The Political Column

2nd June 1996

Everyone gropes in darkness

By Our Political Correspondent

At the beginning of the week the country was on the brink of a major crisis with the Ceylon Electricity Board threatening to impose a ten-hour power cut but by mid week. But in a more drastic development, 17,000 CEB employees suddenly struck work, plunging the nation into a total and unprecedented black-out.

As the whole country suffered in total darkness, the government tried to sort out the problem with the CEB engineers, and other unions, but it was too late.

The government on Wednesday night gave an undertaking to the general public, that by early hours of Thursday they should resolve the problem and the country would return to normalcy but nothing happened. Instead the people were in for a worse kind of crisis without water.

The Water Board announced an indefinite water cut until the CEB resumed its operations.

On Friday President Kumaratunga told reporters that "short of killing, the government would do what was necessary to force the strikers back to work. People want us to bring them by the scruff of their necks and make them work at gun point."

By late Friday night electricity and water supplies were restored in some areas in and around Colombo. But still the most parts of the island was literally groping in the dark.

On saturday, the PA Mulberry group had talks with the CEB unions and there were hopes the stike would end soon. But repeated warnings over the radio asking the strikers to report back to work dashed such hopes, giving one the impression the stike was to continue.

On Thursday morning, the Security Council discussed the matter in a bid to hand over the operations of the Power Stations to the Armed Forces, but it was later found that saboteurs had removed some key components without which the turbines could not be worked.

Although the government has promulgated the Essential Services Order under the Public Security Ordinance, the response was poor.

Essential Services Orders are normally used as a last resort to resolve industrial disputes and the failure of the government to implement such an order and restore normalcy would result in a serious credibility problem.

The Essential Services Order promulgated by the government has so far had little or no impact. If the government fails to act on this order, this legal instrument would not have any impact in the future.

Minutes before the government promulgated the Emergency Essential Service Orders, Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte had a long discussion with union officials.

Without a solution in sight, Minister Ratwatte told the officials he had finished playing his role as the Power and Energy Minister and would start playing his role as Minister of Defence.

He said he would take appropriate action and told the officials to do whatever they could. It appeared that the government was taking a hard line to crush the CEB strike.

After he left the negotiating table, he advised the President that it would be necessary to promulgate Emergency Essential Service orders to bring the situation under control.

Amidst all this hullabaloo Labour Minister Mahinda Rajapakse had a hand in the problem. Having resolved many issues since he assumed his portfolio as the Labour Minister, Mr. Rajapakse brought about an acceptable solution for the CEB union officials. But he had to wait until it was examined by the chief protagonist of the drama, Anuruddha Ratwatte who had a very important event to be attended in Kandy on Wednesday, when he entered into wedlock with his school time girlfriend Ramani Imbuldeniya.

Ms. Imbulgoda who was married earlier had obtained a divorce to marry Mr. Ratwatte. When the country was groping in the dark and sweating it out with CEB employees holding the country to ransom the Minister in-charge was more fortunate to savour the bliss of wedlock in the cooler climes of the hill country.

Very few guests had been invited for the occasion, including Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike who however did not attend.

While all this was happening more than twenty patients who were on oxygen at the Colombo General Hospital had to be taken off the machines since the power supply generator could not bear the brunt of the load it was carrying any more. The generators had to be cooled off before they are started once again to maintain the emergency care units of the hospital.

At the National Hospital morgue alone there were around 80-90 bodies moving quickly into decomposition in the heat of the power failure.

Attempts by armed forces to track down key CEB officials and engineers became a futile exercise since many had disappeared. In the meantime, the government said it was no longer going ahead with the proposed privatisation of the Lanka Electricity Company (LECO) since it couldn't fetch the amount estimated for the sale of a percentage of shares of the company.

In an urgent letter faxed to opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, a union called Lanvima Surekime Samithiya (Union to protect the CEB) said:

"As you are aware 51% of the LECO (Lanka Electricity Company) shares will be sold to a single private investor for Rs. 1200 million shortly. LECO now makes a profit of Rs. 300 million every year. Its total asset value is estimated at over Rs. 4000 million.

"The total loss to the CEB resulting from this sale is close to Rs. 11 billion (US $200 million).

"The sale of LECO will also create a private monopoly for 21 years.

"The CEB has sufficient funds to pay the Treasury the same amount (Rs. 1200m) which is the highest offer received for the LECO purchase) that will be raised through the LECO sale and acquire all LECO shares presently not owned by the CEB. LECO will then become a fully CEB owned subsidiary.

"You will agree that the proposed sale of LECO is indeed a national crime. We make an urgent appeal to you to voice your concern over the proposed privatisation of the LECO. We will appreciate very much if you would grant us an interview to discuss these issues of great national importance in detail."

Accordingly, the UNP top brass on Thursday met for an emergency meeting to decide on the measures that it should take in the circumstances.

