Columns - Political Column

The politics of floods and the food crisis

  • Second major deluge adds to Government's woes
  • Sajith insists UNP will win if he is given the leadership
By Our Political Editor

The forces of nature repeated their wrath for a second time in three weeks in the North Central Province, the country's largest and an important 'food basket', and the Eastern Province. If the surging floods last month left thousands homeless and destroyed vast extents of food crops, the remnants that escaped were badly hit while the homeless number has now risen to nearly a million people. The worst affected areas from a second bout of floods are Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara districts.

In the Anuradhapura district, the prison where there was recent rioting was under water on Friday. Prisoners were transferred hurriedly to Kandy, Wariyapola and Matale. The new town and Victory Hospital also went under water. More paddy and food crop lands were flooded. In the Polonnaruwa district, the Kaudulla tank overflowed, forcing irrigation engineers to open all sluice gates. The entire Medirigiriya town went under water causing heavy damage to buildings and prompting the Army and Navy to evacuate residents.

President Rajapaksa turns nostalgic on viewing a picture of him in prison in the good old days portrayed at the Deyata Kirula Photographic Exhibition in Bibile. Pic by Gemunu Wellage

The latest disaster came on Thursday night as the nation prepared to celebrate the 63rd anniversary of Independence. Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena, a parliamentarian from the paddy-producing district of Polonnaruwa, telephoned President Mahinda Rajapaksa who was at his suite near the Kiri Vehera in Kataragama. Sirisena said that the developing situation, for a second time, was very worrying. Rajapaksa made a hurried call to Major General Boniface Perera, the Army's Eastern Security Forces Commander, who was at his headquarters in Welikanda. Emergency relief measures were set in motion.

Fears that it would be worse than the floods last month emerged from the ferocity of the flow of water. An incident, which illustrated this, occurred at midnight Thursday. The Security Forces headquarters in Welikanda received a distress call that a group of villagers were marooned in a land area and the rising waters would swallow them within hours. Two boats manned by four soldiers trained in search-and-rescue operations and three sailors in each boat were deployed. One of the boats rescued the 17 villagers and headed towards Sittaru. Some fifty metres ahead of their berthing point, a heavy gush of water lifted the boat and thrust it towards the railings of a culvert that was above water.

The boat split in three. A sailor, two children (aged 6 and 8), a 49-year-old man and a 38-year-old woman died. Others who were swept away by the heavy currents managed to cling to trees. Troops in the second boat, groped with torchlights in the dark, compounded by heavy showers, to locate and rescue them. They returned in the second boat.

Most parts of Sri Lanka remained cloudy. If a very mild shower greeted the Independence Day celebrations at the sacred city of Kataragama, in neighbouring Buttala it rained heavily. The Deyata Kirula exhibition, an event that highlights the achievements of the military in the defeat of Tiger guerrillas in May, last year, the ground was waterlogged and soggy. President Rajapaksa, who declared it open on Friday, put off for another day a stall-to-stall visit to avoid wading in the mud. He also opened a new police station in Buttala.

The double disaster in the North Central Province comes when the Government's relief and rehabilitation efforts after last month's devastation have not been completed. Fears over shortage of food crops, particularly rice, voiced following last month's devastation, are bound to exacerbate. Adding to it manifold would be Friday night's announcement that the Lanka India Oil Company (LIOC) would raise the price of a litre of diesel by five rupees.

It came just hours after President Rajapaksa declared in his Independence Day address to the nation that "the country cannot be developed solely on popular decisions." He said, "Inconvenient and difficult decisions are also necessary for the nation's progress. It is the country's responsibility to take hard and difficult decisions to bring light to the future of our children, rather than take popular decisions that will lead them to darkness ahead."

The price of a gallon of diesel would increase by Rs 22.50 from the current price of 328.50. The Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) is sure to follow suit. This increase will reflect in a price rise in practically all goods (consumer items, especially vegetables included) and services affecting lower and middle-income groups. Compounding the situation for the government is the upcoming local council elections and more importantly the National New Year in April. Whilst the phenomenon of rising prices has haunted successive governments, there is a difference this time. It is on a scale not encountered in Sri Lanka before.

