SRI LANKA: 2008 The President and the People 


President Mahinda Rajapakse’s New Year message to the nation requires consideration in relation to the prospect that he has held out to the people of this country for this year. This is what he has said: “We hope changes that would occur in this New Year will have a favourable impact on the lives of all our people. There is the expectation that we will come closer to overcoming the main problems that face us as a nation. Our foremost wish this New Year is success in the efforts to defeat terrorism in all its forms, bringing freedom and democracy to all Sri Lankans; and beginning new processes for the sharing of power within a single undivided country, assuring equality for all.” (our emphasis)

The President has made no mention at all of inflation and the high cost of living in his message, although he must know that substantial reductions in the prices of food and other essential commodities and  public services would have a very favourable impact on the lives of most of our people, and is undoubtedly their foremost wish. His foremost wish for this year, on the other hand, is for “success in the efforts to defeat terrorism in all it forms”. He probably expects our people to put up with uncontrolled inflation and the insufferably high cost of living as best they can, till his wish is realized. In the meantime, the rate of inflation and the cost of living continue to rise.

The very high cost of living, of course, is not a problem for President Rajapakse and his huge Cabinet of Ministers.  They can live in luxury, at public expense. Their excuse for the high rate of inflation is that it is mainly due to the rise in crude oil prices and other imported commodities in the world market. What they cannot admit is that massive and wasteful public expenditure and flagrant corruption in that regard is a major contributory factor to inflation. The UNP and the JVP keep denouncing the Government for this, in and outside Parliament; but they do not mention the colossal expenditure on “Defence and National Security”, in this connection. They have also pointed out, as the Central Bank has done, that the printing and issue of billions of rupees in two thousand rupee currency notes, without proper fiscal control, has also been a significant inflationary factor. What the President and his Government also cannot explain, in any case, is why the rate of inflation in this country is the highest in Asia.

Our Union drew public attention on May Day 2007, to the fact that the rate of inflation in this country was 20% or more, whereas the average for the rest of the countries of Asia was 5%, and the highest rate of inflation in Europe was only 5%. As the other countries in Asia and Europe consume crude oil, and also import food products and other commodities from the world market, like Sri Lanka, we pointed out that the exceptionally high rate of inflation in this country could not be attributed primarily to those factors.

Most wage earners in the private sector cannot get adequate wage increases from their employers to cope with the rapid deterioration in their real wages. The Rajapakse Government is not ready to assist them by introducing legislation to compel employers to grant such wage increases, as trade unions have demanded. In the public sector, the Government has refused to increase cost of living allowances and has reduced previously existing financial benefits. On the other hand, it is not prepared to reduce wasteful public expenditure and to cut down on the colossal sums allocated for “Defence and National Security”, in order to grant adequate subsidies on all essential food commodities and transport and other public services, to provide relief to all sections of the working people, in urban and in rural areas..

We believe that most people wish for an end to the War that has been resumed in the North and East, and for the restoration of Peace throughout this country. The fact that the War is causing death and destruction in the North may not bother the President, while he is looking forward to the military defeat of the LTTE by the Armed Forces under his command. He cannot overlook the fact, however, that the escalation of the War is accompanied by increasing “terrorism” in other parts of the country, besides contributing substantially to inflation and the rise in the cost of living throughout the country. It is probably for this reason that he has held out the prospect of “the defeat of terrorism in all its forms”, this year. What he has implied thereby is that if and when the Armed Forces are able to take control of all areas that are still under the control of the LTTE, by defeating its armed forces militarily, he will be able to put an end to “terrorism” throughout the country. While that may be the President’s foremost wish for this New Year, we do not think it can be realized by military means.

We think it is necessary to appreciate the distinction between “terrorism” and guerrilla warfare or territorial warfare, which were the means whereby the LTTE had gained and maintained military control in large areas of the North and East, under previous governments. Even if the Army Commander succeeds in defeating the LTTE militarily and re-establishing State control in those areas, as he confidently expects, the LTTE could well resume guerrilla warfare against the State forces and their military installations in those areas, and elsewhere, as they have done in the past. The guerrilla attack on the Anuradhapura Airforce Base, after the LTTE had withdrawn their forces from the East, was the most recent illustration of this.

Apart from this probability, the re-establishment of State control even in the entirety of the North and East, will not end “terrorism” there or elsewhere in this country. The LTTE forces are not likely to lay down their arms, if they are defeated militarily, as the President may hope. They might  not only be dispersed to carry out guerrilla attacks on the armed forces in small groups, but also to carry out more “terrorist” attacks  on  the civilian population in urban and in rural areas, with claymore mines or by individual “suicide bombers”, as they have been doing increasingly this year in different districts.

