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8th May, 2005  Volume 11, Issue  43

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

Did Karuna personally kill
'Taraki' Sivaram?

By D. B. S. Jeyaraj 

The brazen abduction and brutal assassination of the well-known journalist Dharmeratnam Puvirajakeerthi Sivaram who wrote in........

More...


 Top Issues Stories

> Bus accidents - who's to blame?

> Double standards over security

> Only strong medicine  for CPC headache

> AB's May Day slight (....Pot Shots)

> Striking when the iron is hot


Did Karuna personally kill 'Taraki' Sivaram?

Sivaram's body lying at his residence

By D. B. S. Jeyaraj 

The brazen abduction and brutal assassination of the well-known journalist Dharmeratnam Puvirajakeerthi Sivaram who wrote in English and Tamil under the nom de plume Taraki and as D. P. Sivaram is the latest tragedy in an endless cycle of violence affecting the Tamils of Sri Lanka. The right to life is the most important of all human rights. Without life no other rights can be had. This fundamental basis of all other rights has been cruelly denied to many Tamils in the past years. There seems to be no end in sight to this evil spectre that goes on devouring the children of the great "Thamil Thai" (Tamil Mother).

Sivaram known to his friendsby various names such as "SR," "Siva" and "Ram" had been enjoying a good drink in amiable company. His companions at the Bambalapitiya restaurant on that fateful night of April 28th were freelance journalist cum political activist Kusal Perera, health sector trade unionist Ravi Kumudesh and an NGO coordinator, Prasanna Ratnayake. It was 10. 25 p.m. when the quartet came out of the Bamba waterhole.

Abduction

Ravi and Prasanna bade good bye and walked towards the Kollupitiya side saying they wanted to take a three-wheeler to Borella. Kusal and Siva walked towards the Wellawatte side talking to each other. The idea was to finish their private discussion and then board a bus to go home.

Perera and Sivaram were at a bus stand near De Vos Avenue when the latter received a call on his mobile phone. Speaking in Tamil the 46 year old bi-lingual journalist walked a little ahead while Kusal stayed behind looking out in the opposite direction for a bus. At one point he saw a Pettah - Panadura bus coming and turned to Sivaram to alert him about the bus.

What he saw unnerved Kusal. A silver-grey vehicle was parked on the road near Sivaram. It was a Toyota SUV with the number plate WPG 11. Kusal could not see the other digits properly. Two men were trying to push Sivaram into the vehicle. A third man was standing near the open door. The motor was running with a fourth man at the wheel.Suddenly they gripped Sivaram from behind and began forcing him to get into the vehicle. Sivaram was grappling with his abductors. Though they were in civvies they exuded an aura of 'uniform.'

Kusal Perera says that he saw this scuffle and tried to go near them shouting "Siva" and "Sivaram." The abductors succeeded in pushing Sivaram into the vehicle. Two men gestured menacingly at Kusal and got in themselves. Kusal says that he panicked as the vehicle sped off. The entire abduction occurred right opposite the Bambalapitiya police station. He then went home and alerted a number of people about the incident.

Subsequently it was revealed through eyewitnesses that four men had been loitering outside the restaurant from about 8. 30 p.m onwards. Two men were speaking in Tamil to each other while the other two spoke in Sinhalese. According to an eyewitness one of the men had called someone in Tamil on his mobile and wanted the "Vaahanam" (vehicle) to be sent. With the wisdom of hindsight it was realised that the vehicle called for was the one in which Sivaram was abducted. Since it arrived very quickly it must have been ready and waiting close by.

Upon learning of the abduction, Sivaram's wife Yogaranjini, also called Bhavani, contacted her brother living in Mattakkuliya and went with him to the Bambalapitiya police station to lodge a complaint. Sivaram's colleague and friend Rajpal Abeynayake also informed a number of officials including Army Commander Lieutenant General Shantha Kottegoda who promised to issue an alert to all military checkpoints.

No torture

It was about an hour past midnight when the Talangama police station received an anonymous telephone call informing the cops that a body was lying on the bank of Diyawanna Oya alongside the Sri Lanka - Japan Friendship Road. When the police went to the spot near Kimbula - Ela junction about 500 metres behind the Sri Jayewardenepura parliament complex they found a dead body lying amidst the shrubs. It was identified later by friends and family to be that of Sivaram's.

Sivaram was gagged with a dotted serviette and had his hands tied behind his back. He had been hit with a blunt instrument on the back of his head. This seems to have been done to prevent his struggling. The brave fighter that he was, Sivaram would have obviously resisted his abductors valiantly and therefore was made unconscious.

Sivaram seems to have beenshot at point blank range with a 9 mm Browning. One shot had cleanly entered his neck and chest. The second had penetrated his hand and entered the body. Contrary to reports in the Tiger media there were no signs of torture. Two 9 mm empties were found near his body. There was very little blood at the scene.

The body was then taken to the Colombo JMO office fora post mortem. Dr. Jeanne Perera, head of forensic medicine at the Colombo Medical Faculty conducted it. When the media contacted her afterwards she declared "there was no torture or assault. I say that vehemently."

Worldwide condemnation

Continuing, Dr. Perera said "he (Sivaram) had been given one blow on the back of his head and then shot twice on his shoulder blade and neck while he lay on the ground. The killing occurred where the body was found. The swelling on one of his eyes was not the result of a blow but due to the vibration when the bullets pierced the body."

She also placed the time of death at about 12.30 to 1. 00 a.m.

The assassination of "Taraki" Sivaram resulted in severe worldwide condemnation of the cowardly murder. Among those who issued statements were Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse and Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) was conspicuously silent on the killing. The JVP, particularly its articulate senior leader Wimal Weerawansa had launched vicious personal attacks on Sivaram in the recent past. He was referred to as a Tiger terrorist.

One top diplomat who issued a statement of condemnation over the killing was the Japanese Ambassador, Akio Suda. One reason for this was that the Tokyo envoy had been interacting closely with Sivaram who was scheduled to visit Japan shortly. He was involved in a project concerning the influence of Japan in South Asia with special emphasis on Sri Lanka. By a coincidence (or deliberate?) his body was dumped near the Lanka - Japan friendship Road.

Four special teams of police sleuths are conducting investigations into the killing under the direction of Senior Superintendent Sarath Lugoda. Over 75 people have been questioned and have had statements recorded. Media reports state that no "breakthrough" has been achieved. Given the fact that he was abducted opposite the Bambalapitiya police station in a vehicle parked in the vicinity and that his body was discovered in the high security area surrounding parliament few people expect the police to be successful in their mission.

It is widely believed that the last call Sivaram received on his cellular phone was from the abductors or someone linked to them. It must have been done to distract Sivaram's attention and also to clearly identify him. Besides, Sivaram had received four calls and made two calls while at the restaurant. The mobile can provide a number of clues about possible abductors. That phone is yet missing.

I have been calling the number 777 - 311 - 380 daily from April 29th onwards. It was off and silent on 29th and 30th. It was on, ringing on May 1st. It was off again on May 2nd and 3rd. It was on again on May 4th and 5th. The ringtone on the mobile plays lines from a hit song in Rajnikanth's latest movie Chandramuhi. It was indeed sad to hear Asha Bhosle sing the lines "Konja neram, konja neram konjip pesa vendamo" (Can we not kiss and talk for a little more time) in a melody set by Vidyasagar in Sri Ranjani raga.

