The Political Column

9th June 1996

Shadow boxing over price hikes

By Our Political Correspondent

The week ending Saturday June 1 could be described as the darkest period of the People's

Alliance government so far, with the whole country groping in the dark as a result of trade union action by the CEB.

The loss was enormous and made a severe dent in the country's economy and Sri Lanka's image as a country offering incentives and trouble free environment for foreign investment slid down to a low ebb.

By Saturday last the government with great difficulty pulled the country out of the crisis, but we are still having eight-hour power-cuts daily.

At present the controversy is about who should take the credit for settling the power crisis. Is it the government headed by President Chandrika Kumaratunga along with Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte or the Mulberry group?

It is true that the Mulberry group gave an undertaking to the CEB unions that they would take up the matter with the relevant authorities and settle it.

But the pertinent question appears to be, "should the CEB Trade Unions take the undertaking given by the Mulberry group as a firm undertaking given by the government sans the Minister in- charge?"

Some analysts believe that the CEB unions used the Mulberry group as a face-saving device in the face of strong-arm tactics of the government and returned to work.

In short, the CEB unions have not got anything with them to say that they won at least a single demand put forward by them.

The end result was that the people of this country underwent severe hardship, cursing both the CEB unions and the government.

The crisis over the CEB strike figured prominently during the meeting the SLFP group had with the President on Monday.

President Kumaratunga who was angry with the Mulberry group members for their conduct during the power crisis asked them as to who gave them permission to negotiate with the CEB unions.

She warned the group that such action would cause unnecessary problems for the government. She told them to play their role as MPs leaving the governance part to her.

More than anything, the President was not pleased over the role played by Ravi Karunanayake of the DUN(L)F and Asitha Perera of the SLMC and warned the SLFP group that they should not allow small groups to exploit the situation and take the credit.

She made this clear to Dallas Alahapperuma, spokesman of the Mulberry group. She also asked Mr. Alahapperuma as to why he accommodated a journalist from a newspaper which is highly critical of her.

It was Ravi Karunanayake who took this journalist to the Madiwela residence of Mr. Alahapperuma to brief him on the settlement reached by the Mulberry group with the CEB unions.

Not only the President but Power and Energy Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte also found fault with the Mulberry group. He told them they should concentrate more on the problems of their areas rather than trying to solve national issues.

Volatile members

However, the volatile members of the group remained silent as other MPs persuaded them to keep their cool.

Also at the government group meeting MP Bennet Cooray had an exchange of words with Mr. Ratwatte over an employment problem.

Mr. Cooray complained that when thousands of people from the Kandy district received employment in government concerns, other MPs were left in the lurch.

Minister Ratwatte who responded to Mr. Cooray asked him not to tell lies. An angry Mr. Cooray told the Minister that it was a very unfortunate situation adding that he had a right even to tell a lie, like the Minister.

Minister Ratwatte was taken to task by the UNP back benchers on Thursday too in Parliament, while referring to his late marriage. MPs had swipes at the Minister on several occasions, prominent among them was Mervyn de Silva.

The Mulberry group which met that morning had also decided to launch an attack on Anuruddha Ratwatte if the situation demanded.

They had decided to stand by their agreement with the CEB unions and to push the government to accept the agreement. But President Kumaratunga was adamant that the CEB unions had returned to work under emergency regulations and nothing could undermine the government's authority.

In the meantime the Mulberry members feel that the leak-out of information from their own members could cause problems in the group. They decided to strengthen the group by weeding out "bad eggs."

As for the CEB unions, the agreement with the Mulberry group does not bear much significance and there is no legal validity for it. If at all, the agreement should be between the CEB unions and the Ministry concerned in association with the Labour Ministry. Thus it is clear that the government cracked down on the trade unions by implementing the essential services order under emergency.

The agreement between the CEB unions and the Mulberry group is as follows:

i. Immediate suspension of the privatisation of the Lanka Electricity Company (Pvt) Ltd (LECO). If the government wants to reconsider the privatisation, it should be done in consultation with all parties concerned. The government should also give priority to public welfare in doing so.

ii. Privatisation of the Ceylon Electricity Board and its allied services should be stopped forthwith.

iii. 35% salary revision (which is now being paid as an advance) should be implemented within one month.

iv. If these conditions are fulfilled the strike to be called off immediately.

