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1st May, 2005  Volume 11, Issue  42

First with the news and free with its views                                     First with the news and free with its views                             First with the news and free with its views                                    

Issues

Presidential Unit puts education sector in limbo

By Dharisha Bastians And Easwaran Rutnam 

Still reeling from the spate of interdictions of prominent national school principals, the education........

More...


 Top Issues Stories

> Sethusamudram: bowing to Big Brother?

> Joint mechanism: now dissent from Muslims

> Political dilly-dallying puts CPC on the edge

> PM's politicisation of tsunami reconstruction

> The rape of Lahugala National Park

> Cooray affair: JVP seeing red

> This gun's for hire

> Call for Wimal from President’s House (....Pot Shots)


Presidential Unit puts education sector in limbo

Premier Mahinda Rajapakse, President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Tara de Mel

By Dharisha Bastians And Easwaran Rutnam 

Still reeling from the spate of interdictions of prominent national school principals, the education sector was rocked further last week after more school children took to the streets to protest the removals, and angry questions were raised about the right of the Special Presidential Investigative Unit (SPIU) to execute the removals without the green light from the Public Service Commission (PSC).

The SPIU was set up by President Chandrika Kumaratunga last year to look into irregularities in Grade I admissions and has so far effected the removal of five national school principals, completely by-passing the PSC, which under the 17th Amendment exercises disciplinary control over public servants.

Insufficient grounds

However, last week saw the commission claiming that the grounds for interdiction given by the President's investigators were insufficient, giving rise to a number of accusing fingers being pointed at the unit and its legal right to effect removals.

Speaking to The Sunday Leader, Secretary, PSC, Lakshmi Goonewardane said that the PSC had in fact written to the Education Ministry informing them that the documentation submitted as grounds for interdiction of several principals were insufficient. "We asked them to submit further documentation before we grant covering approval for the removals," said Goonewardane. The PSC Secretary added the commission had received more documents from the Ministry which they were now studying, after which a decision will be made about whether it approves of the removals or not. "If the documentation proves insufficient, then the commission will not grant its covering approval for the removals. However, it will take the commission about two or three days to finish studying the files," she said.

Responding to the allegations the Education Ministry says the PSC cannot handle everything from appointing principals to investigating their activities.

An official of the Education Ministry who wished to remain anonymous told The Sunday Leader that Secretary, Education Ministry, Tara de Mel appointed the SPUI to carry out inquiries into grade 1 admissions at state schools with a view to gathering comprehensive information which the PSC will be unable to fulfill considering that their current responsibilities are overflowing.

"After a recommended principal goes through the interview board the PSC takes the final decision on the appointment as principal to a state school based on the outcome of the process. That together with all their responsibilities is already too much so we can't expect them to carry out inquiries as well," he said.

Furthermore, despite some of the charges against the principals relating to fraud and illegal admissions into schools, law enforcement authorities are yet to be brought into the scene to conduct investigations, except in the case of the principal of D. S. Senanayake College when the CID got involved.

Meanwhile, the Education Ministry says one of the reasons state school principals were under investigation or in some cases interdicted following allegations that they received financial assistance for the school from students either by request or as donations.

The Ministry says this goes against the government policy of free education at state schools around the island.

Free education

"The state pays the principal and teacher fees, maintenance costs, provides books and other stationary as well as equipment required by state schools. All this is done with the intention of providing 'free education.' There is absolutely no need to get donations or money in any form for the school from students," the Education Ministry official said.

Old boys associations of state schools whose principals have been interdicted or are being probed say the money given by the state is inadequate for maintenance, especially in the case of large Colombo city state schools.

A member of the Ananda College Old Boys Association (OBA) told The Sunday Leader the financial requirements of a state school in the city and the requirements of a rural school differ and cannot be placed on the same budget scale by the Education Ministry.

"That is like comparing an apple with a grape," he said.

The OBA member noted that sports equipment like cricket balls and bats, basketballs and tennis balls are some of the items not provided by the Education Ministry.

He also said that the OBA handles the regular maintenance of the school swimming pool and tennis court while also supplying musical instruments for eastern music classes.

The Sunday Leader learns in the case of Royal College Colombo, whose principal is also under investigation, approximately Rs. 1.5 million is required monthly to educate around 8,000 students.

Financial needs

Of this Rs. 390,000 is spent to pay the salaries of non-registered teachers. The balance is used for the maintenance of the school, the payment of salaries for the school sports activity coaches, functioning of sports associations and school telephone bills.

At Ananda College around Rs. 7.6 million is required to educate a student population of 4,500. Most of the money is provided by the OBA and well-wishers as the state cannot cover such huge costs.

The Education Ministry for its part says it has no objections to an OBU providing financial assistance to a state school as long as it does not come directly from the pocket of a student.

"We are totally against that," the Ministry official said. "All the money we give is audited and kept track of while at times on request we even audit the money that flows in from the OBA," he added.

State schools in Colombo complain that if additional financial assistance from students is prohibited most of their development activities will be hampered, giving the already booming private schools an added advantage.

"There are several international schools in the country which provide high class education including Information Technology (IT). If we stop students paying for 'extra' educational activities which will only benefit them, students from international schools will have a better opportunity at getting employment. Most students from state schools lack IT knowledge and if a state school is providing such education at an additional cost from the student it should not be stopped," an OBA member of Ananda College said.

In this context he noted that the Ananda OBA had introduced a programme together with Informatics Computer Institute where students learn to operate a PC and get a recognised certificate for a very meager rate.

"The Education Ministry told us to stop the programme saying it violated state policy of free education. Students who had the opportunity to get computer education for a very affordable rate of around Rs. 200 now must pay more than Rs. 30,000 to get the same education outside or not get PC education at all. As the world changes we must change with it or we will remain behind the line," the Ananda OBA said.

Meanwhile, as the SPIU continues its probe against more state school principals, the basis of the investigations are still being questioned.

Secretary, Old Boys Union, Royal College Colombo, Abhaya Amaradasa told The Sunday Leader that they are curious about the basis under which their principal is being investigated.

"We first want to know what he is probed for. If the principal is interdicted we will first have to see on what basis he is interdicted, study the accusation and then state our position," he said.

Amaradasa said that the current principal of the school, Upali Goonasekara has improved the infrastructure of the school and is widely respected by the students.

When asked if he could pinpoint any irregularities in grade one admissions Amaradasa said that he could only comment on the admissions of old boys' children which he says is undisputed.

"As far as admitting children of old boys to the school goes there is a system followed where the children are assessed and given points based on a circular issued by the Education Ministry.

Student protests

"Once the final points are calculated the school authorities make the final decision on the admission of the child to the school. So far no one has disputed admissions, so that cannot be the basis for the inquiry," he said.

Principal, Anula Vidyalaya Nugegoda, Y. P. S. C Jayatillake is also under investigation by the SPIU.

When asked to comment on the basis of the inquiries Jayatillake said she was unable to discuss the issue as she is a public servant.

With more interdictions in the offing protests by parents and students alike are bound to be seen during the coming weeks.

The participation of students at recent school protests has drawn the attention of the state and rights groups who say the children should not be part of such campaigns.

The Education Ministry has already instructed the police to ensure students stay within the boundaries of the school at a time of a protest.

The National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) says it is totally against students taking part in protests while noting that interdicted principals are responsible.

"There should be awareness created among the parents against them permitting their kids to take part in protests. If the parents want, let them protest but keep the children out of it," Director, NCPA, Prof. Harendra de Silva said.

Tense environment

Prof. de Silva says by permitting students to take part in agitation or protest campaigns they are taught to be aggressive which could scar their future.

"Principals sack students if they act aggressively in school against teachers or principals. But when it comes to trying to clear the name of a principal they use the students as a tool, teaching them negative aggression in the process," he said.

The NCPA says there is a system for a principal to go through and a legal process to follow to find out if he is guilty or not which should be utilised to clear his or her name instead of instigating protest campaigns with the participation of students.

Prof. de Silva says the Education Ministry should issue a circular strictly prohibiting students from taking part in any form of protest.

Meanwhile, daily school activities at Ananda College and D. S Senanayake College continue in a tense environment against the backdrop of protests over the interdiction of the principal.

JVP infiltrating schools  - Ananda PTA

The JVP is spreading its tentacles into the school system and even at this crisis scenario within the education sector the party is attempting to fish in troubled waters, charge the Ananda College Parents and Teachers Association. The PTA alleges that the principal appointed to oversee matters at the school following the interdiction of former Principal, B. A. Abeyratne, was a political appointee affiliated to the JVP. The Acting Principal, P. S. Nonis, the PTA  says, received his appointment after the more worthy candidate the Education Ministry picked for the job, Jayaweera, had turned down the post.

According to the leaflets and propaganda issued by the PTA, a special discussion was held on April 11 at Nonis' residence. Secretary, Cultural Affairs and National Heritage Ministry and JVP MP Vijitha Herath, Anil Geethalal attended the meeting along with Principal, Rathnavali Balika Vidyalaya, Hema Jayawardena, who is a well known supporter of the JVP. At the meeting, Nonis was urged to accept the position of principal of Ananda College and do everything he can to set up an Old Boys' Association which was supportive of the JVP.

The PTA says that Ananda College has never been involved in politics and calls for a stop to all moves to politicise the school.

The Ananda College Old Boys Association has alleged that the stand in principal of the school, P. S. Nonis, who was appointed following the interdiction the school principal B. A Abeyratne, was a political appointee.

According to reports, the Education Ministry had appointed one Jayaweera to take over as principal but he had refused to accept the post.

The OBA says Nonis was later appointed with the backing of the JVP with the intention of infusing their policies in the school.

Nonis was advised to form a JVP backed student union in the school to get them involved in future JVP programmes.

Meanwhile, Nonis is reported to have stopped pirith ceremonies conducted at the school every morning which has further agitated the Buddhist monks who teach in the school.