Karuna's involvement

The Tiger website "Nitharsanam" known for its scurrilous attacks on perceived opponents came out with a startling disclosure. It reported that Iniyabharathy, a senior deputy of former LTTE Eastern Commander, Vinayagamoorthy Muraleetharan alias "Col." Karuna was one of the abductors. Within 24 hours Iniyabharathy and a Muslim companion, M. M. Fowzer were arrested "accidently" at a check post in Amparai. A random check had found a 9mm Browning and 16 ammunition rounds in the vehicle. They were produced in courts and remanded till the 14th. Since they belonged to the Karuna faction they are detained for reasons of safety at the Moneragala prison.

If the sleuths are to make any effective breakthrough it is imperative that they interrogate this Iniyabharathy intensively. His name has already transpired in many violent incidents in the Batticaloa - Polonnaruwa District border areas. If the Kumaratunga regime is indeed serious about finding Sivaram's killers and also about the intra-Tamil violence in the east then this well known lieutenant of Karuna has to be questioned further. If conducted genuinely such an investigation would be more productive than a commission of inquiry.

Unanswered questions

The three companions at Sivaram's last drink also need to be questioned more intensively along with other patrons and employees at the restaurant at the time. It is obvious that the abductors knew Sivaram was at the restaurant and were waiting outside for nearly two hours. How and why?They need not have waited that long if their quarry had come out early. Apparently Siva and the rest had called for their first bill at about 9 p.m. But as is customary on these occasions a decision was taken to prolong the session. If they had come out after the first bill was settled the abduction need not have been delayed. Now did the abductors have prior knowledge that the tipplers were going to wind up around 9 p.m.? is a question needing answers. Another puzzle is why Kusal Perera did not go to the police station right opposite immediately and complain about the incident?

What is disturbing about the incident is the deliberate efforts of the killers to convey a strong signal. The Tamil media has highlighted two facts. One is that the abduction took place opposite the Bambalapitiya cop shop and that the abductors had been hanging around the vicinity without a problem for hours. The second is that the body was dumped in the high security area around the Kotte parliament where even a chief and supreme person could not enjoy a romantic tryst without being noticed. These facts are cited as proof of alleged state complicity and responsibility.

Deliberate 'clues'

The point missed however is that these facts were not unintended mistakes but deliberately designed clues. It was an unstated message delivered to those Tamils supportive of the LTTE in general and Tamil media circles in particular. The manner in which the exercise was done creates an impression that agents of the state were responsible. This exactly is the objective of the perpetrators who want to drive home a point to the country at large and the Tamil people in particular. The symbolism of parliament, the seat of power in this supposedly "Sinhala - Buddhist" state is unmistakable.

A perplexing point is about Sivaram being abducted and killed within two hours. There were no signs of intensive questioning or torture. If the intention was merely to kill Sivaram quickly then why take the trouble to abduct him? The killers could have simply shot him dead at Bambalapitiya.

Shot and dumped

Instead he was taken somewhere and shot. He was then dumped elsewhere. There was very little blood at the spot where he was found. This could mean that he wasshot elsewhere and brought here in a dying state. Though he died by the banks of Diyawanna Oya the fatal wounds that oozed the life out of him could have been caused elsewhere. The 9mm empties could have been dropped near the body to show that he was killed here. The technical expertise available to forensics in Sri Lanka may not be state of the art.But if it was, a scientific probe may have established that no shots were fired at the spot.

This then raises the question again - Where was Sivaram taken to be killed? The simple answer is to the place where his killer was waiting. Who then was the killer? The answer is someone who could not take the risk of a field trip to kill and had to get his target delivered safely to his fortress or hideyhole. The Eastern Tamil grapevine is buzzing with the rumour that Sivaram was killed personally by none other than Karuna himself. The essence of this version is something like this.

Karuna was angry with Siva for what he termed as "betrayal" by a Batticaloa Tamil. There was a time when Sivaram was very close to Karuna and encouraged him to establish greater autonomy for Batticaloa - Amparai within an overall LTTE structure. Sivaram however did not want the LTTE to split in any way as he felt that would only weaken Tamil nationalism. When Karuna revolted and insisted on going his separate way Sivaram opposed the move. He threw in his lot with the mainstream LTTE.

Defied Karuna

At a time when most Eastern Tamils were tacitly sympathetic to Karuna it was Sivaram who courageously defied Karuna. This counterpoint to regionalism coming from an authentic Batticaloa Tamil whose territorial credentials were exemplary came as a boon to the beleaguered LTTE. Sivaram systematically exposed, criticised, ridiculed and challenged Karuna. It was Sivaram who revealed the fact that Karuna had floated a company in his wife's and father in law's name with a capital of Rs. 25 million on March 8th, exactly five days after his "open" rebellion. Karuna was exposed clearly as a charlatan.

When Karuna withdrew from Batticaloa, Sivaram mocked him comparing him to Ravana retreating from the battlefield. Sivaram also stated publicly that he was roaming about Batticaloa without fear from Valaichchenai to Thuraineelavanai. He said that people were warning him about Karuna but that he was unafraid. Siva said proudly that he was not going to be chased by anyone from his native land and practically dared Karuna to come and get him. Sivaram's involvement in Tamilnet which reported the Kottawa massacre even before the police knew about it was also a controversial point.

According to knowledgeable eastern Tamil sources, Karuna had made a vow that Sivaram was his mortal enemy and that he himself will kill him personally. Karuna apparently asked his minions in Batticaloa not to harm Sivaram as"Taraki" had to die "endai Kaiyaale" (by my hand). Karuna had returned to Sri Lanka after leaving his family abroad safely. He remained protected in the south and directed operations in the east. Despite denials it is known that he was being "looked after" by a special wing of the Sri Lankan intelligence establishment.

Karuna's handlers had denied permission for the killing of Sivaram in Colombo for a long time. Had it been done earlier the task would have been easy as Sivaram travelled about openly in buses. In a sense he was unafraid of death, being ready to face Yaman at any time. Karuna's opportunity came when police intelligence specialist, inspector Jeyaratnam went "missing." It was suspected that the Tigers were responsible. There was much resentment within the rank and file leading to a situation where a demonstration was held in Colombo.

The powers that be decided that some "symbolic" action had to be taken to contain this simmering discontent. Sivaram already maligned by the likes of Wimal Weerawansa as a "Tiger in Colombo" became the selected target. There was a willing catspaw - Karuna. It was decided that the killing should be done by Karuna and company with logistical support by the "intelligence." Karuna's only condition could have been that he be allowed to kill Sivaram personally and fulfil his vow. This could have been adhered to and Sivaram instead of being killed at Bambalapitiya was abducted and brought to Karuna to be killed.

'Open secret'

It appears that the LTTE is to some extent aware of this. The Tigers have accused the state intelligence and some Tamil groups of having collaborated in the assassination. If the police sleuths are serious then this is the line of inquiry they should follow. Realistically that does not seem possible and it is only a matter of time before this murder too is added to the ever increasing list of unsolved murders.

As far as the Tamil people are concerned the story of Karuna killing Sivaram personally will become an 'open secret.' The LTTE will not say so publicly for fear of demoralising the Tamil media and giving Karuna negative credit. Karuna and company will not claim it openly as it would cause revulsion among supporters .

