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Great were the expectations when the Peoples Alliance government took office two years ago on August 19. New faces on the political canvas brought fresh hope. These new faces kept their hands on their breasts and said solemnly, they would ask not what they could get from their country but what they could give to the country. As the PA completes two years tomorrow with, possibly, four to go we consider it appropriate to review and reflect on its performance todate.
The PA or in other words President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga had obviously placed all their hopes of success on a central and concerted drive to bring the LTTE to the negotiating table. PA gambled its future on a single throw.
That the effort was sincere has been widely accepted locally and internationally. But we are dealing with Tiger Inc., whose goal of Eelam may today also be a convenient cover for a multitude of vested interests. It is not beyond the bounds of credibility that the decision to clobber the peace was a hard-headed business decision as well as a military one. With the pivot of its policy gone, the PA has floundered. The war has to be fought to a conclusion and its cost of around Rs. 50 billion a year up from Rs. 38 billion in the 1996 budget, is staggering. The thrust of PA economics was to get the war over with, unload its unprofitable state enterprises and get on with the job of development. This is no longer on the cards.
Subsidies total Rs. 25 billion, Rs. 8 billion for the bread subsidy and Rs. 17 billion for Samurdhi, free school books and uniforms, health, Paddy Board etc.
The relatively positive industrialising market economy inherited has been squandered. The governments economic team is in shambles and it has failed. There is an ineffective and inexperienced economic management team, some of whom dont even talk to each other, mixed signals on policy leading to a lack of cohesion; cancelled contracts, failure to address infrastructure needs and a general low priority to the economy because of the war - and parochial politicking - have resulted in the inability to translate commitments into reality. It has also undermined business confidence in a private sector which has no voice and no vision.
A slim majority in the House and rash election promises - as well as its own more radical ideology - have not helped to give some visible sign of political stability. Whatever their faults, the UNP regimes of Jayewardene, Premadasa and Wijetunga projected an image of political stability.
That the UNP had a more competent, may be corrupt, but harder working team of officials is also evident. Once the reins were slackened to the degree that they were in the early days of the PA administration, it is well nigh impossible to gather them up again. The rot permeates from the public to the private sector.
Imprisoned by security considerations, President Kumaratunga works quite hard at her office contrary to popular opinion. But to what end? Her officials and most of her Ministers seem to be in the grip of the same malaise, an ineffectuality in producing any sort of visible, tangible result.
The one big and very significant gain has been in the field of foreign relations. In this area the SLFP has always been singularly successful since the days Ms. Sirimavo Bandaranaike was in charge. The sincerity in the drive for a settlement of the ethnic conflict, the right man in the right place and some forward thinking have visibly altered Sri Lankas image abroad. For this the PA can claim credit and its value cannot be overestimated.
In spite of bodies still appearing and unnecessary sabre-rattling about the media, we live and breathe easier. Whether this resulted in the country lapsing into our normal state of somnolence is another question. But we must acknowledge this small relief not forgetting that the defusion of tension really began with the advent of D.B. Wijetunga and not really the PA. The PA unfortunately has now once again escalated hostility shown by a government in office towards democratic opponents, raising fears we may slide back to the Premadasa era of brutal repression of dissent. In a democracy there could be and should be opponents, they need not be considered as enemies or traitors.
If the stomach is more sensitive than the head, then let there be no mistake, the cost of day-to-day living is really biting now and patience is wearing thin. Almost everything in the market is overpriced, underweight or both. Public discontent cannot be underestimated. Inflation is slowly, but surely taking its toll on the fixed wage earner; lack of employment opportunities means less income to keep the home fires burning. Life is tough for a growing population. Such day-to-day troubles now override earlier fears of an overweening state authority.
If one looks at the PA manifesto it is a sad litany of non-events, from the Executive Presidency and media freedom to transparency, openness and all that. A satirical columnist has labelled it as constant inconsistency. What we see is a string of broken promises and a political leadership that have let themselves and their countryfolk down.
So what do we hope for today as the PA begins its third year in office? That Velupillai Prabhakaran suffers a sudden stroke? That the economy suddenly takes off like a rocket to Mars?
Overall there seems to be a sense of despair and gloom that the country is plummeting into something like Dantes inferno where it says, Abandon hope all ye who enter here. As the war escalates and the economy crumbles we are being propelled into becoming one of the poorest and most economically backward nations in the world.