President-PM clash in Cabinet

Last Wednesday's cabinet meeting proved extremely heated, with the President and Prime Minister at logger heads over the principals' issue. A screaming match ensued between President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Premier Mahinda Rajapakse after the Premier demanded that the President put a stop to inquiries by the Special Presidential Investigative Unit and removing the heads of state schools over the issue of Grade I admissions.

Speaking firmly, the Premier said that the principals' issue was causing great damage to the government, adding that if the situation is allowed to continue public protests against the government will also commence.

Snapping back the President said that as the Head of State and Education Minister she had every right to investigate into and make decisions about the corrupt practices of principals.

"These are rogues... they have stolen money on a huge scale... I can't allow rogues like this to be protected," said an angry Kumaratunga.

Refusing to be deterred the Premier continued his onslaught saying that the President was attempting to create a 'Lawrence Mafia' like the one that existed during the tenure of President Ranasinghe Premadasa. He added that he was the Prime Minister of the country and the President had a duty to listen to his views on the matter as well.

President Kumaratunga chose not to respond to this, saying instead that she had decided to appoint the SPIU because the Bribery Commission which would ordinarily look into things like the principals' issue was defunct.

An incensed Premier went on however that the SPIU was also investigating into the activities of ministers and even himself and his wife and not just the principals. Rajapakse said that as soon as he heard this he had called up the Presidential secretary and instructed him to order the SPIU to stop the investigations immediately. He added that as Prime Minister, he had every right to do so. 


Sethusamudram: bowing to Big Brother?

By Dharisha Bastians and Easwaran Rutnam 

Since time immemorial, Sri Lanka's significance in history has been born from her strategic location along the Eastern trade route. Almost all explorers and traders traversing from the orient to the Middle East, their ships laden with exotic spices and silks, called at one of Ceylon's ports. Sometimes the seafarers decided to anchor in paradise and go no further, contributing to the ethnic mosaic the country has become today. To this day, Sri Lanka's harbours are one of her most precious resources and an integral part of her economy, with 70 percent of ships travelling from the Far East to Arabia transiting in Colombo for refuelling and maintenance.

But with India all set to dredge the shallow Palk Strait to create the 'Suez of the East', there is concern that Sri Lanka's harbours will be by-passed altogether, with ships heading towards the  Middle East being able to save almost a day's travelling by using the canal. Dredging the canal would also effectively negate a need to develop Sri Lanka's southern ports, plans for which have been in the pipeline under successive governments for some time now, since the need to travel around the island to get to the Arabian sea would cease to exist.

Feeder port

It would effectively mean that Colombo, the country's busiest harbour, would become nothing but a feeder port, with Tuticorin, a southeast Indian harbour playing host to almost all oceanic traffic along the historical trade route.

Sadly, the Sri Lankan government has put up little or no resistance to the Sethusamudram project, despite serious environmental concerns in addition to the economic implications. With public awareness about the project being low, the anti-Sethusamudram lobby too has been paltry at best, limited to environmentalists gravely concerned by the damage to bio-diversity resources in the Gulf of Mannar in particular and the straits overall.

The tropical waters of the Palk Strait and the Mannar Gulf is rich in marine ecology, home to endangered species of sea turtle, dolphin, dungongs and whales.

So far, the government has held one round of expert level talks with the Indian government in New Delhi - back in January this year. The Sri Lankan government delegation was led by Chairman, National Aquatic Research Agency, Kapila Perera. At the end of the talks, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a media release saying "on the question of the Sethusamudram canal project, it was agreed that an exchange of views on the economic and environmental aspects in relation to Sri Lanka would be arranged between the technical experts of India and Sri Lanka." According to the Foreign Ministry, the Sri Lankan delegation raised issues particularly on the environmental aspects of the project.

Mutual concerns

According to the Indian High Commission in Colombo, further talks are scheduled in the near future. The talks will focus on the mutual concerns of both governments with regard to the proposed project.

"The consultation with Sri Lanka is a completely different aspect of the Sethusamudram project," says First Secretary- Commercial Affairs and Economy, Indian High Commission in Colombo, Sanjay Sudheer. According to Sudheer, the project is not a bilateral one and therefore, consent from Sri Lanka is not necessary to go ahead with the dredging. "The government of India has decided to go ahead with the project as per the budget proposal last year and all preparations are going ahead as scheduled," said Sudheer.

However the Sethusamudram project is meeting with strict opposition from environmental activists on home soil as well. A group of green bodies have protested the proposed canal and have even taken their objections to the Madras High Courts. Their contention is that if the channel is dredged, the Gulf of Mannar and the Point Callimere flamingo reserve will be seriously affected. The environmentalists also cite an UNESCO supported study in the 1990s that talks of underwater volacanoes that would be a constant threat to the canal.

As for the Sri Lankan green lobby, environmental activists in the country have charged that the government is yet to conduct a proper study into the project to properly ascertain the impact dredging the Palk Strait would have on the marine ecology in the area.

Security issues

But the environment is not the only thing at stake. Naval authorities told The Sunday Leader last week that while the ecological impact of the Sethusamudram project was in focus now, sooner or later the security aspects have to be considered as well. Navy Spokesman, Commodore Jayantha Perera said that while the threat to national security was minimal, it is not a factor to be wholly ignored either.

While business leaders have expressed concern about the Colombo port being seriously affected by the Sethusamudram channel, the Sri Lanka Ports Authority appears unwilling to comment on the issue at all. According to one official at SLPA, an assessment of the kind of impact the canal will have on Sri Lanka's ports has not even been done yet, despite India forging ahead with the project. So what then is the Sri Lankan delegation discussing during its consultations with India?

If there is one beacon of hope for detractors of the Sethusamudram project, it is that India has been trying to get the plan off the ground for over a century now. The idea was first mooted in 1860, while India was still under the yolk of the British colonial masters, by Commander A.D. Taylor of the Indian Marines. Commander Taylor proposed cutting a ship canal through Rameswaran Island, connecting the Gulf of Mannar with the Palk Straits. Since then, India has been trying, under successive regimes even after independence, to implement the plan and make its own harbours, especially Tuticorin and Cochin more lucrative. The plan, Indian authorities say, is to make Tuticorin a transhipment hub akin to Colombo or Singapore.

A goldmine

Hundreds of years ago, when the country's north and northwestern ports of Kankesanthurai (Urathota) and Mannar (Maanthota) enabled ships to ply a shorter route through the Palk Strait and onward to the Middle East, a project like Sethusamudram would never have seen the light of day. But with Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict having made both harbours virtually defunct and Colombo having assumed pride of place along the shipping route instead, India has spotted a goldmine. The only saving grace might be, as Ports Authority sources maintain, to develop KKS and Mannar into international standard ports in order to compete with Tuticorin, since all three ports would then be in line with the canal.

If despite the protests by environmental bodies the project goes ahead, taking a lesson from our forefathers might be the only way to circumvent the economic fallout for Sri Lanka. But with public apathy towards the issue, the main opposition United National Party having already come out in support of the Sethsamudram project and a government literally at sea, Sri Lanka may be left with no choice but to bow down to Big Brother after all.

What is the Sethusamudram project?

Sri Lanka lies about 100 km off the southeastern coast of India. The two countries are separated by the narrow Palk Strait. The waters of the strait are too shallow to allow any ship transit between the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Bay on the north. As a result ships travelling from one coast of India to the other coast have to circumvent the entire Sri Lankan island, increasing the travel distance by about 900 kilometres.

The Sethusamudram project aims to create a canal that is deep enough to allow ships transit. If the canal is dredged, ships travelling towards Europe and the Middle East will be saved about 36 hours travelling time, and a distance of approximately 402 nautical miles.

The Sethusamudram canal will be created over the Adam's Bridge, the shallow sand stone reef separating Sri Lanka from India and is expected to be about 300 metres wide. It is projected that about 12 metres of sediment from the Adam's Bridge area may have to be removed and the waters of the Palk Strait between Kodikkarai in India and Jaffna in Sri Lanka may also have to be deepened. The project involves digging a channel linking the Palk Strait with the Gulf of Mannar 44.9 nautical miles in length.

The cost of the project is estimated to be US $ 400 million. According to the Indian High Commission in Colombo, the project is a massive exercise and India is currently focused on raising funds for the ambitious project. Once in place, the canal will pave the way for the development of the Tuticorin and Cochin harbours, since the channel would effectively make the two ports the ideal transit points for westward bound ships.


Palk Strait has an unique eco-system - NARA

The National Aquatic Research Agency (NARA) has been tasked with making representations at the meetings the Sri Lankan government contingent holds with India about the Sethusamudram project. For environmentalists, the dredging of the canal is a sensitive issue, and one which NARA has taken up at the single discussion held in New Delhi so far.

Speaking to The Sunday Leader, Head, Oceanography Division, NARA, T. Arunanandan explained why the dredging of a 300 metre wide canal in the Palk Strait is a sore point with the green lobby.

Lying between the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal, the Palk Strait has a unique eco-system. The waters of the Arabian Sea are high in salinity, while the waters of the Bay of Bengal holds more freshwater, and as a result the Palk Strait consists of a mixture of the two, giving rise to it being a highly productive area, rich in bio-diversity resources. According to Arunanandan, the Palk Strait and the Gulf of Mannar are breeding grounds for species of whale and dolphin as well as the endangered species, dugongs. The area is also full of pearl beds, coral reefs and chanks.

Arunanandan says that the depth of the water in the Palk Strait, through which the Sethusamudram canal is to be dredged is insufficient in some places along the proposed route of the canal, meaning that the Indians would have to dredge about 80 million cubic metres of sand. "The problem that arises from this is where the dredged material is going to be dumped. What if the sediment material enters this sensitive eco-system? It will result in the possible destruction of coral reefs or lead to coral bleaching in the areas. Furthermore the sea grass beds, the oyster beds and other species of marine life could be affected by the silt," he said.

Another issue that NARA had raised with the Indian government is the possibility of a maritime hazard and a resultant oil spill could cause extensive damage to the Sri Lankan coastline. 


