Economic crisis to take Sri Lanka by storm

Politics is the art of possible, they say. In Sri Lanka, nothing is impossible in politics – today’s political enemy could be the best ally tomorrow and vice versa and these are the characteristics of the art of ‘possible’ politics.
In today’s context, many people believe that politics is a dirty game which works hand in glove with corruption, murder, abductions and various other criminal acts.
Tiran Alles’ story gives credence to the fact that politics is the art of possible, while at the same time, it gives an insight into political treachery, insider dealings and how politicians manipulate and orchestrate things in their favour to grab power
Not so long ago Alles was one of the erstwhile buddies of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. It would not be a political fib if one were to say that Alles was a pawn in the hands of the Rajapaksas who placed utmost faith in him and tasked him with wooing the LTTE. When Rajapaksa was elected President by a very slim majority, he hugged the man who accomplished the mission for him with the LTTE.
At that time, Rajapaksa remarked, “It is because of you and the LTTE that I am President today.”
The deal was to boycott the presidential election in the LTTE-controlled areas in the north and the east, which was crucial for Rajapaksa to be elected President. It was a forgone conclusion that if there was a free and a fair election in the areas held by the LTTE in the north and the east, the people would have overwhelmingly voted for the UNP since it had in possession a clear programme to work out a peace deal with the party. Therefore, blocking the north east voters would mean a victory for the Rajapaksas.
It is difficult to understand the mindset of LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran, but what one could fathom is that the UNP’s peace initiatives had confined him into a compartment where the pressure exerted by the international community virtually forced him to accept a federal solution which he did with reluctance during the Oslo sponsored peace initiatives.
It was clear that Prabhakaran’s dream was to secede totally and create a separate state within Sri Lanka. A far-fetched decision, but the LTTE mindset worked accordingly to defeat the UNP, because their dream could only come true if the UNP were defeated.
When Alles was assigned with the task of negotiating with the LTTE he accepted it willingly, mainly because he had an axe to grind with Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Alles was obsessed with the fact that Wickremesinghe as the Education Minister of the then J.R. Jayewardene regime had given a raw deal to his father, Ralph Alles, when the latter was the Principal of D.S. Senanayake College. Wickremesinghe removed the senior Alles from his substantive post and he had to seek employment elsewhere and became the Principal of Zahira College, Maradana.
Under these circumstances, defeating Wickremesinghe was Alles’ long-nurtured dream. He used the affinity he cultivated with the LTTE as the Chairman of Airport Aviation. He handled them most of the time during Chandrika Kumaratunga’s regime as the President, soon after Wickremesinghe went out of office as the Prime Minister in April 2004.
Alles accomplished duties to the utmost satisfaction of the Rajapaksas until recently when they fell-out over the publication of his newspaper, which was actually launched to prop up the image of Mangala Samaraweera, with whom Alles worked more closely.
Be that as it may, UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has seized the opportunity which has come his way to mend fences with the Alles’ in order to gain more political advantage.
Wickremesinghe does not want either Mangala Samaraweera or Tiran Alles – or, for that matter, Sripathi Sooriyarachchi – to go back to President Rajapaksa and hence made a politically important visit to the Merchants Ward of the General Hospital to talk with Tiran Alles.
Wickremesinghe was accompanied by UNP Colombo District Leader Ravi Karunanayake and was later joined by the Western Province Councillor representing DUA (Democratic Unity Alliance), A.J.M. Muzammil
At the Merchant’s Ward, Alles related a part of the story as to how he negotiated with the LTTE and gave the LTTE money. Wickremesinghe remarked that Basil Rajapaksa should have been on the other bed.
In a comment that justified Alles’ arrest, later at the UNP parliamentary group meeting, Wickremesinghe called for the arrest of few more people allegedly connected to the deal – namely Treasury Secretary P.B. Jayasundera, President’s Secretary Lalith Weeratunga, and President Rajapaksa’s younger brother, Defence Secretary Basil Rajapaksa, meaning that in a future UNP administration he intends to take all of them into custody to probe the matter, including Tiran Alles – or he could be the crown witness at a future trial because he had indirectly helped the UNP by exposing the alleged deal while putting the government on the dock. It is a story of how people become friends and foes from time to time in the political landscape of Sri Lanka.
President Rajapaksa made a definite blunder by arresting Alles. His aim was different; the intention was to bring Mangala Samaraweera back into his fold but the whole effort backfired when Alles decided to withstand pressure and come out with the story behind his arrest.
It is now time for the UNP to make hay while the sun shines. The UNP, which was reeling with infighting and defections, has once again come out strongly as an alternative government. The question that is being posed is whether it could sustain the momentum since the government is not keen to go for any election at this juncture.
The argument put forward by the government is that there are bad patches in any administration and that they could overcome it in time to come. The President is working overtime to put the country back on the right track. However, at present, the country is plagued with serious problems in relation to the administration of its finances and civil liberties of the people.
President Rajapaksa is in a difficult position since international pressure is being exerted on him and his administration to restore the rule of law in the face of increasing incidences of human rights abuses.
Be that as it may, the government is in hot water as far as the deaths of the two Red Cross volunteer workers are concerned. There is an enormous amount of pressure being exerted on the government by the international community and several heads of states, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, have written to the President demanding a fair and an impartial inquiry into the matter
The Resident Representative of the Red Cross in Sri Lanka along with other officials, including Sri Lanka Red Cross Director General Neville Nanayakkara, met with the President and his Secretary, Lalith Weeratunga and Inspector General of Police, Victor Perera in this regard.
The ICRC Representative said that the incident occurred in Colombo and there were police officers within sight when the men in plain clothes questioned and took the two volunteers away in a white van.
Despite being present, the police had not intervened, complained the ICRC Representative. He posed another very pertinent question – as to how the abductors took the victims out of Colombo despite the presence of several barriers and checkpoints within the city.
In a nutshell, the ICRC delegation requested results and guarantees to work in Sri Lanka. The President directed the IGP to launch a full-scale investigation into the matter and set a seven-day deadline for the culprits to be brought to book.
