Reds push CBK towards socialist path

by Amal Jayasinghe
For Sri Lanka’s President Chandrika Kumaratunga, running the country is a family business. But unlike her late parents, who both held the position of prime minister, she is a self-confessed reformed socialist.

Nearly seven years after romping to power, Kumaratunga, 56, is forced back to her socialists roots by a strange bed fellow who helped to salvage her sinking coalition government.

Kumaratunga’s shaky People’s Alliance coalition banks on a deal with the Marxist JVP, or People’s Liberation Front, which wants to put the government on probation for one year with a list of unpalatable demands.

In sharp contrast to her parents who nationalised multinational companies and kicked out foreign businesses, Kumaratunga presided over the biggest privatisation in the country.

She not only invited back the oil giants such as Shell who were expelled by her parents, but also gave monopolies to foreign companies which began distributing petroleum gas and telephone services.

While her father Solomon Bandaranaike presided over the nationalisation of the port, his daughter in 1999 privatised part of the harbour and gave it to a consortium led by Britain’s P and O company.

Kumaratunga had promised the International Monetary Fund she would raise another 275 million dollars from privatisation before the end of the year, but all those plans may now have to be put on hold after she struck a political deal with the Marxists.

The JVP’s Wimal Weerawansa said they made it clear to the government that it must stop further privatisation and halt price rises to achieve economic targets agreed with the IMF when qualifying for a loan in April.

"There can’t be any selling of state enterprises during the period of the ‘probationary government’," JVP’s Weerawansa said. "There cannot be any price increases and that is the basic minimum we can get for our people."

Ironically, the JVP demands will help Kumaratunga keep one of her original promises when she first romped to power in 1994. She had pledged then to have only 20 ministers instead of the 30-member cabinet the previous regime had.

Kumaratunga had also promised peace in this embattled nation and offered a "hand of friendship" to Tamil Tiger guerrillas soon after winning parliamentary elections in August 1994.

But, her talks ended in failure and plunged the country in an ever escalating separatist war which has claimed more than 60,000 lives in the past three decades.

She poured more money to battle the Tamil Tiger rebels in the past five years than the total amount of money spent between 1983 and 1994 under the previous governments which maintained a low-intensity anti-rebel campaign.

The marriage of convenience between Kumaratunga’s PA and the JVP also spells trouble for any fresh attempts to politically end the drawn out conflict.

The JVP has made it clear that Kumaratunga’s attempt to get Norway as a facilitator to broker peace must be kept in limbo for at least another year until democratic reforms are introduced.

The leftists have not clearly spelt out their plan to politically end the conflict, but JVP general secretary Tilvin Silva said recently that they believed economic and social issues were at the root of the problem.

"The guns will not work if there are no people to man them," Silva said adding that jobs were necessary to wean the young away from the conflict.

For President Kumaratunga, survival comes at a high price.