The greater danger is whether Sivaram's murder is actually a strong, single signal or a forerunner of more killings to come. The rumour that a powerful minister in Kumaratunga's cabinet and an influential parliamentarian in government ranks are "connected" to this special intelligence unit and gave the green light for Taraki's murder is frightening. The 'unofficial' sanctioning of 'official' state terror is a development that needs to be deplored strongly. Only international pressure can help to prevent state terror being unleashed again.


Bus accidents - who's to blame?

Gemunu Wijeratne and Felix Perera 

By Easwaran Rutnam 

Finger pointing was the order of the day last week when private bus operators and the Transport Ministry laid blamed each other for the rise in the number of accidents involving private buses.

While the Lanka Private Bus Owners Association (LPBOA) said the lack of a national transport policy was the main cause for private bus accidents, the Ministry simply said it was "errant driving."

President, LPBOA, Gemunu Wijeratne told The Sunday Leader that if the present government had implemented a national transport policy proposed during the latter part of the previous regime, there would have been better management and control over private bus operations, which in turn would have prevented "errant driving."

Wijeratne noted that when he urged Transport Minister Felix Perera to implement the national policy after the UPFA government took office, the Minister together with certain JVP ministers opposed the move.

"I could have done it with a court order if I wanted to but that would have meant putting my life in danger. Who would pay for my life? No one. That's why I left it to the state to decide. But because of internal political pressure they backed off," he said.

Sinister move

The Transport Ministry is of the view that the proposed national transport policy, which encompasses a joint time table between state and private buses, is a sinister move by the private bus operators to take full control of public transport in the country.

The state operates only around 25 percent of public transport which includes the rail network, while private bus operators control around 75 percent.

"They are trying to indirectly take over the 25 percent by calling for a national transport policy which will see a joint timetable in place. With a joint time table, the private bus operators will take control of operations during peak hours, giving them a lion's share of the public transport income," the Transport Ministry media unit said.

An official at the unit noted that Minister Perera will support the implementation of a joint time table only once the state transport sector is on par with the private sector.

"We need to control at least 35 percent of the public bus transport system to agree to a joint time table. Right now, most of the profitable routes of the state buses have also been invaded by private buses," the official said.

Meanwhile at a meeting held between Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse and private bus operators last week, the Premier had accepted that a national transport policy was the need of the hour. However Minister Perera and provincial authorities opposed it.

Improvement only

Wijeratne, who unsuccessfuly contested the last parliamentary elections on the United National Party (UNP) ticket, dismissed the claims saying his intentions are purely for the improvement of the private bus sector.

The need for the national transport policy comes in light of a spate of deadly road accidents around the island involving private buses, most notable being the Yangalmodera level crossing incident where an intercity train ran into a private bus that attempted to creep through the closed gates, killing 35 innocent passengers.

Five days after that accident, another private bus skidded off the road in Meddalanda, Polgahawela when speeding, just half a kilometre away from the Yangalmodera level crossing, killing two and injuring at least 21 others.

The LPBOA warned that more accidents were to be expected after the Ministry and provincial authorities failed to support a national transport policy.

Wijeratne said that drivers try to earn the maximum by racing against the competition to collect commuters waiting at bus stands, because their basic income is hardly enough to maintain their families.

"Most days earnings go to the bus owner, out of which a meagre sum is given to the driver and conductor. That is hardly enough for a day's meal. So the more they earn on the road the more they get in return from the bus owner. So they speed and creep through rail gates to get as many passengers as possible before the bus in pursuit gets to them," Wijeratne said.

Corruption

He also said corrupt timekeepers at some bus terminals work according to their personal agendas by taking bribes from some bus operators.

They take bribes from drivers at almost every bus terminal, which in turn is a huge loss for the driver who will do anything to ensure he goes back to the bus-owner with the expected daily collection.

"I emphasised the need to keep a tab on these time keepers to President Chandrika Kumaratunga four or five years ago but it went unnoticed," Wijeratne said.

Private bus operators say a national transport policy will eliminate state timekeepers and create provincial bus terminal companies which will ensure buses operate according to strict rules and regulations at stipulated times.

Flat wage

The policy will also give some 45,000 private bus drivers and conductors operating in the island a flat monthly wage including ETF and EPF, which will eliminate the need for the drivers to compete on the roads for extra cash.

Meanwhile, the Traffic Police say they will come down hard on errant private bus drivers and bus owners in a move to stem the number of accidents witnessed in the recent past.

Senior Superintendent of Police, Traffic, Lucky Pieris speaking to The Sunday Leader said that the police have already implemented an islandwide operation to nab speeding private bus drivers and called on the general public to support the operation.

Police on the job

"We have only around 3,700 traffic police on our roads which is insufficient to nab all the dangerous drivers on the roads. We need the public and  agencies that have a part to play on the road to help us by giving us information when they see a speeding bus or dangerous driver," Pieris said.

SSP Pieris noted that at times when errant bus drivers are caught by the traffic police, their relatives and friends who have personal connections with senior police officials try to get them released.

"This should stop. If someone is guilty then he is guilty and should be dealt with according to the law. All bus drivers should be under the impression that passengers in the bus have a policeman like attitude and will be at the receiving end if they break road rules," he said.

The LPBOA says the government must also appreciate the service rendered by private bus operators over the years by supporting the restructuring proposals via the national transport policy which is a long felt requirement.

Wijeratne says if the national transport policy is implemented more educated personnel can be recruited to the private bus sector, which will in turn see a drop in public complaints of unruly, inexperienced and dangerous drivers and conductors on the roads.

Meanwhile with the ever-increasing fuel prices, private bus operators will be operating at a loss but Wijeratne said the current national policy on bus fare revisions prohibits them from increasing the bus fares at any given time which they will respect.

"We have told the government we don't need even fuel subsidies for our operations. All we ask for is the implementation of the transport policy which will sort a lot of issues faced by the public transport sector," he said.

British advice

He further noted that a British transport advisor by the name of Ken Williams who had visited the island last year had also proposed a national transport policy to streamline the private bus sector.

"The government realises how important the policy is, but because of my UNP connections certain elements within the state are refusing to support it," Wijeratne added.

He says the only reason he extended his support to the UNP was because the party believed in implementing a national transport policy according to his recommendations.

"We held several rounds of discussions on the policy every month under the UNP regime. But when it came to the point where the policy was to be implemented the UNP government was toppled and the transport policy was withheld," he explained.

The President emphasised that his only goal as head of the association at this point was to get the national transport policy implemented. He promised  that he will step down from his post once the policy sees the light of day.

Proposed national public transport policy at a glance 

     Bus drivers and conductors will operate under provincial bus terminal companies made up of bus operators in the respective province for a flat wage and will receive EPF and ETF benefits.

      Private buses will operate according to a joint timetable formulated together with the state transport sector.

      Private bus drivers and conductors will sign an agreement which ensures they follow strict rules and regulations.

      According to the agreement bus operators cannot go on strike or they will lose their jobs.  At least 30,000 new jobs will be created by the formation of bus terminal companies in the respective provinces.

     Bus terminal companies will operate under a state regulator.


Double standards over security

Dr. Jayalath Jayawardane

By Dharisha Bastians 

Recently, the UPFA government withdrew the security given to former Resettlement, Refugees and Rehabilitation Minister Dr. Jayalath Jayawardane, reneging on a pledge made to the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) and denying the opposition MP his right to safety. Public Security, Law and Order Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake in a hand written letter to the secretary to his Ministry instructed that Dr. Jayawardane's security be reduced and the jeep and motorcycle provided for his security personnel be withdrawn in November last year.