The Mulberry group signatories to this agreement are Chamal Rajapakse, Upali Gunaratne, Reginald Cooray, Bennete Cooray, Janaka Tennekoon, Kesaralal Gunasekara, Neil Rupasinghe, Jinadasa Nandasena, Salinda Dissanayake, Dilan Perera, Felix Perera, Pandu Bandaranayake, Nalanda Ellawala, Dalas Alahapperuma, Ediriweera Premaratne, Ravi Karunanayake, Anura Yapa.

While this was happening in a committee room in Parliament the President expressed her views of the situation at a hurriedly convened news conference.

The views expressed by the President on Friday May 31, came under heavy fire when the UNP Parliamentary group met.

Addressing the new conference on Friday, the President indirectly said the UNP had a hand in the CEB strike.

UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe said the government was trying to put the blame on the UNP for the power crisis without settling the matter urgently.

Mr. Wickremesinghe alleged the President misled the country when she said that the government was not informed of the proposed strike by the CEB.

He said CEB union's convenor W.R. Lenty had written to him as well as the President informing of the strike.

National List MP Anura Bandaranaike on Thursday read out the letter sent by Mr. Lenty to President Kumaratunga informing the government of the proposed strike.

"If this government could not solve such a small problem, it is not worth, them holding office anymore," he told the UNP Parliamentary group.

He said the government even failed to summon the Parliamentary group and the PA Executive Committee to discuss the matter.

Some UNP MPs on an earlier occasion called upon the government to resign if it could not solve the power crisis.

UNP MP, Susil Moonesinghe was prominent among them. At the Friday's press conference President Kumaratunga had lashed out at Mr. Moonesinghe saying the steps taken by her government had hurt Mr. Moonesinghe's business interests.

Mr. Moonesinghe having learnt about the President's scathing attack on him had a statement sent to the newspapers.

It said:

"A report of the proceedings of a press interview, the President has given on the 31st of May which appeared in newspapers on the 1st of June has prompted me to respond.

"It is indeed a sad day for all of those 62% of voters, who voted for her to become the Executive President of this country, when as Head of State, statements are made without the knowledge of facts and unmindful of the consequences. That such statements are made because of the privilege of immunity, is only proving the arrogance of executive power. It also reflects the grim reality that this government is, as of now, under siege. May I therefore ask the President to be sure of her facts before making accusations and casting aspersions against individuals and business establishments. Perhaps, the only mitigating factor, is that she is as yet unable to comprehend, the responsibilities associated with the Office of Presidency. I say this because I have served under three previous Presidents, and have been very familiar with the conduct of that Office, by the incumbents, in relation to dignity and convention.

"As for myself and the President's interest, in the absence of my backbone or otherwise, may I be permitted to clear the confusion she is in. I was Chief Minister at the time the JVP-inspired terrorism was in full reign, and the then government faced it and overcame it. It is also pertinent to remind the President that at that time, irrespective of political differences, President J.R. Jayewardene offered her security on a scale which she was not entitled to at all. Her response to this gesture was to leave the country, in spite of the promise given by her on the bier of her late husband to carry out his political vision. On the other hand, I as Chief Minister faced all the threats that were levelled against that office. The fact that I was able to continue was based on the moral courage, that I had and that despite all the threats, I had never given orders to maim or destroy any insurrectionists; that was perhaps why I was never killed. I am also at a loss to understand how the President has come to the conclusion that an insurrection is comparable to trade union action.

"To say that at that time of insurrection the city of Colombo was plunged into darkness was factually incorrect; some transformers were attacked, but never was the city and the whole of the country plunged into darkness for this length of time.

"If, as the President says, it is a conspiracy engineered by the UNP, I think she should start searching within her own ranks, judging from recent events where even conversation in Cabinet, privileged documents and private confidentialities have been openly reported in the media. To find scapegoats is always easy, but to correct your own lapses needs the strength of self-appraisal. The President must necessarily conclude that she has to face the consequences of having made a spate of rash promises on election platforms, which she is now unable to honour. May I conclude with a (translated) quote from the Dhamma Pada:

"As a flower that is lovely and beautiful, but is scentless, even so fruitless is the well-spoken word of one who does not practise it.

"As a flower that is lovely, beautiful, and scent-laden, even so fruitful is the well-spoken word of one who practises it".

