25th July, 2004  Volume 11, Issue 2

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On the verge of a disaster

By  Amantha Perera 

Meeting after meeting after meeting is not a new thing in Sri Lanka. Even for the frivolous of matters, there is a meeting. Last week was one like that, one of useless jabbering, like what took place in parliament and others with ominous messages, like the few in Kilinochchi.

The sounds may be drowned here in Colombo amidst the deafening din of politicians and talking-heads screaming over each other, but the war drums were beating at a constant rhythm up in the north.

LTTE cadre takes aim in the Wanni

Resuming hostilities

LTTE Political Wing Leader, S. P. Tamilselvan chaired a meeting of top LTTE area commanders in Kilinochchi on Tuesday morning. 

Around 40 leaders attended the meeting including the Jaffna head Illambarandi, Eastern commanders Ramesh and Kaushalyan. Tamilselvan told the leaders that the country was on the brink of war and that if the government pushed the Tigers back to resuming hostilities, then they were ready. "The repercussions would be severe," Tamilselvan warned. The LTTE area leaders have been meeting regularly since of late, partly due to the situation created by the Karuna defection and the worsening impasse between them and the government.

The Tigers have upped the ante on making sure that Colombo as well as the international community gets the message that they are prepared for war. "Time is fast running out. The LTTE is prepared to wait patiently to negotiate and resolve the Tamil national question. But if the government has a hidden agenda to protract the peace process and restage a game of deception again, the Tamil people are not prepared to bear it anymore. This thinking pattern of the Tamil people, a most reasonable one at that, should be understood in the right perspective by the government and the international community," said the editorial of the Liberation Tigers, the official organ of the Tigers published in Kilinochchi.

And it is no secret that the LTTE has been oiling the war machine to meet any exigency. Soon after the Wanni command took over control of the east in April, it moved in double quick time to replenish the lost cadres. As detailed in The Sunday Leader of July 18, the Tigers are hellbent on getting the numbers one way or the other.

The situation was still tense, especially in the east. Last week too killings continued around Batticaloa. On July 20 night unidentified gunmen walked into a house and shot two men,  Kananathan (35) and Selvarajan (34) in the legs after ordering them at gun point to lie in the garden, in Earvur, north of Batticaloa. Military sources in Batticaloa said the injured were Karuna supporters. However, there was no reaction from the LTTE. A day later, an insurance broker was shot dead in Batticaloa. Tamilnet said that the murder may have been a case of mistaken identity where the victim was mistaken for a LTTE supporter. The shooting happened in an area under the control of the LTTE raising the issue of infiltrations by Karuna supporters.

Ceasefire monitors said that the situation in the east had not deteriorated from two weeks ago, but remained tense. When Head, Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), Trond Furuhovde had his regular meeting with the eight district heads of the SLMM last week it was a similar sentiment that was expressed. Furuhovde said that despite the problems in the east and elsewhere he was still confident that the two parties were committed to peace.

No amendments

The meeting however produced stories in the Tamil press that SLMM had been discussing proposing amendments to the ceasefire agreement and that they would be handed over to the Norwegians during the weekend. However, SLMM Spokesperson Disa Finnboga said that there was no such discussion. Sources from the government Peace Secretariat too confirmed that there were no moves underway to amend the ceasefire agreement that was signed between then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and LTTE Leader Velupillai Pirapaharan, without the endorsement of the President.

Furuhovde met with Tamilselvan on Thursday morning. The meeting commenced at 9 a.m., but did not produce any fireworks. The LTTE reiterated their concerns about the situation in the east. Tamilselvan told the SLMM head that the LTTE wanted all armed groups in the Eastern Province disarmed as per Article 1.8 of the ceasefire agreement. Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister, Vidar Helgessen is due in Sri Lanka this weekend and will meet the Tigers tomorrow in yet another effort to get the process moving.

"The question though is what hope can there be of the peace process resuming under these circumstances. Is the LTTE seriously expected to negotiate in good faith with a government waging a war of attrition against it? This week President Chandrika Kumaratunga declared that her government was waiting for a response from the LTTE on its latest offer on the agenda. Unless she has agreed to negotiate and implement an interim administration for the north and east before discussing a permanent political solution, we can safely predict what the response from Kilinochchi will be.

Playing to the gallery

"But Kumaratunga's posturing is for public consumption. Even as she plays to the international gallery, her parliamentary ally, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna is campaigning amongst the Sinhala people denouncing the notion of an LTTE-run administration for the north-east. The chauvinist logic is inescapable: the Sinhalese in the south are being mobilised to oppose a governing body for the Tamils in the north and east. And this by the government itself. It is apparent President Kumaratunga has no intention of striking a deal with the Tigers. And unless the international community is able to curtail her efforts to provoke the Tigers, it is only a matter of time before war is re-ignited," was how the London based Tamil Guardian described the circumstances surrounding Helgessen's visit in its editorial.

There was yet another meeting in Colombo on Monday, July 19 when Head, LTTE Peace Secretariat, S. Puleedevan paid an unexpected courtesy call on Jayantha Dhanapala who heads the government Peace Secretariat. The meeting was not preplanned. Puleedevan called Dhanapala on Monday morning and inquired whether he could drop by as he was in town. Dhanapala said ok and within 10 minutes the LTTE member was at the secretariat.

