Asia-Pacific, Headlines

SRI LANKA: Postponed Polls, Power Cuts and Endless War

Kunda Dixit

COLOMBO, Apr 10 1996 (IPS) - On the face of it, the Sri Lankan government’s decision this week to extend the state of emergency appears to be a response to the continued offensives in the north and south of the island against rebel Tamil Tigers. The country is, after all, at war.

But the move does give the government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga the excuse to postpone crucial local government polls scheduled for May.

The polls would have served as a referendum on the rule of her three-year-old People’s Alliance government. With crippling daily power cuts, price increases of basic commodities and the failure to end the Tamil war either militarily or through negotiations, Kumaratunga’s image may have been tarnished.

“Even though this government is in power, it is still in an opposition mentality,” says Sasanka Perera, a professor of sociology at Colombo University.

He says the government is not so worried about the continuing civil war: “People are more interested in bread and butter issues like jobs, inflation, housing. What makes the government nervous is that the people are not satisfied.”

After two years of five percent GDP growth, the economy this year is expected to slow down. The suicide bomb attack that devastated the heart of Colombo’s financial district in February killed 120 people and injured thousands. It badly hurt the economy, particularly the tourism industry.

Then, a drought in the uplands dried up all the main reservoirs of the massive Mahaweli scheme, forcing six-hour daily power cuts islandwide.

Energy planners had been warning of a crisis since January when the rains failed. But power was needed during the day-long cricket matches last month so Sri Lankans could watch their team win the World Cup. Says one Colombo businessman wryly: “We’re paying now for having used up all the water to watch cricket.”

Ironically, Chandrika Kumaratunga has gone further than any previous Sri Lankan leader to try to end the Tamil separatist war by offering a daring devolution package to the Tamils that was sure to be unpopular with rightist elements within the island’s majority Sinhala community.

The package would give unprecedented autonomy to the Tamil- dominated areas of the north. The Sinhalese radicals feel it gives away too much to the Tamils, while the moderate Tamil parties appear too intimidated by the Tigers to come out openly to support it.

There is nothing new in the devolution offer — parts of it were proposed by Kumaratunga’s father, Solomon Bandaranaike back in 1956. Bandaranaike was later killed by Sinhala zealots for selling out to the Tamils.

It was this rigidity that led Sri Lanka down the path to civil war. The anti-autonomy rhetoric in Colombo today shows that neither the Sinhala nor Tamil radicals have learnt the lesson — after 13 years of war and nearly 90,000 deaths.

“Our failure to lay down the constitutional foundations of a multi-ethnic society based on equality, ethnic pluralism and the sharing of power has exacerbated the ethnic conflict,” says Neelan Tiruchelvam a Tamil member of Parliament.

Tiruchelvam says the package as offered by the government needs to be fleshed out, special on sensitive issues like land, jurisdiction on disputes and law and order.

Details of the package are being discussed by a Select Committee in parliament while Kumaratunga herself pushes her “war for peace” campaign.

She has kept up the military pressure on the Tigers even after the rebels’ northern Jaffna stronghold was overrun by the government four months ago. The conflict has now shifted to the eastern province, where ambushes and savage fighting occur daily.

Still, some military analysts in Colombo doubt if the military strategy of capturing ever more Tiger territory will work. Indian peacekeepers learnt how difficult that was in 1988 when they tried to pacify the Tigers. The Sri Lankans would need a force many times its present size to hold on to the areas it has overrun.

But the military is modernising desperately. Huge Russian heavy-lift Antonovs land regularly at Colombo airport to disgorge Mi-24 helicopter gunships. And after the Tigers shot down several planes with missiles, the air force has acquired Israeli Kfir warplanes equipped with anti-missile systems and laser-guided bombing capability.

Kumaratunga is betting on the Tamil people distancing themselves from the Tigers and opting for devolution and democracy.

She told an Indian newspaper in an interview last month: “It is up to the Tamil leaders, the democratic Tamil leaders to prepare their people to accept (the devolution package) wholeheartedly. They are still only half-hearted.”

Kumaratunga’s peace initiatives has won her admirers in the Western donor community, but like Mikhail Gorbachev she seems to be less popular at home. But we will not know how unpopular since she has just postponed local polls.

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