The main opposition party, UNP marched in procession from Punchi Borella to the Welikada Prison urging the release of former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka, on Friday night. Pic by Saman Kariyawasam

Changing global weather patterns have contributed to shortages of foodstuffs worldwide. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has warned of shortages in wheat, sugar, rice and other food items, due to weather conditions in Canada, Argentina, Russia, Europe and Australia. In fact, Rajapaksa told the nation on Friday, "Even at this moment, many countries in the world undergo much hardship due to effects of adverse weather and climate change. Our own citizens living in some parts of the country also face these conditions."

That would naturally mean imports are going to cost more and resultantly Sri Lankans would be forced to pay more. The President was clearly setting the stage for some unpleasant measures to come for the people.

Since his return to Sri Lanka after an eight-day 'private visit' to the United States, Rajapaksa's priority concern has been how to address the issue of price increases in commodities. Last Tuesday, he chaired a five-and-half-hour meeting of the ministerial committee that oversees issues relating to the prices of essential consumer items. He told his cabinet colleagues that according to a report forwarded to him by the Ministry of Finance, out of a basket of 112 consumer items, overall price increases of a few have amounted to only Rs 425. With regard to vegetables, he said a quarter of the quantity was damaged by the time it reaches Colombo from the growing areas. He directed that special crates be provided to vegetable growers to minimise this damage. However, Rajapaksa's remarks came before the increase of diesel prices.

In a lighter note, Rajapaksa remarked that the Opposition was more concerned about his 'private visits' abroad than the rise in prices of consumer items. The best way to distract their attention, he said laughingly, would be for him to make another 'private visit' abroad. He was alluding to a statement issued by UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake last week that the Government should issue a statement explaining why President Rajapaksa had undertaken a 'private' trip overseas.

However, at last Wednesday night's weekly cabinet meeting, Rajapaksa showed how serious he was to ensure the UPFA wins the maximum number of local councils at the March 17 elections. He announced the formation of a National Committee to monitor the polls campaign and the elections. It would comprise five senior ministers of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and leaders of constituent parties of the UPFA.

Chaired by President Rajapaksa himself, they would regularly monitor the progress of polls campaigns and address shortcomings that arise.

In the main opposition United National Party (UNP), leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has placed the polls campaign in the hands of his deputy, Karu Jayasuriya. Wickremesinghe is expected to leave for Prague in the Czech Republic. This is for a three-day Executive Committee meeting of the International Democratic Union (IDU), which begins on February 21. The IDU is an organisation made up largely of former heads of state or government and a few sitting ministers in different countries devoted to the cause of conservatism. They include , former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and former United States President George Bush Snr.

Last Thursday, Jayasuriya who heads a National Steering Committee for the local polls chaired a meeting where a string of decisions were taken. Most significant among them is one where it was unanimously decided that the UNP would have no dialogue with the UPFA on any issues arising out of the rejection of nomination papers. The move, a senior party source said, was prompted by reports that UPFA leaders at the highest levels had moved sections in the UNP hierarchy to have a "common approach" in courts when challenging the rejection of nominations. "Though it was not formally revealed, we had reason to believe a dialogue for a common approach was in the making. Hence the decision to ensure UNP retains its own identity," the source said.

The UNP has challenged in the Court of Appeal the rejection of nomination papers to five local authorities - Maharagama Urban Council, Embilipitiya Urban Council and the Pradeshiya Sabhas in Baddegama, Homagama and Welikanda. Here are brief accounts of the averments made in the respective application:
Maharagama Urban Council - G.G. Arulpragasam, attorney for the UNP, states that on inspection of nomination papers submitted by Susil Premajayantha, UPFA Secretary, "was fatally defective as Justice of Peace/Notary Public who had purportedly attested" his signature had failed to state the place of attestation in the space assigned. Wijeyadasa Rajapaksha P.C., the Authorised Agent, had submitted his objection in writing in a form provided. He had requested the rejection of the nomination paper. Together with Nimal R. Peiris, Rajapaksha is stated to have asked for a written acknowledgement of the UPFA candidate's nomination paper. The Assistant Commissioner of Election had refused it.

Embilipitiya Urban Council - Joe Rajakaruna, attorney for the UNP, states that the full name of the candidate Pallegangoda Wahampurage Jagath Prasanna Abeyrathne has been given in the nomination paper as P.W. Jagath Prasanna Abeyrathne. The said nomination had been rejected.