We also do not consider that a military defeat of the LTTE will pave the way for President Rajapakse to achieve a political settlement in the North and East, on his terms, with the assistance of Tamil or Muslim collaborators with his Government. We thus have no reason to believe that he will be able either to eliminate “terrorism” or to establish genuine peace in this country by military means.

It should be borne in mind that President Bush has been unable to suppress “terrorism” in Iraq and Afghanistan, and President Musharraf has failed to do so in Pakistan. Long after the army of President Sadam Hussein was completely defeated in Iraq, and he was captured and hanged, President Bush is still trying to eliminate “terrorism” in that country, with the powerful Armed Forces he commands and the assistance of the forces of his Iraqi Government collaborators. He and the NATO forces have failed likewise to suppress guerrilla attacks in Afghanistan, after the complete military defeat of the Taliban army and the establishment of a collaborator government in that country. Life in both those countries has become miserable for their unfortunate peoples meanwhile.

We hope that the same fate will not befall the people of our country, while President Rajapakse continues his efforts to “defeat terrorism in all its forms” by military means, with aid from President Musharraf and other like-minded Asian governments. Profiting by its bitter experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in Pakistan, even the US Government has advised the President to negotiate a “political settlement” of the North East problem on a basis that will be acceptable to the Tamil and Muslim peoples, and has stressed that this cannot be achieved by military means.

Apart from this vital “national question”, the fact that “terrorism” is not confined to the LTTE should not be overlooked. The power struggle that has erupted between rival Tamil political paramilitary forces that support the Government in Batticaloa, after the withdrawal of the LTTE from that district, shows this.

Another matter that we cannot overlook, though President Rajapakse has made no mention of it, is that the abductions, murders and robberies by armed gangs that are taking place from week to week in various parts of the country, are also forms of “terrorism”, which his “Security Forces” seem to be powerless or unwilling to prevent. On the other hand, some of their personnel and numerous deserters from those forces  are actually engaged in such activities themselves, as is well known.

Intimidatory attacks upon and several murders of media personnel who are critical of the Rajapakse regime have also become a matter of serious  concern  and been condemned, not only in this country, but internationally. Though the recent brazen thuggery at the Rupavahini Television Station has been widely denounced, even by Government Ministers, it does not seem to have been regarded by President Rajapakse as a form of “terrorism” that he wishes to suppress. That thuggery, be it noted, has been followed by an open criminal attack on a Rupavahini employee, whilst the earlier incident is still being “investigated”.

For the above-mentioned reasons amongst others, we do not believe that a military defeat of the LTTE will serve, in any case, to bring “freedom” from racial discrimination and oppression to the long-suffering Tamil and Muslim peoples in the North and East. It will certainly not bring “democracy to all Sri Lankans”, let alone “equality for all”. This would require fundamental changes in the present undemocratic Constitution of Sri Lanka, established by JR Jayewardene’s  UNP Government  in 1978.

An essential democratic change in the Constitution would be the elimination of the Executive Presidency, in the first place. This is what our Union has declared and demanded ever since the Executive Presidency was established. It is what President Rajapakse himself undertook to do, in his ‘Mahinda Chinthanaya”, before he was elected President.

The Constitution would also have to be amended to provide for the exercise of the democratic right of self-determination by the Tamil-speaking peoples, both Tamil and Muslim, in those parts of the North and East in which they have lived for centuries, and where they constitute the overwhelming majority of the population.

Such democratic changes would help to establish peace in this country, and be of real benefit to our people. Unfortunately, they are inconceivable under the present virtual military-police dictatorship of President Mahinda Rajapakse.

Under the prevailing circumstances, our Union will take whatever joint action may be possible in this New Year with other trade unions and organizations of the working people, to demand and secure appropriate State subsidies for a substantial reduction in the costs of essential food, fuel and other commodities, as well as in electricity and transport costs, and also to support genuine efforts to secure a democratic political settlement of the  North-East conflict.

Whatever President Rajapakse and his Government may say, our Union has no confidence that their present war policy will result in Peace and a better life for our people. On the contrary, we have reason to consider that in this New Year 2008, life could well turn out to be even worse for the working people than it was last year.


Bala Tampoe
General Secretary

Colombo, 19th February, 2008.

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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984. The above statement has only been forwarded by the AHRC.

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Document Type : Forwarded Statement
Document ID : AHRC-FST-021-2008
Countries : Sri Lanka,