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17th December, 2006  Volume 13, Issue 23

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                                    

Politics

Petty games of President and Mangala's battle for survival

Mangala boycotts cabinet meeting

President blasts Mangala for taking orders from US

Mahinda caught pitting ministers against each other

Basil vows to clear east before talks

Rajapakse orchestrates attacks on majority report

Mahinda Rajapakse, Mangala Samaraweera, 
Anura Bandaranaike, Basil Rajapakse 
and Imthiyaz Bakeer Marker

While the government's decision to undermine the majority report of the Experts Committee threatened to derail the All Party Conference (APC) and the MoU with the UNP last week, internal power play within the SLFP was causing ripples in the party with the very real possibility of an imminent split.

It was the All Party initiative and the MoU with the UNP, President Mahinda Rajapakse touted to the world as the panacea for Sri Lanka's ills in the wake of growing concerns over human rights abuses and a humanitarian crisis which was reaching unprecedented proportions but that myth exploded last week following orchestrated protests on the majority report of the Experts Committee.

Majority report

This column in fact highlighted President Rajapakse's opposition to the form and content of the majority report last week, given their decision to jettison the unitary state concept and the call for maximum devolution at provincial level with the north and east to be merged for 10 years as well.

UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was quick to come out in support of the majority report and announced it could be the basis for discussions with the SLFP to arrive at a southern consensus while the JVP was equally quick off the mark denouncing the report as a betrayal of the Mahinda Chinthana, and Mahinda Rajapakse was once again trapped between a rock and a hard place.

And he reacted predictably by getting the government to distance itself from the majority report and directed brother Basil Rajapakse to orchestrate demonstrations with the help of the JVP and JHU opposing the report in a bid to keep his parliamentary majority stable and the extremist allies on board.

To the international community, the UNP and other moderate forces the response of the government to the majority report was the surest sign there was no serious commitment on the part of Rajapakse to resolve the ethnic conflict by peaceful means and the rumour floated that India was instrumental in driving the majority report only made a bad situation worse especially given the strained relations between the two countries due to the President's handling of the peace process.

But for Rajapakse, what was of paramount importance was keeping his government afloat with JVP's support and no sooner the Marxists started breathing fire over the majority report, plans were set in motion to dilute it, and head of the All Party Representative Committee (APRC), Science and Technology Minister, Tissa Vitharana was told to forward one report which encompassed the views in the dissenting reports too.

President's strategy

In effect, what President Rajapakse wanted was to dilute the majority report in such a manner that it would fall in line with the Mahinda Chinthana and help him keep the JVP and JHU also on board, notwithstanding the fact it would make the entire All Party initiative redundant.

That would necessarily mean an end to the MoU with the UNP, which saw the majority report as a basis for negotiations with the SLFP but by now the President's strategy was to take a break-away group from the greens and strengthen his government whilst taking the battle to the LTTE and boosting his popularity in the south.

How far he can proceed with this strategy will be known this week after the UNP attends the APRC and pushes for the acceptance of the majority report.

However, to further appease the JVP and JHU, the President also asked his Secretary Lalith Weeratunga to call for the explanations of three public officials, Rohan Perera, Therese Perera and Malkanthi Wickremasinghe for affixing their signatures to the majority report.

And making no bones about the overall government strategy was Basil Rajapakse who even went to the extent of telling Head, Berghof Foundation, Norbert Rupers that the security forces would first clear the east of the LTTE and then agree for negotiations from a position of strength.

It is in furtherance of this overall strategy that the President having met UNP Colombo District MP, Milinda Moragoda last weekend for a nonpolitical discussion made it out to confidants that portfolios were discussed including the induction of 12 MPs to government ranks.

Petty games

Interestingly, at a Sri Lanka Press Institute meeting last week this subject was discussed with it being said that according to Basil Rajapakse, the Foreign Ministry portfolio was to be offered to Milinda Moragoda. Among those present at the meeting were Ranjith Wijewardene, Nimal Welgama, Waruna Karunatilleke, Sinha Ratnatunge, Siri Ranasinghe and Upali Tennakoon. Another version was that the finance portfolio was on offer to Moragoda.

Even as these petty games were played by the Rajapakse brothers, completely oblivious to Sri Lanka fast approaching the status of a failed state, the bubble was all set to burst in the SLFP itself with Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera taking the fight to Rajapakse.

