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Battlefront shifts from Vanni to Brussels

A special meeting of the UNP working committee was held last Tuesday to obtain ratification for the decision to contest the Eastern Provincial Council (EPC) elections. A nominations committee was also appointed under the chairmanship of the party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. The other members of the committee are Party Chairman Rukman Senanayake, General Secretary Tissa Attanayake, Joseph Michael Perera, and the Legal Affairs Secretary Daya Pelpola. It was also decided at the working committee that three demands would be put forward to the government. The first demand is that the government should disarm the paramilitary organizations operating in the east. The second is that foreign observers had to be brought in for the election and the Special Task Force which had been removed from Amparai, should be brought back to their former stations.

With the decision to contest the EPC elections, the UNP is slowly coming out of its shell once again after the budget debacle late last year. On Tuesday, a meeting attended by all parliamentarians, provincial councilors, electoral organizers and local government representatives was held at Siri Kotha to inaugurate another "jana bala meheyuma". The plan unveiled at this meeting was to appoint one jana bala leader for every ten houses and to appoint 450,000 jana bala 'niyamakas' countrywide.

On Wednesday, party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe met Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader Rauff Hakeem. The main topic discussed was the EPC elections, but the meeting ended inconclusively. Another round of talks will be held today (Sunday) to explore the possibility of the SLMC and the UNP being able to contest together. A major sticking point will be the symbol under which the UNP will contest. If the UNP agrees to contest under the SLMC's tree symbol, the identity of the party will be lost. Moreover in the ethnically divided voter base in the east, contesting under the SLMC symbol will deprive the UNP of Sinhala and especially Tamil votes. Without the Tamil and Sinhala votes, the UNP will not be of much use to the SLMC. On the other hand, if the SLMC contests under the elephant symbol, the SLMC's ambition of having a Muslim chief minister will be vitiated. This is the conundrum that the two parties will have to resolve on Sunday.

Vajira's ill-fated show

Last Saturday, a convention of UNP local government representatives and candidates was held at the Sri Lanka Convention Centre at D.R.Wijewardene Mawatha Colombo. The event was organized by Galle District MP Vajira Abeywardne who heads the UNP's committee on local government. Over 4,000 local government level functionaries of the UNP converged on Colombo for the event. The hall had been well laid out, and all funds had been raised by Abeywardene personally. The idea had been to get these grass roots level functionaries of the UNP to Colombo, give them a good pep talk, some alcohol, a good feed and an opportunity to meet and talk to the party leader. The intention was certainly laudable, and where things worked out the way it had been planned, there was satisfaction all round. But things started going wrong from the very beginning. Only a few ended the day happy. Firstly, the amplifiers were either inadequate or not functioning properly and most of the audience could not hear what was being said by the speakers. People had become very restive during the speeches made by Rukman Senanayake and Major Jayavi Fernando who spoke on the war. When it came to the party leader's turn to speak, S.B.Dissanayake had walked out because he had not been invited to speak. In any case, Abeywardene would not under any circumstances give S.B.Dissanayake a speech if he could help it. Even during official party meetings in the Galle district where S.B.Dissanayake is scheduled to speak, Abeywardene would take care to print Dissanayake's name only about half way down the list of speakers in the posters put up to advertise the meeting lest SBD gets some mileage out of it. Because S.B did not speak, the speeches were bland and uninspiring. Some of those present had been seen passing chits to SBD asking him to speak to liven things up, but that was not to be.

Having sat and fidgeted through the tedious speeches much of which was inaudible in any case, the participants, especially those who had traveled from remote areas had to go through the frustration of watching the representatives from the Galle district and the Western Province sitting and drinking themselves silly and stuffing themselves to their hearts content while they sat and salivated in silence as they were seated closer to the kitchen. The result was they ended up drinking all the available beer and arrack and eating up most of the food as well. The food ordered had been inadequate for the crowd present, and whatever was available, was served to those sitting further away from the kitchens, only after inordinate delays.