President Rajapaksa told the ICRC delegation that there was an organised attempt to discredit him and his government. A group hitherto unknown to them had been operating stealthily to create chaos and bring the government to disrepute, he said
The President further said that a similar incident took place on the eve of his departure to India some time back and it had happened again when he was about to undertake a mission to Geneva, the home of the ICRC and the Human Rights High Commissioner of the United Nations.
It has now been revealed that the victims who were shot dead have had a meal just 45 minutes before they were shot dead. At the autopsy held to ascertain the cause of death it was found that they had taken a meal before they were shot and dumped in a tea estate in Kirielle in the Ratnapura District. Their stomach contents bear testimony to this.
In Parliament on Wednesday UNP Parliamentarian Lakshman Seneviratne revealed some names connected to abductions and disappearances in Colombo. He said that a sacked Air Force Squadron Leader by the name of Nishantha Gajanayake was responsible for extortions and abductions in Colombo and for the murder of TNA Parliamentarian Nadarajah Raviraj last year.
He further said that all these crimes were committed under the patronage of Deputy Inspector General of Police Rohan Abeywardene and all of them were given due protection by none other than Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.
Gajanayake, according to Seneviratne, was attached to the security outfit of the former Air Force Commander, Donald Perera and was sacked from the Sri Lanka Air Force.
Seneviratne revealed that he (Nishantha) had been occupying room No. 706 at Holiday Inn, Colombo for quite some time now and his bills were being paid by one Gajadheera, who is supposedly the brother of a minister in the present government.
Seneviratne also came out strongly against the security staff of Minister Keheliya Rambukwella and said that they were involved in certain extortion cases and that his party, the UNP, has received information to that effect.
The statement made by Seneviratne had a damning effect on the government and the onus is now on the government to find out the veracity of the story and reveal the truth.
The UNP in time to come would ask for a select committee to probe the matter, but it is very important at this juncture to agitate for a fair and an impartial inquiry into what Seneviratne revealed to parliament. It is the right of the people to know the truth since the allegations are of a very serious nature.
Amidst this hullabaloo, the President is to undertake an official visit to Geneva where he would address the International Labour Organisation (ILO) conference and would subsequently meet with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
It is likely that the High Commissioner would press for a visit to Sri Lanka in the face of the deteriorating human rights situation in the country. At the same time, it is very likely that the High Commissioner for Human Rights would suggest that a regional office be set up in Colombo to monitor the human rights situation in Sri Lanka and in the region.
The President has also taken some positive steps to monitor the human rights situation in the country after he felt that the situation was getting out of hand and having a snowball effect.
In this regard, he appointed a committee comprising Ministers Dulles Alahapperuma and Rajitha Senaratne, Deputy Minister P. Radhakrishnan, Vasudeva Nanayakkara and S. Baiz. The committee is yet to sit and look into the grievances of the people whose relatives have been either abducted or taken into custody without a valid reason being adduced.
The President appointed this committee after Radhakrishnan accompanied nearly 50 people whose relatives had been abducted or had to face various inconveniences due to the ongoing war, to meet with President Rajapaksa to relate their tale of woe in order to obtain some kind of redress.
The President listened to them attentively while some of them pleaded with him to find their kith and kin who had been abducted by unknown goon squads. Many other ministers were also present at the meeting including Douglas Devananda, A.H.M. Fowzie, Mahinda Samarasinghe and Keheliya Rambukwella. Among the senior officials present were IGP Victor Perera, the CID Deputy IGP and the CID Director.
Even before the first meeting of the Presidential Human Rights Committee, the police took drastic action on Thursday to evict more than 500 Tamil people staying in the lodges in Colombo. They were asked to leave lodges they were occupying within 24 hours. Most of them were bundled into CTB buses under the protection of the armed forces and were taken to the north east.
Some buses headed towards Trincomalee while the others were taken toVauniya. The first batch so taken was given shelter at Gamini Maha Vidyalaya in Vauniya, while opposition political parties protested and debated the matter in parliament.
It was the UNP’s T. Maheswaran who took up the issue and called for an adjournment debate on the matter. In parliament he pulled off his shirt and threw it towards the members in protest while pandemonium reigned.
In this backdrop, the President also summoned a special meeting of the cabinet to discuss the issues relating to cost of living and the petroleum prices. They explored the possibility of raising the prices of fuel but some argued that it would not be the solution to the crisis the country is facing.
One suggestion was to reduce fuel consumption using various methods. Rationing fuel is one way of reducing fuel consumption and curtailing government expenditure but there was no decision on the matter since the Petroleum Minister was not in favour of such a decision.
He said that fuel should be freely available and refused to contribute to the idea of bringing in a rationing system to curtail the consumption of fuel.
There are few countries in the world where there is a rationing system in operation and excess fuel has to be purchased at a higher price. A similar system has been proposed to reduce electricity consumption in the country. People who consume more than 90 units will be called upon to buy the excess volume at a higher price.
Soon after the special cabinet meeting, the President summoned all the Muslim parliamentarians to talk about the abductions of Muslim nationals. The President said that none of the Muslim ministers or parliamentarians told him about the alleged abductions. He said that the Muslim ministers should have informed him about the matter and found fault with them.
At this stage Minister Fowzie told Rajapaksa that he brought the matter to the notice of the President on the eve of his departure to Kuwait from Jordon. The President immediately summoned the IGP and the senior officers of the CID to inquire into the abductions. The President, who expressed his concern over what was going on in the country, assured the Muslim parliamentarians that he would take action to arrest the ongoing trend.
At the weekly meeting of the ministers, the looming economic crisis in the country was discussed at length.
The President told the ministers that he would be compelled to prune their ministry votes and directed that all promotions and recruitment be stopped forthwith. The government will also move towards reducing the votes allocated for provincial councils by 50 percent to overcome the present crisis.
However, the government has not given up the military campaign against the LTTE and would give the green light to recruit more personnel to the Sri Lanka Army in order to continue with its military campaign.