In this country, it is becoming more and more evident every day that politics takes priority over everything else - even life. While the state is duty bound to safeguard any citizen whose life is in peril, events of the recent past, including last week's murder of Tamil journalist Dharmeratnam Sivaram alias Taraki, raises many questions about how the government is going about ensuring the safety of its citizens.

Life under threat

In the case of the Taraki killing, the government's being loathe to rein in militant elements operating in the south, often it is alleged hand in glove with the military itself, resulted in a renowned journalist and editor being abducted right in front of a police station in the heart of the city. Its wilful negligence of security of others whose lives have been proved to be under threat may in the event of a mishap, incriminate the state itself in the murder of innocent citizens.

In the case of Dr. Jayalath Jayawardane, the UNHRC in Geneva has held that the UNP MP's life was under threat by racist elements in the south, after statements made by President Chandrika Kumaratunga to the effect that the parliamentarian was a spy for the Tamil Tigers. The ruling by the UNHRC on July 22, 2002 in response to a petition filed by Dr. Jayawardane in 2000, said that the committee concluded that the failure of the state party to investigate these threats to the life of Dr. Jayawardane violated his right to security of person and said that Dr. Jayawardane was entitled to an appropriate remedy. Sri Lanka is a party to the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, under which the UNHRC made its order.

In June 2004, Desmond Fernando, PC writing to the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan requested that the UNHRC's decision in the case be implemented. In his letter to Annan, Fernando writes that although President Kumaratunga was given 90 days to comply with the UNHRC's decision, two years had already passed and she has still failed to do so.

"Currently a party known as the United People's Freedom Alliance headed by the same President Kumaratunga is in power. Recently, Dr. Jayawardane was reliably informed that his security would be reduced. This is a matter of grave concern," he wrote.

Following Minister Wickreman- ayake's order to minimise Dr. Jayawardane's security, appeals have been made through the Human Rights Commission and even the speaker of parliament to the President and the Inspector general of police. All these calls however have so far fallen on deaf ears. Even a letter to IGP Chandra Fernando from Chairman, National Police Commission, Ranjit Abeysuriya, ordering that Dr. Jayawardane's security be restored to full strength has been completely ignored, giving rise to speculation that orders to the contrary are coming from higher powers.

Party colours or policies notwithstanding, a government is duty bound to protect any one of its citizens requesting sanctuary or security because of a perceived threat to his or her life. This obligation of the state is what those justifying the government's subtle backing for the Karuna Amman splinter group harp on. It is also this obligation that the previous UNF administration afforded to then opposition parliamentarian and current Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, security over and above levels provided even for cabinet ministers. During the UNF regime of 2001-2004, Minister Kadirgamar enjoyed not only all the security perks he was granted during the PA tenure of 1994-2001, he was also allowed to retain his official residence situated, even still, in one of the few remaining high security zones in Colombo.

Speaking to The Sunday Leader, former Defence Secretary, Austin Fernando said that after the signing of the ceasefire agreement in February 2002, roadblocks and security checks around the city limits were removed, save only four - President's House, the back of Temple Trees which is the prime minister's official residence, the SLT communications tower and of course, Minister Kadirgamar's house.

Heavy security

In the UNF's maiden budget of 2002, the Defence Ministry allocated Rs. 5 million, incorporated solely to look after the interests and logistics of Kadirgamar's security. Over a dozen escort vehicles, including jeeps and bullet proof cars were provided for Kadirgamar and a large contingent of Special Task Force personnel. The government maintained Minister Kadirgamar's residence, including utilities and the unit behind the Minister's home which housed his security personnel. The two watchtowers around Kadirgamar's home also continued to stand. Furthermore, Kadirgamar was even given a military escort during foreign tours.

"Even the then minister of defence didn't get that much security," said Fernando.

Kadirgamar was not the only one either. During the Ranil Wickremesinghe administration, many opposition parliamentarians under any kind of security threat were afforded security. EPDP Leader Douglas Devananda was provided between 20-30 commandos for his personal security because he was believed to be like Kadirgamar, a key LTTE target. Devananda was also allowed to retain his own armed cadres and all EPDP offices in Jaffna were provided police security and assistance.

Furthermore, Wickremesinghe also called for the enhancement of then Opposition Leader Mahinda  Rajapakse's security, the moment information was received that Rajapakse's life was in danger - not from the LTTE as in the cases of the others - but other elements. Rajapakse's security was enhanced with two or three army vehicles, and an SLA major was assigned to coordinate his security, according to UNF sources. And when President Chandrika Kumaratunga decided to enhance former Deputy Defence Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte's security after details of the Udathalawinna massacres during the December 5, 2001 elections surfaced, the Wickremesinghe administration made no objection whatsoever. So it was for Anura Bandaranaike as well.

This is because, Fernando says, Wickremesinghe's  government operated on the principle that the state was bound to protect anyone of its citizens from any kind of threat. Even Minister Wickremanayake, who with a flourish of his pen in November last year left Dr. Jayawardane with barely minimum security, was allocated a house by the UNF near Sirimavo Bandaranaike Balika Vidyalaya - a house Wickremanayake occupied until the UPFA swept to power in April 2004.

Incensed at the treatment meted out to Dr. Jayawardane, UNP members claim that there are only two possible explanations for the government's withdrawal of his security - either it is the government's perception that Dr. Jayawardane's life is not under threat, despite the UNHRC ruling or it is a conscious decision by the state to remove his security since that would increase the threat. The latter, would be a particularly gross violation of human rights by the state.


Only strong medicine  for CPC headache

By Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema 

Political bungling in the fuel industry has converted the once profit making public entity to a massive loss making one within a few years.

The Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) has become a political hotbed with financial issues and most importantly, the divestiture of the one third share of the petroleum market currently held by the Treasury.

Amidst claims made by senior government officials, including Finance Minister Dr. Sarath Amunugama that the CPC is a loss making entity and a "monster" living out of state money and that a revival could only be brought by restructuring the CPC, officials at CPC strongly dismiss them.

CPC Chairman, Jaliya Medagama observed that had the government made the necessary payments for subsidies and the pricing mechanism applied, the Corporation would have recorded a profit of Rs. 4 billion.

Interestingly, in 1994 at the time the PA took office, CPC recorded a profit of Rs. 600 million.

Government subsidy on fuel topped Rs. 14 billion, or nearly 1 percent of GDP in 2004, as international crude oil prices kept rising steadily with no adjustment being made in local retail prices.

Medagama said that the losses incurred by the CPC were not the fault of the management, but that of delays in making crucial decisions due to heavy politicisation of institutions.

However, the Treasury has so far paid up to Rs. 38.2 billion to the LIOC as subsidies when the CPC is yet to receive close to Rs. 8 billion as subsidies from the Treasury.

Higher than expected oil prices chipped away Sri Lanka's 2004 growth from 6.0 percent to 5.4 percent, the Central Bank said when it released its annual report recently. The Bank also warned that economic growth will slowdown to 5.3 percent if the domestic oil prices are not increased and heavy oil consumption is not discouraged.

"Cautious use of fuel will help to reduce Sri Lanka's fuel imports and foreign exchange," the Bank said in the  report. "A 10 percent reduction in oil consumption will save US$ 150 million a year."