Samaraweera of course is not alone in his thinking that the Rajapakse brothers are running the country as their private property having placed friends and relations in key posts both locally and internationally leading to mediocrity in government, but none of the other ministers have yet openly challenged the President fearing reprisals, which situation is now fast changing.

What has irked most ministers is the interference in their ministerial functions and projects by the likes of Basil Rajapakse whose reputation is not so much as a whiz kid but a deal maker and since of late several ministers have been talking privately of their frustrations which Samaraweera has reflected somewhat publicly.

And Samaraweera's state of pique finally resulted in him boycotting last week's cabinet meeting in a show of displeasure at President Rajapakse's attempts to undermine him politically.

Battle with Samaraweera

The battle between President Rajapakse and Minister Samaraweera, the man who clinched him the presidency was simmering for some time now with the former trying to sideline the latter given the Foreign Minister's uncompromising loyalty to former President Chandrika Kumaratunga and the issue finally exploded last week over a foreign policy decision.

The stage for the battle between Rajapakse and Samaraweera was set at the cabinet meeting of Friday, December 1, following the suicide attack on Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse where the Foreign Minister led the opposition to the LTTE's ban, prompting other ministers also to do so, sending all of the President's carefully laid out plans awry.

The Foreign Minister's rationale was that banning the Tigers would only strengthen their hand and lead to international displeasure with the doors for negotiations also getting permanently shut but what Samaraweera did not realise at the time was that by speaking out, he was setting a new trend in cabinet where ministers no longer felt inhibited to defy the Chief Executive.

This was reflected the following Wednesday, December 6, as well with several ministers opposing the President's move to once again ban the LTTE.

The President understandably was none too pleased but where he hit back at Samaraweera was not on the issue of the ban given the overwhelming opposition by the ministers but on a foreign policy decision in relation to Palestine which he overheard by chance at the very cabinet meeting on Friday, December 1.

And the story itself makes not only interesting reading but also sheds light on the intrigue within the government with the President no less trying to undermine his Foreign Minister.

The backdrop for the battle was a resolution in the UN on the Palestine-Israel crisis.

Palestine issue

A UN General Assembly resolution urging an immediate end to all acts of violence by Israel and Palestine was to be taken up on November 18, in New York just 72 hours before the Co-Chairs were to meet in Washington and the Foreign Minister was approached by the US for support on the resolution, which was sponsored by Qatar.

With the US planning to vote against the resolution, using the normal diplomatic channels, Sri Lanka's assistance was sought and Samaraweera, no doubt having an eye on the Washington Co-Chairs meeting three days later where the government was expected to come under harsh criticism, decided to abstain from voting rather than supporting the resolution. This he did in consultation with Ministry officials and Sri Lanka's UN Mission in New York.

The decision so taken was subsequently conveyed to the US authorities and Samaraweera no doubt hoped Uncle Sam would show her appreciation by softening the blows on Sri Lanka in the Co-Chairs statement where the EU in particular was pushing for a tough stand.

Thus, when the vote at the General Assembly was taken on the resolution on November 18, six countries including the US, Australia and Israel voted against it while 156 countries including the entire EU voted for the resolution. There were six abstentions of which Sri Lanka was one.

With that done, the US showed some appreciation towards Sri Lanka at the Co-Chairs meeting, especially during the press conference where a strong commitment of support was shown for the country, whilst condemning LTTE terrorism.

But if Samaraweera thought he was going to receive a bouquet for the job done from President Rajapakse who was completely at sea when it came to international politics, he could not have been more wrong.

Ironically it was Tourism Minister Anura Bandaranaike who first responded to Samaraweera on hearing of Sri Lanka's abstention from Middle Eastern diplomats, and being a long time friend of Palestine, he decided to put pen to paper.

Interestingly, many, many years ago, it was Bandaranaike who introduced Mahinda Rajapakse to the Palestinian cause and made him the president of the Sri Lanka-Palestine Friendship Association. At that time, a young Rajapakse was to ask Bandaranaike whether there was a country called Palestine and was happy to hear he could undertake a visit to a foreign land. It was after all a free trip was Rajapakse's opinion at the time.