All-important SLT deal

Government ministers on Friday were perturbed over certain questions raised by the opposition in parliament over the granting of BOI status to Sri Lanka Telecom (SLT).
UNP Parliamentarian Ravi Karunanayake while participating in the debate on SLT queried as to how, and on what basis, SLT had been granted BOI status and given a licence to operate TV channels. He also said that in addition to these, a 3G licence and a Direct to Home (DTH) licence had also been granted to the SLT.
The government was caught unawares when Karunanayake posed these questions and asked as to why the JVP was silent over the proposed sale of the SLT shares held by the NTT Japan to a Malaysian investor, Global Telecommunications Holdings, known as Maxis.
Karunanayake also queried as to why the government was not willing to take over the management of the SLT when it holds majority of the shares. “It is fashionable for the JVP to shout but when it comes to the most crucial point they pay only lip service,” Karunanayake said, accusing the JVP over its silence, and charged the government was against privatisation.
Following this, Minister Rohitha Bogollagama and Treasury Secretary P.B. Jayasundera met with the President and said that it was difficult to meet the arguments of the opposition when the government was ill-equipped with facts and said that they were not aware under which provision such a concession had been granted.
Both the Minister and the Secretary wanted to know how the SLT was granted BOI status. The President immediately got in touch with BOI Chairman Dhammika Perera and posed the same question and gave the phone to Minister Bogollagama to clarify matters with the BOI Chairman. Perera had told Bogollagama that everything was done on the strength of a letter of approval given by the Treasury Secretary.
Minister Bogollagama in turn gave the phone to Secretary Jayasundera to whom BOI Chairman Dammika Perera said that BOI status was granted to the SLT depending on the approval granted by the Treasury. He however added that SLT could bring in their equipment on a duty free basis subject to fulfilment of all the legal requirements and said that a tax holiday has been granted to SLT.
With Perera’s explanation, the matter ended there since it was the Treasury that was responsible for granting BOI status to the SLT.


