Cablegate: Sri Lanka's Election: Economic Issues Key For

Published: Mon 17 Oct 2005 02:00 AM
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
E.O. 12958: N/A
1. (SBU) Summary: In late September, Poloff and Pol FSN
visited south and central Sri Lanka to meet politicians and
civil society leaders and discuss the November 17
Presidential election. Most interlocutors agreed that for
Ratnapura, Badulla, and Moneragela districts, employment,
welfare, and agricultural subsidies were foremost on voters'
minds. The bulk of our contacts felt that the race will be
close, with each side claiming the scales are tilting in its
candidate's favor. End summary.
2. (U) The economy in Ratnapura, in south central Sri Lanka,
is primarily dependent on the gem industry, with tea and
rubber production as secondary industries. The Badulla
district in the central hill country consists of tea estates
and smallholders' farms, with some rubber production. For
Moneragela in the south east, rice paddy production is the
primary source of income. The majority communities in all
of these areas are Sinhalese Buddhists. In the tea
producing regions, upcountry, or "estate" Tamils, who have
historically worked at tea plantations, are a strong
minority presence. There is also a smaller minority of
Muslims in south and central Sri Lanka, many of whom are
engaged in the gem industry or in other forms of trade
rather than farming. Interlocutors in all of these
locations noted that for voters in the region, economic
concerns will dominate the presidential election.
3. (SBU) In Ratnapura September 28, Poloff and Pol FSN met
with opposition United National Party (UNP) member of the
Sabaragamuwa Provincial Council Samitha Attygalla, Ratnapura
Municipal Council Mayor Nimal Dayawansa, and UNP Member of
Parliament (MP) Susantha Punchinilame. These opposition
stalwarts placed the high cost of living and rising
fertilizer prices as the issues dominating the minds of
voters. They stated that unemployment and under-employment
are rampant in both the gem industry and the agricultural
sector. Ratnapura's poor economic situation is exacerbated
by the high cost of living and rising fertilizer prices, and
according to our contacts, the government had done nothing
to alleviate the problems.
4. (SBU) At a September 29 meeting in Embilipitya, UNP MP
Piyadasa Abeynayake of the Ratnapura district said that
former SLFP coalition governments had ignored the gem
industry, driving away investors through taxes and
bureaucracy and subsequently causing cash-poor mine owners
to lay off employees. In a separate meeting that same day,
gem merchant Jinadasa Guruge of Kahawatte concurred with
that assessment. Chairman of Gem Corp and local organizer
for the governing Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) Asoka
Jayawardena felt similarly, he told us in Ratnapura
September 30. Jayawardena added that he blamed the Marxist,
Sinhalese nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peremuna (JVP) for
not improving the SLFP's economic policies during its time
as a governing coalition partner.
5. (SBU) In a Sepetember 29 meeting in Wellawaya, a town in
Moneragela District, local UNP organizer Ananda Kumarasiri,
too, discussed economic problems the voters in his district
face. Kumarasiri sought to renovate water reservoirs and
offer agricultural price guarantees consistent with the
UNP's party manifesto.
6. (SBU) Attygalla, Dayawansa, and Punchinilame also told us
that Ratnapura district has the country's second highest
number of Samurdhi, or welfare, recipients. They alleged
that the government has given the Samurdhi administrators
significant leeway in selecting beneficiaries, so many
deserving poor families do not get selected, especially if
they are not allied with the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party
(SLFP). They said that the UNP intends to overhaul Samurdhi
so that there are fewer recipients overall, but with each
needy recipient's allotment increased.
7. (SBU) At a September 28 meeting, Sabaragamuwa's former
chief minister and current provincial council minister and
SLFP member Mohan Ellawela noted that Ratnapura district has
no ethnic tensions and minimal labor problems. He told us
that out of the district's 110,000 voters, around 37,000 are
estate Tamils and roughly 26,000 are Muslim. Ellawela felt
told us that some senior SLFP members objected to the SLFP's
pact with the Marxist Sinhalese-nationalist Janatha Vimukthi
Peremuna (JVP). However, he added, youth in his district
were drawn to the JVP's philosophy, so the SLFP-JVP pact
might not hinder Rajapakse's chances. A Muslim attorney and
local SLFP organizer in Balangoda, also in Ratnapura
district, later also told us that despite being a member of
a minority community, he has not experienced ethnic tensions
in the region.
8. (SBU) Chief Minister of the Sabaragamuwa Province and
SLFP member Mahiepala Herath noted that all the parties that
pledged to support Rajapakse are coordinating their efforts,
but he added that a number of SLFP supporters disapprove of
his pacts with the JVP and monk-based Jathika Hela Urumaya
(JHU). Earlier Jayawardena had expressed the same opinion,
and he posited that some SLFP members might boycott the
polls to protest Rajapakse's pact.
9. (SBU) Mayor of Haputale and SLFP organizer Sumith
Samayadasa said that the UNP was weak in his electorate. He
was also confident that Rajapakse could win the support of
the Ceylon Workers' Congress (CWC) trade unions in the Uva
Province. (Note: The CWC's October 5 announcement of
support for the UNP indicates Samayadasa's confidence was
ill-founded. Perhaps Samayadasa had simply been implying
that Rajapakse's pacts with the JVP and JHU would not
alienate Muslims, many of whom make up the CWC. End note.)
10. (SBU) Samayadasa also concurred with Bandarawela's UNP
organizers' assessment that whichever candidate credibly
promises improved living conditions to estate workers can
win the Uva Province in central Sri Lanka. The UNP
organizers of Bandarawela told us that during the past three
months, the party has been able to increase its vote base in
Uva, except in Haputale, where the UNP's House Speaker
Lokubandara has not been very active.
11. (SBU) September 30, poloff met with Paranagamage, who
runs pre-employment training programs for young people with
the YES Foundation in Tissamaharama. He noted a decrease in
the JVP's appeal to youth, especially in Tissamaharama
Pradeshiya Sabha (local governing council), formerly a
traditional stronghold for the party. He credited the shift
to non-profit groups' educational efforts that exposed young
people to broader cosmopolitan ideas, thereby diminishing
the appeal of the JVP's narrowly focused views. He also
mentioned a recent UNP membership drive in which the
organizers had expected a turn out of one thousand
participants when four thousand youth actually turned up for
the program.
12. (SBU) The people we spoke to all believe the election
will be a close one. Both UNP and SLFP supporters told us
that they are planning door-to-door campaigns to sway swing
voters. Most interlocutors agreed that while some minority
groups and mainstream Sinhalese were concerned about
Rajapakse's pact with the extremist JVP, for voters in the
south and center of the country, economic concerns will
dominate. For groups living relatively harmoniously and far
removed from the clashes in the North and East, it is no
surprise that bread and butter issues take precedence over
concerns about the ethnic divide. The UNP's manifesto seeks
to address some of these concerns with the promise of new
jobs and farm subsidies. However, it remains to be seen
whether people respond to the pragmatic manifesto, coupled
with the aloof candidate Wickremesinghe, or to the more
genial Rajapakse, whose party has not yet published a
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