Anura's letter

Be that as it may, following the representations made to him, Bandaranaike wrote a private letter to Samaraweera expressing his opposition to the abstention and said the US policy towards Sri Lanka would not have suffered if the country voted for the resolution. Bandaranaike also said in his letter, he would not be releasing it to the media because of the good relations with Samaraweera.

It was after sending the letter that Bandaranaike met Samaraweera at the cabinet on December 1 and he was to tell the Foreign Minister not to take the letter personally since he was only speaking about an issue close to his heart.

Bandaranaike also said he did not intend putting pen to paper but did so because he could not speak with Samaraweera when the issue first surfaced.

Hearing the two Ministers speaking, President Rajapakse was to ask what they were discussing and Samaraweera in a show of good faith explained what had transpired at the UN General Assembly and his intention of getting US support at the Co-Chairs meeting.

At this the President went ballistic and reprimanded the Minister for acting on the dictates of the US without reference to him.

Rajapakse told Samaraweera, he had no business to decide on any such issues without his approval especially given the fact he was a past president of the Sri Lanka-Palestine Friendship Association.

Visibly angry, the President said the US cannot dictate to Sri Lanka how to conduct its foreign policy, more so considering the close relations he enjoyed with the Arab world.

The matter however did not end there. Within days thereafter, the President in a shocking move convened a meeting of the Sri Lanka-Palestinian Friendship Association office bearers of which UNP working committee member Imthiyaz Bakeer Marker is the big cheese and requested them to issue a statement condemning his own government's decision to abstain from voting on the Qatar-sponsored UN resolution.

The idea was to humiliate Samaraweera.

Political games

Not long after this meeting, Minister Samaraweera was informed of the President's request and the harsh comments made against the Minister at the discussion.

Samaraweera of course was alive to such political games played by Rajapakse having himself experienced it a few weeks back when the President attempted to pit him against Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe in cabinet.

That was after Rajapakse learnt of a meeting Samarasinghe chaired at the Finance Ministry together with Treasury Secretary P.B. Jayasundera where the problems faced by the donor community in carrying out development work in the north and east due to the prevalent violence was discussed.

Not happy with what the President saw as an intrusion into his Ministry, he called Samaraweera and advised the Foreign Minister to take up the issue at the cabinet as interference with his Ministry.

At first Samaraweera was not sure exactly what the President referred to and believed it was an issue concerning Enterprise Development Minister Rohitha Bogollagama, where he had ventured into Foreign Ministry territory.

However, Samaraweera was to be soon enlightened on the matter and realising he was being pitted against Samarasinghe with whom he had good relations, the Foreign Minister decided to skip that particular cabinet meeting.

It was the same strategy used to force P.B. Jayasundera out as finance secretary as well with a cleverly planted story that he had tendered his resignation as finance secretary.

And now the President was using the same tactic against Samaraweera using the office bearers of the Sri Lanka-Palestinian Friendship Association but his game was up, with the Ministers beginning to compare notes.

In fact, even when the President clashed with Minister Fowzie recently, it was to a businessman named Alchem Uvais, Rajapakse turned to, this time sending word to the Petroleum Minister not to tender his resignation since he would be forced to accept it.

Knowing Rajapakse's style of governance, it is to the same businessman, Presidential Advisor A.H.M. Azwer too looked to recently for help.

Azwer's problems

Azwer, having quit the UNP and jumped the Rajapakse bandwagon, was appointed Advisor on Parliamentary Affairs but soon found himself without a fuel allowance, table or chair to work from.

And what did Azwer do but appeal to businessman Uvais to use his good offices with the President and obtain for him a fuel allowance. Such was the pathetic state of affairs under the Mahinda Chinthana.

For his part the President carried on regardless, oblivious to the growing dissension among his ranks and planned his next move against Samaraweera.

This he did by issuing instructions to his Secretary Lalith Weeratunga to prepare a cabinet paper in consultation with outgoing Foreign Secretary H.M.S. Palihakkara, wherein it was to be stated that in future, ministers must have the President's personal stamp of approval before voting at any international body.

With instructions so given, Palihakkara was asked to go and meet Weeratunga but being the proper public servant he is, the Foreign Secretary consulted his Minister, who advised him not to go. This Samaraweera did to send a signal he was no longer prepared to suffer being undermined silently. Palihakkara obliged.

But the President was determined and proposed seeking cabinet approval for his move on Wednesday, December 13, prompting Samaraweera in a show of defiance to boycott the meeting.