There was consensus among them, when they met at the Cambridge Terrace office of the UNP leader, that it was an unprecedented situation, and that the country had not gone through such a crisis ever before.

They also observed that such a situation would endanger the security of the city and the country as a whole, and that the government had not taken adequate steps to arrest the situation and was ill prepared to face such a crisis.

It shows the inability on the part of the government to resolve matters affecting the country and take protective measures, the UNPers said.

They also agreed that this situation had caused great destruction and if the government fails to take any counter action by Thursday evening the UNP would call upon the government to resign.

In any case, the UNP will take this matter up in Parliament on the basis of a vote of no-confidence against the government.

Among those who attended were, UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, A. C. S. Hameed, Karu Jayasuriya, K. N. Choksy, Gamini Lokuge, Pradeep Hapangama, Tyronne Fernando, Milinda Moragoda, Charitha Ratwatte, Irvin Weerakkody and Daya Pelpola.

One member predicted that since the UNP started privatisation, the government would turn back and say that it all happened due to UNP's privatisation policy.

But others pointed out that the PA government expressed its concern over privatisation during the election campaign and even pledged to stop such privatisation of state institutions and since the government had back-tracked, it had caused this crisis.

Meanwhile nearly twenty union leaders of the Ceylon Electricity Board were arrested on Thursday evening at Vidya Mawatha when they were hosting a news conference.

Police raided the venue while the conference was in progress and took the union officials into custody.

Union officials, however, said they would not give into pressure though they had been arrested by the police.

Prior to this, in the morning, the union officials were in the Labour Ministry along with Deputy Minister of Power and Energy Nimalasiri Jayasinghe and Deputy Minister Alavi Moulana. As they were discussing the possibility of referring the CEB issues, other than privatisation, to an arbitrator.

The two deputy ministers then received calls from the Presidential Secretariat summoning them for a meeting. When the Labour Ministry sought the assistance of Minister Amarasiri Dodangoda to continue the discussion so as to find a solution, the Presidential office did not show much interest or enthusiasm over the matter. Instead the President had a meeting with Ministers Anuruddha Ratwatte and S. B. Dissanayake and some CEB officials who agreed to take a tough line to crush the CEB strike.

The President has apparently taken up the position that Minister Rajapakse was trying to be the hero of the workers.

It is reported that Mahinda Rajapakse went to Temple Trees to see the President on the first day of the strike due to Deputy Minister Alavi Moulana's efforts. Mr. Moulana was keen to see something done to settle the strike.

But it turned out to be a fruitless quest for Mr. Rajapakse for the President had decided to tackle the problem herself.

Though the Labour Ministry officials had drafted an agreement, which was formally acceptable to the CEB unions, the government rejected the clause suspending the privatisation of the LECO putting the whole problem back to square one.

What the CEB employees should realise is that privatisation is a part of the policy of the government and it is the duty of the government to decide what is best for the people.

Privatisation always creates healthy competition and the CEB union should have protested only against the clauses which empower the private buyer to run a business monopoly in electricity distribution.

However, the CEB could also say the People's Alliance during its election campaign spoke against privatisation and the government has now back-tracked. But what the unions should have studied is whether it was a working cause to put the whole country in jeopardy economically and otherwise, especially at the present time.

The CEB engineers and other union members also should realize the gravity of their trade union action is much more than that of doctors and that the whole country has ground to a virtual halt.

If they could see for themselves the sufferings the people are undergoing due to the lack of their basic amenities they would themselves prefer not to take to trade union action again.

At the same time it is the duty of the government to make provision declaring these services as essential public services by means of legislation and banning trade union activity in these sectors to ensure normal public life and smooth functioning of the government.

Amidst all these, the people have now begun to wonder as to whether CEB Chairman Leslie Herath should continue to hold his position having failed to perform his duty by the public. In fact, President Kumaratunga had said as much in his presence at a meeting on the current power crisis.

The events that had taken place so far can only be seen as the government's lack of preparedness to properly tackle this problem. The UNP had similar problems with the CEB in early eighties, but the UNP suppressed such trade union activities successfully. The UNP's strategy was to strengthen its trade unions in such trouble spots and break strikes. They were successful in tackling those problems, and at least the general public were not inconvenienced to this extent.

In the circumstances one could conclude that it was due to the inability and the reluctance of the government to bring about a solution that the CEB continued its strike for day two and three, putting the general public into more inconvenience.

Besides the current electricity problem, there had been several other developments in the political scene, of which meeting of the People's Alliance executive committee bears much significance.

At this meeting the President, though not for the first time, threatened to take action against the LSSP.

On an earlier occasion she had wanted an explanation from the LSSP for not voting with the government and directed PA General Secretary D. M. Jayaratne to call for explanations.

Mr. Jayaratne, however, was able to defuse the tension that was building up among the PA allies by acting diplomatically.

