The UNP, rather than the UNF, has blown the predictable trumpets about its landslide victory at last weeks local elections. And well the greens might. Although the poll was not as high as at the December general election, taking all but five of the 222 councils that voted on Wednesday was no mean feat. Local elections never generate the same enthusiasm or excitement as national elections for obvious reasons. The stakes, after all, are much smaller. Also, the PA was obviously demoralised after its general election defeat and enthusing its supporters would have been difficult. Hence its anxiety to prolong the postponement of these elections it initiated during its own tenure for obvious political reasons.
The UNP (or UNF) naturally projected the result as an overwhelming endorsement of the peace process that it has launched as the top priority of the government with Professor G. L. Peiris at his eloquent best doing the honours. There is no doubt that the vast majority of the people of this country earnestly desire peace. They well understand the price that has been paid in blood and national resources for the 20-year war in which all Sri Lankans have been the losers. But that does not mean that they endorse the direction into which the LTTE is pushing the process. Much of what Prabhakaran and his lieutenants have done since the Memorandum of Understanding that formalised the original Christmas eve ceasefire was signed last month, has set alarm bells ringing in the south. And for very good reason, as several correspondents making thoughtful contributions to our columns have set out in this issue of the Sunday Island.
It is necessary that the Norwegians, whose role seems to have advanced from that of facilitator to something more, use their influence with the LTTE to rein Prabhakaran and his cohorts. The Pongu Thamil (Tamil Awakening) celebrations that began in Vavuniya and climaxed in Trincomalee has caused goose pimples among people living particularly in the Eastern Province. The LTTE seems to have virtually taken over some of the Eastern districts like Trincomalee and Batticaloa and are calling the shots there with the military and civil authorities woefully impotent. This is totally unacceptable. While it is loudly claimed that the ceasefire has held up to now, and it is correct that there has been no major incidents except for one seat battle off the eastern coast, the daily situation reports issued by the military through the Government Information Department document, several incidents where LTTE cadres have provocatively displayed their muscle.
There were reports last weeks of the LTTE demanding a tax of 8% of the salaries of public servants in some government controlled areas of the war zone. The military report on this as well as another incident where a group of armed Tigers have paraded their weapons at Manampitiya was officially distributed by the state information apparatus. All this means is that the governments eyes are not closed to what is happening and it is doing its job of keeping the people aware. That at least is some consolation in the light of previous experience in an earlier ceasefire during the Premadasa days, when the military, confined to their camps, had to impotently watch the LTTE brazenly fortifying within sight of the military. The maps of the so-called Tamil homeland that have been displayed in the Pongu Thamil celebrations have naturally created a sense of deep foreboding. So also the proclamation of Trincomalee as the capital city of the Tamil Eelam, a concept from which the LTTE has time and again indicated a willingness to back down from in return for a viable alternative.
There is no doubt that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe no less than President Chandrika Kumaratunga well understand the long hard road ahead. Ideally, they should jointly stand up for the rights of all the people of this country when proper negotiations with the LTTE begin later this year. We have now reached the "talks about talks" stage with Anton Balsingham due in Sri Lanka within the next few days and Colombo in contact with foreign countries in search for a suitable venue. Unfortunately the differences between the President and the government are getting sharper by the day rather than improving. The angry exchanges between Kumaratunga and Interior Minister John Amaratunga on the policing of the local elections is a case in point. These elections, certainly, were not perfect. But the President is hardly in a position to righteously expound on free and fair elections given her sorry track record on that score. As far as ordinary people are concerned, these elections were much better than those run by the PA since 1994. What is necessary now is to ensure that where there was malpractice, due legal process takes place no matter the politics of the offenders.
The UNFs maiden budget has made a serious effort to address the problems of an economy that Finance Minister K. N. Choksy rightly identified as currently in a state of "paralysis with the nations finances completely collapsed. The countrys public debt is more than last years GDP at 103.4 percent. Coming to grips with such dismal situation is obviously no easy task and all Lankans will have to pay a price. The abolition and the GST and National Security Levy to be replaced by a Value Added Tax (VAT) will mean not a reduction but an increase in indirect taxation that affect all the people. The fact that government revenue thereby will rise by Rs. 3.5 billion this year is the clearest indicator of this reality. However, a genuine effort has been made to protect the poor by the zero rating for essentials and a lower rate 10% for some other goods. While the people will pay, as they must even grudgingly, the rulers must ensure that they get hundred cents for every rupee of their tax money.
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