Rajapakse nevertheless took up the issue and got approval from cabinet for his proposal on Wednesday in the absence of Samaraweera.

Samaraweera in fact had told confidants he was quite prepared to sit in the back benches in parliament if the need so arises and coming soon after the faux pas over the call for Anura Bandaranaike to vacate Visumpaya, the President is in for tough times ahead with the UNP too all but set to withdraw from the MoU over the majority Experts Committee report fiasco.

Infighting

And the growing discontent did not end there with the Foreign Ministry in total disarray following this infighting, and the next stage of battle is due over the appointment of the new secretary.

Minister Samaraweera has in fact made it known his choice is the senior diplomat, Sri Lanka's High Commissioner to India, Romesh Jayasinghe but the President has other ideas.

Having groomed Geetha de Silva and even snubbed Samaraweera by inviting her for meetings with diplomats without informing the Foreign Minister, she is now to be sent as Sri Lanka's envoy to Geneva, while Army's Deputy, Major General Nanda Mallawarachchi is to be posted to Indonesia with Ambassador Janaka Perera recalled.

What the President plans to do instead is appoint a secretary of his choice without consulting Samaraweera.

Given these developments in the Ministry, it is a helpless Samaraweera who had to fend off concern expressed by the international community on the growing humanitarian crisis in the country with US Ambassador Robert Blake in particular drawing the Minister's attention to the impact on civil liberties due to the introduction of new emergency regulations.

The President however is of a different mindset, quite content to work to a domestic political agenda, in the belief all else will then fall into place.

What price the people and the country will be called upon to pay for this shortsighted pedestrian thinking of the Rajapakse brothers, only time will tell.


Violence engulfs Vakarai

By Amantha Perera

The year is ending worse than it got off. The fears of full-blooded hostilities have come true and thousands have been killed and others forced to flee their homes. Tent cities have come up in the north east and Colombo, and it looks more  like the pre-2002 days.

The city may be  decked in festive cheer, in the north east of the country though, close to a quarter million are on the run and hundreds are dying every week.

Civilians being evacuated from Vakarai


Buddhist monks near the body of an LTTE 
cadre killed during an attack on a police 
bunker in Vavuniya last week

"The people will not return any time soon, as there is no guarantee that this will not happen again, there can be weeks of calm, even months, and the next  day artillery will land on your roof, it is fear that is keeping the people away," Ven. Suruvila Saranakeerthi Thero from the Suruvila temple summed up the predicament in the predominantly Sinhala villages of Somapura, Kallar and Mahindapura. More than 4000 have fled these villages during the last week due to heavy artillery fire and have sought refuge in Kantale.

They add to the more  than 200,000 refugees scattered all over the north east and the 15,000 who have fled to India.

 Attack on school

The fighting in Kallar started on December 7 when artillery rounds hit the Somadevi School, injuring nine students and two teachers, one of  whom later succumbed. An hour after the 11.30 attack another round of artillery fell on a house in front of the Kallar camp, killing four civilians including a student of the Somadevi School.

Artillery fire continued into the night and the next day. According to Ven. Saranakeerthi artillery fell near the hospital, the police station  and the surrounding area, and the second large exodus in the area within four months started. People fled to Kantale about 40 km away, initially there were reports that the roads had been closed on December 9 but later on refugees were able to reach  safer areas. By the end of the week, there were more than 4000 in Kantale in eight locations. The largest was at the Agarbodhi Panasal in Kantale town where 2000 were seeking shelter.

It was only in August that Kantale was besieged by more than 60,000 refugees who fled the fighting in Mawilaru, Muttur and Kattaparichchan. A further 35,000 that fled to held areas in Kathiraveli are now trapped and ran the dual risk of artillery fire and starvation. 

38 civilians killed

The shelling and artillery fire continued for almost six days last week  and at least 38 civilians were killed in the fighting. "Hostilities broke out near Kallar in the southern part of Trincomalee District on Wednesday  December 6. LTTE started shelling the area near Kallar and Serunawera, hitting a school in the initial volley, killing several civilians. The shelling has been continuous since then, and some 3000 people are now displaced from Kallar and Serunawera to Kantale," the SLMM said four days after the fighting broke out.