Joint mechanism: now dissent from Muslims

Ferial Ashraff, Velupillai Pirapaharan, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Rauf Hakeem

By Frederica Jansz

then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said that an interim administrative structure for the north east should not be in conflict with the laws of Sri Lanka since it could result in a successful legal challenge.

The former Premier expressed this view in a letter dated May 27, 2003 addressed to Norwegian Foreign Affairs Minister, Jan Petersen. "This administrative structure will have to be efficient, transparent and accountable; safeguard the interests of all communities in the north and east; enable the LTTE to play a significant role and it should not be in conflict with the laws of Sri Lanka which could result in a successful legal challenge," he wrote.

This may just about sum up the concerns currently being expressed in relation to a joint mechanism between the present UPFA government and the LTTE to help distribute tsunami aid in a fair and justifiable manner.

Curiously, when Wickremesinghe went ahead and signed a ceasefire agreement with LTTE Chief Velupillai Pirapaharan, he did not face as much opposition as President Chandrika Kumaratunga is now being forced to deal with as she prepares to sign a joint mechanism agreement with the Tamil Tigers -  much of which is emanating from within her own ranks.

Rifts in the coalition

The JVP though a government ally, have threatened to torpedo the government if Kumaratunga proceeds with signing a joint mechanism agreement with the LTTE. Sri Lanka Muslim Congress Leader, Rauf Hakeem has already slammed the proposed mechanism proclaiming it to be "a dead duck" while insisting the Muslim community will not be used as a mere post box for such initiatives.

National Unity Alliance Leader, Ferial Ashraff, another constituent party of the government, has stated her party position maintaining NUA will not support the initiative as it would grant "a lion's share" to the LTTE and thereby place the Muslim community in the east in a precarious position.

And Head, Muslim Peace Secretariat, Javid Yusuf while not rejecting the proposed mechanism outright, claims he is open to discussing the issue with the President, who has promised Yusuf an audience to do just that.

Yusuf maintains since the Muslims were the most affected in terms of numbers by the tsunami in the north and east - they should either have equal or majority representation within the structure of a joint mechanism.

According to figures we gathered, 51,823 Tamil families living in Ampara, Batticaloa and Trincomalee were affected in the recent tsunami, as against the lower figure of 45,346 Muslim families in these three districts. A total of 3181 Sinhalese families fell victim in the same areas, while 686 Burghers living in Batticaloa were affected.

But figures have been hard to verify as divisional secretaries and other Colombo-based government officials all have varying figures on the displaced and survivors of the recent tsunami which rise and fall constantly.

A higher price?

So, Javid Yusuf then may be right when he says it is the Muslim community that paid the higher price in areas of the north and east. Or, he may just also be very wrong.

Nevertheless, the issue of establishing a joint mechanism, one which the LTTE has made very clear must be completely under their control albeit with Muslim representation, is a knotty problem left it appears solely to Kumaratunga to resolve. Perhaps, merely by placing her signature to the document.

The current impasse which may or may not lead to a very serious situation has nevertheless arisen now, as the disparity exists not in words or due to a mismatch of perceptions but in the very core and central issues pertaining to an 'interim administration' framework, which is perceived to be linked if only susceptibly, to the joint mechanism proposal.

A politico-administrative structure for the northeast with wider participation of the LTTE, via a joint mechanism to distribute tsunami aid will perhaps offer them wide scope and power to rule administratively in areas of the north and east.

"Criminals"

A fear expressed in so many words by the JVP, while the Jathika Hela Urumaya has vociferously maintained that they will never support such an initiative as they do not agree that such power and privileges should be granted to "criminals."

The bottom line is that the government cannot offer the Tamil Tigers less, as they are bound to outright reject any proposal that does not grant them a power base.

It could be argued that the government should have discussed and grappled with the core issues regarding the structure of the state, whether federal or quasi-federal and the degree of substantial devolution of power which could be given to the LTTE first, before getting on to matters of rehabilitation and reforms, which obviously would have got into its correct perspective eventually, when the most crucial matters were agreed upon.

But in the context of getting urgently required financial aid to the north east which was considered to be the hardest hit in the recent tsunami, such an argument may at this current juncture just be too theoretical or even absurd.

Unfortunately, the Muslims appear to have been completely ignored when a road map for a joint mechanism was outlined. Hakeem, Ashraff and Yusuf all claim they were never privy to details of the proposal - whatever the package deal is to be, is yet to be given upfront for study.

If only they had been included by the consortium of architects that drew up the proposals - namely the two peace secretariats, both government and LTTE as well as Norwegian facilitators - perhaps a lot of the dissent, much of which is emanating from the Muslims, could have been prevented or ironed out.

Fair representation

But that being said, The Sunday Leader learns from reliable sources the proposed joint mechanism indeed lends fair representation to the Muslims and when made known would brook little justification for opposition.

However since the details of the proposal remain a closely guarded secret, we can only surmise this to be the case.

In the same breath, it is important to make the point that if details of a joint mechanism remain shrouded, then so do amounts pledged by donor countries and their terms and conditions, such as whether they are loans or grants or outright aid, in the aftermath of the tsunami, are all wrapped in mystery.

The President makes one statement; she is then contradicted by Treasury Secretary Dr. P. B. Jayasundera who says something else, while the Central Bank issues figures which contradict both the President and Dr. Jayasundera.

Even definitions of populations "in need" of emergency humanitarian assistance post-tsunami, are inconsistent.

It is no small wonder then that the LTTE has outrightly accused the government administrative mechanism of being corrupt, inefficient and bureaucratic. The accusation may well hold water, but coming from the likes of the Tamil Tigers, such sentiments carry little weight in this part of the country.

The issue at hand is that the ground situation must be viewed in practical terms. Perhaps it would bode well for the UPFA's Marxist allies to consider a project initiated by PAFFREL in 2003 called, "Promoting Co-existence in Areas of Inter-ethnic Tension in a Democratic Process."

This one-year project was sponsored by the Australian Agency for International Development (Aus-Aid), Colombo, and implemented in 12 selected districts.

The objective was this. That after the signing of the ceasefire agreement a gap existed between the conflict and sustainable peace. Since the peace building process is a dynamic one, the project intended to facilitate transformative change from protracted tension and violence towards sustainable peace.

Co-existence

In settings of protracted violent conflict, peace building requires a proactive change in relationships. This project focused on relationship building while exploring the realities of interdependence and seeking to clarify visions for the future. By facilitating community reconciliation and co-existence among communities in conflict areas by creating a network of organisations, religious groups, women's groups, youth groups, and citizens groups, the community sought to work consistently to propagate ideals of co-existence and evolve strategies to cope with varied ground situations and current problems based on the experiences, linkages and mutual confidence built up through shared efforts and activities.

The need of the hour in this context, maybe to now broaden Sri Lanka's understanding of federalism. For the first time in nearly two decades, a tentative peace between the LTTE and the Sinhala majority government has raised hopes in Sri Lanka that the cycle of violence that has plagued the country may finally have been broken.

Although, the peace is tenuous at best and fighting could perhaps resume at any time, the LTTE's agreement to share a joint mechanism to initially distribute tsunami aid marks a break from its previous demands of an autonomous Tamil homeland in the north and the east of the country.

With the LTTE's apparent willingness to thereafter perhaps accept a federal structure for Sri Lanka, the need to promote a deeper understanding of federalism, its different forms, and its ramifications for both the Tamils and the Sinhalese, as well as other groups such as the Muslims, becomes a paramount issue facing all Sri Lankans.

The need for such a course of action must surely be necessary as the parties to the conflict, the government and the LTTE, have realised the need to negotiate for a peaceful resolution and yet the process of reaching a lasting settlement has posed major challenges.

A gap exists between the parties involved in the peace process - the government and the LTTE - on the one hand and on the other, the people in the country who have experienced the trauma of war and whose future depends on the success of the peace process. In this situation it becomes necessary to identify the important issues connected with the entire process, so that they can be given priority.

Deterioration

But if in-fighting and continued opposition to a joint mechanism continue between government allies, opposition forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, it may well lead to a further deterioration in humanitarian conditions.

These regular rounds of verbal struggle will only repeatedly trigger further population displacement.  NGOs have access to affected populations, but movement of people and supplies is - and will likely remain - stagnant, controlled by the government and unlikely to produce an end to the conflict leave alone bring relief to the tsunami affected in the north and east.

Despite some improvement in the responsiveness and capacity of humanitarian agencies in recent years, limits imposed by budgetary constraints and bureaucratic competition among the major UN agencies and international NGOs - as well as the problems associated with operating in conflict situations - will continue to hamper the effective delivery of humanitarian assistance in a post-tsunami phase.

Thus,while major donor countries will continue to respond quickly and provide substantial amounts of humanitarian aid in short-term emergencies resulting from natural disasters, funding for humanitarian aid in long-lasting crises, as currently is the case in Sri Lanka will, however, continue to fall well short of targeted needs unless signs of achieving a settlement between the government and the LTTE emerge.

The foremost issue that must not be brushed aside or forgotten while modalities for a joint mechanism are argued over is that thousands of people affected by the recent disaster include those who still, four months after the tsunami, require such basic needs as food, water, shelter, and medical assistance.

And if we are to go by a statement made by Presidential Advisor Mano Tittewela, then as many as 60% of the tsunami affected are those who live in the north and east. A percentage that is shocking by any standards as behind the drawing boards and arguments, the ground reality is that 60% of nearly one million tsunami survivors continue to live in the north and east and are desperately in need of aid.


Political dilly-dallying puts CPC on the edge

Dr. P. B. Jayasundera and Susil Premajayanth

By Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema 

With government officials still at sea over finding a solution to the present crisis in the petroleum industry with regard to the restructuring of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) and the entrance of a third player to the market, confusion reigns in all quarters of the sector.

The entrance of a third player to the industry has attracted heavy criticism from the trade unions claiming it would be detrimental to the country's economy on the whole.

