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Sri Lanka: giving war a chance

Irfan Husain
8 February 2007

The war in Sri Lanka continues. In January 2007, 154 people (101 of them civilians) were killed, prime minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayake told the parliament in Colombo on 8 February. But as Sri Lanka burns, its politicians are fiddling.

The country's recent parliamentary twists and turns have given the term "horse-trading" a new meaning. As of 29 January 2007, Sri Lanka's cabinet now has eighty ministers and deputy ministers. Twenty-three other members have been accorded cabinet rank.

Thus, out of a parliamentary grouping of 114, no less than 103 members now enjoy the perks and privileges of ministerial rank. What the remaining eleven did to be left out in the cold remains a mystery.

This unprecedented expansion in the cabinet was caused by the wholesale transfer of loyalty of eighteen members of the opposition United National Party (UNP) to the government, all of whom have been rewarded with cabinet positions.

The UNP's leader Ranil Wickremasinghe - former prime minister and losing presidential candidate in the 1999 and 2005 elections - was in Nepal when the coup against him was engineered. When asked to return, he asked: "What's the point? I can't force my party members to abide by a normal code of conduct." But he was bitter about the role of the Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapakse, whom he accused of tearing up the memorandum of understanding signed by the two politicians in October 2006.

Also on Sri Lanka in openDemocracy:

Alan Keenan, "Sri Lanka's election choice"
(17 November 2005)

Alan Keenan, "Sri Lanka: between peace and war"
(15 May 2006)

Meenakshi Ganguly, "Sri Lanka: time to act"
(11 September 2006)

Nira Wickramamsinghe, "Sri Lanka: the politics of purity"
(17 November 2006)

According to this agreement, the UNP would support the government in its attempts to make peace with the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). This step was aimed to free Rajapakse of the resistance he faced from his nationalist coalition partners, the extreme left Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (People's Liberation Front / JVP), and Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), the ultra-nationalist party of Buddhist monks. Both parties are against any concessions to the Tamil minority.

The sprawling cabinet has caused a number of administrative problems, with departments being split up to give the new ministers something to do. One expatriate United Nations Development Programme official in Colombo confided to me that earlier, her agency had to deal with two ministers; now they had to liaise with six. And the cost of this exercise is not negligible: each minister and deputy minister is entitled to a monthly salary of 150,000 rupees (or roughly 700 pounds); free electricity and telephone; five servants at home; and a chauffeur-driven car.

But the icing on the cake is that ministers are entitled to import one car duty-free up to a value of $35,000. Cars in this range are in the 300% duty range, so this is a perk that can be cashed in for around $100,000. One local observer estimates that the cabinet will cost the exchequer ninety-six million rupees a month, and that's not including the revenue loss caused by the import of over a hundred duty-free cars.

The civilians in the middle

Rajapakse's justification for the bloated cabinet is that he now has the broad-based coalition he needs to deal with the civil war being fought in the north and east of the island. But currently, it appears that negotiations have been put on the back-burner while the government explores the military option.

Over the last year, an estimated 3,000 people have been killed in renewed fighting, even as both sides continued to pay lip-service to the notion of peace talks. The Norwegian mediators have virtually given up hope, and donor countries have threatened to cut off assistance unless the government gets serious about negotiations.

However, the military's success in the east where it has rolled over a number of LTTE bases has encouraged the government to hang tough. The capture of the town of Vakarai on the east coast, in particular, has encouraged army commanders to feel they are on top. But the reported attempt by the LTTE launches to stage a daring suicide-attack in Colombo harbour on 27 January is an indication of the Tamil organisation's long reach and steely determination. Although the boats were sunk before they could inflict any damage, the incident is a reminder to the government of its enemy's resources.

Irfan Husain is a columnist with Dawn newspaper in Pakistan.

Also by Irfan Husain in openDemocracy:

"Kabul vs Islamabad: a war of words"
(16 March 2006)

"Musharraf's own goals" (27 March 2006)

"The state of Pakistan" (22 May 2006)

"Hell in Helmand"
(18 July 2006)

"Lebanon: the view from Pakistan"
(7 August 2006)

"The Baluchi insurrection"
(4 September 2006)

"How democracy works in Pakistan"
(29 September 2006)

"Pervez Musharraf: in a vice"
(6 November 2006)

"Pakistan: zero-sum games people play"
(6 December 2006)

The reality is that given the dispersal of the Tamil population (20% of Sri Lanka's total), any attempt to force a military solution is certain to drive the movement underground. There is a widespread perception, even among many majority Sinhalese, that the Tamils deserve a better deal.

The 2002 ceasefire, brokered so painfully by the Norwegians, held out hope for a federal dispensation in which the Tamils would have wide autonomy in the northern and eastern provinces of the country. But after the electoral dismissal of the Wickremasinghe government in April 2004, peace talks have been desultory and half-hearted. Over the last year, the ceasefire has existed only in name, with both sides inflicting heavy casualties on each other and on helpless civilians caught in the middle.

One factor in this escalation is the presence of two hardline parties, the JVP and JHU, in the ruling coalition. Both have encouraged the government to give war a chance. The LTTE's murderous assassination squads have helped the hardliners: within the last six months, both the president's brother and the army chief narrowly escaped suicide-attacks aimed at them in Colombo. A large number of ordinary citizens were not as fortunate when similar strikes destroyed a number of buses, killing scores of passengers.

This level of violence means that several western governments have issued travel advisories to their citizens, warning them not to travel to Sri Lanka. This has hit the tourist industry hard, forcing some hotels to shut down. Tourism is reported to be down by 80% from the same period in 2006.

Hikkadua, a popular seaside destination in the south, is normally crowded with Europeans at this time of the year. Recently, its shops, restaurants and guesthouses had a forlorn look as local entrepreneurs prayed for better times. In Tangalle, 190 kilometres south of Colombo, there were hardly any tourists at all. Suriya Gardens, a set of cabanas run by an Italian, reported only five bookings for December and January.

Currently, neither side in this twenty-five-year old conflict shows any flexibility, or any desire to return to the peace talks. Mahinda Rajapakse, buoyed by his huge cabinet, is hanging tough. The LTTE, despite its recent reverses, is already running its own de-facto state, and is not answerable to either to voters, or to the international community. Its shadowy leader, the elusive Velupillai Prabhakaran, is thus under no pressure to negotiate.

While this standoff lasts, ordinary Sri Lankans will continue suffering from inflation, a ramshackle infrastructure, and increased violence.

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