Accountability is the key requirement today. Accountability of those who hold public office. If the economy is in shambles whocan be held to be accountable? If the war effort is malfunctioning who then is accountable? It was a disgrace for the Government not to have accepted the over-running of the Mullaitivu army camp last month by the LTTE as a military setback. From top to bottom accountability has been replaced by collective excuse.
It is a crying shame for the government and the opposition to be dog-fighting the way they are today with the public servant, the policeman, the pressman, the professional and the public caught in the crossfire. The LTTE must be enjoying every moment of this as they systematically work towards the dismantling of the Republic of Sri Lanka.
The onus of uniting the country against the menace of terrorism, the pangs of poverty and the erosion of democratic values lies squarely with the government of the day. If it cannot do that we must quote what wartime Britain often said in 1939 - CMG or Chamberlain Must Go. It comes from the memorable citation of Cromwell - Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. For Gods sake go. Are we hearing those echoes here?
This country is plummeting into a path of no return. The ship of state needs to radically alter course; weather the stormy seas ahead and enter safe harbour. Till then let all Sri Lanka say:
Sail on O ship of state
Sail on O union great
Humanity with all its hopes
Lies breathlessly in thy fate.
By Arshad M. Hadjirin in Vavuniya
Tens of thousands of civilians are heading towards the Vavuniya town from the LTTE controlled areas, amidst reports of shell attacks, severe food shortages, lack of medicines and a sense of uncertainty looming over them.
The government over the weekend, was finalising plans to accommodate nearly 125,000 displaced people in heavily guarded camps at Vavuniya, but was facing criticism from both provincial officials and international NGOs operating inside the district about the hastily formulated arrangements.
Vavuniyas Government Agent, S. Ganesh told The Sunday Times 35 schools and other buildings had been done up to accommodate the huge flow of refugees in the wake of the military offensive Operation Sathjaya.
These people will not be allowed to step out of the schools allocated to them and police will restrict their movements from outside the camps making sure that nobody escapes, Mr. Ganesh said.
Large groups are expected to reach Vavuniya as hundreds of thousands of people live without shelter or food, on the other side of the Thandikulam check- point.
Refugees arriving in Vavuniya from the Kilinochchi district after walking 40 to 50 miles, told The Sunday Times the LTTE has not placed restrictions on civilians leaving the area and they expect thousands of others to follow them. They had noticed hundreds walking towards the Vavuniya town.
The crisis plans to accommodate refugees were made as Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, M. Karunanidhi expressed concern about civilians caught in the conflict in the north and said the militant issue should be separated from that of the innocent civilians.
In Vavuniya, officials of foreign relief organisations and NGOs said although they had the capability and resources to face a mass refugee problem, they were being kept out of the relief operations.
The GA said international relief agencies and NGOs would have to come with the approval of the government and so far approval had not been given. He said their help would be valuable as they had the resources. The GA, explaining the plan to handle the refugees said the civilians would be kept in confinement in line with instructions of the Defence Ministry. He said only basic needs would be provided to the refugees. Among the groups awaiting the greenlight from the govt. to assist refugees are the ICRC, UNHCR, MSF, Forut Save the Children Fund and Red Barna.
The first batch of refugees that fled Kilinochchi comprising about 400 people from 100 families, were being accommodated at the Nellukulam Kalaimahal Vidayapura. One of them said they had walked more than 45 miles for a week before reaching Vavuniya. We want to move about freely another refugee said.
The refugees said they had been displaced for more than one year now and were being sent from place to place. They were like nowhere people. They said they were first displaced from their homes in Valikamam area and moved to Chavakachcheri during Operation Riviresa I. Then they were transported by boat across the Kilali lagoon and were living in and out of the Kilinochchi District at Mankulam, Akkaraiyan, Mallawi, Wattakachcy and Muruhandi.
According to figures maintained by the Vavuniya GA, the number of displaced people in Vanni area might be as high as 800,000. They are scattered around Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, uncleared areas of Mannar and Vavuniya.
We are now fed up with life. We want one administration, whether it be the government or the LTTE, said an elderly lady who did not wish to be identified.