Baddegama Pradeshiya Sabha - Samararatne Associates appearing for the UNP states that the nomination paper contained the names of 14 candidates in respect of group one and 9 candidates in group two under the classification of Youth Candidates in accordance with Local Authorities Elections Ordinance. After the closure of nominations on January 27 at 12 noon, the Returning Officer had announced that the UNP nomination paper had been rejected, allegedly as affidavits given by two candidates in compliance with the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution did not contain the signature of the Justice of the Peace or Commissioner of Oaths.

Homagama Pradeshiya Sabha -Samararatne Associates appearing for the UNP states that the nomination paper submitted by the UNP was rejected by the Returning Officer as no birth certificate or affidavit was produced to confirm the age of a youth candidate or it was produced with shortcomings. They state that most of the affidavits of all candidates including those submitted by the 12 youth candidates were attested.

Welikanda Pradeshiya Sabha - Joe Rajakaruna, attorney for the UNP, states that the nomination paper was tendered with the relevant documents. The birth certificate of Rasindu Mohammadu Thayer had been issued by a hospital and therefore "as an abundance of caution an affidavit of the said candidate had been annexed to the nomination paper. The returning officer had verbally informed attorney at law Kins Kumar Nelson in the presence of other agents that Thayer's nomination was rejected since a birth certificate had not been produced.

The UNP boycotted the Independence Day celebrations this year too. However, deputy leader Karu Jayasuriya, Rukman Senanayake, a former UNP Chairman, Karunasena Kodituwakku were among those who placed floral tributes at the statue of the country's first Prime Minister D.S. Senananayake at Independence Square in Colombo. On Thursday night, things soured for the UNP which had staged a torch of 'pandang' (candle light) protest to seek the release of former General Sarath Fonseka from prison custody.

A procession that included Karu Jayasuriya, Ravi Karunanayake, Rosy Senanayake, Dayasiri Jayasekera and others were attacked by mobs armed with swords and poles. A high definition camera belonging to a private television network was seized and a group of journalists attacked. The incident came barely hours after President Rajapaksa had declared in his freedom day address to the nation that the country's freedom would not be meaningful in the absence of a law abiding society. "Therefore," he said, "we are committed to building a law-abiding society. The respect for discipline in a society is essential for development."

The protest leaders held a news conference at the Opposition Leader's official residence at Sir Marcus Fernando Mawatha. Jayasuriya and Jayasekera accused government goons of attacking their "peaceful protest" on freedom day. Though Sajith Premadasa was absent at the protest rally, he turned up on hearing the news of the attack to take part in the news conference. He, along with Jayasekera had been attending some functions in the Wattala area organised by the party senior John Amaratunga. Jayasekera had just slammed the government on the rising price of food stuffs pointing out that a price of each "haalmassa" (sprat) was now Rs. 2 and that when former President Ranasinghe Premadasa showed two halves of a coconut (he showed them two halves and said they were the very ones Premadasa had shown the public in the 1970s when the UNP was in the Opposition) each half was 35 cents - now they were 35 rupees each. He said that very soon, the UNP "under the leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa" would turn the tide on the government. He had wound up singing a song, not knowing what was in store for him at the hands of the goons at Borella.

Other UNP leaders said that Friday night's attack was intended to "drive fear" into party supporters who are expected to take part in a protest campaign in Colombo on Wednesday, February 9. UNP leader Wickremesinghe wants to muster a million party supporters for this event.

In Kataragama, 2,800 security forces personnel (Army 1,400, Air Force 300, Navy 300, Police 300, Civil Security Force 250 and Cadets 250) took part in the march-past. Later on Friday evening, President Rajapaksa hosted diplomats, ministers, officers of the armed forces and other invitees to a party at Ranminitenne -- the specially constructed complex which provides numerous buildings and settings for production of films.

Thursday's meeting of the UNP National Steering Committee also saw a complaint from Ravi Karunanayake that Sajith Premadasa verbally abused him. He had earlier declared that a written complaint would be made. The Committee noted the complaint but no discussion ensued. Premadasa on the other hand was quoted by a Sinhala daily as saying that if the party leadership and chairmanship of the local election campaign were placed in his hands, he would ensure victory. "Without these positions, I cannot lead the party to victory," he was quoted as saying. Premadasa has not denied the remarks attributed to him. He was also quoted as saying that he cannot achieve victory with his hands tied.