At Monday's UNP group meeting, the MPs criticised the government vehemently for the present state of the economy, among other things.

Former Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel took the lead saying that the UNP should attack the government for its inaction as far as the economy is concerned. He said when Finance Bills were discussed in the House the UNP should refer to other matters relating to the economy of the country.

Mr. de Mel also criticised the government's decision to privatise state lotteries.

He said this showed the bankruptcy of the government. Even in Britain and the USA only the management's had been privatised but all lotteries were controlled by a board appointed by the government.

Kandy district MP Sarath Amunugama who interjected at this juncture said if this was allowed there would be a lottery mafia in the country.

Party leader Mr. Wickremesinghe summing up said that they could campaign against it only if the government did not appoint a board to regulate the functions of lotteries.

Evaluation committee

The UNP has also moved to re-appoint its evaluation committee with Professor M.M.J. Marasinghe as the Chairman and Rohitha Bogollagama as its Secretary. Left out of this committee is A.J.M. Muzammil, vociferous campaigner of the UNP during the Premadasa regime.

Mr. Muzammil, a former Chairman of the Apprenticeship Board was also removed from the All Island Executive Committee in December last year.

Besides this, the UNP would have to decide whether K. Ganeshalingam should continue as the acting Mayor of Colombo any further.

Since the court of appeal has upheld the removal of Colombo Mayor Ratnasiri Rajapakse, it is now time for the UNP to decide on the matter.

Some political observers say Mr. Ganeshalingam would put forward a strong claim for the Mayorship and the UNP is likely to accept him as the most suitable man for this important position.

Then comes the appointment of a new Deputy Mayor for Colombo. As it stands S.A. Yaseen is on top of the preferences list but a majority of the councilors back Omar Kamil who is the most senior councilor in the CMC. But whether the UNP would appoint two members of the minority to head the council is the immediate problem.

However, UNP councillors are of the view that Mr. Kamil who led the UNP councillors against the Mayor last year for having agreed to allocate the Town Hall grounds for the PA May Day rally would be the more suitable man, since he could draw a balance between the Mayor and the other councillors.

But at present the UNP is more involved in campaigning against the increasing milk food prices. The first ever protest compaign got underway yesterday at Kaduwela. Soon the UNP might have to launch another campaign against bus fare hikes.

The Cabinet on Wednesday almost agreed to increased the bus fares on a proposal by the Transport Ministry and taken up by the President.

When the matter came up for discussion, Minister M.H.M. Ashraff asked President Kumaratunga whether the government had been able to get an undertaking from the private bus operators that they would not resort to strike action despite the fare hike.

The reply was in the negative and the question was referred to acting Transport Minister Reggie Ranatunga in the absence of Srimani Athulathmudali.

Mr. Ranatunga was subsequently asked by the Ministers to get an assurance by the private bus operators that they would not resort to any kind of trade union action, since the government has looked into their grievances.

The President was not available throughout the meeting but came at the last moment to take up the paper on bus fare hikes.

It is likely that the government would face an uphill task in trying to convince the people on this matter amidst the ongoing power crisis and the rising cost of essential food items.

The Opposition and the trade unions will take this also as another opportunity to protest against the government.

Not only the Opposition, even some Ministers within the government are not happy with its own performance.

Minister Mahinda Rajapakse who had been found fault with by the President for trying to intervene in the CEB problem in his capacity as the Labour Minister is among those who are disturbed over the present trend. There were even rumours that he was to resign his portfolio. But when journalists questioned him he said he would not play into the hands of anybody.

Another Minister who has lost enthusiasm over the last few months is G.L. Peiris. In a conversation with a senior Minister he spoke about how difficult it was to carry on with his work, especially on the ethnic problem.

At the government group meeting last week, Minister Mangala Samaraweera came up to Minister Peiris and told him, "I had a dream last night; I had a dream, I dreamt of you. What is this talk about you being a back bencher?"

Minister Peiris looked down and softly said, "Ah, these political columns."

Apart from these two, even Minister Dharmasiri Senanayake is facing problems with the President for starting AirLanka flights to South Africa.

She has on several occasions asked various questions on the viability of this route.

The Minister made a blunt and short reply saying that nothing could be done since all arrangements had been finalised.

Perhaps the President was concerned over AirLanka since it was awaiting privatisation and the Public Enterprises Reforms Commission is already in the process of negotiating with some foreign partners.