However, amidst all these issues, CPC still remains one of the highest tax payers to the government.

CPC paid Rs. 25 billion as taxes in the year 2003 and last year, excluding the amount set off against losses, the amount paid as taxes was Rs. 17 billion. The total amount due as tax for 2004 was Rs. 31 billion.

"Even while making losses, the CPC has paid its taxes," Medagama said.

It is also interesting to note that the cost of fuel is mainly dominated by taxes applied to fuel. Almost half of the final selling price comprises of various  taxes.

In February, the manufacturing cost of a litre of petrol was Rs. 29.60, but the selling price was Rs. 57. A litre of 95 octane petrol was manufactured as a cost of Rs. 32.20 while the selling price was Rs. 60. The huge  difference between the manufacturing cost and the selling price are the taxes.

The taxes imposed on fuel in Sri Lanka include three components - excise duty, VAT and the provincial council tax.

With regard to petrol, a fixed excise duty is gazetted annually on the day of the budget presentation.

Currently, the excise duty on petrol amounts to Rs. 20. The duties  for diesel and kerosene are Rs. 2.50 and Rs. 1.25 respectively.

The 15% VAT once applied adds on a further Rs. 10 for petrol and approximately Rs. 8 for diesel. Kerosene is however exempted from VAT.

A 1% provincial council tax is then added on to the final amounts.

Medagama pointed out that a 1.5% dealer discount and a 5% profit margin is also added to the prices.

According to trade union activists at CPC, if the amount of taxes applied to fuel is reduced, it in turn would reduce the losses incurred by the corporation. It would also help the corporation function smoothly without making any drastic price revisions.

Power and Energy Minister Susil Premajayanth said that the government has no idea of reducing the  taxes.

"We have not discussed about taxes," he said.

Premajayanth pointed out that under the current course of action adopted by the government, the amount due from CPC as taxes is  set of against the losses.

After a lapse of close to seven months, the government finally revised petroleum prices last week.

However, the price revision is a 10-12% increase when compared with the international prices in a bid to bridge the losses incurred by CPC.

The CPC would recover only about Rs. 800 million on the Rs. 3.5 bn subsidy tab in April.

Last week's revision saw the increase of petrol by Rs. 6 to Rs. 74 per litre. Diesel and kerosene have been increased by Rs. 4 and Rs. 3 respectively.

The corporation however is still losing about Rs. 5.08 on a litre of petrol, Rs. 15.41 on a litre of diesel and Rs. 27.07 on a litre of kerosene.

Sri Lankans use up to 30 million litres of petrol, 130 million litres of diesel and 18 million litres of kerosene a month.

Sri Lanka has a 650,000 barrel per day market, with 60 percent of the country's needs imported as crude and the balance as refined products from Saudi Arabia, Iran and Malaysia.

Pricing formula a must

CPC Chairman Jaliya Medagama said that in order to stop incurring any further losses, the government should implement the pricing formula on a monthly basis.

"Price revisions should take place on a monthly basis," he said.

He explained that there was no point in increasing prices once the corporation has heavy accumulated losses.

Out of the amount due to CPC as subsidies, Rs. 8 billion has been set off against taxes due from CPC to the Treasury.

A monthly pricing formula pegged to world crude costs was suspended since last September, with fuel price revisions becoming a political hot potato amidst the soaring cost of living.

"Under the price adjustment agreement, it is the responsibility of the government to adjust prices and if it does  not, it is the obligation of the government to pay the difference. Price revisions need to be on a monthly basis," Medagama said.


New line of credit

The Iranian line of credit has expired and the US$ 150 million Indian credit line has come into effect.

Two consignments worth US$ 45 million dollars have already reached the country.

The government is currently negotiating a credit line with Malaysia.

"We have to negotiate with Malaysia and we have the intention of taking it up when we go there this year. We are in discussions to get extended credit of 180 days," he said.


Average loss after the revision of prices for the month of May 2005 

Product        Int          Locally      Current         April          Diff*         Consumption       Loss**
                   Avg*       Adj*           Revised*       Selling                      Per Month

              
  ($ per Bbl)                       (Rs. per Ltd.)                                  (Lts. Mn)     (Rs. Mn)
Petrol             60.27       79.08          74.00            68/70      5.80             30               152.40
Kerosene        71.40       55.57           28.50           25.50      27.07           18               487.26 
Diesel             65.50      61.41            46.00           42/44      15.41         130             2003.30
Furnace Oil 180   39.34      34.91            28.30           24.30        6.61          60               396.60
Furnace Oil 380   38.75      30.07            26.00           22.00        4.07          22                 89.54
                                                                                                             Total        3129.10
Average Exchange Rate for April :- 100.16 Rs./US $

 
* Difference between average price and adjusted price
** Minimum loss after recent price revision
* Based on average prices of April 


AB's May Day slight

A record number of people entered Colombo city on May Day to attend the various political rallies scheduled throughout the day. Given the state of the current political environment, each of the three main parties were keen to show their colours with massive crowds and flamboyant decorations at their May Day rallies. However, the over-eagerness on the part of several party seniors to retain as many people at their respective rallies, resulted in even more political tension.

Only a few hours after the May Day rallies were concluded, problems within the UPFA showed signs of coming to a head. For 12 months, the UPFA has attempted to put on a brave face - thick as thieves on the outside while being fraught with conflict and controversy internally. But as of last week, the battles are being fought out in the open.

The JVP always goes out of its way to hold their May Day rallies in style. This year was no different, with the party's politburo deciding well beforehand to put on an especially good show, not only portraying it as a May Day celebration but as a show of strength and readiness to face an election in the near future if necessary. It was a case of 'showing' the SLFP.

Last year, the two main coalition partners held their May Day rallies together. But the politburo was not too much in favour of a repeat of this scenario, with a majority of the members saying that having a combined rally would harm the JVP's own identity. Furthermore, many of the members were of the view that in order to stay partners within the UPFA, the JVP badly needed to display its strength.

JVP Leader Somawansa Amarasinghe was in full support of this. He said that it was important that the JVP goes before the people not just as partners in the government, but also as the opposition within the government. "So let's prepare for this May Day rally as one of the main opposition parties," he said.

As soon as the JVP announced it was going to hold a rally on its own, the SLFP also decided to hold the first totally-blue rally in many years. The President, having made this important decision, did not hand the organisation of the rally to a single individual, but the entire SLFP headquarters instead. A committee headed by SLFP General Secretary, Maithripala Sirisena was to organise the rally.

The United National Party looked forward to its May Day rally with much enthusiasm, especially after a series of surveys conducted throughout the island confirmed that large crowds were awaiting the opportunity to come to Colombo and attend a successful UNP rally. The UNP decided to bring in massive crowds from each electorate and what's more film the crowds arriving in order to gauge the organisational strength in each electorate. The UNP leadership was of the firm opinion that this year's rally had to be a big show. As a result, the UNP gathered the largest crowd this May 1 at its rally held in Colombo.

One of the interesting aspects of this year's rallies was that many party leaders and seniors at all three major rallies spent most of their time on mobile phones. This was to exchange messages about the crowds present at the rallies. The SLFP and JVP were very keen to find out what the UNP turn out had been, while the main opposition was doing some snooping about numbers at the UPFA rallies too. It is traditional at May Day rallies for each of the parties to come up with brand new slogans. While the UNP came up with slogans against the SLFP and the JVP collectively, the real battle cries were between the coalition partners themselves.

