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Sunday, 26 February 2012

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A hidden hand behind public protests

Divergent views have been expressed on the soaring world crude oil prices and the corresponding increase of local petrol, diesel and kerosene prices.

In the backdrop of the increase in local oil prices which the Government was constrained to take as the last option, the Opposition resorted to gutter politics by attempting to gain political mileage, projecting a dismal picture to the masses.

Opportunist Opposition politicians, both from the UNP and the JVP, trotted out various theories and skewed logic to hoodwink the public. They concocted stories to beguile the masses and tried to make out that the Government could sell petroleum products at cheaper rates.

These Opposition politicians, however, failed to understand the Government's efforts to reduce the cost of living and sell oil at the cheapest rates possible, even at the height of the battle against LTTE terrorism. Although billions of rupees were expended on the 2006-2009 Security Forces offensive against LTTE terrorists, the Government cushioned the impact on petroleum products and electricity rates, despite production costs being much higher than the selling prices.

Over the years, Sri Lanka has been purchasing crude oil mainly from Iran and Saudi Arabia. Even a kindergarten child knows that the Iranian light crude oil is the most suitable for the Sapugaskanda refinery and the Government had purchased it at special rates on credit. The US-led sanctions against Iran dealt a severe blow to Sri Lanka and the Government had no option but to increase its purchases from Saudi Arabia at the prevailing market prices upfront.

The Opposition, true to form, instigated several public demonstrations, and shouted themselves hoarse that petroleum products could have been sold at cheaper rates. While the UNP misled the public, the JVP thought it fit that they should strike while the iron is hot. Hence, the JVP launched its anti-Government 'operation' under the pretext of people's demonstrations against the escalating oil prices. Moreover, local and international elements with vested interests looking for a regime change, lost no time and swung into action with the funding from some INGO agents.

However, it was most unfortunate that some innocent fishermen in the Western coast were 'used' as bait by these disgruntled elements. Consequently, one fisherman lost his life when law enforcement officers tried to defuse the tense situation and bring it under control as certain political opportunists provoked fishermen and got them to attack the police.

Minister of Information Technology Ranjith Siyambalapitiya set the record straight, saying that the Opposition's allegations that the Government had increased oil prices under an agreement with the International Monetary Fund were 'baseless and sheer imagination'. It is evident that the UNP is making such allegations as all previous UNP regimes since 1977 had secret agreements with their foreign funding sources and moreover, sold the country's resources for a song while slashing the masses' welfare measures.

The UNP seems to have woken from its slumber and come from the seventh heaven. The Opposition leader has conveniently forgotten the fact that his UNP Government had an agreement with the IMF in 2003 to privatise the Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation, State Banks and Sri Lanka Telecom and also privatised several other profit-making State corporations and institutions.

The Wickremesinghe-led 2001-2004 UNP Government abolished many welfare measures, including certain public service pension schemes, reduced import taxes to facilitate its political cronies and subjected the country to be flooded with unnecessary imports. While providing tax concessions on many luxury imports, the then UNP Government imposed additional taxes on many basic essential commodities.

UNP and JVP politicians who now raise a big hue and cry should take cognizance that the Government still spends a colossal sum of money annually on the fertiliser subsidy, despite the sharp increase in fertiliser prices in the world market.

Although the Government was obliged to increase fuel prices to meet the escalating world market prices, it has also worked out a mechanism to provide a subsidy for the masses, including fishermen and all households which do not have electricity. Nevertheless, the UNP is shouting from the rooftops to reduce fuel prices to satisfy its wealthy business class.

The Government is taking steps to step up hydropower generation capacity threefold to insulate the country's power generation from the fossil fuel crisis and provide an uninterrupted supply of electricity. Sri Lanka has a 1,200 MW hydro power generating capacity and the Ministry of Power and Energy has envisaged to set up nine hydropower generating projects to boost the capacity by another 3,500 MW, to overcome the use of heavy fuel in power generation.

Opposition politicians should bear in mind the ground realities and level constructive criticism. It is understandable that various political parties have their own agendas, but they should not deceive the masses to look for shortcuts to gain power. Since Sri Lanka does not produce petroleum at present, it has no option but to purchase its requirements at current world prices. At a time Sri Lanka has lost the opportunity of continuing its purchase of crude oil on credit from Iran, the country is now fully exposed to the soaring world prices. Irrespective of the political party in power, Sri Lanka is compelled to purchase oil from the open market. Hence, any Government in power, for that matter, has no option whatsoever but to purchase oil from the international market.

The Opposition is mindful of this bitter fact but is hell-bent on taking the public for another ride. It's time the Opposition politicians stop playing games, risking the lives of the masses.

On the other hand, provoking public resentment and creating unrest in the country would send the wrong signals to the international community, especially at a time when the United Nations Human Rights Commission sessions are due to begin in Geneva. Minister Wimal Weerawansa has rightly pointed out that certain NGOs, who dance to the tune of their funding INGOs, are keen to organise unruly protests in Sri Lanka to create an adverse image of the country through the international media.

Many fishermen blindly joined protest campaigns. Their slogans manifested the motive and the hidden hand behind such protests. In this scenario, all Sri Lankans must shed their petty party differences and unite to beat the common enemy. At a time certain international conspirators are trying to fix Sri Lanka over alleged war crime charges, it is the bounden duty of the Opposition politicians as well, to put the country before self.

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