After a while, people started walking away from the convention centre in frustration. Many organizers had to buy dinner that night for the delegates from their electorates out of their own pockets. In the middle of this logistical nightmare, party leader Wickremesinghe had been taken around from one table to the next, talking to the delegates and handing out awards to those who had been in local government for over 15 years. Wickremesinghe had gamely complied, talking to people and handing out the awards, and many of those spoken to, had been happy. Some had even said that the party leader should have done this before the presidential elections. But the effect of this was lost on the larger part of the crowd that got no food or drink. They left gnashing their teeth in frustration and cursing everybody involved. Wickremesinghe gained something from the meeting, but he also lost much. One thing that the modern day UNP lacks is attention to detail - that Premadasa used to be famous for.

When the JVP politburo met last week, the main topic discussed was the EPC elections. Party leader Somawansa Amarasinghe said that this time they will be campaigning in what Ranil Wickremesinghe described as a freshly liberated wilderness and wondered aloud whether the UNP too will turn up to hold meetings for trees and stones. The sarcasm was directed at the comments made by Wickremesinghe during the last leg of the eastern military campaign in Thoppigala, to the effect that the government had captured a wilderness. Amarasinghe said that this election provides an opportunity for the JVP to build up contacts with a segment of the population they were not able to reach earlier. Anura Kumara Dissanayake said that had the JVP not defeated the P-TOMS scheme for the distribution of tsunami aid, the east would be by now, completely in the hands of the LTTE. The politburo decided that the party campaign would commence on April 4 and that national level leaders of the JVP would address three main rallies in the three districts of the east. The JVP will be conducting propaganda work throughout the Sinhala and Tamil new year period, mainly targeting the Muslims who live in large numbers in the east.

Sri Lanka's pride

The Sri Lankan garment industry has had its share of challenges. When garment factories first started opening up in the free trade zones set up by the 1977 UNP government, many scoffed at these enterprises saying that the 'industries' had been set up by South East Asian garment exporting companies in order to avail themselves of the export quota allocated to Sri Lanka by the main buying countries. In the early years, it was thought that the free trade zones in general and the garment industry in particular would not get this country anywhere. But thanks to the optimism of the private sector, the industry continued to grow. In the early 1990s, the industry received a new fillip when President Premadasa gave special incentives for garment export companies to open up factories in the rural areas. Up to that time most garment factories tended to be located in the free trade zones in Katunayaka, Biyagama and Koggala. Following the Premadasa initiative, garment factories are now located all over the country - especially in the rural areas. And provide direct employment to 250,000 and indirect employment to at least twice that number.

One major hurdle that the Sri Lankan garment industry had to face was the scrapping of the quota system by the United States in 2005. It was this quota system which had originally attracted South East Asian garment companies that had exhausted the quotas allocated to their own countries. Dire consequences were predicted for the Sri Lankan garment industry once the US quotas were removed. But by the time the change came, the garment industry had matured from producing basic clothing to higher value goods and the industry did not face the collapse that was predicted. Even though the global conditions are such that lower labour costs and lower energy costs can be provided by large players like China and India, its not just the lower costs that buyers look for but other criteria as well - such as the conditions under which these items have been produced. In this, factories in countries like Sri Lanka and Cambodia have scored heavily by being free of sweat shop conditions, child labour and other unacceptable features that abound in countries offering cheaper labour and energy. Besides, the expertise that has been built up in this sector over the years, has given a firm foothold for Sri Lankan goods among the key international players in the field.

But today, the Sri Lankan garment industry is facing the biggest challenge in its three decade long existence in this country. And the irony is that this has nothing to do with factors that would normally come to mind when discussing challenges faced by an industry. It has to do with the politicization of trade issues by that most unlikely of bodies - the European Union. This has reference to the negotiations that are being conducted now for the extension of the GSP+ facility by the EU. The General System of Preferences (GSP) facility allows the entry of garments and a whole range of other products into the EU without import tariffs. Immense pressure is being brought upon the European Union, to discontinue the facility to Sri Lanka not on the criteria that the Sri Lankan garment industry can hold its own without these concessions but on political grounds, in order to stop the war that is being waged on the LTTE. Prof G.L. Peiris, the Minister of Export Development who has been leading the Sri Lankan negotiating team in Brussels has been told very bluntly that the EU would "like to see an attitudinal change" on the part of the Sri Lankan government. By attitudinal change, what is meant is the cessation of hostilities, and the resumption of peace talks, and the issue of devolution of power.