Under such circumstances, the cabinet of ministers at its meeting held on November 18, 2004 on the subject of "present crisis in the petroleum industry adversely affecting the national economy," considered the cabinet memorandum dated November 15, 2004 forwarded by Power and Energy Minister Susil Premajayanth on the subject and decided to appoint a cabinet sub committee consisting of Minister Premajayanth, Commerce and Consumer Affairs Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, Finance Minister Dr. Sarath Amunugama, Transport Minister Felix Perera and Small and Rural Industries Minister, K. D. Lalkantha to study and make necessary recommendations to overcome the crisis in the CPC.

Income loss

The final report of the sub committee was handed to the cabinet of ministers on February 18 this year and the main recommendation out of the 13 recommendations of the committee is to divest the one third share held by the Treasury with the CPC. (See box)

However, the committee as findings has also attached an annexure which shows a Forex drain chart due to the divestiture of one third share with the Lanka Indian Oil Company (LIOC).

It explains that LIOC is expected to make a net profit of Rs. 2.5 billion a year and assuming at least Rs. 2.2 billion (US$ 22 million) per year is remitted out of the country from this profit, the cumulative net income of the Treasury by 2007 would be US$ -12.6 million.

This means due to the LIOC deal, although the Treasury has not so far incurred a loss in its cumulative net income, it would begin by 2007 - US$ 12.6 million. This amount however, would steadily increase and if the present trend continues, by 2014, the Treasury would incur a loss of US$ 164.3 million in cumulative net income.

Cabinet sub committee report

The next annexure shows that assuming a similar amount of Rs. 2.2 billion (US$ 22 million) per year is remitted out of the country by the respective third player, the cumulative net income of the Treasury by 2007 would be US$ -13 million. This means a loss of US$ 13 million, which would increase upto US$ 167 million by 2015.

However, it further states that if 49% of the remaining one third share is sold to a foreign company, there would only be a slight change in the figures given in the charts.

Under such circumstances, voicing strong disapproval to any form of divestiture of the one third share with a private sector company leave alone a foreign company, the Petroleum Common Services Union (PCSU) claims that the proposals forwarded by the cabinet sub committee to study on the petroleum crisis should be implemented, the government is yet undecided on the course of action to be adopted.

The unions are up in arms against the entrance of a private sector third player and while alternative proposals have been forwarded by the PCSU, the government has still not granted its approval to them nor forwarded any counter proposals so far.

However, according to Power and Energy Minister Susil Premajayanth, they have drawn up a new set of proposals where the one third share of the petroleum industry currently under the Treasury would be divested with the newly formed public sector company.

According to the proposal, 10% of the company will be owned by the workers, 5% by dealers while 33% will be put on  the share market.

This proposal Premajayanth planned to submit to  cabinet after the arrival of President Chandrika Kumaratunga from overseas last week. However, he did not present it to cabinet  last week.

When asked about their opinion on the Minister's new proposal, the unions observed that they were not aware of any such proposal adding that Premajayanth cannot present any proposal to cabinet without first consulting the unions.

Premajayanth maintains that the government is yet to come out with its final decision as they are yet to hold discussions with the unions.

"I have asked the Treasury Secretary to call a meeting with the unions to discuss the contents of the proposal," he said. Till then whatever proposals Premajayanth has drawn to resolve the crisis would have to wait.

The unions have also requested the government to define the word "restructuring."

"What is this restructuring. Is it privatisation in another word?" they question.

Their grievance is that whenever they reached out to government officials for an explanation they were greeted with silence.

The PCSU also charged that if the government brings in Bharath Petroleum as the third player, then a new Indian monopoly in the market would be created along with LIOC to break the so called existing CPC monopoly.

The PCSU maintains that there need not be any confusion if the government follows the recommendations forwarded by the cabinet sub committee.

Explaining the adverse impact that could be created by the entrance of a private sector third player to the market, Head, PCSU, Ananda Lakshman explained to The Sunday Leader that the amount owed by other public enterprises - CEB, transport sector, forces, etc. - to the CPC amounts to Rs. 5,864 million and in case a private sector third player was in operation, these enterprises would face a serious threat as they would not be provided with the necessary fuel for their operations.

"A private sector company would never run at a loss and if their payments are not met on time, they would simply stop providing fuel to the institutions that are defaulting them," Lakshman explained.

The CPC has been compared to a monster that survives on state money. Calling it a loss making enterprise, officials have also said that if not restructured fast it would result in   state banks coming under immense pressure.

Profit maker

Lakshman also points out that  in 1994, CPC was a profit making company.

In 1994, CPC recorded a profit of Rs. 600 million.

He asserted that it was political dilly dallying throughout the last 10 years that has converted the CPC from a profit making entity to a huge loss making one.

"Can the government reduce the price of fuel by selling away the CPC?" he asked.

Lakshman questioned as to why the Treasury has so far paid up to Rs. 38.2 billion to the LIOC as subsidies when the CPC is yet to receive money from the Treasury.

He noted that CPC has thus far been the highest tax payer to the Treasury.

In 2003, the CPC has paid Rs. 25 billion as taxes to the Treasury.

"If the Treasury makes the payments and other state institutions pay their dues then there would be no cash crisis in the CPC," Lakshman said.

He charged that the CPC cash crisis is not the fault of the workers, but of the officials who have worked with a laissez faire attitude.

Lakshman said that there are more questions than answers with regard to the CPC issue, adding that the joint unions would not allow the government to sell the one third share or privatise the CPC.

"The Treasury's one third share has to be divested with the CPC or else a public company, which is a subsidiary of CPC," he said.

Undecided

The PCSU charged that they have no faith in Minister Premajayanth or the Treasury officials as they are only "playing a double game."

"Although officials say the country would gain if the one third share is divested with a private company and the CPC restructured, it is not so," they said.

Premajayanth observed that apart from the initial sum received by the state at the sale, the government would not stand to gain anything further as it would then be the new player  who would stand to make the profits.

"Once you sell that's it. There's no turning back and apart from the initial sum, the government doesn't get anything," he said.

While indecisiveness and political dilly dallying take centre stage in the government, the future of the country's fuel industry hangs in the balance, waiting for a deus ex machina to save the  day.

Brief history of the CPC cash crisis

In 1994, CPC was a profit making entity which recorded a profit of Rs. 600 million.

However, by 1998 due to bad management decisions, CPC showed signs of instability.

The same year, a committee headed by Dr. P. B. Jayasundera and Mano Tittawela recommended  that CPC  be restructured.

The level of inflation during the time was on the rise and the government decided not to apply a pricing formula and the CPC was on a Rs. 16,500 million bank overdraft.

The World Bank then advised the government to stop making political decisions that could be detrimental to the survival of the CPC.

The pricing formula, was introduced as a result.

However, the formula, was properly applied only during 2002 and 2003. By 2003, the losses were brought down to a considerable level. According to the formula, fuel prices could be increased each time by a minimum of 25 cents or a maximum of Rs. 2.

With the dissolution of parliament and calling for elections in 2004, the pricing formula was not applied from January 2004.

During the same period, global fuel prices kept soaring and the Treasury had to dole out subsidies.

Unable to bear the burden further, in mid 2004, the government had its first price revision followed by another in August.

Even with the price revisions, the CPC was facing a cash crunch due to the high manufacturing costs.

However, the CPC is yet to receive subsidies from the Treasury and cash owed by other public enterprises.


Pricing formula to be reintroduced

Power and Energy Minister Susil Premajayanth said the pricing formula would have to be applied to remedy the present cash crunch experienced by the CPC.

Speaking of the high taxes paid by the CPC, Premajayanth observed that it is indeed a problem.

However, last week he presented a cabinet paper to set off tax payments due from the CPC for the last three months against the losses.

"If fuel is not subsidised, then the other option is to set off the taxes against losses," he said, adding "we will gradually apply the pricing formula."


CPC not being restructured

Treasury Secretary Dr. P. B. Jayasundera maintained that the government is yet to decide on the solution to address the present crisis, adding that currently, the one third share still remains with the Treasury.

Dr. Jayasundera noted that there was no issue about restructuring the CPC as it is only the CEB that is to undergo such a process.

"CPC is not being restructured, it is only the CEB," he said.

He however said that the Treasury has already on previous occasions discussed the matter with the trade unions, adding that it was now up to the government to decide on the matter.

When asked if the Treasury would incur a loss of income by the deal signed with LIOC, which would also apply to any private sector third player, Dr. Jayasundera responded that there would be no such loss.

He also said that to remedy the present cash crisis in the fuel industry, the country should look at ways of increasing its capacity to refine crude oil.

"If we refine crude oil in the country, then the cost involved will be much less," he said.

If oil is refined in the country, a sum of US$ 7 per barrel could be saved.

Dr. Jayasundera explained that with global oil prices moving up, the country would need to adjust accordingly.

He observed that out of the total petrol consumption in the country, less than 25% is used by the poor, while diesel consumed by the transport sector is quite minimal when compared to the mass consumption for industrial purposes.

Dr. Jayasundera noted that if a barrel of crude oil remains at US$ 55, the government would have to spend up to Rs. 15 billion for fuel subsidies for 2005 alone.


Proposals of the cabinet sub committee

1. Treasury's one third share to be divested with the CPC

2. Loans to be paid back in equal monthly installments to be given out to renovate CPC filling stations.

3.  A regional distribution policy to be adopted to improve the services and productivity of the dealers and staff to face the competition from other players

4.  Sign new agreements with CPC dealers to ensure they would not leave the network.

5. Introduce a price revision that would create a common price for fuel and remove the Rs. 2 subsidy on fuel sales within the city

6.  The formation of a regulator.

7.  Start a facility to export fuel to Maldives and renovate and increase the capacity of the existing facilities.

8. Appoint a suitable general manager to the CPC

9.   Restart the shipping oil section and begin the shipping oil operation in the Galle harbour

10. The Treasury to set aside money for each public enterprise to be released to the CPC when the respective institution purchases fuel from the CPC

11.  Restart the agri chemical section under a new plan

12. Amend sections in the existing agreement with LIOC, which would stop them from going beyond their one third share and prove detrimental to the CPC

13. Taking into consideration the country's security network, begin utilising the Sapugaskanda refinery as the store at China fort.