Akashi meets Somawansa

Visiting Japanese Special Peace Envoy Yasushi Akashi visited the JVP Headquarters at Pelawatte recently. He was accorded a warm welcome by JVP Leader Somawansa Amarasinghe.
During the meeting, Akashi said that he would be visiting the Eastern Province. “Yes, it is fine. The situation in the area is entirely different now and there aren’t any LTTE controlled areas there,” said the JVP Leader.
“What is your opinion about the military situation in the North?” queried Akashi. Replied Somawansa, “The LTTE is at war. It will never come to the negotiating table. The LTTE should be militarily defeated and democracy re-established.”
The JVP Leader did not fail to express his gratitude to the Japanese Envoy for not withholding aid to Sri Lanka. “I must thank you for not suspending aid to Sri Lanka despite undue interference,” he said.


UNP’s never-ending woes

When the government is in disarray, the opposition emerges strongly; this is the political reality in any democracy. But in Sri Lanka things are quite different; the progress of the opposition is often marred by internal squabbles.
However much the UNP Leader attempts to take control of the situation, he is inundated with problems arsing from various differences among the senior members in the party. Chief among these is the ongoing conflict between Party Chairman Rukman Senanayake and General Secretary Tissa Attanayake.
Senanayake takes things for granted and takes his own decisions as to what he should do with the party machinery. He works on his own without even informing the General Secretary.
This bothers Attanayake, who holds the post of all important Secretary General and wanted clarifications on several matters. He confronted UNP Leader Wickremesinghe and told him bluntly that the party would not have a future if they continued in this fashion and appealed to the Leader not to reject the plan he submitted some time back to rejuvenate the party.
Wickremesinghe, who wanted a rather lukewarm secretary, was not too happy with Attanayake’s suggestion. He told Attanayake bluntly that he was the Leader of the UNP and that it was his prerogative to devise a plan which suits the party. Attanayake, who was perturbed by the remarks made by the Leader, had apparently told others that he had been reduced to the status of a peon.
Besides these, there are problems within the party in relation to the appointment of party organisers. A meeting of the all powerful Political Affairs Committee of the UNP which was scheduled for Thursday became a wishy-washy affair and ended up without appointing organisers as scheduled.
Colombo District Leader Ravi Karunanayake and Galle District Leader Vajira Abeywardena met with the UNP Leader to protest against the proposed appointments, which were finally put on hold.
Karunanayake opposed the appointments of Duminda Silva, Sagara Senaratne and Hashan Tillekeratne. He had attributed many reasons for his objections for the appointments.
Abeywardene totally opposed the appointment of Bandula Bandarigoda, Wijepala Hettiarachchi, Manusha Nanayakkara and Ranjit Kumarage.
Abeywardene wanted Lionel Ittalawatte in place of Manusha Nanayakkara and Sunil Senanayake who lost five elections in Hiniduma. Abeywardene has also opposed moves by the party leadership to devide the Hiniduma electorate into two.
One senior UNPer remarked that the Political Affairs Committee, which was summoned to appoint some young faces as organisers, ended up without any progress being made.


JVP’s “reasonable” accusations

The Advisory Committee of the Finance Ministry met at Temple Trees last Tuesday under the chairmanship of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The JVP was represented by Parliamentarians Sunil Handunnetti, and Ranaweera Pathirana.
“Some figures in the Central Bank report are incorrect,” said Handunnetti. “How come? What are the errors?” asked the President.
“The figures pertaining to wholesales and retail prices of fish are wrong,” the Parliamentarian replied. Upon inquiry by the President, the officials admitted the errors.
Pathirana pointed out that waste of public funds and corrupt acts by ministers was going on unchecked. “Which minister? Please let me have the details,” said the President.
“Several ministers are using more than 10 to 15 vehicles. They sometime even hire vehicles,” said Pathirana. “Then the hire must be about Rs. 30,000 to Rs. 40,000,” said the President.
“No, Your Excellency. One of the ministers pays Rs. 295,000 for his vehicle and Rs. 195,000 for the private secretary’s vehicle,” the Parliamentarian said. “I am not aware of it. Who is that minister?” the President inquired of the JVP Parliamentarian. “We must not reveal that here. It is better to ask about that at the cabinet meeting,” Pathirana said.
Then the President turned to Minister Nimal Siripala De Silva and said, “Nimal, who is that minister?” Replied De Silva, “He is referring to Jeyaraj Fernandopulle and his private secretary.”
Pathirana raised a similar issue at the Advisory Committee of the Defence Ministry. “An unusual tax is levied at Medawachchiya security checkpoint. Every vehicle should pay Rs. 100 to Rs. 180 to find passage through the checkpoint.”
“What for, and who is levying the tax?” inquired the President. “The Medawachchiya PS Chairman’s brother,” said the Parliamentarian. The President immediately ordered the IGP to probe the matter.
During the tea party that followed, the President told the JVP members “Your agitations, accusations and criticism are reasonable. I will use them to take ministers to task.”
The JVP members – Vijitha Ranaweera, Ranaweera Pathirana, Achala Jagoda and Laxman Nipuna Arachchi – were all smiles.