Worrying about Tiger promises? Our politikkas make them too!

ltte.jpg (30032 bytes)By Namini Wijedasa
The LTTE have agreed to stop recruiting child soldiers, a statement from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said last week. It observed that the Tigers had made a serious commitment not to use children under 17 in combat. Now doesn’t that tickle one’s fancy.

That is so nice of them. But where have we heard that one before? Oh yeah, last year. Or the one before.

Another year, another promise. They have it all figured out, these guys. Whoever comes, just dish out those pledges and your rear end’s well covered for at least six months.

Tell them all you won’t do it again — Olara Otunnu, UNICEF, Amnesty International, the media, the Indians, the Sri Lankans ... even Vladimir Putin, if he asks. Who’s to check. And if they did, what’s the worst they could do: confiscate your child army? Heh, heh.

On a different plane, it may even be treated as a development that the LTTE has promised not to recruit child soldiers because at that touchingly frank Wanni press conference chaired by Anton Balasingham ... er, Velupillai Prabhakaran... the former actually sounded like the concept of Baby Brigade, you know, perplexed him. "Baby Brigade, or whatever you call it," he casually waved off at one point, looking like he had never heard of it before.

Newspapers reported on Thursday that Olara Otunnu will visit the Wanni again. Just the thing. Have that list of pledges ready, will ya. Better still, print some leaflets and distribute them. The politicians in the south do that. They don’t keep their promises either.

Incidentally, even at that press conference the LTTE leadership declared that they would not recruit children to their army. Routine, you know. Mustn’t break the routine.

Meanwhile, Tamil parents in Jaffna complained last week to the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission that two children had been abducted by the LTTE. According to a television news report, the LTTE political leader in Jaffna had said he was aware of the incident and that he would take steps to ensure there would be no repetition. Guess the LTTE were taking those kids for some big birthday bash in the woods or something, huh? Just like parents to go muck it up.

Back in the south, the government is fighting a war of a different kind. The dengue mosquito is striking with a vengeance this year and health authorities are positively screeching that now’s the time to act. There have been eighteen deaths, the majority among them children. That’s already damn too many.

With Colombo and its immediate suburbs being most vulnerable, municipal councils are sending out their men to spray insecticide in all the drains. Unfortunately, though, the public seems to be making little effort outside of putting a flame to the end of a mosquito coil. The receptacles in which the mosquitoes breed are allowed to lie about because, hell, the mosquito coil will do the trick.

Thousands of rupees are spent every month on coils but it is questionable how much they help to tackle the problem at its root. Advertisers, however, have been quick to spot the potential in the dengue epidemic. They are declaring now that a coil should be lit throughout the day — and not just in the night — because the dengue mosquito attacks during daylight hours! If they applied a fraction of that imagination to a campaign which would really rid the country of mosquitoes, dengue may not even be an issue. Lives can be saved, though coil companies would really miss the little critters.

On matters of governance, Deputy Finance Minister Bandula Gunawardena was on television Thursday explaining (again) that there’s no money. Sigh. He sniffed that the United National Front had inherited huge debts from the People’s Alliance and that an overdraft was clean choking the government. Immediately after that interview, Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapakse came on the airwaves, looking very solemn. "Naya laba gattanam, gevanna oney," he lectured. Why thank you, Mr. Rajapakse. We didn’t know.

Rajapakse went on that when the United National Party took over from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party in 1977, there had been some inherited debt. But in 1994, when the PA took over from the UNP, the nature of debt incurred had been around 23 times worse.

And here we have it: the who-incurs-greater-debt contest. Could we have drum roll, please. Drum roll?

Someone in the PA should write a book called How to clean out a country’s Treasury in (a commendably short space of) seven years. Title’s a bit long, but what the heck.

However, Rajapakse made an important point on that programme. He noted that the UNF hadn’t been haranguing about the lack of money when they were campaigning for the election. "This is not what they said during the election," he harrumphed, pointing out that the government should have some concrete plan to lower the cost of living.

