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Cablegate: Sri Lanka: General Strike Brings Inconveniences

VZCZCXRO4045
PP RUEHBI
DE RUEHLM #0666/01 1921111
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 101111Z JUL 08
FM AMEMBASSY COLOMBO
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 8400
INFO RUEHKA/AMEMBASSY DHAKA PRIORITY 1004
RUEHIL/AMEMBASSY ISLAMABAD PRIORITY 7993
RUEHKT/AMEMBASSY KATHMANDU PRIORITY 6168
RUEHLO/AMEMBASSY LONDON PRIORITY 4484
RUEHNE/AMEMBASSY NEW DELHI PRIORITY 2168
RUEHNY/AMEMBASSY OSLO PRIORITY 4447
RUEHKO/AMEMBASSY TOKYO PRIORITY 3548
RUEHCG/AMCONSUL CHENNAI PRIORITY 8602
RUEHBI/AMCONSUL MUMBAI PRIORITY 6047
RUEHON/AMCONSUL TORONTO PRIORITY 0709
RUEHGV/USMISSION GENEVA PRIORITY 2865
RHHMUNA/HQ USPACOM HONOLULU HI PRIORITY
RHEFDIA/DIA WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RHEHAAA/NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RUEHBS/USEU BRUSSELS PRIORITY

UNCLAS SENSITIVE SECTION 01 OF 02 COLOMBO 000666

C O R R E C T E D C O P Y (CHANGING CLASSIFICATION)

SIPDIS

DEPARTMENT FOR SCA/INS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 07/10/2018
TAGS: PGOV PREL PTER PHUM ECON CE
SUBJECT: SRI LANKA: GENERAL STRIKE BRINGS INCONVENIENCES
BUT NO MAJOR DISRUPTIONS

REF: A. COLOMBO 653
B. COLOMBO 571

COLOMBO 00000666 001.3 OF 002


1. (U) SUMMARY: Public sector unions, led by the JVP, had
only modest impact with a planned general strike July 10,
with most public and private service functioning nearly
normally. The unions sought higher wage increases than what
the government was willing to give. While high inflation is
the major reason for the unions' salary demands, the
attempted general strike clearly had the political goal of
discrediting the government, as the JVP and opposition UNP
called on the government either to reduce expenditures on its
large cabinet, cancel upcoming provincial council elections,
or the upcoming SAARC summit. End summary.

2. (U) On July 10 members of the National Trade Union Center
(NTUC), an umbrella organization of public-sector unions
throughout the country, went on strike following a call by
the JVP and other opposition parties to demand higher wages.
The JVP, with NTUC's support, called for a Rs 5000 (USD
46.45) a month raise for public sector employees. The GSL
countered with a Rs 1000 (USD 9.30) a month raise. The JVP,
UNP and the unions rejected the counter-proposal and insisted
that if the government needed to raise money to pay for the
salary increase it could save cash by canceling the upcoming
provincial council elections, trim the cabinet or cancel the
SAARC Summit in Colombo at the end of the month. (Note: The
JVP and UNP had already tried and failed to challenge the
GSL's dissolution of the two provincial councils in court
(ref B).) While the strike was politically motivated,
rampant inflation of 28.2% (June-on-June) is causing
significant hardship, especially for low-paid public sector
workers.

3. (U) Despite claims by the JVP that the strike would
cripple the public sector including such essential services
as electricity, transportation and health care, life
continued on with only minor inconveniences. The most
affected sector appears to be the schools; most parents kept
their children at home fearing clashes on the streets and
assuming most teachers would not report for work. Some Post
offices were also forced to close. There were only minor
disruptions to train services and reports indicate that 60%
of the public buses are running. Hospitals have remained
open; however, some administrators at the National Hospital
in Colombo did not show up for work.

4. (U) In the days leading up to the strike, union leaders
reported visits by police officials attempting to intimidate
them to call off the protest. Senior Minister Nimal Siripala
De Silva said the day before the strike that the government
had the right to "crush the union's actions through
democratic means," and argued that the JVP, by calling for
the strike, was helping the LTTE. Nevertheless, despite
fears that the strike would be accompanied by confrontations
between the police and union members, with exception of an
isolated incident in Kandy, Post received no reports of
violent clashes in the country today.

5. (SBU) COMMENT: In rejecting the unions' and opposition
parties' demands the GSL claimed that the strike was being
used by the UNP to cover up and distract the public from the
UNP's inner-party bickering. By linking demands for public
sector wage increases to the cancellation of the provincial
council elections the JVP and UNP undercut the unions' focus
on the rising cost of living throughout the country. The
strike can be seen as the opening salvo in the seven week
campaign leading up to the August 23rd provincial council
elections. Opposition leader Wickremasinghe told Ambassador
he expects trade union agitation to continue to protest the
country's rising cost of living. The Opposition's inability
to rally more workers, despite government pressure on the

COLOMBO 00000666 002.2 OF 002


unions, is an early indication that while not impossible,
their ability to win a majority of seats in the provincial
councils will be difficult. End Comment.
BLAKE

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