Each side has been accusing the other, which has been the pattern   last year. The army said that the Tigers had fired artillery deliberately at the Somadevi School and then moved the artillery pieces closer to areas heavily  concentrated with civilians. "They have moved artillery pieces close to the Vigesneswaran School and the Tamil Maha Vidayalaya, and we have advised troops to be careful with firing back," Military Spokesperson Brig. Prasad Samarasinghe said.

Military blames Tigers

The military charged that the Tigers had aimed at provoking massive civilians casualties during the week when World Human Rights Day was commemorated.  The government had in fact informed the SLMM and the ICRC to convey to the Tigers to move the civilians out of the areas of fighting and later on had suggested a safe haven in the area.

The government maintained that troops had been forced to retaliate at attacks initiated by the Tigers.

"If the security forces retaliated with artillery, MBRL and mortars, hundreds of civilians would have been killed in Tiger held Vakarai. To minimise civilian casualties, ground forces were deployed instead of Artillery and MBRL retaliatory strikes.

 Forces attack Tigers

Security forces destroyed a Tiger 81 mm mortar and a 120 mm gun position in Kaddumurivululam on December 10. The Tigers had booby trapped the terrain to prevent civilians from leaving. Security forces are presently engaged in clearing the booby traps to facilitate civilian movements. Security forces had to encounter many hardships in clearing the terrain. Twenty four  security forces personnel sacrificed their lives in this process while another 69 sustained injuries due to ground obstacles," the  government said.

The Tigers however say that the military had commenced a ground  attack into areas under their control from Mahindapura and ground troops were provided with air and cover by naval crafts.

"On Tuesday (December 12), all the refugees were concentrated around the Vakarai hospital, when rumours were spread through Colombo media that the LTTE has artillery positions near the hospital and therefore SLA is going to shell the hospital. Fear stricken refugees started to scatter and some have moved towards Pannichch-ankerni.

Refugees flee

"On Tuesday morning, Pannichchankerni came under aerial bombardment. No casualties have been reported. Refugees, petrified by the constant shelling and bombing, are running from place to place.

"The SLA is carrying on with this relentless attack for the purpose of capturing Vakarai. For this purpose it is ready to kill as many refugees as it takes. Starve people as much as it needs, and flush  people out like flushing animals from an area," the Tigers said and added that  more than 80 civilians had died in the attacks. Independent verification of the casualty figures or the details has been rendered impossible due to restrictions in access into the areas.

The truth appears to be somewhere  between the hazy version put forth by the two sides, according to what the SLMM with its own restricted access has figured.

New brigade established

"The SLA has resumed its offensive into Vakarai. The SLA has newly established a 225 Brigade in Toppur, in the southern Trincomalee District. TMVP cadres have been observed driving around carrying arms. In an episode eye-witnessed by the SLMM, armed TMVP cadres were seen checking the identity papers of residents of the Alles Garden IDP camp in Uppuveli. Targeted killings are still taking place in Trincomalee, where six Tamils were murdered this week .

"Fighting is going on in the Vakarai area in northern Batticaloa District. It is difficult to get independent information from the area as monitors have not been given access to enter the area. Tamil IDPs are trapped inside LTTE controlled areas. According to reports received by the SLMM, the ICRC has attempted to get them out by sea. There are conflicting reports of casualties due to the fighting. Heavy artillery, MBRL, Main Battle Tanks, aircraft and naval units have been used in the fighting," the SLMM said earlier this week.

The ICRC was in fact able to evacuate 47 persons needing critical medical attention soon after the assessment was released.

The use of heavy artillery and other weapons created serious concerns on the safety of the thousands of civilians trapped inside Vakarai. The UN and the SLMM both officaily blamed the two parties for indiscrimate shell firing into areas where the civilians were stranded.

UN express concern

"The United Nations is deeply concerned about indiscriminate shelling of civilian residential areas, leading to death, injuries and evacuation of communities to Kantale and surrounding areas, out of danger zones," the UN said.

"The critical need of the moment is the protection of these desperate civilians.  All fundamental rights are currently being breached in areas like Vakarai and villages in Trincomalee District and it is imperative that direct shelling where civilians reside stops and the civilian population must be granted full and unhindered freedom of movement, away from military operations.  The wounded need to be evacuated and assistance and protection to the civilian population must be guaranteed" warned Amin Awad, Acting UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator  who is also the head of the local UNHCR unit.