At one point in the negotiations, Prof Peiris had asked the EU official, "Are you trying to bring down a duly elected government?" to which the answer was a hasty "No we're not trying to do that".

There is an immense campaign launched by the international pro-LTTE lobby and the local NGO sector in an effort to deprive Sri Lanka of this vital facility. This raises the worrisome issue of the EU using a civilian industry as a tool to effect a change of government policy. The message is that if the war is not stopped, the EU will withdraw the GSP + facility, thus possibly causing a collapse of the industry. The idea appears to be that if the facility is withdrawn, the industry will collapse, thousands will be thrown out of work and the government will therefore not have the economic strength to continue with the war. If even the withdrawal of the facility does not make the government stop the war, then the idea would be that the long term effects of the collapse of the island's biggest industry would be such that people will blame the government for having brought the country to such a pass and bring about a regime change which will put an end to the war.

Kill the women first

This was essentially the same policy followed by the JVP in 1988-89. Following the theories on urban guerilla warfare expounded by the likes of Carlos Marighella, the JVP destroyed hundreds of electrical transformers on the premise that when people are kept in darkness and factories are deprived of electricity, people will be thrown out of work, and then the starving masses will turn against the government. The JVP also forced the closure of shops, burnt factories all in the name of 'inducing' an anti-government wave among the population. But public sentiment did not turn against the government. It turned against the JVP. If the EU goes ahead with their JVP style scheme, public sentiment is not going to turn against the government; it will turn against the EU.

The EU, if it follows that tack, will bring about the collapse of an industry and have hundreds of thousands of people thrown out of work in order to get the government to comply with its demands. The problem is that the affected people will not be those who run the government, but poor rural folk, mostly female, who have made a livelihood from the garment industry for decades. The morality of the EU doing something like that will be the same as the LTTE using human shields or the paramilitary groups abducting the relatives of their opponents in order to get things done. Whether the EU can do something like this without the opposition parties in those countries making an issue of it is yet to be seen.

Moreover, the LTTE, against which this war is being waged, has been banned by the EU itself as a terrorist organization quite apart from being officially declared by the FBI as the world's most dangerous terrorist organization, ahead of even the Al Queda. Any country having to face a terrorist organization like that should be given special concessions, instead of being hounded at every turn. This attempt to twist the arm of the government by holding out the threat of an economic disaster worse than the tsunami is probably the lowest depths that an organization like the EU can descend to. Had such a move been contemplated about a bigger country with more clout, this would be the subject of an international debate and Larry King will be interviewing top officials of the EU wanting to know what was going on. If these threats are carried out, the EU will be no better than the terrorists that the world is supposed to be campaigning against.

Even more reprehensible, has been the role of local non-governmental organizations, that have been lobbying and pressurizing the EU towards the withdrawal of the GSP+ facility. Readers will no doubt remember Dr Rama Mani the former Director of the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, who was deported following the leak of an email sent by her to the International Crisis Group wanting to become the local representative of ICG in order to among other things, promote the concept of the Right to Protect (R2P). That email just about sums up what the entire NGO sector in this country is about. You see it all in the opening paragraph where Dr Mani fawningly tells Gareth Evans the head of ICG what a 'pleasure' it was to 'see him in action' - the action here referring to a speech on the right to protect, and how close the subject of the right to protect was to her own heart. Then she goes on to say that even though they are willing an eager, the ICES has little resources available, and that some funding would be in order. She then goes on to tell Evans to let her know how much would be available so that she could draw up a budget accordingly. This is the typical attitude of the local NGO sector the sole raison d'atre for their existence is to attract funding and whatever they say and do is aimed at the objective of getting more funds.

