Can Sri Lanka come out of the quagmire it has plunged into?

By Dr. Victor Rajakulendran


Political quagmire

President Chandrika’s government lost it parliamentary majority on the 20th day of June 2001, when 7 members of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) with their leader Rauf Hakeem crossed the floor and sat with the opposition in parliament. President herself triggered this episode by sacking Mr Rauf Hakeem from her cabinet the previous night, for which she may be regretting much now. From that day People Alliance (PA) government has been on a roller coaster mission to stay in power.

President and her colleagues in the government tried every possible avenue to keep the numbers game right, but so far have failed to muster the numbers needed. They tried to cause defection from the United National Party (UNP), tried to show olive branches to the Tamil minority parties and even try to woo the SLMC back. Cashing in on the unstable situation created by the SLMC in parliament, UNP tried to gain power by toppling the government.

Swiftly the UNP tabled a no-confidence motion in parliament against the government. President at this stage through her proxies wooed the UNP to join her government to form a National Unity Government (NUG). She even held meetings with the UNP leader to discuss this and when the UNP leader refused to do so, she started a malicious campaign against him trying to divide the UNP parliamentarians. She spread the news that the UNP leader begged her to make him the Prime Minister in return for bringing 40 UNP parliamentarians to the government side. Finally when the President failed to make up the numbers needed to defeat the no-confidence motion, she had no other alternative to use her executive powers to prorogue the parliament, as she cannot dissolve parliament within one year after elections. She prorogued the parliament for 2 months with the hope of trying to make up the numbers during this breather. Failing this, she had planned to dissolve the parliament in September when this parliament reaches it 1st birthday.

Realising that her party will find difficult to get a majority in an election under the present proportional system of voting, she decided to change the constitution by extra-parliamentary procedure. She proclaimed that she is going to carry out a referendum asking the people consent on this. She used the excuse that she needs a new constitution to devolve power to the minorities. She called on her supporters to show a force of strength in support of her political maneuvering by conducting demonstrations in Colombo, and they readily obliged. However when the joint opposition parties wanted to demonstrate to show their opposition to the President’s moves, these demonstrations were banned. When the protesters defied the ban and came out in full strength they were attacked by police and two people were killed by gunshot injury and 70 others were injured. A tear gas canister that was fired at his shoulder injured even the opposition leader. The opposition leader accused the police of trying to assassinate him during the protest rally. All the opposition parties, religious leaders and civic leaders are opposed to the proposed referendum, and have publicly appealed to the President to cancel the referendum.

Economic Status of the country prior to the Air Base disaster

Political stability and strong government are vital for good economic performance of developing countries.

“The congruence of an already unfavourable economic situation, inhospitable international economic conditions, political instability and industrial disruptions, are leading the country to a national crisis of huge proportions. At a time when pro-active economic interventions are needed, the focus of our leaders is on political moves and countermoves to remain or regain power. Long-term economic growth in particular would be sacrificed owing to the immediate political concerns and anxieties.”

This was the assessment on the Economic status of Sri Lanka by a Sri Lankan prominent economist, and one time Chairman of the Bank of Ceylon and the national Development Bank of Sri Lanka, Mr. Nimal Sanderatne days before the 24th of July 2001, Katunayaka Air base disaster.

Mr. Nimal Sanderatne has predicted that this year’s economic performance of Sri Lanka to be one of the worst, comparable to that of the power-crisis ridden 1996 or the JVP-inflicted crippled economic performance of 1987-89. In 1996 the economy grew by only 3.8%. During the three-year period of JVP insurgency the average annual growth was less than 2.2 %. He also predicted this year’s economic growth is likely to hover around 3%, about one half of last year’s 6% growth. In the first quarter of this year the economy grew by only 1.3%. A sad performance in comparison with 5% growth in the last quarter of 2000 and a 6.6% growth in the comparable first quarter of 2000. The all Share Price Index fell to 421.8 points by 18th of July, compared to 448 at the end of last year. The end year position in 2000 was in fact the lowest since1994, when it was 997 index points. Mr. Sanderatne predicted the business confidence and foreign investor confidence likely to be further eroded in the coming weeks and months, and much damage would be done by then, even if political stability returns thereafter.

Disaster at the Air Base-Airport Complex and its effects

Before the ink dried up on what Mr. Sanderatne had to say on the economic status of the country, further disaster struck the country. The pre-dawn attack by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eeelam (LTTE) on the high security air base adjoining the only International Airport in Sri Lanka on the early ours of 24th of July 2001, would have sent shock waves through the defence circles and the Chandrika regime. Although one cannot condone any of these violent acts, one cannot simply ignore how meticulously the whole operation had been carried out by the LTTE. In terms of accuracy, in hitting exclusively the intended targets without causing co-lateral damage (in the US system of nomenclature), no one can hesitate to give 100 out of 100 to the planners and executers of this operation. This 7 - 10 hour operation has been carried out with superior accuracy than even the laser guided missile attack by the US forces on Baghdad. There was more co-lateral damage in Baghdad operation than in the last Tuesday’s operation by the LTTE. Although the attackers were inside the 800-acre premises for 7-10 hours and hence could have destroyed the airport building and caused harm to the tourists and the airport employees, they have avoided this with utmost care. This clearly shows that the intention of the attackers was to use it as a retaliatory attack, for the recent bombings carried out by the Sri Lankan Airforce in the Jaffna peninsula, and to reduce the enemy’s air supremacy. The lack of immediate counter-attack by the airport security, including the STF Commandos, usually deployed in the premises to handle situations like this, indicates the lack of commitment of these soldiers to defend their territory. Under these circumstances, safety of the International Airport, that shares the same runway with the Air base, is at constant risk.

