Situation Report

2nd June 1996

Scarcities all around

By Iqbal Athas

A nation that boasted of being on the road to achieving Newly Industrialised Country (NIC) status was in total chaos last week.

A countrywide power blackout leading to scarcities of water and fuel played havoc with almost every Sri Lankan not to mention the international community and tourists. Since World War Two, never before have they been subject to such immense hardships, denied basic necessities of life and left helplessly to live in total uncertainty.

It seemed as if there was no Government and no competent authority to adopt even the most simplest of measures to ease some of the hardships, not until the crisis began to deepen.

If the strike by the Ceylon Electricity Board employees, as the Government claims, was unexpected, the ongoing power crisis due to depleted water levels in the hydrel reservoirs was no secret. It was widely known that by late last week or in the coming week the country may be forced to go without power if the rains do not arrive.

Yet there were no contingency plans in place. If one did exist, at least the water and fuel crisis could have been minimised. Another more disturbing aspect that has been laid bare is the woeful inadequacy of the country's intelligence system. Like during the previous regime, intelligence sleuths were more pre-occupied with journalists, foreign correspondents, opposition politicians, diplomats and similar targets.

President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga herself declared at Friday's news conference that the Government was told of the strike decision by CEB unions only the day before, on May 28. Was the PA government unaware of the move until then?

The Sunday Times has learnt that preparations for the strike has been meticulously planned for well over a week. Hours before the launch of the strike on Wednesday, May 27 an organisation styling itself the CEB "Surakeemey Sangvidanaya" (safeguard movement) faxed to its membership in CEB intallations countrywide a two page type written note in Sinhala. That spelt out the course of action to be followed by those going on strike.

The note, signed by constituent trade unions of the Sangvidanaya, called upon the employees to strike from 12 noon. They were advised to take away with them the keys, thus disabling the workings of distribution equipment. That is not all. The note warned them that the Government would declare the CEB an essential service and threaten to confiscate their property. The note warned members not to be frightened by such a threat.

How the unprecedented crisis affected Sri Lankans is dealt with in detail elsewhere in this newspaper. But one very important aspect, the serious security implications and international repercussions that have arisen as a result of this needs mention. Even if the domestic security aspects are overcome through protracted measure, the international repercussions the crisis has brought about will not only linger for years to come but also has cast serious doubts on the PA Government's credibility and effectiveness. More on that later.

On the security front, military officials had to distract their attention from the north, and prepare detailed contingency plans for any crisis.

Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Rohan Daluwatte, who was busy with the new drive to induct 10,000 more recruits to continue the anti-LTTE campaign in the north and east, sat down with his senior officials to knock into shape "Operation Shock" - the contingency military plan to meet any crisis arising from the blackout. The Army, Navy and Air Force were assigned specific tasks. For obvious reasons, the details cannot be spelt out.

But one factor that needs mention is the inevitable necessity to pull out troops from the northern theatre of war should the security situation in the City or suburbs deteriorate. Such a course of action would undoubtedly negate the military's achievements during the various phases of "Operation Riviresa". Adding to that are reports that the LTTE has moved in a group of suicide killers to take on targets in the City.

On the international front, various Governments, including many of Sri Lanka's aid donors, are re-writing their travel advisories to their nationals wanting to visit Sri Lanka. If the previous advisories were conditional, discouraging casual visitors or tourists and giving the green light for those on business, the new advisories virtually advised them not to travel to Sri Lanka.

One leading diplomatic mission in Colombo held a meeting with the nationals of their country. They were advised to check into Colombo hotels and await developments next week. If the situation does not improve by Tuesday, they have been advised to return to their country.

The advice comes in the backdrop of reports that nine other trade unions representing petroleum, telecommunications, ports, insurance, banks and other sectors were poised to strike.

Minister of Posts and Telecommunications, Mangala Samaraweera, in a strong bid to avert a breakdown of telecommunication services in the event of a strike, met with representatives of leading international companies. He sought their assurance to restore services in the event of an interruption. They have assured him of their backing.

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