Dr Mani would never have dreamt that her email would be published in the national press or that she would get deported as a result of it. She probably never intended to promote foreign intervention in Sri Lanka even though that is what she got deported for. She may have been academically turned on by the bold new concept of the right to protect, but the whole tenor of the letter clearly showed that her main interest was not the right to protect but the funding that came with the concept. It is highly unlikely that the thought that this concept might be a sovereignty and security issue for Sri Lanka even crossed her mind. The treachery that takes place in the NGO sector is almost unthinking - as it would become to a sector that has as its main stock in trade, the odious practice of badmouthing your own country.

There are so many ways to skin a cat. Some may campaign against the country openly. Others, knowing the gravity of what they are doing, may try to disguise their campaign as an honest academic attempt to get to the bottom of the legal requirements of the EU in granting extensions of the GSP + facility to the applicants. The question arose whether certain international covenants (mainly the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) will be applicable in Sri Lanka in order to qualify for the GSP+ facility. In order to put this matter to rest the government requested a ruling from the supreme court whether these international covenants will be applicable in Sri Lanka. The controversy related primarily to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1976 and was signed by Sri Lanka in 1980. In order to aid the court in making the consultative ruling, the AG's department had provided a comprehensive document outlining the specific legislative compliance with regard to each article of the covenant. This was prepared in the form of a schedule with the column on the left giving the particular article of the covenant and the column on the right giving the corresponding legislation within Sri Lanka and relevant Supreme Court rulings. Furthermore, the government of Sri Lanka had last year, put in place enabling legislation in the form of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Act No: 56 (of 2007) to cover aspects that had not been covered by the constitution and the existing legislation up to that time. Moreover the Supreme Court has also been relying on the provisions of the International Covenant in interpreting the rights enshrined in the constitution of Sri Lanka and other legislation.

Morality confounded

It should be noted that the EU brochure "Furthering Human Rights and Democracy across the Globe" which states that "A human rights clause has been systematically included in European Community agreements since the mid 1990s. The clause stipulates that respect for human rights and democratic principles underpins the internal and external policies of the parties." It is obviously this point that the government of Sri Lanka was trying to demonstrate in getting that Supreme Court ruling. However the point to note is that the brochure further elaborates on this saying that "However the principle rationale for the clause is to form a positive basis for advancing human rights in third countries through dialogue and persuasion. In other words, the preference is to use positive action rather than penalties."

According to this brochure, we gather that the EU has imposed restrictive measures on countries like Zimbabwe and is having an ongoing consultation with countries like China and Iran on human rights. Now none of these countries that the EU has targeted have serious terrorist problems - and certainly not the type of terrorists classified by the FBI as the most dangerous in the world, ahead of even the Al Queda. The question with regard to countries like Zimbabwe and Iran are issues relating to either the religio-legal set up as in Iran or the eccentric post-colonial posturing of the Mugabe government in Zimbabwe.

When the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka delivers and official ruling that the citizens of this country will have access to the rights in the international covenants signed by Sri Lanka, that should be accepted because it is a well known fact that the judiciary in Sri Lanka is independent of the executive and will not hesitate to reverse an action taken by the executive branch. One recent instance of this was the eviction of 300 Tamil people from lodges in Colombo. The Supreme Court halted the evictions and ordered those already evicted be brought back! There is also a further point that GSP+ is not for developed countries. It is a scheme meant for developing countries and among all the developing nations of the world, Sri Lanka is by far, the oldest democracy.

Universal suffrage, the holding of elections and the peaceful transition of power are all mechanisms that have been well established over a period of eight decades. The systems are such in this country that in normal circumstances, human rights issues would be almost non-existent. It is only in the context of the insurgencies and the flare ups in fighting that have occurred over the past two and a half decades that the issue of human rights has come up. If the GSP+ facility for Sri Lanka is discontinued without taking these factors into consideration, and as a concession to the pro-LTTE lobby which wants to weaken the Sri Lankan state and stymie their ability to wage war, then, the moral issue of an organization like the EU using the lives of harmless civilians as a tool to leverage political demands, will have to be debated vigorously in the international media. Those who preach morality to others should be able to assess the moral underpinnings of their own actions.

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