans living for decades without lights, roads, consumer goods, often sans food and jobs, displaced and orphaned. It's a misery that must end. To the Government's credit it 'liberated' the East this year. Not for the first time has the East been so 'liberated', but due to past vacillation and ad-hocism, it fell back into terrorist hands and more lives were lost in wresting control once again. The battle has now been concentrated in the North-East Wanni region, the LTTE corralled into a limited land mass and facing daunting odds against the advancing Security Forces.

The casualties are very high, and neither side's statistics are believed anymore. In war, morale is important, and understandably, commanders are averse to probing questions - especially when there are losses and debacles in battle. The year also witnessed a continuing tussle with the Forces valiantly trying to ensure the country does not so easily slip into a Police State while combating a ferocious enemy -- for as Cicero said 'Laws are dumb in time of war'. But what the Government has ignored is the vital artery that keeps the nation alive while fighting a costly war - the economy. The gains in the battlefield have all been lost on the economy.

The recent Supreme Court judgment against the Government for imposing unfair taxes and levies on the people by way of exorbitant petrol prices has had the Government complaining that it is being deprived of monies to finance the 'war effort'.
Unfortunately, this is a hollow argument when confronted with the almost criminal wastage of public funds in re-launching a budget airline -- Rs. six billion to run one aircraft. Word is already getting around that this airline is nothing but a 'slush-fund' for the Government and its cohorts. Our Business section this week in its year-end review gives details of frauds, frauds and more frauds. Not all of them took place this year (such as the Water's Edge case), but they were telling examples of how Governments have been run in recent times.

This Government, and this Government alone, must take the singular responsibility for ignoring the reports of the Parliamentary committees on Public Enterprises, and Public Accounts; the Auditor General's report; pussy-footing on the investigations of the massive VAT fraud and at the same time, the protection of Inland Revenue officers who held responsible posts during that fraud. Suspicion is easily cast on the Government as to why there is no scrutiny of public finances.

Supervision - or the lack of it -- of finance companies by some other name has come into serious reckoning. And yet, the Presidential Commission report on failed finance companies of the past handed over to the President more than a fortnight ago has not been made public. Why? Who is the Government - or the Commission, trying to protect? Surely, the public must know what happened. Otherwise, what is the purpose of these fact-finding commissions? Not too long ago, a similar commission headed by a sitting Supreme Court Judge handed over their report on questionable arms procurements -- relating to purchases even before the incumbent President took office. It has still not been made public. Is it that the commission came out with a nil report or is the Government protecting some people? What explanation could there be otherwise?

The recent hedge fund scam of the Petroleum Corporation is one thing, but the Government's reluctance to punish those responsible compounds the misdeed. The Minister in charge remains in-situ. The Fisheries Minister's wife is in a company that is engaged in business deals with a corporation directly under her husband. The Minister of Nation Building is asked how he amassed millions of rupees of undeclared monies -- the list goes on. Not surprisingly there are increasing reports that foreign governments are shying away from funding projects here. A whole can of worms is there to be opened in Government contracts in the newly liberated East.

The prognosis for the New Year on the economic front is therefore not good. The world economy is also in meltdown and the impact of this downward spiral is inevitably going to hit Sri Lanka.

To expect the country to prosper once the menace of terrorism is done with, may be too premature. The road is long and hard, and the Government will require greater sacrifices and a more hard-nosed look at the way the economy is handled in the New Year if it is not going to fall into a pit, and pull down the already hard-hit citizenry with it. Jettisoning the Rs. 6 billion Mihin Lanka project would be a start to show that the Government cares about public money, and putting the economy in the right direction in the New Year.

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