During the SLFP march, SLFP headquarters staff in three vans began distributing thousands of leaflets bearing the slogans to the crowds. Instead of criticising the opposition, the slogans were all aimed at the JVP, with several attacks against Amarasinghe and JVP Propaganda Secretary Wimal Weerawansa in particular. Upon seeing the leaflets, several SLFP parliamentarians loyal to the JVP began calling up JVP members on their mobile phones. Minister Mangala Samaraweera and even Minister Anura Bandaranaike, who was watching the march from a Pajero Jeep parked nearby got wind of the foul leaflets. Soon, all the mobile phones of all senior SLFPers began to ring incessantly. One call was even made to Minister Sirisena asking him whether the SLFP slogans were aimed at discrediting the JVP.

"We are not slinging mud at anyone. Nor is there any problem with our slogans. These are all what was sent from the party headquarters so we are saying them," replied Sirisena.

Meanwhile, several JVP-friendly SLFPers had already called up Weerawansa and informed him what the anti-JVP slogans were.

It soon came to light that the slogans for the SLFP rally were created by Dr. Sisil Bandara Senaratne who works at the SLFP headquarters. He is also a close associate of President Chandrika Kumaratunga.

Initially the President was scheduled to attend the rally. However, about two days before May Day, she was advised to stay away for security reasons. The intelligence reports were indicating that the security situation was not good enough for the President to attend a May Day rally. As a result of her not attending, the guest of honour at the rally ended up being Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse.

The Premier got into a jeep and went from place to place along the route of the march to watch what was happening at each point, speaking to supporters along the way. At each point the Premier stopped, the shouting got louder. There were also shouts of 'the future president!' and 'our future hope!' everytime the Premier was sighted. Watching all this with a smile on his face, Rajapakse finally stopped near the statue of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike opposite Galle Face and stood there encouraging the crowds. It was while he was at this point that the Prime Minister received a special message. He was informed that Minister Bandaranaike was also sitting in a jeep with tinted glasses and watching the march. Rajapakse walked up to the jeep and knocked on one of the tinted windows, prompting Bandaranaike to put it down. "Why are you inside? Come out and watch," said the Premier. Unable to refuse, Bandaranaike hauled himself out of the jeep with much difficulty and watched the march proceed standing next to Rajapakse.

But a few minutes later, the situation became slightly uncomfortable as a result of the pro-Rajapakse slogans. "Hurrah for the future president Mahinda Rajapakse!" screamed the crowds as they passed the Premier. Both Rajapakse and Bandaranaike grew increasingly uncomfortable as the chants continued and did not once mention Bandaranaike's claim to the presidency. Sensing this, the crowd began a new cheer. "Hurrah for future Prime Minister Anura Bandaranaike!" they hollered.

Despite the appeasement moves on the part of the crowds, it was obvious they had made their choice. Unable to stand for much longer, Bandaranaike turned to Rajapakse and said - "Now of course, I can't stand any longer even if I am offered the presidency free of charge" and got back into the comfort of his jeep. 

JVP meeting heats up

In the midst of all the chaos regarding the restructure of CEB and CEYPETCO, other crises cropped up over the week as well. This political bombshell exploded following a statement by President Chandrika Kumaratunga before a group of religious leaders at the BMICH. At the meeting the President said that whether the government collapsed or certain ministers lost their portfolios, the joint mechanism agreement for the distribution of tsunami aid would be signed.

Now it is no secret that the President is in the habit of making grandiose statements one day, only to retract them the day after. Usually, she adopts an aggressive tone, bordering on the humourous. However, when she spoke to the religious leaders last week, her tone was serious, quiet and full of resolve.

It did not take long in this very small country of ours for news of the President's latest statement to reach the JVP. As soon as they heard, they went about their usual business of calling government ministers to find out the seriousness of her words and whether she truly intended to sign the joint mechanism with the LTTE.

Last Wednesday morning, JVP General Secretary, Tilvin Silva received a letter from Additional Secretary to the President, P. Dissanayake. The letter said that the President needed to talk to JVP Leader Somawansa Amarasinghe or a representative group from the party on Friday (6) at 11 a.m. As soon as he read it, Silva and later the other JVP leaders realised that the President had summoned them to discuss the matter of the CEB restructure. Keeping this in mind, the Marxists discussed their action plan and what decisions they needed to make in this regard.

The JVP was intent to go before the President fully prepared and with ready answers. So they discussed the matter at length. From the morning of Wednesday, several rounds of talks were held at the JVP headquarters. Amarasinghe spoke at length at the meeting and several senior JVPers held discussions with Minister Mangala Samaraweera as well while the meetings were going on. Finally Amarasinghe issued Samaraweera an ultimatum - "We have made our decision. If the cabinet paper to sell the CEB is brought to cabinet, we will work to defeat it. This is not a personal decision. This is a collective party decision. Before the cabinet meeting tonight, you had better make a decision that will keep the alliance standing."

Samaraweera, ever the peacemaker in UPFA battles, urged the JVP Leader to refrain from being hasty since this was a matter that could be easily solved. He also asked Amarasinghe to allow Weerawansa to come and meet him. Nevertheless, the JVP discussions and brain storm continued. Finally, the Marxists made two decisions regarding the proposal to restructure the CEB. The first was that if the cabinet paper to be submitted implied that the CEB was to be sold, the four JVP ministers were to speak against it. The second was that if as a result of the JVP's protests the cabinet paper was not going to be approved, the ministers were to make note of their opposition to the cabinet secretary and then keep quiet.

But Weerawansa had another problem. "According the information I am receiving, Amunugama and the President are adamant to get this paper approved. If such a situation arises, we need to make a decision about how we are going to face it," he pointed out.

However, Cultural Affairs and National Heritage Minister, Vijitha Herath retorted that the Prime Minister's opinion would also have to be considered before such strong-arm tactics were resorted to. "The Premier is a decisive player in the cabinet. And he says that the cabinet paper has to be restructured. Minister Dinesh Gunewardena has also given us an assurance that he is against the moves as well. So these people also will support us in opposing this proposal," Herath said.

But Weerawansa was not content with this, given the depth of the details he had received about the submission of this cabinet paper. So he made a statement that left the politburo members shell-shocked to the core.

"Don't place too much faith in the Prime Minister. I have heard that the President is in the process of setting a trap so that the Premier will also have to agree to everything without question. I have also heard that the Prime Minister is swallowing this ruse. So it is better that we ourselves go perfectly prepared to the meeting," he said.

Finally it was decided that if the cabinet paper was to be approved the JVP ministers would walk out of the meeting after which the politburo would meet to make any further decisions.  

Do or die for JVP

Long after the cabinet meeting drew to a close, the lights were still on at the JVP headquarters in Pita Kotte. The JVP had even increased security at the headquarters that night. The party discussed at length what course of action was to be followed from the next day (5) onwards. The meeting continued till the wee hours of the morning and all decisions were unanimous.

The JVP decided not to attend cabinet meetings until the CEB restructuring proposal was withdrawn. It was also decided that the four ministers would remove themselves from their ministerial responsibilities. It was also decided that from this point on, the JVP would only agree with the government proposals and plans on a case by case basis. A media briefing was also scheduled for the next day and Parliamentary Group Leader, Wimal Weerawansa was to make a special statement in parliament regarding the matter.