Third player and the BPC

While CPC is already competing with an Indian owned company - LIOC, bringing in a third player from the same country would corner CPC further.

If the government decides to bring in Bharath Petroleum Corporation (BPC) as the third player to the market, it would instead of creating a competitive environment lead to  a battle of two against one.

However, the entrance of a third player to the country's petroleum market is inevitable as the tripartite agreement signed between the government of Sri Lanka, Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) and the CPC stipulates that the market in the first few years be limited to three players.

The previous regime when looking at sectors for liberalisation identified the petroleum sector and decided to break the monopoly in the market by bringing in a second player and then a third player later on.

The matter was overlooked by the Public Interest Programme Unit (PIPU) under the Economic Reforms Ministry under Milinda Moragoda.

The unit after analysing the pros and cons of the matter decided it to be a politically strategic move to introduce IOC to the local petroleum market, which till then was monopolised by CPC.

The agreement states "and whereas recognising the fact that the total retail market size of Sri Lanka is not large enough to accommodate too many players to operate in the petroleum sector, GOSL has decided to initially restrict the number of participants in the petroleum sector to three players for an initial period of five years from the date of this agreement, consisting of CPC, LIOC and another to be identified in the future."

The PIPU apart from introducing broad sectoral reforms, also intended to introduce a multi sector regulatory commission - Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka - which would be the regulatory authority for several fields including petroleum and electricity.

The ultimate goal with regard to the petroleum sector by the UNF regime was to open the market and keep the pricing formula among other decisive factors with the Public Utilities Commission.

In such an event, providing subsidies too would be possible as it would subsidise the product and not an entity as a whole.

When asked about the danger in bringing in a third player without forming the  regulator - Public Utilities Commission - which would be the regulator for electricity and fuel, a government official pointed out that to formulate such a regulator one has to look at several aspects such as  legal framework and capacity building.

He went on to say that although it would be ideal to have the necessary regulations in place before bringing in a market player, it would also not be practical to hold on to a deal merely to formulate the regulations.

However, he observed that in case the necessary regulation is not in place, the important issues could be included in the respective shareholder agreements.


PM's politicisation of tsunami reconstruction

By Frederica Jansz 

Post tsunami rehabilitation work in the Hambantota District clearly displays the politicisation of a tragedy where in similar vein to many NGOs and INGOs profiteering off the tsunami the government too is exploiting a bad situation.

For instance, in Hambantota, around 6,500 houses are to be built despite only 2,800 having been destroyed and damaged as a result of the tsunami.

This housing project is considered a political venture and not one required by the tsunami disaster and its recovery.

Controversy

Shelter for the tsunami affected in Hambantota has turned out to be a very controversial and political issue with a decision believed to have been made primarily by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse to shift the town to Siribopura, about 4 km interior from the present Hambantota town. This is a vast area of land about 500 hectares, taken over from the Mahaweli Authority, the Forest Conservation Department and the UDA.

Siribopura - the site for the new town 
and Premier Mahinda Rajapakse

Many organisations have undertaken to build houses and the total number of houses to be built is 6,500. Plans indicate they are all less than 500 sq ft. in size.

A separate project has been undertaken by World Vision to build 416 apartment type flats in a 4.5 acre land belonging to the State Timber Corporation which is situated within the town.

Programme Manager - Training, World Vision, Priyanke Madawela said World Vision is funding the initiative after a request to do so was made by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse. He added all plans for the construction of the flats are channelled through the Premier's office. Asked if the flats are for fishermen who are to be re-located outside the 100 meter buffer he replied, "I don't know - the government will decided on the allocation."

Other smaller projects by different organisations in the coastal belt would add more than another 200 houses.

Coordinating Secretary to Sajith Premadasa, P. Samarasinghe told us that Premadasa had sought approval from the government to construct 1,000 homes for the tsunami affected in Hambantota, but had received the greenlight for only 200.

He said these 200 homes are to be constructed at Siribopura. "Thus far not a single permanent house has been built in Hambantota - only some foundation stones have been laid," he said. Sajith Premadasa who once prided Hambantota as being his stronghold was not available for comment as he is currently overseas.

And while politicians hailing from the southern district vie for votes trading on the misfortunes of those affected by the tsunami, a battle with a difference is also evolving between INGOs and local NGOs.

Turf battles

Bitter turf battles have ensued between INGOs and local NGOs working in the Hambantota and Tangalle areas.

The massive destruction caused by the tsunami last Boxing Day proved ample feeding ground for hundreds of INGOs that flocked to Sri Lanka - some with very sincere and good intentions but many others with the aim of profiteering off yet another disaster.

Pre-tsunami, there were about 14 NGOs working in Hambantota. The two main NGOs in the field were the Women's Development Federation (WDF) and the Green Movement (GM).

But post tsunami, most rehabilitation work is channelled through an organisation called 'Helping Hambantota' which centre was established through the Prime Minister's office and is funded by the international NGO, Action Aid.

Helping Hambantota has a Co-ordinator appointed by the Prime Minister's office, who is politically powerful, while Action Aid has contracted the Indian born Saroj Das to serve as programme and policy advisor to oversee work Action Aid is sponsoring in the area.

Das maintains that Action Aid funded 'Helping Hambantota' only in the initial stages and that too for no work connected with shelter but purely to sponsor the creation of a web site which proposed to compile information.

"We helped by engaging some technical staff and that was all," Das asserted, maintaining that since then Action Aid has not received any other proposals from Helping Hambantota.

Grappling with issues

He claims that Action Aid is funding seven other local NGOs in the area - all of whom he asserted are working having recruited only local staff.

Das stressed the point that the government is the key actor in all rehabilitation work carried out post tsunami in the Hambantota District. "All the NGOs merely help fill the gaps," he said, asserting the non governmental organisations are just helping coordinate work.

Das also maintained that 6,500 new houses are to be built on the directions of the Prime Minister but said he could not comment on why this was so when only 2,800 had been destroyed.

The offices of Helping Hambantota are located in the District Secretariat building and their meetings are chaired by the district secretary, giving them undue prominence as an arm of the state. Helping Hambantota co-ordinates all rehabilitation work with directions given by the Prime Minister's office.

The state mechanism for implementing rehabilitation work is centred around the district secretary, his subordinate divisional secretaries and other executives of state organisations like the irrigation, land, agriculture, Samurdhi and fisheries departments, the UDA, the grama seva niladharies, the CEB, Water Board and Telecom. These state structures have all now been made subordinate to Helping Hambantota.

And in this backdrop the government continues to grapple with a key issue, that of permanent shelter. One, yet not adequately looked into. There are two main camps of displaced persons in the heart of the Hambantota town, one with 196 families and the other with 100 families.

A third, bordering the town along the Tissa Road, adjoining a damaged Muslim mosque has 63 families. While the state authorities recognise the first two, the third is not recognised and is labelled "illegal squatters" as they are within the 100 metre buffer zone. They refuse to move, claiming they have a right to their property, though damaged.

The people in these camps have not been told what they would be given in terms of compensation, whether they would get houses that are being built or are to be built or how long they would have to wait for any permanent solution.

Handing out money

Another controversy is the manner in which the government had handed out the allocation of Rs. 5,000, which was primarily for tsunami affected families. Many complain that unaffected people have also been given the money as a result of political patronage.

Recently Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse was seen handing out money in envelopes to people in the Tangalle - Matara area. Whether those recipients were all tsunami affected was not clear while the Premier has offered no explanation as to where he got the money from to give.

Meanwhile, some of the smaller NGOs working in the area complain that having started off with little projects in the aftermath of the tsunami they now face extinction, as they cannot compete with bigger NGOs and INGOs that have secured a place within the rehabilitation process with due recognition from state authorities. Examples are the Su-Chi Buddhist Foundation versus Action Aid.

Community participation dead

This has resulted in an exodus of staff, including key figures of these local NGOs moving into the fold of international NGOs for larger pay packets. The end result is that, socially rooted local NGOs are dying out, without space for activities, staff and funds.

On the other hand, village based Community Based Organisations (CBOs) are totally politicised and that prevents any independent intervention by civil society.

Although in the pre-tsunami period, it was made a condition that community participation must be secured for any project to be accepted for financial assistance, the donor agencies have in the aftermath of the tsunami abandoned such policy.

In fact there is no effort by any social organisation or donor agency to promote community or stakeholder participation in the rehabilitation process thus making the issue of civil society representation a dead issue.

Amparai INGO - more a headache

Residents in Amparai complain that Goal International Humanitarian Organisation, an INGO based in Ireland but operating in Amparai is dumping garbage in residential areas in the Amparai District.

Goal is working out of an office in Sainthamaruthu, focusing on relief and rehabilitation activities for tsunami affected areas.

Residents complain that two public places in Sainthamaruthu, the public playground and Jummah Mosque premises have been filled up with waste by the Irish INGO.

These places have not been declared as waste disposal sites. But Goal International has filled these two sites with garbage cleared from tsunami affected areas. The garbage is considered high risk being the debris and other muck from areas battered by the tsunami and is thus deemed dangerous due to the possibility of breeding disease.

Goal maintains they have got approval from the municipality, the GA and the divisional secretary to dispose the garbage on these sites.

Steven Langdon working at the Goal Sainthamaruthu office reiterated that the INGO is dumping garbage in the two areas designated by GA Herath Abeyweera and the Divisional Secretariat. "Its not just us but other NGOs and local authorities too are using the same sites," he asserted.

But the GA Amparai categorically denied having granted permission to the Irish INGO to dump garbage on these two sites. When The Sunday Leader contacted Abeyweera he said, "Definitely not. They have not sought nor been granted any permission to use these two sites to dump garbage."