According to Sri Lankan media reports, the rebel attack on the Air Base began at 3.50AM on Tuesday. After causing the mayhem at the Air Base destroying 8 aircraft and damaging closer to another 10, and when confronted by the security there, the rebels retreated towards the International Airport across the runway where 6 Sri Lankan airline airbuses were parked in the apron. Two of them were hit and destroyed immediately and another one was fired upon with a grenade and destroyed by a rebel who climbed to the rooftop of the Airport building. The other three were damaged and are said to be reparable.

“The attack was not aimed at the International Airport, but the Air Force base. The passenger aircraft were just opportunity targets”, said to AFP, Air Vice Marshal (Retd.) Anslem Peiris, Chairman of the Airport Aviation Authority.

Economic effects: Although the exact amount of damage done at the Air Base is not revealed for security reasons, the general figure quoted is 8 aircraft destroyed and 10 other aircraft damaged. The monetary loss quoted in the media is $30 million. The passenger aircraft are reported to have been insured. Therefore economic damage to Sri Lankan airlines is more of an indirect nature than a direct one.

Sri Lankan airline was boasting record sales and tourism officials were smiling more than usual when the Tigers struck at Katunayaka Air Base-Airport complex, country’s main gateway to the world. The Aviation Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle who supervised the re-opening of the Airport after 36-hour closure, told AFP that “We will see a 20 to 25 percent drop in tourism after this attack”. The tourism industry, a key foreign exchange earner for a country trying to rebuild its foreign reserves, believes that there could be a sharper fall in tourist arrivals in the rest of the year given the large scale cancellations which have followed the attack. Sri Lankan Airline’s Chief Executive Officer, Peter Hill, has told AFP that cancellations were already pouring in from travel operators as governments, including those of Britain, the US, Germany and Australia, warned their citizens against visiting Sri Lanka. He also has told that last Tuesday’s attack could not have come at a worse time for Sri Lankan Airlines. “The airline had carried 50,000 passengers the week before the LTTE attack, giving it an 86 percent load factor on all its routes”, Hill told AFP, adding that it was a record for the airline since its inception 22 years ago. Hill also made it clear, according to AFP, that the “Sri Lankan Airlines had no immediate plans to replace the three destroyed aircraft - two A - 330s and one A - 340 - because it was not confident that it would regain its lost market.”

“We think… the next six months will see about 50-60% in reduction in arrivals and we are working with that as the worst-case scenario. The only way to improve tourist arrival was to find a way out of the ethnic conflict that has claimed the lives of nearly 65,000 people in two decades”, Renton de Alwis, Chairman of the Ceylon Tourist Board told BBC. “I expect profits to be hit by 60-70%”, Hiran Cooray of Jetwing Hotels Ltd, which owns a chain of resorts, told BBC. “There is no company in this country that can emerge unscathed from that kind of slump. There will be carnage”, Dushyanth Wijesinghe, an analyst at WI Carr/Asia Securities told BBC.

Five years ago, Former Air Force Commander Harry Gunatilleke was the director of Sri Lankan Airlines (then Air Lanka). “I think it (SLA) has lost about 40-45% of its capabilities, because it cannot service its schedule”, Gunatilleke told one Sunday Leader correspondent. Commander Gunatillake quoted the deputy defence minister as saying the financial loss at the Airforce Base to be around 30 Billion rupees. He also have told the same correspondent that the attackers have been able to eat into this amount within 4 hours, that is half of the defence budget for the whole year.

Apart from the fallout on tourism and foreign investment prospects, the government is also in a bind to find the money to replace the 8 military aircraft destroyed in the attack. In April, Colombo had obtained a 253 Million dollars rescue package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on the strict understanding that any escalation in the defence budget will be met by direct taxes. This means the government must either put off plans to replace the military aircraft, a vital weapon in their battle against the LTTE, or raise prices of essentials burdening the already overburdened poor masses.

Military effects: The attack on the Airbase from which the supersonic Kfir bombers and MIG fighters can take off, will have serious consequences in the battle field performance of the Sri Lankan forces. After being defeated in several land-battles one after the other by the LTTE, the Sri Lankan security forces have come to rely heavily on these two types of bombers for air cover before and during military operations whether it is an offensive or a defensive land operation. The main supply route, the sea, also has become dangerous due to the ferocity with which the Sea Tigers have been attacking the Navy convoys escorting supply ships or transporting soldiers lately. Only successes claimed by the security forces in the sea battles have been attributed to the timely action by these bombers. Therefore any depletion in the fleet of Kfirs and MIGs will deny the security forces the opportunity to launch any major offensive operations against the LTTE in the North and East of the country. This depletion will also make the Sri Lankan Navy’s sea passage to the north more vulnerable to Sea Tiger attacks. The fallacy of the Sunday Times, Situation report editor Igbal Athas’s comments that the aircraft destroyed in the attack will not affect the performance of the Security Forces in the battle field, is yet to be verified.

