Sri Lanka: Ending the ceasefire

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sat Jan 12 18:31:52 UTC 2008

 Aditi Phadnis: Ending the ceasefire


Aditi Phadnis / New Delhi January 12, 2008

With no progress in devolving power in Sri Lanka, the PM's unlikely to
visit soon.

Few know that the President of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, singled
India out for a signal honour when he came to New Delhi to speak at
the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit last year. He spoke in English,
reportedly with the aid of a prompter procured at a cost of thousands
of dollars. He has spoken publicly in English only once before, at the
United Nations and in his own country, is renowned for his oratory but
speaks only in Sinhala. And in that language, the equivalent of 'we
will smoke them out, hunt them down and kill them' sounds even more
threatening than in English, believe me.  Language was the original
catalyst for the movement for a separate Tamil homeland or Eelam when,
in 1956, the government of Ceylon passed legislation making Sinhala
the sole official language of the country. This was followed by the
terrible 1972 anti-Tamil riots when they protested the policy of
standardisation in university: allotting raw marks in proportion to
the number of students sitting for the exam in each medium of

Tamils needed 250 marks out of 400 to qualify for a seat in a medical
college. For the Sinhalese, this was only 229. So language — the ones
you know, the ones you choose to speak in — is a political statement
in Sri Lanka. Most Tamils know Sinhala. Not many Sinhalese know Tamil.
No one expects Rajapaksa to speak in Tamil. But it would help if he
spoke in English.

But Rajapaksa is speaking to a certain constituency. And that
understands Sinhala much better. The President's latest move — ending
the ceasefire that had been in force for nearly six years against the
Tamils in the North and East Province of the island — was spelt out in
Sinhala. India was hoping that the report of the All Party
Representative Committee (APRC), which was tasked with devolution of
powers to the Tamils and Muslims, would be accepted by Rajapaksa.

That would have made it easier to arrange the visit of Prime Minister
Manmohan Singh to the island for its independence day on February 4.
He would have been the first Indian PM to visit Sri Lanka in 20 years.
Now, with the ceasefire scrapped and the Tamils in Tamil Nadu getting
angrier and angrier, it is unlikely that that visit will materialise
anytime soon.

Worse, there is evidence that Rajapaksa is telling his security forces
to spare no effort in securing a military victory in the North and
East. In the last three months, several crucial members of the
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), including the head of its
political wing, Tamilchelvam, its deputy Intelligence head Charles and
its commander in the East, Shankar, have been killed. Retaliatory
killings have followed, the latest, the assassination of a Sinhalese
Minister (D M Dassanayake, who from all accounts was no angel himself,
having had several criminal cases against him and appearing in
Parliament in handcuffs, but that's another matter).

But even as killings continue, amazingly, the Sri Lankan economy seems
to have suffered no significant setback. Apparently in a mood to seize
command and control functions in all spheres, the President's latest
decision is to nationalise the official airline, Sri Lankan, that is
running under a management contract with Emirates with 51 per cent
shares held by the government.

Never one to do things by half measures, the President ordered the
cancellation of the work permit and residential status of the
airline's British chief, Peter Hill, after he rejected the request of
the Sri Lankan President to offload 35 persons from the London-Colombo
flight to make way for his own entourage. Hill informed him he was
willing to vacate five business class seats on a flight that was
previously overbooked. Dhammika Perera, the chairman of Sri Lanka's
Board of Investment, said: "This action has been taken for failing the
interests of the majority shareholder."

The management contract must be renegotiated by March. But the
President has reportedly made up his mind to launch Mihin Air, as the
national low-cost airline. This is not going to be an easy task
because currently it has only two aircraft, and that too, on lease
from a Turkish airline. The previous record of state-owned airlines
has not been happy with the earlier incarnation of Sri Lankan, Air
Lanka (UL) being nicknamed Usually Late.

Despite all this, the prediction of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka is
that Sri Lanka's economy will grow around 7 per cent this year.
Natural resources and relatively liberal economy have made it South
Asia's wealthiest country on a per capita income basis. But Sri
Lanka's inflation grew 24.1 per cent in October 2007, and is likely to
continue to grow due to the staggering defence expenditure, escalation
of oil prices and shortsighted monetary policies.

But tighten you belts. Mahinda Chintana, the President's vision for
Sri Lanka's economy and society, is about to be implemented.

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