Once the strategy regarding the CEB restructuring was decided on, the JVP politburo moved on to the joint mechanism crisis. During this discussion, Weerawansa used his fancy mobile phone to find out what was happening in cabinet. He learnt that the government was preparing to sign the joint mechanism agreement. He informed the politburo of this.

The JVP was to hold a special meeting with the President on Friday (6). The politburo discussed how that meeting was to be dealt with. The entire politburo was of the opinion that the President should be told in no uncertain terms that the joint mechanism agreement cannot be signed. Additionally, the National Patriotic Movement was to be used to fight against the mechanism and the JVP was to directly support this battle. Usually, before the country, the JVP maintains that the NPM is a separate entity. However, it was decided that for this particular battle they would stand as one. It was the JVP's decision to publicly oppose the joint mechanism.

As the saying goes, the best is yet to come.   

Heart to heart between Prez and PM

A discussion took place between the President and the Prime Minister at President's House on Wednesday as well. The talks began at about 11 a.m. and continued for about an hour and 45 minutes. The long discussion took the staff at President's House by surprise since in the one year after the UPFA came into being, President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Premier Mahinda Rajapakse had never held such long talks.

When he arrived at President's House on Kumaratunga's invitation on Wednesday morning, the Premier peeped into the waiting room on his way to meet the President. Inside he saw SLMC Leader Rauf Hakeem and NUA Leader Ferial Ashraff. Walking into the room the Prime Minister greeted them and engaged in some small talk during which the two Muslim leaders told him that they had been summoned for talks about the joint mechanism.

At the meeting the President convinced Rajapakse to accept both the joint mechanism and the CEB restructuring proposal.

Hakeem then asked the Premier why he was there.

"I have no idea," said a smiling Rajapakse, adding "I will only know on my way out." Patting Hakeem on the back, the Premier left for his meeting with the President.

On his way out, the Premier was all smiles. Again he exchanged pleasantries with Hakeem before proceeding back to Temple Trees. What was discussed at his meeting with Kumaratunga however, remains a mystery.

SB eats humble pie

The decision of jailed UNP National Organising Secretary, S.B. Dissanayake to request a pardon from President Chandrika Kumaratunga through UNP Colombo District MP, Milinda Moragoda took many party members by surprise.

To most it was unbelievable that the fire-breathing Dissanayake could even contemplate going on bended knees before Kumaratunga particularly after the harshly critical statements he had made of her conduct.

And with shocked members inundating Dissanayake with inquiries over the pardon, S.B. went into denial claiming it was purely Moragoda's idea.

Moragoda for his part, having got the approval of UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to make the appeal on behalf of Dissanayake, formally sought an appointment with the President on Monday, May 2.

The President's Secretary, W.J. Karunaratne informed Moragoda that the President will give him an appointment no sooner her diary becomes free. Kumaratunga it appeared, was not in as much a hurry as Dissanayake.

This issue was to also surface at the UNP political affairs committee meeting on Monday, May 2 presided by Party Leader Ranil Wickre- mesinghe.

Amongst the others present were Deputy Leader Karu Jayasu- riya, Chairman Malik Samarawickrama, Secretary, N.K. Wera- goda, MPs, P. Dayaratne, G.L. Peiris, Lakshman Senev- iratne, Mahinda Samaras- inghe, John Amaratunga, Jayaw- ickrema Perera, Tissa Attanayake and Kabir Hashim.

It was John Amaratunga who broached the subject of Dissanayake's pardon with reference to a story in the Lankadeepa newspaper, which he claimed created the impression the UNP on its own had decided to seek a pardon for its National Organising Secretary. In contrast, The Sunday Leader had said the request came from Dissanayake. He added it would look bad on the party to fall at Kumaratunga's feet begging for mercy.

"What is the factual position?" Amara- tunga asked.

Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesi- nghe used the opportunity to set the record straight.

Said he: "Milinda Moragoda came and asked for permission on behalf of S.B. to meet with the President and seek a pardon. He said it was a request by S.B. Then when I asked SB, he said it was Milinda who proposed it."

Continuing, Wickremesinghe said since S.B. has identified Milinda as the person to make the appeal, the party should not stand in the way. Added Wickremesinghe - "Milinda told me he will only go if I as the party leader approved it. Then I said if that is what S.B. wants, Milinda could go."

The UNP Leader also made it clear the decision was not one taken by the party, but one the party gave approval for at Dissanayake's request as disclosed by Moragoda.

This detailed response saw Amaratunga urging the party to set the record straight by issuing a clarification on the Lankadeepa report, but Wickremesinghe was not so inclined.

Said he - "There is no need for it. Tamara also met me and said the party was not doing enough to secure SB's release. I said we have been doing our utmost. I said if anything more needs to be done, SB had to decide what he wants and inform the party. Then Tamara told me they will watch the situation till the end of May and take a decision on what to do."

Following the political affairs committee meeting, the UNP Leader also explained the position to the working committee.

After Wickremesinghe explained the details, Colombo District MP, Ravi Karunanayake asked whether there was no one other than Moragoda to represent the party with the President.

Pat came Wickremesinghe's reply - "What can I do? It was SB who suggested Milinda goes."

And so a man who breathed fire is now all set to grovel before the President with no guarantee whatsoever, she will show mercy.


Striking when the iron is hot

CEB workers on protest

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti

At a time when the UPFA government is bogged down by a multitude of concerns has the trade unions struck. The pro-alliance unions and employees of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC), Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), the railways and port workers have collectively decided to cripple the country's vital services if the restructuring programme is followed.

At present, the CEB workers are on a work to rule campaign which they commenced last Thursday and the railways workers have ensured that the trains don't run anymore with the threat of more to follow - in terms of strikes and suffering caused to the masses.

Strike threat

"It is only the tip of the iceberg," says General Secretary, Lanka Electricity Workers' Union, Ananda Nimalaratne. "This restructuring we shall oppose at any cost," he added.

There has been an imminent threat of workers going on strike ever since the restructuring scheme was announced. In March, the government announced the programme and listed some 17 public enterprises for immediate restructuring. For most, expressions of interest have already been called.

With mounting opposition against the proposed scheme, President Chandrika Kumaratunga originally showed a somewhat conciliatory attitude and appointed a cabinet sub committee to study the consequences of the proposed restructuring only to be reminded of the May 16-17 deadline of the Sri Lanka Development forum meeting.

As things stand, the government could not have asked for more trouble than this - massive opposition to their key economic programme aimed at meting urgent commitments before the leaders go before the international lending community.

To combat the issue, the government no longer has the support of its main ally, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). In fact, spearheading the wave of strikes are the JVP trade unions.

The cabinet meeting on Wednesday night (4) was to be a make or break one. Power and Energy Minister Susil Premajayanth was to present the amended cabinet paper for the immediate restructuring of both the CPC and the CEB and it was not to just decide the fate of the restructuring programme, but to an extent, the future of the UPFA government itself.

The meeting commenced sans the President but when she walked in much later, she was emphatic that the draft cabinet paper had to be approved on the same day itself. Her insistence led to the four JVP ministers to stage a walk out in protest. Unruffled by the opposition, Kumaratunga insisted that if the JVP persistently objected, the cabinet paper should be passed nevertheless after recording the fact that constituent partner JVP opposed the government decision.

The JVP, raucously condemning the decision outside is blaming the PA for falling in line with deadlines set by the international lending community who impose conditions on the government. Further, it is alleged that the conversion of the CEB into a state owned company is done with a view to privatise it sans a two-thirds majority in parliament.