The LSSP apparently was under pressure by the People's Alliance leadership that they should vote with the government in keeping with the agreement they entered into when the People's Alliance was formed.

Sweltering in the heat the LSSP agreed to reconsider its stand after having discussed with the party politbureau.

Minister Bernard Soysa and General Secretary Batty Weerakoon did the talking for the LSSP, who on two occasions defied the PA and abstained from voting with the government when it came to the extension of the state of emergency countrywide.

The President, however, was tough with the LSSP and said that if they failed to do so, she would be compelled to take necessary action against the LSSP.

Among other things, the PA executive committee also discussed the local government elections to be held this year.

The Democratic United National (Lalith) Front (DUNLF) took up the position that elections should be held on a single day.

DUNLF's Ravi Karunanayake said if the government decided to hold the election on a staggered basis it would lead to unnecessary problems. But owing to practical reasons a majority of the executive committee members of the PA supported the view that the election should be held on a staggered basis.

The select committee on constitutional affairs also met last week for deliberations and to consider the submission of the Sinhala oriented MEP (Mahajana Eksath Peramuna).

MEP Leader Dinesh Gunawardene who appeared before the constitutional reforms committee said that in terms of the sixth amendment to the constitution, every MP is bound by law to protect and uphold the unitary nature of the country and the committee is not warranted by law even to discuss the issue of changing the unitary nature of the constitution.

At this stage UNP's Ronnie de Mel stressed his party would not support any attempt to change the unitary nature of the constitution.

At that stage UNP MP and former Minister A.C.S. Hameed was presiding over the constitutional reforms committee.

At the end of the meeting while ACTC Leader Kumar Ponnambalam was making his submissions. Minister G. L. Peiris who was in the Chamber of Parliament answering adjournment questions raised by various MPs, came back to take part in the proceedings.

As soon as Minister Peiris took over the chair, TULF's Dr. Neelan Thiruchelvam raised a question concerning Mr. de Mel's statement to the select committee. Others asked Mr. Hameed what the UNP's position was, with regard to the matter.

Referring to Mr. de Mel's statement Mr. Hameed said, "I don't know whether the UNP has taken such a decision in my absence."

The same evening two Indian journalists phoned up opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to ascertain the position with regard to Mr. de Mel's statement. But Mr. Wickremesinghe said the UNP was yet to make a decision on the matter.

Earlier MEP leader Dinesh Gunawardene told the committee that until the deliberations were concluded, carving of ethnic-oriented Assistant Government Agents divisions must be stopped.

At this stage Minister Thondaman asked Mr. Gunawardene whether it was unreasonable if the Sinhala people in Vavuniya were given an AGA division for them.

Mr. Gunawardene snapped back saying it was difficult to discuss the question of reasonableness with people who changed their party stance from time to time.

At this stage Mr. Hameed intervened to settle the matter.

ACTC leader Kumar Ponnambalam who appeared before the committee after the MEP delegation, was sceptical whether the package on devolution was acceptable to the Tamils.

However, he said they were unable to find a political solution while there was war in the North and the East of the country.

He also added that Tamils should have equal rights with the Sinhalese and they should have the right for self determination.

In the meantime, Mr. Ponnambalam has written to the President inquiring her about some arrests made by governmental authorities in the North and the East.

In his letter Mr. Ponnambalam states that he had received incontrovertible information from two eye witnesses about these matters.

Apart from this, the government is perturbed over the proposed meeting between the five party Tamil alliance and the Tamilnadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi.

Minister G. L. Peiris who co-ordinates matters into Tamil parties has asked as to why they wanted to meet Chief Minister Karunanidhi at this juncture which would make matters difficult for them.

But the Tamil party representatives had told Minister Peiris that the government had considered them to be "useless", they were compelled to look at alternative plans.

According to political analysts Minister Peiris is not showing as much enthusiasm in governmental affairs as he used to be in the earlier stages.

There is some fear among government ministers as to whether Minister Peiris would resign his portfolio and sit in Parliament as a backbencher. Minister Mahinda Rajapakse also seems to have lost his enthusiasm in governance, possibly feeling that he is being looked upon as a backbencher in the Cabinet room. However it was noted that Minister S. B. Dissanayake was keen to keep this ministerial team intact. Even Minister M.H.M. Ashraff had expressed his concern to Minister Dissanayake when he heard that Minister Peiris was reportedly taking a hard look at the governmental activity to decide whether he should continue to be a minister.

Minister Dissanayake who is known to be close to President Chandrika Kumaratunga had a pleasant surprise when he was invited for dinner by Malik Samarawickrama last week. The dinner which was held under generator power went on well with officials connected to Rugby also attending the get-together at Mr. Samarawickrama's Buller's Lane residence.

Mr. Samarawickrama is well known in both political camps. The dinner has raised the inevitable speculations in a fluid political situation.

The events this week will no doubt have their effects for some time and the people would remember May-June 1996 for quite some time as the dark period of the PA government.

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