Besides AirLanka the PERC has listed to 70 more public enterprises for structural changes or privatisation soon. They are:

1. Previously owned limited liability Cos.

with % shares yet to be divested.

1.1 Bogala Graphite Ltd.

1.2 Ceylon Agro Industries Ltd.

1.3 Colombo International School (Sri Lanka)

1.4 Lanka Canneries Ltd.

1.5 Lanka Ceramics Ltd.

1.6 Lanka Lubricants Ltd.

1.7 Lanka Plywood Products Ltd.

1.8 Lanka Tractors Ltd.

1.9 National Development Bank

1.10 Ruhunu Cement Corporation

1.11 Statcon Rubber Co. Ltd.

1.12 Tea Smallholder Factories Ltd.

2. Large Enterprises

2.1 AirLanka Ltd.

2.2 Airport & Aviation Services

2.3 Ceylon Electricity Board

2.4 Ceylon Petroleum Corporation

2.5 Ceylon Shipping Corporation

2.6 Sri Lanka Telecom

3. Manufacturing & Trading Units

3.1 Asbestos Cement Industries Ltd.

3.2 British Ceylon Corporation

3.3 CCC (Fertilizer) Ltd.

3.4 Ceylon Fertilizer Co.

3.5 Ceylon Glass Co. Ltd.

3.6 Ceylon Steel Corporation

3.7 Ceylon Foundation

3.8 Colombo Sackmakers Ltd.

3.9 Janatha Fertilizer Enterprises Ltd.

3.10 Kantale Sugar Industries Ltd.

3.11 Lanka Fabrics Ltd.

3.12 Lanka General Trading Co. Ltd.

3.13 Lanka Machine Leasers Ltd.

3.14 Lanka Minerals Sands Ltd.

3.15 Lanka Phosphate Ltd.

3.16 Lanka Salt Ltd.

3.17 Lanka Textile Emporium Ltd.

3.18 Lanka Transformers Ltd.

3.19 Lanka Walltiles Ltd.

3.20 National Paper Co. Ltd.

3.21 Paranthan Chemicals Co. Ltd.

3.22 Pelwatte Sugar Co. Ltd.

3.23 Rajarata Agro Fertilizer Co. Ltd.

3.24 Sathosa Printers Ltd.

3.25 Sevanagala Sugar Industries Ltd.

3.26 Silk & Allied Products Dev. Auth.

3.27 Sri Lanka Ayurvedic Drugs Corp.

3.28 Sri Lanka Rubber Manufacturing (5 Cos.)

3.29 State Trading Textile Corporation (Salusala)

3.30 Thamankaduwa Agro Fertilizer Co. Ltd.

4. Services

4.1 Sri Lanka Convention Bureau

5. Energy

5.1 Lanka Electricity Co. Ltd.

6. Tourism

6.1 Galadari Hotels Lanka Ltd.

6.2 Hotel Developers Lanka Ltd.

6.3 Robinson Hotel Co. Ltd. & Robinson Club

6.4 Taj Lanka Hotels Ltd.

7. Financial Sector


7.1 State Mortgage and Investment Bank

7.2 Development Finance Companies

7.3 Housing Development Finance Corp.


7.4 Agricultural Insurance Board

8. Infrastructure

8.1 Building Materials Corporation

8.2 Ceylon Port Services

8.3 Ceylon Shipping Agencies (Pvt) Ltd.

8.4 Lanka Marine Services Ltd.

8.5 Lanka Reclamation and Development Co.

8.6 Road Construction & Development Co. Ltd.

8.7 Sri Lanka Port Management Consultancy

9. Retail

9.1 Orient Lanka

10. Agriculture

10.1 Ceylon Fisheries Corporation

10.2 Regional Plantation Cos. (14 remaining)

10.3 Sri Lanka Cashew Corporation

10.4 Sri Lanka Timber Corporation

11. Media

11.1 Independent Television Network

11.2 National Film Corporation

At the end of its tenure, many of the state enterprises would have been sold or privatised in some form, much to the dismay of state employees in these enterprises and of Trade Unions which worked to put the PA in office, in the hope that this would not happen. The state enterprises have either been sold or privatised. In the process the government would have to face many a problem with the working class and trade unions who worked hard to put the PA into office.

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