A plan, concrete or otherwise, is what the government does NOT have. That is painfully obvious. They appointed some committee or other (maybe more than one, who knows) to look into the possibility of lowering the prices of commodities. They have so far succeeded in lowering nothing, despite grappling with the cost of living since January.

A committee, as observed before, does wonders for public morale when first appointed. But the magic wears thin after people discover it’s achieving blooming nothing. Governments keep setting them up, anyway, because they haven’t been able to dream up better hogwash.

A senior diplomat, retired, emphasised last week that it was time the Prime Minister stepped in. "They are failing badly on this front," he criticised. One cannot be expected to twiddle one’s thumbs till peace arrives in order to live a decent life again. Every week brings on another hike. For instance, the CPC announced "with regret" on Friday that they have to raise prices again. What’s the bet they’ll all start dropping the "with regret" in a few days?

Back to the LTTE, seems the Tigers are annoyed. Uh-oh.

An editorial in the pro-LTTE Tamil Guardian newspaper last week blamed the government for having "hijacked the Norwegian peace initiative in an effort to railroad the LTTE into talks without any agreed agenda and irrespective of the objective conditions in the north and east."

It also claimed that by adopting what it called hard-line policies towards the LTTE, Ranil Wickremesinghe had "bankrupted — in Tamil eyes, at least — his government’s moral authority in the search for peace."

So the Tigers have got sick of dabbling with peace and democracy, what? Time for the offensive to begin, is it? Time to pick a quarrel and call it off? One hopes not because never has the peace process gone this far. People, particularly, are getting used to living a normal life (as normal as it gets when your lentils and brinjals cost the earth) and travelling without a suicide bomber lurking in every corner.

The Guardian said that Sri Lanka had violated the cease-fire agreement. It seems unfair, somehow, for one side to accuse the other of breaking the agreement while blatantly doing so itself. The SLMM has itself observed that the bulk of reported cease-fire violations were on the LTTE plate. But who said the LTTE must be fair, eh?

This talk about the government trying to railroad the LTTE into talks is a new thing. Didn’t know the LTTE could ever be railroaded into anything. Ranil should stop. Too much, he is.

Government spokesman G. L. Peiris reacted to the TG statements at a media briefing held on Thursday. His stance seemed to go against the TG’s assertion that the government was trying to shove the LTTE into talks. "I don’t think we should be obsessed with the date," adding that there were many other things which, in the government’s view, were much more important. "We don’t want to get the show on the road prematurely," he stressed.

That’s what the government is saying in public. Of course, G. L. Peiris was also the man who emphasised with great and meticulous detail that there was no Memorandum of Understanding... a day or so before the blessed document was signed. Guess one must understand that a certain level of discretion has to be maintained.

The discussion over the vacation of places of religious worship, public and school buildings continues. A committee has been formed. Oh hurray. A committee. Everything will be all right now.

The PA had a press conference Friday, the main player of which was former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. Finally, they’re using characters with some sense for their press conferences. Not to say the others are stupid, but you know... Anyway, not everyone in the PA knew that a conference of this nature was taking place. Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, a senior PA parliamentarian, said he had just heard about it from a third or fourth party. "There are new people in the party now," he said. "We weren’t told about the press conference."

Mangala Samaraweera appeared before the Criminal Investigation Department once more last week over that alleged attack on supporters of Deputy Minister Sagala Ratnayake during the general election campaign. Bet he would be happy if didn’t see the colour of Sagala Ratnayake ever again.

There was fireworks at the Cabinet meeting as President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Trade Minister Ravi Karunanayake clashed over the luxury vehicles issue. Apparently, CBK had refused to disclose the registration numbers of some vehicles imported by the Presidential Secretariat. What’s the fuss, anyway? Only 44 vehicles. Can’t a president import 44 vehicles?

And we wonder what happened to our money.