The matter remains unresolved as Goal International continues to insist they possess the necessary clearances to dispose of garbage on these sites. While residents complain that government officials are not attempting to streamline rehabilitation work in the area and ensure both INGOs and NGOs follow state regulations.


The rape of Lahugala National Park

The destruction at Lahugala National park

Thousands of acres of forest land at the Lahugala National Park have been and is continuing to be cleared minus any state approval for chena cultivations and other forms of businesses.

Lahugala is a beautiful national park by Arugam Bay on the east coast and is a place to see wild elephants by the beach. Lahugala has gained international fame as the only park where large herds of wild elephants could be seen at any given time.

But in an area dominated by Muslims, UDA officials who requested anonymity claim they are powerless to stop the rape of the forest lands and can only watch helplessly.

Over the last six months indigenous trees such as Satin, Ebony, Tamarind and Pine have been struck down as large tracts of virgin forest land are being cleared for various purposes.

Hoteliers in the area too afraid to be named due to possible repercussions insist the rape of the Lahugala forest is continuing unabated as state officials trapped in a vice of corruption and in some instances intimidation are doing nothing to stop the pillage of this forest.

Mass scale destruction

One hotelier said that an estimated 2000 acres of forest land situated along the highway that leads to the Naula Tank have been destroyed over the last six months.

And in this backdrop, fresh allegations arose that more mass-scale destruction of the forest is to follow,  this time at a village called Sarvodayapuram in order to construct permanent homes for the tsunami affected.

It was alleged that more forest cover is to be destroyed on the orders of the Government Agent for Amparai, Herath Abeyweera.

Officials at the UDA at Pottuvil, requesting anonymity claimed that another 450 acres of forest land are currently being cleared at Lahugala to build houses for the tsunami displaced.

But Herath Abeyweera when contacted countered that a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) he recently signed with a non governmental organisation to construct 125 homes for tsunami victims is not being done after clearing forest land. When asked to name the NGO Abeyweera said he could not remember the name of the NGO he signed the MOU with.

Nevertheless, he claims the land identified to construct permanent homes for the tsunami affected had been cleared a long time back during the height of the war with the LTTE.

He says a large number of families mostly Muslims who were displaced as a result had at the time sought refuge at a place called Sarvodayapuram which the GA maintains lies on the border of the Lahugala National Park.  He asserts that it is this area that has been chosen as suitable land to build permanent homes for those who were affected by the December 26 tsunami.

Sarvodayapuram is situated exactly on the right of the main road which runs from Arugam Bay to Panama. The Lahugala Forest lies on the edge of Sarvodayapuram.

Urban Development Ministry Secretary, Thosapala Hewage maintained the same position as the GA for Amparai, insisting that no forest cover is to be cleared in order to construct houses for the tsunami affected at Arugam Bay.

He said 450 acres allocated at Sarvodayapuram is undeveloped land not belonging to the Lahugala forest and national park.

But when asked if he is aware that some 2,000 acres of forest land at Lahugala National Park along the road to Naula Tank has already been cleared for business purposes, Hewage said, "I don't know."

The border of the beautiful forest like a balding 90 year old has in recent times been fast receding as lack of state controls have failed to prevent encroachment and outright pillage of the valuable natural resources at Lahugala.

New constructions

Herath Abeyweera in fact admitted that soon after the tsunami he had been compelled to give clearance for a road to be cut running through sections of the Lahugala forest in order to facilitate the travel of relief convoys which were prevented from reaching the affected areas after the Arugam Bay bridge was completely destroyed by the destructive waves.

And as the issue of permanent housing remains contentious,  charges are also being made that a Dr. Arulanandan in the aftermath of the tsunami has re-constructed afresh a hotel just 50 yards from the sea, violating a government stricture which demands no construction takes place within 200 meters of the eastern coast.

Dr. Arulanandan is the owner of Tristar Hotel at Arugam Bay, Ulle which existed pre-tsunami on the beach at Ulle but which he finished constructing after the tsunami, with no objections brooked by state officials. It is alleged that Arulanandan is backed politically and so state officials dare not cross his path.

When we questioned GA   Abeyweera on this issue he said Tristar Hotel did exist on the beach at Ulle before the tsunami, but he claimed he did not know the name of the owner of the hotel nor if fresh constructions had been completed in blatant violation of state law after the tsunami. We could not contact Dr. Arulanandan for comment.

Encroachers

Separately another hotelier simply known as Mumbo has also built a motel less than 50 yards from the sea also at Ulle at Arugam Bay. Mumbo hails from Hikkaduwa and is currently running this motel from where he hires out surf boards to surfers who patronise the beach. Mumbo too appears to have political protection as he like Arulanandan has not been ousted or warned by state authorities.

Arugam Bay is one of the world's top 10 surf locations, situated on the idyllic east coast of Sri Lanka. The closest town is Pottuvil, and it is within easy reach of Okanda, Yala, Lahugala National Park, and Kataragama.

The legendary Vihara Maha Devi is thought to have landed at Arugam Bay, or perhaps at Panama, a few miles to the south, the site of an important Buddhist temple. The drive north up the coast through Komari, Thirukkovil (site of a fabulous Hindu temple), Oluvil, Akkaraipattu and Kalmunai towards Batticaloa, through jungle fringes where elephants roam and past numerous enchanting lagoons, is one of the most beautiful coastal journeys in the world.

But more than 60% of the mangrove forest in Pottuvil lagoon has also been destroyed over the past two decades, a consequence of the recent civil conflict. And since the conflict ended the mangroves are now threatened by new development and by expanding farming activities. As is the Lahugala National Park.

In June 2002 press reports highlighted how an extent of 500 acres of virgin forest land in the Lahugala National Park had been cleared by encroachers to put up temporary structures.

Residents of the area led by K. M. Gunapala of Waralande, Lahugala told a delegation of top officials of the Environment Ministry and a group of visiting journalists, that these encroachers had cleared the jungle saying that they would be cultivating paddy on the cleared land.

Felling trees

Villagers in the area continue to assert that illegal felling of large trees goes on unabated and encroachers have made roadways into the national park to transport illicit timber.

Lahugala-Kithulana forest area which is 1,554 ha in extent was declared a national park by the government on October 31, 1980.

Wild elephants roam the coastal plain and the small but delightful Lahugala National Park about 10 miles inland, has an astonishing range of birdlife which migrates to the wetlands and the Yala National Park which begins about 20 miles to the south.

- Frederica Jansz


Cooray affair: JVP seeing red

More than any other time in history, mankind faces crossroads today. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray that we have the wisdom to choose correctly.
- Unknown

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti 

It is the fervent hope of all parties concerned that the decision would be correct - so says Waruna Deepthi Rajapakse, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna group leader of the Western Provincial Council.

Rajapakse is livid that at a time when the Western Provincial Council is rocked by allegations of corruption and a no faith motion has been submitted by the main opposition United National Party, the powers that be have decided to broker a compromise with the red constituent allies to sweep the matter under the carpet.

Rajapakse is quite unhappy with the presidential decision to prorogue the trouble plagued WPC and of Governor Alavi Moulana's time buying exercise of pledging a formal inquiry after a report. All of which is to take three weeks.

The no confidence motion bearing 36 charges with four relating to corruption and malpractice, was scheduled to be taken up on Tuesday (26). But drama preceded the event.

"It won't serve any purpose. We have decided to support the UNP on this one because corruption is corruption," says Rajapakse, adamant that the government decision to prorogue the administration was completely wrong.

What began as an anti-corruption drive or a UNP political initiative to oust the chief minister of the western province has now taken a dramatic turn. Going well beyond the chief minister's fate, it has now become a make or break point for the UPFA coalition with Chief Minister Reginald Cooray himself crying foul and accusing the JVP, the constituent partner of the coalition, of attempting to break the UPFA by working hand in glove with the opposition UNP.

Increased desire

But Rajapakse is adamant that the Chief Minister should go. And the prorogation drama has intensified the JVP's desire to oust him.

At the very outset, the JVP was not going to strengthen the hands of the UNP which submitted a no confidence motion against the Chief Minister. The Marxists decided not to get involved in a blue-green battle and to abstain from voting at that point, only to change their mind a little later.

But maintaining silence or not taking a political stance is not what the JVP's lusty rhetoric is all about or the brand of politics they have been selling to the public for so long. And the sudden prorogation, nothing of which was mentioned to them when the JVP group held crisis talks with President Chandrika Kumaratunga on Monday night, has been taken infra dig. This time, the reds have seen red and are unwilling to reach a compromise.

"Irrespective of the sponsors of the no-faith, the fact is that the Chief Minister appears to be corrupt. He really must go. The President should not have prorogued the WPC but should have promptly requested Cooray to step down," says an adamant Rajapakse.

While saying so, the JVP has begun to strike hard. It is no longer the UNP that is gunning for the Chief Minister of the province, but by default, it is the JVP now willing to bell the cat. What both parties now have in common with regard to the issue is that whether it is the green or red, the cat really has to be belled.

With the reds striking hard now, and unrepentantly so on the joint mechanism as well as the Chief Minister issue, the prorogation by Governor Alavi Moulana on April 26 only fuelled their fire.

The covert action taken on Monday (25) night after a midnight discussion between the President and the Governor intensified the JVP's anger. The discussions, according to the WPC councillors were reminiscent of the impeachment drama during President Ranasinghe Premadasa's regime.

Meanwhile, the UNP is demanding that the prorogation be cancelled and dissolution be done and fresh polls announced. The JVP's demand is more simplistic. That the Chief Minister must go. And it is secretly hoped that the next chief minister would be a more Marxist friendly politician, unlike Cooray.

Cooray meanwhile, on the fateful Tuesday (26), arrived at the Chief Minister's Office at the WPC with much fanfare. To witness his arrival, government council members were present and accompanying him were chief ministers of the South, Central, North Central and North Western Provinces - forming a brotherhood of chief ministers. And national list appointed parliamentarian Mervyn Silva joined them, saying Cooray has been thoroughly wronged by all other parties.