The two had not discussed any substantive issues and it was just a courtesy call. There are no follow-up meetings on the cards as well between the two. However, news stories called the meeting an icebreaker. Even close associates of Dhanapala admit that considering the fact that the LTTE has stopped attending meetings with the  army in the east, it was a good confidence building measure. "At least the two got to meet each other," they said.

Creating impressions

Both sides have been using the media to create the impression that things were moving along lines advantageous to them. Soon after Tamilselvan met with World Bank Country Head, Peter Harrold in Kilinochchi early last week on July 19, reports came out of Kilinochchi that Harrold had 'endorsed' the ISGA proposals. However, the World Bank office in Colombo told The Sunday Leader that Harrold had endorsed the view that negotiations should be recommenced as soon as possible to enable a discussion on the ISGA proposal by both parties.

"He (Harrold) referred to the Tokyo Declaration which states that 'assistance' by the donor community will be closely linked to substantial and parallel progress in the peace process," the World Bank Colombo office said.

The government had also expected some sort of relief or at least a positive message during the visit of World Bank Vice President, Praful Patel to Sri Lanka two weeks ago. However, there was no extraordinary announcement during the visit or during talks between Patel and officials including President Kumaratunga.

The economy nevertheless would need very urgent tending. Last week in parliament Finance Minister Sarath Amunugama presented the mid-year fiscal position report for 2004 and some of the statistics speak for themselves

The trade deficit jumped by almost US$ 200 million during the first quarter of this year compared to the same time period in 2003. "Due to the higher increases in imports arising mainly due to the increased cost of petroleum imports, the trade deficit in the first four months of 2004, increased to US$ 724 million from US$ 566 million in the previous year," the report said. The government has continued to absorb the rise in cost of fuel prices.

"The country's total reserves have risen to US$ 3,324 million (5.7 months imports) at the end of April, 2004 from US$ 3, 218 million, at the end of 2003. During the same period, gross official reserves have declined to US$ 2,242 million from US$ 2,329 million. The rupee had depreciated by around 2% against the dollar at the end of April 2004," the report said.

Tell tale signs

Numbers indicate that the government is also falling short on revenue collection - the first quarter witnessed a drop of 3%, the drop was primarily due to shortfalls in non-tax revenue collection. Given the precarious nature of the economy, the country cannot withstand another breakout of hostilities. Like what transpired soon after the Katunayake Airport attack, the economy will nosedive.

The government will soon have to face up to the internal complexities inherent with the UPFA coalition. On the economic front, the JVP has steadfastly maintained that they want the state sector to play a vital role in running the country. But the country is dependent on aid coming through agencies like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). Even during her discussions with Patel the same issue had come up with the World Bank official inquiring from Kumaratunga whether the government's economic policies would vary from agreements entered into with the IMF. The answer had been ambivalent.

The same pressures would be felt at the negotiating table as well. "Making confusion confounded is the stance of the President's constituent partners in the government, the JVP, that a referendum be held in the Sinhalese electorates. These do not augur well for the peace process and not at all conducive for the recommencement of the peace talks. On the contrary, they tend to reflect the reluctance of the government and ground reality that the government is not strong enough to take forward the peace process with sincerity and commitment.

"In one meeting the President proclaims a certain view on the peace process and strange enough she refutes it in another meeting. The President's partner, JVP proclaims still another view and goes at length to say that the President has accepted the JVP view. A JVP leader goes on record that the TNA legislators should be chased out of the assembly, an expression of naked racism and supremacist thinking," the Liberation Tigers editorial said.

War dance

The JVP for its part is getting ready to take Kumaratunga to task on another angle while not budging an inch from the tough stance adopted regarding negotiations. During a recent meeting of high rankers, it was decided to apply pressure on government appointments. Soon after the meeting, when General Secretary Tilvin Silva, MPs Wimal Weerawansa and Nandana Gunathileke met Kumaratunga they informed her that all appointments to government corporations and boards should be done through a committee comprising of the coalition partners. The JVP said that if the committee takes a decision to remove an official, that decision should be respected. Before the meeting, the JVP had referred to the SLFP led unions as a mafia. The JVP has been annoyed by the appointments made to the transport depots.

Politics can confuse reality. For the LTTE war is a very real option now. The question is has Colombo realised this, and if so is it ready to dance the war dance? The verbal sabre-rattling would soon have to give way to the real thing, be it peace or war.

Economy at a glance

 

Source: Finance MInistry

 *  *  *

Prime Ministerial faux pas 

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse's office received an odd letter from the Independent Television Network (ITN) dated July 19. The letter signed by Mahinda Abesundera (media consultant), Sudarman Radaliyagoda (manager news) and Kusum Chandra Arangala (manager news Lakhada) was critical of the composition of the media entourage that accompanied the Prime Minister to India.

The three said that it was a painful  effort on the part of Rupavahini, ITN and Lakhada to forget that Rajapakse had taken along media crews from Sirasa and Swarnavahini to India, leaving the three state institutions to cool their heels in Colombo.

The letter said that it was a serious issue that the two media institutions that accompanied Rajapakse's predecessors Ranil Wickremesinghe on his foreign trips would accompany the Prime Minister of the UPFA. The three however felt that it was comical that the state institutions had to claim cassettes of the trip from Sirasa. They said that they would have had no problems if Rupavahini had accompanied Rajapakse instead of the two private stations.

As a consequence of this great 'faux pas,' the three informed that they would not be attending the banquet held by Rajapakse. However, despite the 'pain' caused the three assured their full support to Rajapakse and more importantly coverage as long as he remains Prime Minister, a minister or even a mere member.


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