Last week's references in these columns to Sudath Chandrasekera, a former police officer and now private secretary to the UNP leader, drew an angry response from Ranil Wickremesinghe. "I have not appointed Chandrasekera to the party propaganda committee. It is Mangala Samaraweera who has done so," he told the Sunday Times. However, nominations to any party positions could have validity only with the concurrence of its leader. He is empowered to reject any name. Samaraweera, who is tasked with the propaganda campaign for the local elections, told the Sunday Times, "I included him among a number of others."

The nomination of Chandrasekera has generated a controversy within the committee with some refusing to take part. Others named in the committee included Ruwan Ferdinandes, Eran Wickremeratne, Harsha de Silva, Dayasiri Jayasekera, D.M. Swaminathan, Saman Athaudahetti and Asanka Mahagamgedera. Since nominations closed, attempts by Samaraweera to summon a meeting of all members have failed. The only two to turn up were Wickremeratne and de Silva.

At the National Steering Committee meeting last week Samaraweera made a presentation on how the party's propaganda should be carried out. However, due to lack of funds, leave alone propaganda campaigns, the party is unable to print posters and other material. Most candidates are using their connections with the business community in their respective areas to raise funds for their individual campaigns.

In London, pro-Tiger guerrilla groups who obstructed President Rajapaksa from addressing the Oxford Union in December, last year, was at it again. This time they staged protests when UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon turned up at the University to deliver a talk on 'Human Protection and Accountability.' The event on February 2 was titled the Cyril Foster lecture. The lecture is named after a person who bequeathed nearly all of his money to the academic establishment. In return, he had asked that a "sincere and prominent" speaker deliver an annual lecture. That was to deal with the elimination of war and bring about better understanding between countries.

Ban made a one paragraph reference to Sri Lanka. He said "As Secretary General I have insisted on standards of accountability, especially as they relate to conduct during conflict. This applies to our inquiry regarding the violent end to Sri Lanka's long internal war, and to the commission of inquiry in the case of the Middle East, most recently the flotilla case. We have also seen assistance to accountability efforts in Sudan and Kenya."

During the question and answer session that followed the lecture, there was one on Sri Lanka.
Question from Tim Martin of ACT NOW on SRI LANKA: "The UN has failed to 'prevent and protect' in such countries as Sri Lanka where up to 40,000 innocent civilians were massacred in 2009. Will you ensure during your term that those responsible are brought to justice? Will you ensure there is a proper independent investigation into war crimes and will you push for a UN referendum as the situation in Sri Lanka is the same as in south Sudan? The people have the same cultural differences, a different language and a different religion."

Ban Ki Moon: "I share your concerns and it concerned me at the time when the Sri Lankan government was fighting and the fight coming to an end. I visited Sri Lanka twice and I had very serious talks with the president and the government leaders of Sri Lanka. After a lengthy, very difficult and almost turbulent conversations and also negotiations I was able to convince the Sri Lankan government that a group of experts will be established. It seems just now it has not been able to complete their initial stage and they are still negotiating with Sri Lanka.

“Accountability whatever and wherever it has happened should be verified and any perpetrators of crimes should be held accountable. That is the basic principle of justice.“Sometime some wonder how to build justice and political power and political stability. Political stability is sometimes important but if it is not accompanied by justice the political stability cannot be sustainable. Likewise if there was no political stability we may not be able to carry out justice. So as far as we have the opportunity, political stability and justice should go hand in hand. And that is what I have been doing to achieve even in Sri Lanka and I will continue to do that. "

This week's attacks on a private news website and the UNP candle-light demonstration are clearly not what Ban Ki-moon is talking about 'political stability and justice'. It is a clear demonstration instead that the government will not be all that tolerant of dissent, especially with the Local Government elections as well as higher food prices negotiating the bend.

State media have been signalled to play down the mass uprisings in Egypt which seems to have given the Opposition reason to be upbeat. In the meantime, with floods ravaging a good part of the country, the Government is mulling over the question of declaring a state of emergency or a state of natural disaster in these areas together with the question of putting off elections to certain councils in areas badly affected by the lashing rains.

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