A day after  heavyweights in New York joined in:"Attacks on schools and hospitals are clear violations of international humanitarian law. The recent mortar attack by the LTTE on a school in Kallar village which killed one child and wounded 10 school children is a grave violation. Indiscriminate shelling by both sides against civilian targets has resulted in a great deal of suffering."

Children mostly affected

"This kind of warfare takes an enormous toll on children. Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim children have all suffered terribly in the last few months. The government must take responsibility to secure humanitarian access to the population and the LTTE must stop placing its military hardware in civilian areas," UN Special Representaive for Children in Armed Conflict, Radika Coomaraswamy said.

The UN has been on Sri Lanka's case on access to humanitarian agencies and protection of civilians. "Let me just mention the countries that must concern us because they are the ones where we see the re-emergence of concern for the protection of civilians. I have already expressed my concerns over the serious threats to civilian protection in Sri Lanka," UN Under Secretary General on Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland told the Security Council just a week before the Kallar exodus.

CFA in danger

The SLMM also raised similar concerns of civilians caught in the cross fire - "The violence does not only put the Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) into great danger, but jeopardises lives of thousands of innocent civilians, especially internally displaced people in the Vakarai area.

"The LTTE has failed to protect civilians in Vakarai by restricting their movements.

It is the responsibility of the LTTE to do their utmost to facilitate  these innocent civilians to reach safe ground. The SLMM has contrary to acceptable practices on one occasion experienced that civilians were being hindered from exiting the area.

"The SLMM has not been able to monitor the situation  as it would have wanted, as monitors have been continuously refused access by the SLA into the areas of concern. The SLA has cited security reasons for this. SLMM has on countless occasions tried to patrol into Vakarai and most recently in the Kallar area for inspections. Restriction of SLMM access by GOSL forces to areas where violations may have taken place is in itself a violation of the CFA and more importantly prevents the SLMM from working according to its mandate given to them by the parties," it said.

Army denies

The army denied that the monitors had been denied access and said that if they wanted to reach the areas of fighting the monitors could go in if the security situation was not too dangerous.

The fighting north in Vakarai eased out by December 13, however a day later erupted on the southern side closer to Punnani.

The military said that soldiers had come across a group of LTTE cadres trying to cross  over to the Kokkadicholai area around 8.30 on December 13 night and opened fire.  In the ensuing battle six Tigers had been killed and Sergeant M. Rathnayake, who was apprehended by the Tigers in October who was among the group was able to escape.

The fighting appeared to be very heavy. The main Polonnaruwa-Valaichchenai highway was closed on December 13 night from Welikanda and there are reports that artillery too had been used.

SLA attacks

"A medical team transporting injured LTTE cadres and surrendered SLA soldiers came under attack from the SLA and its paramilitary group. The medical team was moving from Vakarai towards Kudumpimalai when it was attacked. This attack is against international rules of armed combat," the Tigers said of the attack.

The Karuna group said that its members had engaged the Tigers in Maruthakulam area on December 13 night. It said that 20 cadres were killed and a further 12 identified as underage had been handed over  to  UNICEF after they were captured.

Aid agencies and government sources also said that there was a surge in the number of civilians who were arriving in government controlled areas in  Mankerni, south of Vaharai.

C. Punyamurthi, the Batticaloa government agent said that the influx had increased to more than 1000 per day since December 14. "They are coming at a rate now," he said. New camp sites have been set up in Valachchenai and Kiran to look after the new arrivals. The MCNS said that 2000 had arrived in government controlled areas since December 14.

UN agencies and the ICRC have also made arrangements to set up a massive IDP site at Allankulam that can hold around 10,000 persons. However on Friday tragedy struck refugees once again when three boats carrying refugees went missing in rough seas off Vaharai, Contradicting reports said that between one to five civilians had died.

Christmas a distant memory for many

As the country prepares to celebrate Christmas with decorations galore in all major towns and cities, there is a group of people in this country to whom Christmas is only a  past memory. With the sounds of children's laughter and church bells ringing in their ears, the past memories of Christmas continue to loom in the minds.

While these people remain without food or clean water since the month of August, clamped in refugee camps, without a decent roof above their heads, they have little or no hope at all that Santa will arrive with their Christmas goodies this year.