Upon the arrival of President Kumaratunga on Monday who had to cut short her two week holiday in London, two separate meetings were held with the SLFP councillors and the JVP members.

At the meeting with the JVP members, Group Leader Rajapakse was adamant and said there was no way that a corrupt chief minister could be supported by a party that promoted the highest political ideals.

Kumaratunga did not play her trump card at that moment, but bided her time until both the meetings were over. Summoning Governor Alavi Moulana for a crisis discussion, she simply gave instructions to announce a prorogation and to immediately issue the gazette notification.

Mislead

Meanwhile, the JVP's politburo was meeting and there, waxing eloquent was Wimal Weerawansa, the party spokesman who assured that Kumaratunga did not have time to take any drastic decisions and things were going to go their way.

Not so, he and the rest of the JVP realised the next morning. To their utter dismay, they realised that Kumaratunga had certainly struck and that too, without informing the belligerent constituent partners of the rainbow coalition.

In the morning, the prorogation was announced in the state media and the reds truly saw red and went once more into an emergency politburo meeting to discuss what they should do, now that the council had tried to buy time to decide the fate of the Chief Minister.

JVP Leader Somawansa Amarasinghe, addressing the decision making body noted that if a prorogation could be announced with such swiftness and sans consultation, anything was possible. It was seen as another arbitrary decision by Kumaratunga overlooking the JVP and the JVP decision makers once more were livid with the style of governance Kumaratunga was displaying of late.

Meanwhile, an angry Chief Minister Cooray called some of the key politicians in the alliance and began lamenting the fate that has befallen him. His grouse was that he made a sacrifice on behalf of the party and quit parliament and happily returned to the provincial council where he was more comfortable, only to have the constituent partners of his own government taking sides with the opposition to destroy his political future.

Yet, the UPFA seems to have simply got stuck in an unenviable position today.

Speaking to The Sunday Leader, JVP Group Leader Rajapakse insisted that the charges were valid, the party would back the motion. When pressed whether the JVP was of the opinion that the charges were valid, he refused to commit to an answer, but said that all corrupt elements should go.

Governor's perspective

Meanwhile, Governor Moulana does not feel that the prorogation is anti-democratic at all. "The JVP, a constituent partner of the UPFA has decided to vote with the UNP. They informed me so. There is a political crisis, we should admit. But, I think it is best that we take time off to consider everything and then decide. Three weeks is not a long time in politics," he says.

Moulana explains that three weeks were taken simply to get a report which the party intends studying before deciding on Cooray. Thereafter a formal inquiry will be ordered. "We would ensure fairplay," he assured.

But according to the UNP, three weeks is certainly a long time and a time during which much wheeler dealing could be done to secure the political end desired by the government which is having serious disputes and differences in opinion with its main constituent ally.

According to Opposition Leader, Western Provincial Council, Kithsiri Kahatapitiya, the Governor's assurances would prove absolutely futile because the ultimate decisions would be taken elsewhere. "This report business is a farce. A formal inquiry could be launched immediately," he said claiming that the UPFA leaders were now working overtime to bend the motion in their favour.

He accused the government of violating a democratic right of the citizens of the province to have the chief minister removed. Angrily responding to the prorogation, he said that the UNP members stormed in to the WPC on Tuesday morning to protest against the covert decision to postpone sessions through a prorogation.

"This is truly an undemocratic decision. They had no business to do this. Now we demand the complete dissolution of the WPC so that people may have the opportunity to constitute a new council and elect a new chief minister who is not tainted by charges of corruption," he said.

Speaking to The Sunday Leader, Governor Moulana said that there was a need to check the validity of the allegations and because the majority of the councillors have passed a resolution expressing confidence in the incumbent Chief Minister.

"It is best that we take some time," he insisted.

On this matter, Rajapakse is at variance. He feels that the President should not have prorogued but immediately removed the Chief Minister.

Rajapakse said that during President Kumaratunga's meeting with the JVP last week she gave a firm assurance that if charges against Cooray are proved, he would be compelled to quit.

"We will hold her to that promise. A formal inquiry would also reveal the truth," Rajapakse added.

Running out of patience

And the meddling with the WPC issue in this manner is going to cost, not just the chief minister his post but the UPFA its coalition partner. Being sidelined for one full year in the decision making process, be it the tsunami relief distribution, privatisation programme or the joint mechanism, the JVP it appears, is reaching the end of its tether.

And by trying to manipulate and to twist their arms into submission, Kumaratunga who is also not the most popular with the Marxists has ensured that at the end of three weeks, the reds would convert their votes into positive votes against the Chief Minister.

The abstinence of the JVP would have given the UNP a mere three member lead, but if they vote with the greens, it would be the end of the road for Cooray and a big bonus for the UNP.

A silent player in this entire saga all along was the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) which also has four sitting members. The SLMC, like the JVP was originally not interested in getting involved in UNP political warfare with the Chief Minister.

But the scales have by now heavily tipped in the UNP's favour following the prorogation. The SLMC leader who is currently overseas, angry over the strong arm tactics adopted by President Kumaratunga has instructed the party to rethink the original decision to abstain.

Earlier, WPC SLMC Leader, Shafeek Rajabdeen decided to abstain from voting but the prorogation is earning the wrath of the SLMC as well.

The SLFP has 36 seats in the WPC excluding those of the JVP while the UNP has 39, the SLMC - four and DUA and an independent group one each.

As trouble continues to brew at the chief minister's office, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse was in the mood to diffuse the tension. He invited all the UPFA councillors to a conciliatory dinner last week only to be told that the JVP would not go back on its word - not now.

And what was not openly declared by the reds was their wish to replace Cooray with a more JVP friendly chief minister.

While horse trading takes centre stage for another three weeks, whether the greens and the reds would have the resolve to see the motion through remains the big political question. And also the relationship between the SLFP and the JVP - now finding each other rather uncomfortable partners in a painful political marriage.


Call for Wimal from President’s House

Since the JVP was not made aware of what the President’s final decision was to be on the matter of the Western Provincial Council, the party met on Tuesday (26) at their headquarters and made a series of decisions with regard to the crisis. Chief among these was to keep JVP Leader Somawansa Amarasinghe hidden until the problem was over.

It is nothing new for the JVP to keep its leaders in hiding. They did so quite well during the 1988-1989 insurgency, all the while giving instructions to their cadres operating in the open. The JVP’s plan this time around, when they appear to be caught in a political terror trap of their own making, is to keep Amarasinghe hidden so that President Kumaratunga faces immense difficulties in arriving at collective decisions.

The JVP proclaimed that a meeting between Amarasinghe and the President was necessary over six months ago. Although they tried to schedule this meeting through various ministerial and political channels, President Kumaratunga stoutly refused to give him an appointment. This was tit for tat. They had been waiting for a chance for revenge for some time now, and when President Kumaratunga requested a meeting with the JVP leader, the Marxists felt their time had come.

Since he was not surfacing, Amarasinghe was consulting with the rest of the senior JVPers via telephone. It was during this meeting that they got more news. There was talk that four SLMC members and one independent member were preparing to vote for Cooray when the motion of no confidence against him was brought by the UNP. There was more bad news to follow. A UNP Kalutara District councillor and Sellasamy’s wife were not in the island. So far, the JVP’s decision had been to abstain from voting and allow the motion to be passed. However, with the support of the four SLMCers and the independent member, there was a very real threat of Cooray winning. Talks about what to do went on at the headquarters till about 1.30 a.m. on Tuesday, the morning of which the WPC was to meet. Finally, it was decided that having adopted a hardline, the JVP could not now retract. So if there was a threat of Cooray winning, the JVP would vote with the UNP to pass the motion. Amarasinghe agreed to this plan as well.

The JVP hinted that it was going to vote with the UNP on the no confidence motion against Cooray at about 11 p.m. on Monday (25). However, the JVP was intent on finding out whether the UNP was planning to withdraw the motion at the last moment. To this end, Weerawansa made several phone calls at an unofficial level, trying to find out what the UNP’s position was. As a result of the numerous phone calls, Weerawansa heard that UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe had decided at the group meeting to go ahead with the no confidence motion.

Suddenly, Weerawansa received a call from a close acquaintance. Having concluded the conversation he turned to his party members and said — "That call came to me from President’s House itself. It seems that the President has no way to prorogue the council. She has said so at the meeting."

The JVPers were pleased with the news. What they did not know was that even as the telephone conversation between Weerawansa and his caller was taking place, President Kumaratunga and Western Province Governor Alavi Moulana had signed the gazette proroguing the council.

Meanwhile, also on Monday night, Weerawansa received a phone call from a SLFP provincial councillor who was against Cooray, giving him some disturbing news. "The Chief Minister came to meet us and he was all pompous and assured us not to worry about a thing, that by tomorrow the JVP would have no where to turn. You better see what this is about," the caller said. Weerawansa paid little heed to the warning and the JVPers dispersed to get a good night’s sleep, sure that Cooray would be defeated the next day.

But at about 6.15 a.m. on Tuesday (26) all the JVP leaders’ phones rang off the hook. This was after the SLBC in its morning broadcast reported that as of midnight of April 26, the Western Provincial Council had been prorogued, by an order of the governor. Shocked at the news, the JVPers began calling all and sundry to find out if the report was true. When JVP WPC Group Leader, Waruna Rajapakse called Governor Moulana himself, he was told that the news was true. Moulana added that a committee was being set up to probe the charges against Cooray, and told Rajapakse that the JVP could nominate one of its retired officers to the committee as well.

But Rajapakse was not impressed. "We know that all you did was sign on to this decision. But it does not bode well for your political career. There is no point in investigative committees either," he said.

A helpless Moulana could only reply — "but there is nothing I can do about it."

Threat of dissolution over JVP

Even as the crisis in the Western Provincial Council deepened, the JVP was also busy making plans about its future in the alliance.

The JVP politburo at its Monday meeting discussed how they were going to launch their next attack. JVP Leader Somawansa Amarasinghe also presented his views at the meeting.