Military spokesman Brigadier Sanath Karunaratna downplayed LTTE’s success by attributing it to sheer luck. “Luck plays a major role in such operations. They were simply lucky on the occasion. There are some shortcomings on our part… But this does not mean that other security installations are not safe” declared Brig. Karunaratna. These shortcomings mentioned by Brig. Karunaratna are too serious to be ignored under the cover up of sheer luck. The attack on the Airforce Base began at 3.30 AM and the passenger planes were not attacked until 5.30 AM. Why reinforcements were not brought in to defend the Airport immediately? This would have saved the passenger planes from being destroyed. Were the reinforcements sent elsewhere as soon as the news of the Airbase attack reached the Joint Operation Command Centre? Were they sent to protect the VIPs; the President, Foreign Minister, the Deputy defence Minister et al? According to the foreign travellers who were caught in the mayhem, the airport security and other officials were trying to run for safety before the passengers, and the passengers were not directed what to do. Even, the passengers were not allowed to get into the buses on the tarmac as the security officers and other airport officials were clamouring to get in to these buses and escape. These officials did not behave like this because the attackers brought luck with them, but because they brought with them the element of surprise and ferocity.

This airport is known to be protected by crack commando units whenever necessity like this arises. Where did these commandos go that night when they came to know the attack? Did they go to the President’s palace to protect the President and her entourage because “Kottya” (Tigers) have come to town? Why the Commander of the Air Base and another officer responsible for the base’s security has been stripped off their positions? Is this because they were unlucky? These are the many questions President has to answer to her people, as the Commander in Chief of the armed services.

Political effects: Early last month at the wake of the SLAF taking LTTE targets in the north of the country, the rebels in a statement said that “peace efforts would be irreparably damaged if the government continued with its aerial and artillery bombardment”. The statement further said, “the bombardment was provocative and a calculated escalation of the war”. The statement also warned “the Sri Lankan government should take total responsibility for the adverse consequences that might arise from the misplaced strategy of escalating the condition of war in the Tamil Homeland”.

When the writing was very clear in black and white like that on the wall, that this disaster is about to happen, as usual, the President tried to use the attack a blessing in disguise. She tried to use it to earn some political fortune at this time of deep political crisis. She first tried to blame the UNP for the disaster in two ways. One is to say that the LTTE attackers infiltrated into the city during the opposition demonstration. The other is to say that the LTTE carried out this attack, as a revenge to the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom which was supposed to have been orchestrated by the then UNP government in power.

When she realised that people were not willing to buy her theories, she went on the National TV and in an address to the nation she said, “May I appeal to all parties to put aside pettiness and anger. What is at stake here is the nation’s future…” She asked all the parties to join her to form a government of reconciliation and she invited all the political parties to meet her separately. If she was genuinely interested in forming such a government in the interest of the country she should not have tried to blame the opposition in the first place. Then she should have called for an all-party forum to discuss the problem and this forum should have been the parliament. The opposition demanded immediately after the disaster, for her to reconvene the parliament to debate the issue. But she refused to do so. Instead, she decided to meet the parties one by one to see which one she could convert, to get the numbers game right to keep her government in power. In other words, even in the midst of this national calamity the President was working out strategies to utilise the calamity to her benefit, and not for the benefit of the country.

What Future holds for Sri Lanka?

This government has demonstrated very clearly that it is not competent to either make peace or to wage war.

When President meet the parties individually she will come to know that they are not schoolchildren as she thinks to be easily deceived by her political trickery. And therefore she will be forced to abandon the idea of the referendum. There is already opposition from all the quarters to the referendum. Therefore the President only has two options to keep her government in power. One is to convert some parties to support her government to vote against the no confident motion, when parliament reconvenes. If not, prorogue the parliament again until September, when she could dissolve the parliament and call for fresh elections. PA winning that election democratically will be an up-hill task. However, rigging has become the trade mark of this government, and she and her colleagues may opt to do that, and that will end up in a blood bath in the south of the country. This will provide the LTTE with the golden opportunity to have their field day in the Northeast of the country.

Therefore, the only way to approach the situation that is acceptable to the people of Sri Lanka and the International Community is, for the PA government to resign immediately and for the President to form a National Unity Government with the opposition leader as the Prime Minister. Then these leaders cannot blame each other as not cooperating to devolve power to the minorities. This government should include all the minority parties also as equal partners in it. Then only this government can negotiate with the LTTE to bring an end to the two decades old war and settle the ethnic problem in the country. This only can bring peace and prosperity to this Island nation. Otherwise it will only sink deeper and deeper into the quagmire it is already in.

3 August 2001