While all they hope  is peace, food and shelter, for the civilians in Jaffna and Vakarai Christmas is a forgotten season this year.

As children lie on dirty, muddy sheets, December 25 will be just another day with each one hoping silently that peace will prevail soon. "There are people dying every day. How can we celebrate Christmas amidst all this violence? We have no food and many are starving. Our children are dressed in torn clothes. We only pray for peace," Mary Theresa, a civilian in Jaffna said.

With no signs of a Christmas tree, the peninsula remains dark. As queues line up for their daily bread from the break of dawn, the only meal they have had for months is dhal and bread.

As many also mourn the death and abductions of their loved ones, Christmas will be spent in mourning with refugees deciding to dress in white. "All the refugees will dress is white this Christmas in order to mourn the death of our loved ones. Many have been killed and many more lives are at risk due to the ongoing violence," Theresa said.

Candles will also be lit in every household as a mark of respect and  prayers will be said that peace will soon prevail in the country.

-Jamila Najmuddin


COL a crushing burden

By Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema

With official statistics announcing a rather impressive growth rate of 7.4% for the third quarter  this year, the majority of the people in the country are battling to put together a square meal for the day.

Though statistics reveal a growth in the economy,  in reality the masses are left to survive through an ever-increasing cost of living. The level of inflation was recorded at 19.8% in November this year, the highest  record since 1995 when inflation peaked at 15.5.

The Central Bank increased its interest rate for the fourth time in 2006 to contain loan growth after inflation climbed to a 10-year high.

With the current security situation and the humanitarian crisis, Budget 2007 was a much looked forward to by every strata of society to offer some relief to help combat the rising cost of living.

However, the budget did not contain  any proposals that would stem the rising cost of living albeit  ambitious development that is expected to benefit the country on the long term and an increase in defence expenditure, which creates an impression of a country preparing for war.

The hapless masses are now left with no salvation, but to battle on, hoping for some relief from some quarter.

High cost of living

Interestingly, the government, including President Mahinda Rajapakse himself have acknowledged the sharp increase in the cost of living, but have blamed the high global oil prices and the country's security situation for it. The buck is passed on while the people are left to suffer.

The Colombo Consumers' Price Index (CCPI)  in November was recorded at 4998.4 index points, which is an increase of 212.2 index points or 4.4% from the October 2006 figure posted at 4786.2 index points. The CCPI rose by 19.8 per cent in November 2006 from November 2005.

This is an increase of Rs. 429.13 in the  value of a market basket when compared with October 2006.

According to the Central Bank the highest contribution to the increase came from very high price increases in vegetables, affected by extreme weather conditions. The year-on-year increase in the prices of vegetables in November was in the range of 20-140 per cent.

The Central Bank says that the impact of vegetables on the price index was exacerbated by a series of administered price changes that took place in 2006.

Prices changes

"Significant price changes were seen in fuel, electricity, bus fares, cigarettes, and alcohol.  Some of the administered price revisions such as fuel price revision were necessary to remove the burden of subsidies from the government, which would otherwise lead to longer term inflation," the bank said.

Prices of major imported consumer goods also increased with high international prices. The import price of wheat grain increased by 22.5 per cent in 2006. Import price of milk powder increased by 24 per cent in October 2006. Import price of sugar increased by 25.9 per cent in October 2006.  In addition, to encourage domestic production, tariff on some imported consumer goods have been increased, which also has had an impact on consumer prices in November 2006.

The impact of volatile vegetable prices in November 2006 and other administered prices on inflation was about 7 per cent, leaving  core inflation of about 12 per cent.

However, the core inflation is also high requiring continued tightening of demand management policies including further tightening of monetary policy and rationalisation of fiscal expenditure and tariffs.  

The Central Bank has also cautioned that although the impact of volatile prices may prevail into the next few months, core inflation is expected to respond favourably in the future to the further tightening of monetary policy.

Short supply

The Census and Statistics Department noted that the increase in the CCPI for November was mainly due to the increase in prices of rice, bread and curry, sugar, dried chillies, cummin seed, red onions, coconut oil, mutton, dried fish - sprats, coconuts, eggs, potatoes, and most varieties of vegetables.

These price increases have been attributed to the short supply of locally produced agricultural consumer goods, especially the vegetables to the main markets in Colombo, due to seasonality and the heavy monsoon.