A malnourished eight-year-old boy, symbolising the tragedy of the war, said he had not had any food for four days. When helicopters attacked they would hide under improvised bunkers. At the end of the raid, there would be bodies all over the place. He and many other children had also been struck by ailments such as malaria as they struggled through the valleys of darkness. It is a miracle that we were able to reach Vavuniya safely, one refugee said.
The Editors Guild of Sri Lanka has condemned the recent statements by President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Opposition Leader Ranil Wickemesinghe about newspapers and media institutions.
The text of the guild statement:
The Editors Guild of Sri Lanka regrets and condemns the recent statement of the President threatening to close down some newspapers.
The public are acutely aware that many of our leaders who have eloquently espoused the cause of a free media in opposition and in their election manifestos and propaganda tend to confuse the national interest with their own political interest while in office. Too often when the message is unpalatable, it becomes inconvenient to place the messenger in the firing line.
The people of this country are too intelligent to permit any media to undermine the war effort by publishing material that would serve the enemy to the detriment of the security forces. Anyone seeking to do so does so at their own peril. The government also has a news censorship, however incompetently administered, enforced under the Emergency and transgressions can be dealt with under that law.
The Leader of the oppositions reported threat to bankrupt Lake House is also a matter for censure. The readers and advertisers, and not any political party, will decide whether any newspaper publisher would remain viable or not. Mr Wickremasinghe may remember the fate of a previous boycott campaign in the seventies. His party also cannot disclaim using Lake House for its own purposes during its period of office, says the statement.
The United States Government has made it clear it will not be involved in the escalating separatist war in Sri Lanka.
An official statement issued by the United States Information Service in Colombo on Friday declared, We emphasise that United States armed forces have not been, and will not be involved in the current conflict.
The statement originating from Camp Hill Smith in the United States Pacific Command in Hawaii came just four days after the governments official news agency, Lankapuwath announced that the US Government will continue to provide its maximum co-operation and support to the Sri Lanka Government in combating LTTE terrorism and eliminating it as fast as possible.
The United States said, as with many other nations, US maintains routine military-to-military co-operation programmes with Sri Lanka, and added that these events took place well away from the area of operations.
The official US response came in the backdrop of a strong campaign by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). A most virulent aspect of the campaign has been through the Internet with slogans appealing to parents of US soldiers not to send their children to die in Sri Lanka.
In an editorial in the official journal Viduthalai Pulikal (or Liberation Tigers), the LTTE charged that by providing support and assistance to Sri Lanka Governments war effort the United States will worsen the Tamil-Sinhala conflict and pave the way for a protracted war and human suffering.
The editorial noted that Green Berets, special forces of the US Army, were in Colombo providing military training to the Sinhala forces and charged that Washington had rescinded its earlier decision not to sell destructive weapons to Sri Lanka. It appealed to the United States to adopt a neutral policy and warned that the US action would worsen what it called the Tamil-Sinhala conflict, pave the way for a protracted war and human sufferings.
Mondays Lankapuwath report announcing the US Governments maximum co-operation to Sri Lanka also made a pointed reference to the editorial. The national news agency said quoting senior Western diplomatic sources, The US Government was totally ignoring an editorial in the official organ of the terrorists, Viduthalai Pulikal, where it carried out a veiled threat of reprisals against the US if it continues to support the Sri Lankan Government.
The US statement said, United States forces have previously conducted joint combined exchange training (JCET) events with personnel from Sri Lankas Army and Air Force. These JCET events focused on improving the medical, logistical, leadership, safety, land navigation and other training skills of the Sri Lankan forces.
The statement added: Additionally, four non-commissioned officers recently assisted the Army of Sri Lanka in its efforts to develop a comprehensive non-commissioned officer education system. Their activities involved instructing Sri Lankan Army non-commissioned officers in small unit leadership skills and providing instruction on training techniques. Their training missions completed, the American service members have returned to their home stations in the United States.
In the previous years, almost all training assistance from the United States has been outside Sri Lanka with most of them focusing on stints for Officers in military academies. However, in marked contrast, in June, this year, a team of 12 Green Beret commandos were involved in a joint exercise code named Operation Balanced Style in the wild life infested southern Wirawila jungles.
They were teaching Sri Lankan trainers in combat, Medi-vac techniques, radio works and field engineering.
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