The government explanation is that the new draft is not the original cabinet paper but a much improved one.

Compounding matters was Finance Minister Dr. Sarath Amunugama who made a public statement derogatory of CEB workers. While employees of the institution burned an effigy of the Minister in front of the Kolonnawa oil tank installations, there was at least one minister doing his best to diffuse the tension that existed between the government and the workers of different public institutions.

Coming out strongly against Finance Minister Dr. Amunugama's statement castigating the trade unionists was a former labour minister himself, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse.

While the government appeared to lose control at the seams, Rajapakse convened a hurried meeting with the CEB Engineers' Union on Tuesday night (3) where he declared that Dr. Amunugama's comment that CEB employees were "rogues and kalakanniyas" was wrong and uncalled for under any circumstances.

Meanwhile, the CEB is continuing with its work to rule campaign and will not abandon it until the government gives clear assurances that restructuring would not be pursued.

No difference

Launching its protest, the CEB workers shed all political differences and announced an immediate work to rule campaign on Thursday (5) at 3 p.m. which continues to date.

"We are united in this effort. We are all workers and this institution has to exist first. Public enterprises are not to be sold for a pittance but to be protected by the state," claims Ananda Nimalaratne.

Nimalaratne claims that there has been a shortage of some 3,000 CEB workers since 1996 though the vacancies have not been filled for nearly a decade.

He asserts that despite the heavy shortage of workers, the available staff has done the work. What the workers allege is that instead of recruiting the necessary personnel, the new scheme proposes to retrench.

"That's the final analysis of privatisation or restructuring. What real difference is there," says Nimalaratne.

With the work to rule campaign, he says that the workers are within the legal parameters as it is not illegal to conduct such a campaign. "We have not really caused a disruption in the service. When we do, it will be felt," says Nimalaratne.

"Only then will the authorities realise how much work the regular worker has been undertaking despite the heavy shortage in workers," he added.

Nimalaratne however repents the fact that the consumer would be made to suffer if they eventually move to a disruption in service.

According to him, the government should take the blame as they were compelled to resort to such drastic measures. "It will happen. You have to blame the government for it," he said.

Opposition

The pro-JVP union leader lauded the JVP ministers for having walked out of the cabinet last Wednesday in protest and said that a government was duty bound to follow a transparent policy at all times and to specifically work in consultation with others when dealing with national issues.

The union leader felt pleased that their opposition to the previous cabinet paper at least led to the drafting of a new one and the shelving of the previous. However, the workers maintain that any programme that seeks to restructure the institution is totally unacceptable to them.

"The CPC should remain in the hands of the state," Nimalaratne adamantly declares.

But according to Power and Energy Minister Susil Premajayanth, that would be going too far. He maintains that the decision to work to rule was rash as it is necessary to restructure the institution.

Further, Premajayanth assures that the new cabinet paper is not the same one that was to be presented a month ago and was also "open for discussion." "I think they should also show some respect to the government," says an obviously distressed Minister.

The CEB's financial woes are tremendous and that the institution requires some quick fixing is a fact that is difficult to deny.

The CEB already owes a mammoth Rs. 70 billion to the People's Bank alone. Further, it recorded a massive loss of Rs 39.3 billion last year. It also has the biggest transmission loss which is nearly 20% and in comparison to other countries, sells electricity at very high rates.

According to the Minister, the daily loss suffered by the CEB alone is a colossal Rs. 40 million. "I think that merits some quick action," he adds.

CEB insolvency

The Central Bank report for the year 2004 also warned that the CEB is nearing insolvency unless significant measures are taken to improve its performance urgently.

According to the Central Bank, the CEB would require recapitalisation to ensure long-term solvency and it also recommends immediate restructuring to prevent further economic hardships and possible retrenchment.

Meanwhile, Minister Premajayanth is ready to give only one assurance to the workers - that the CEB would not be privatised and legislation would be introduced to this effect. He says that under the new scheme, the CEB would be unbundled into eight entities and would remain under a fully government owned company.

But the unions are skeptical and blame Premajayanth for being a pawn in the hands of a government hell-bent on going ahead with a privatisation scheme, lending agency style.

"This company would eventually sell everything off. That's what the new company would do," says Nimalaratne.

And beyond the electricity workers' protest lies the next crucial group of workers, the petroleum workers who are also gearing towards a strike.

The Treasury owns one third of the CPC shares of which 49% are earmarked for restructuring under the new scheme.

According to government sources, the losses incurred by the institution due to subsidised fuel rates is a colossal Rs. 5,500 million in the first quarter of this year alone.

Explaining the financial predicament of the CPC, Chairman, Jaliya Medagama says that the recent revision of prices in petroleum products would only meet the loss suffered due to soaring crude oil prices in the international market. "That is hardly sufficient," he says.

"Privatisation guillotine"

According to Medagama, this increase is no big help as the institution is still running at a loss.

With the revision, the CPC intends cutting down the first quarter's massive losses by Rs. 3,011 million.

According to CPC records, at present, the loss incurred by the CPC on petrol is Rs. 9, Rs. 16 on diesel and Rs. 30 on kerosene per liter.

The total loss suffered due to the control imposed on fuel prices is another mammoth Rs. 14.5 billion, all of which has made the institution weaken under debt burdens. The government has so far settled only Rs. 8 billion following negotiations with the CPC.

Minister Premajayanth has submitted a cabinet paper for the balance payment.

Meanwhile, the prices of petrol, diesel, and kerosene oil were increased with effect from Wednesday (4) midnight. Petrol was increased by Rs. 6, increasing the price to Rs. 74, diesel by Rs. 4 increasing the price to Rs. 46 and kerosene by Rs. 3 with the price shooting up to Rs. 29.40.

According to Secretary, United Petroleum Workers Union, Lakshman Ananda, the government is inching towards privatisation and the workers towards strike action.

"This government seems unable to handle this issue without selling assets to others," he accused. Ananda is firm that other public enterprises billed for "privatisation guillotine" would rally around them to secure the institutions as well as the future of the employees.

As if the turmoil in the fuel and electricity sectors isn't enough, train workers also have extended support to the joint trade union action.

Some 250 trains have been cancelled due to the ongoing strike upto Thursday night (5), according to senior railway sources.

Labour unrest

Railway sources claim that prior notice was not given and the railway workers have struck work simply to strengthen the hands with the CPC and CEB unions.

According to Transport Minister Felix Perera, contract engine drivers have all been summoned to immediately report to work but so far there has been no success. "This is the worst they can do to the working class.  How do people sans private vehicles travel to work?" he demanded to know.

"We are incurring significant losses and these strikers are adding to it," he noted grimly adding that while workers' rights should be protected, they also should be mindful of their duty to the state and its people.

And the port workers are also lurking in the background. They fear that now that the government is in a militant mood, the controversial cabinet paper prepared by Ports and Civil Aviation Minister, Mangala Samaraweera seeking to allow a management takeover by the Strategic Enterprise Management Agency (SEMA) for three years would also be pushed.

"The government thinks the iron is hot. So do we," said an angry Secretary, United Port Workers' Union.

All these could lead to one thing - the drastic crippling of country's vital services. And it is a crucial time for the UPFA administration. With the Development Forum just a week away, what any administration would not wish for is such massive labour unrest in the country.


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