"This decision about the WPC shows that the President has no desire to resolve the problems within the UPFA. She is trying to go forward alone. So as a party we also have to make decisions as to how we are going to face the President’s orders," he said.

Cutting in was JVP Parliamentary Group Leader, Wimal Weerawansa. He told the politburo about a telephone conversation he had had recently. "I couldn’t tell you yesterday, but Deputy Minister Lasantha Alagiyawanna gave me another message. He said that if we don’t agree to resolve the crisis the President would dissolve parliament and go for an election. I didn’t take any notice. I told him that this was an unofficial threat and also said that we were ready for an election as well," Weerawansa said.

Following Weerawansa’s revelations, the discussions turned to another matter. Amarasinghe said that since there was no way the provincial council issue could be resolved and the joint mechanism signed, it was quite likely she would dissolve parliament. There was the all important question of whether the JVP ministers should resign their portfolios as well. But Amarasinghe’s opinion was that they had now found a way of going to the villages through the problems in the provincial councils.

"We had a problem about how to get to the villages. But now the perfect environment is being created to go to the villages through the provincial councils and urban councils. We have considerable strength in Sabaragamuwa and Wayamba Provincial Councils as well. Since even the chief ministers of those two councils behave like Cooray, let’s create problems in them as well. We need to keep creating similar issues in the pradeshiya sabhas and the urban councils as well. Then the people in the villages will decide and differentiate between the SLFP and the JVP. If we consolidate our power in the villages, even if the President dissolves parliament, we can still obtain a significant number of seats," said Amarasinghe.

Basically giving his party members the green light to cause trouble in many of the other provincial councils and local government bodies, the JVP Leader also went on to appoint two member committees to decide on matters regarding the agitation campaigns within the Wayamba and Sabaragamuwa PCs. The committees were advised to discuss matters with the UNP and bring no confidence motions against those chief ministers as well.

Wimal’s media mafia

It is commonplace for politicians to issue press releases from time to time. But last week saw one of the strangest releases seeing the light of day, with the signatures of Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera and JVP Propaganda Secretary Wimal Weerawansa. Ironically Samaraweera was not even in the country when the release was issued, which meant the entire statement was drafted by Weerawansa himself. Why the media release drew such attention was because of the terrible language that had been used. Such terminology is certainly not becoming in the official statements of responsible parliamentarians.

The UNP’s media unit demanded a meeting with UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to discuss this media release. UNP MP Bandula Gunewardenaalso participated in the meeting. Mostly discussed during the meeting was how Weerawansa was terrorising not only the state media but also private media institutions as well. Gunewardena said that Weerawansa was now giving divisional heads at media institutions instructions about how stories are to be run. The UNP media unit also charged that Weerawansa had personally overseen the way in which the UNP’s statement in response to the duo’s derogatory press release had been censored and edited. However, members of the unit pointed out, the Weerawansa/Samaraweera statement had been carried in both the Lankadeepa and Divaina newspapers completely uncensored. It was also said a senior journalist attached to an Engilsh weekly was advising the JVP.

The media unit told Wickremesinghe that although in its response the UNP had quoted Weerawansa’s use of derogatory language, the quotes had not been published. In addition to this, a whole section of the UNP’s statement had been edited. The edited section read:

"The Mangala-Wimal duo do not have the strength to face criticism. Recently they made a grandiose statement about The Sunday Times being the only fearless and unbiased newspaper in the country. But after one news item critical of them, that newspaper also becomes the enemy. Then it becomes Ranil’s uncle’s newspaper. Journalists are treated the same way. As long as Editor Lankadeepa Siri Ranasinghe publishes news items that are favourable to them, he is an honourable gentleman. The moment he publishes something that goes against them, he is threatened..."

Both the Lankadeepa and the Divaina had edited out these very same sections of the UNP release. The UNP media unit pointed out that Weerawansa who was charging that journalists are being dragged into politics is himself guilty of conducting his political affairs as a journalist. Another section of the UNP release that was censored reads as follows, they said.

"Mr. Mangala Pinsiri Samaraweera forgets that before Wimal Weerawansa entered politics, he worked as a journalist using the pen name Wimalasiri Gamlath. Mr. Mangala Pinsiri Samaraweera also forgets that Weerawansa still writes newspaper columns under pen name Wanshanatha. But most regretful is that even Wimal Weerawansa has forgotten these little details.

"But then again, it cannot be that he has forgotten. After all, this duo thinks that everything in this world must only be fair to Wimal and Mangala. Everything they say and do is right. Everything any one else says or does is wrong. That is true even of the mobile phone costing Rs. 150,000."

Continuing their tirade against Weerawansa, the UNP media unit also charged that they had more information about the JVP MP’s terror tactics. "He has gathered some of the personal details of several journalists. He threatens them with these things and makes sure they write the way he wants them to," they said.

Piping up at this point, Gunewardena said "This must be why the JVP MPs go around saying that although we have a media mafia, they are the ones who know how to control the media."

It was decided that some strict action had to be taken regarding the collection of data about media personnel. It was decided that the heads of media institutions should be called and informed about the threats their journalists were receiving. It was also decided here that the issue of threatening journalists and getting them to publish news the way a political party wanted would be brought up in parliament and the international community would also be kept aware.

Meanwhile, inquiries are on at Upali Newspapers about how certain sections of the UNP media release responding to the Wimal-Mangala onslaught which were edited before publication had appeared in the Divaina newspaper the next day.

PM in the dark

Premier Mahinda Rajapakse returned to the island from Indonesia after a successful tour there, having attended the 50th anniversary of the Bandung conference. His departure from the island itself was fraught with controversy, given the fact that it was a period during which both the first and second citizens of the country were overseas and Rajapakse himself had nominated an acting premier.

As soon as the Premier returned to Sri Lanka, he was inundated with questions from religious leaders, party leaders and his own acquaintances about the status of the joint mechanism. After a while, the same old questions began to irritate the Prime Minister. Finally he was compelled to tell the truth. "It is true that I am Prime Minister. But I don’t know anything about this joint mechanism to talk about it. Decisions in this country are made without consulting me. I have many grievances," he told his inquisitive callers. Rajapakse added that the most important decisions with regard to the country were taken without his knowledge.

The Buddhist clergy then advised Rajapakse to go public with this information and tell the country where he stood. But Premier Rajapakse replied that he was bound by collective responsibility and could not tell the truth about the state of the government.

But finally, the Premier decided to tell the people of the country that he knew nothing about the progress of the joint mechanism negotiations and issued a media release to this effect. What impact this media release will have will only unravel in the days to come.

India fired up over defence pact

While things were hotting up in the government at home, events that would significantly affect Sri Lanka and its relations with India were unfolding in New Delhi.

Former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe believed in carrying forward the peace process with a tight international safety net in place. He initiated the defence pact with India because he was well aware that India was this country’s largest trump card because of its military strength and geographic proximity. Wickremesinghe hoped to safeguard Sri Lanka in the event of another terrorist attack and also keep the LTTE on the peace track with this agreement. However, before it was signed, the UNF was ousted from power after President Chandrika Kumaratunga dissolved parliament and called a snap poll on April 2, 2004. Following the election, it fell to the UPFA to finalise the agreement. But several times after the UPFA took over the reins of power, the LTTE warned that if such an agreement was signed by India while President Kumaratunga was in power, it would spell doom for the Tamil people in Sri Lanka.

In this backdrop, the Indian government held several rounds of highly confidential internal discussions. Recently, several South Indian coalition partners of the ruling Congress met with Premier Manmohan Singh and Congress Leader Sonia Gandhi about the proposed pact. Among the parties were the MDMK, DMK, PMK and the UPA. Taking the lead in the discussions was MDMK Leader Vaiko, who strongly urged Gandhi and Singh not to sign the agreement, saying it would lead to unprecedented problems in Tamil Nadu and among the Dravidians in North India.

Vaiko said that when President Kumaratunga’s patterns in the past are studied, it becomes obvious that this agreement will not be used to bring about a permanent peace. Instead, he said, there is a very good chance of Sri Lanka being plunged back into war. Vaiko added that the President of Sri Lanka had already signed secret deals with Pakistan and China, both countries that have disputes with India.

Not stopping there, Vaiko went on to say that the Sri Lankan President was pushing through the agreement using the fact that Sonia Gandhi’s husband Rajiv was assassinated by the LTTE. Responding to this, Sonia Gandhi responded that she had already handed over the issue of her husband’s killing to the law and the issue could not be dragged into politics. She said that even now it was her own family that was looking after the needs of the LTTE female cadre arrested in connection with Rajiv Gandhi’s killing, adding that even though her husband was killed by the LTTE, the whole Tamil race was not responsible for it. If the Tamil people will suffer as a result of this agreement, I will go to all lengths to stop it, said the Congress Leader.

Meeting with Premier Singh next, Vaiko and his team got his assurances as well that under no circumstances would the defence pact be signed. This was truly a victory for the southern politicians. They brought this news back with them and held a media briefing in South India, saying that they had convinced the Indian government not to sign the defence pact with Sri Lanka.


This gun's for hire

Having been compelled to give up his deputy ministerial portfolio because of his thuggish antics and finding himself at a loose end these days is UPFA National List Parliamentarian, Mervyn Silva. Idleness does not suit this legislator however, so it appears he has of late, taken on outside contracts as it were, surfacing here and there on the side of various different politicians and public officials, armed with rowdy slogans and a dirty mouth, rather like a hired gun. Last week saw Silva appear in public support of beleaguered Western Province Chief Minister Reginald Cooray on Tuesday (26) and President Kumaratunga on Thursday (28) opposite the courts carrying placards when the interdicted principals appeared in court.

"Chief Minister Reginald Cooray has been gravely wronged by several parties.."

- Mervyn Silva at the WPC meeting soon after the council was prorogued on Tuesday, April 26.

 

The Silva hotline remains open for new contracts. But beware folks, he is renowned for firing blanks.


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