However, prices of sour plantains, most varieties of fresh fish and dried fish - katta have decreased during this month.

Of the total increase of 4.4% in prices, the Census and Statistics Department says that food items account for an increase of 4.3%, mainly due to an increase in the prices of rice (0.21%), bread (0.51%), coconuts (0.30%) and vegetables (3.8%). There is an increase of 0.14% on account of miscellaneous items.

'Tis the season once again and for the majority of the people in the country, a visit from Santa Claus with a gift this season would mean some relief where the cost of living is concerned.

Cost of living on the rise

The cost of living on the risehe cost of living has been on the rise since 1994 and according to statistics available at the Central Bank the cost of living has not seen a decline and has further increased in 2004, 2005 and then 2006. 

1994     1527.4

1995     1644.6

1996     1906.7

1997     2089.1

1998     2284.9

1999     2392.1

2000     2539.8

2001     2899.4

2002     3176.4

2003     3377.0

2004     3632.8

2005     4655

2006    

Jan.    4082

Feb.   4105.8

Mar.   4126.8

April   4321.6

May   4553.1

June  4730.5

July   4672.5

Aug.  4650

Sep 4699.9

Oct.   4786.2

Nov.   4998.4

 

Inflation  on the increase

The Central Bank statistics on  annual average inflation show that it has been on an uphill climb since 1994 with 2001 recording the highest level. However, there has been a decline since 2001 until 2003. From 2004, the inflation level has once again shown signs of increasing with it reaching a double-digit figure last year.

The first three months of 2006 saw a decline in the level of inflation, which has seen an increase once again after that.

1994     7.1

1995     15.5

1996     10

1997     9.6

1998     9.4

1999     4.7

2000     6.2

2001     14.2

2002     9.6

2003     6.3

2004     7.6

2005     11.6

2006    

January        11.1

February       10.3

March             9.6

April               9.2

May               9.4

June             10.1

July              10.4

August         10.8

September    11.2

October        11.8

November      12.7

Too little, too late?

The  government has revoked import duties on dry fish, Maldives fish, shrimp, red onions, chickpeas, green gram, cowpea, dried chilies and canned fish with immediate effect with the hope of managing the soaring cost of living during the festive season.

President Mahinda Rajapakse last week instructed that these changes come into effect starting yesterday (16).

The Rs. 20 per kilo import duty on big onions and potatoes has been fully removed and Rs. 5 has been waived off the import duty on wheat flour.

Meanwhile, the Commerce and Consumer Affairs Ministry is planning to import essential commodities directly from India through the Cooperative Wholesale Establishment to control prices. These items are to be distributed through Lak Sathosa outlets.

The prices of several essential food items have increased in the local market owing to the rainy weather over the past few days. This situation hs been aggravated due to demand for food items during the festive period.

The Finance Ministry says the tariff concessions granted for export of dhal will continue through January 31 to benefit local farmers.

Rise in inflation  causes concern

THE Central Bank on Friday released its Monetary Policy Review for the month of December.

In the report, the bank stated that notwithstanding the favourable developments in the economy, continued rise in inflation remains a concern.  Inflation began to increase since April 2006 due to demand pressures in the economy, the upward adjustments in administered prices, increases in prices of some of the imported consumer items, and adjustments in import tariffs applicable to some consumer food items.

The recent supply side disturbances due to weather also have added to the sharp increase in inflation.  Inflation as measured by the point-to-point change in the Colombo Consumers' Price Index (CCPI) increased from 6.4 per cent in March 2006 to 17.2 per cent in October 2006 and further to 19.8 per cent in November 2006. 

The Central Bank has further firmed the tight monetary policy by raising repo and reverse repo rates by an additional 50 basis points in September 2006, and continued to conduct active open market operations to mop up all excess liquidity from the banking system. 

These measures were supplemented by imposing several prudential measures.  These measures have been instrumental in moderating high growth in monetary aggregates.  However, reserve money growth rose to 18 per cent by end November 2006 and broad money grew at 16.8 per cent in October 2006 requiring continued monetary policy action.   Government recurrent expenditure has increased above the budgetary targets, necessitating increased bank borrowings the report states.

In view of the above developments, the Monetary Board decided to further tighten the monetary policy to subdue the demand pressures arising from monetary expansion and to contain inflationary pressures and inflation expectations,the Central Bank review said.


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