Cablegate: Sri Lanka: President Rajapaksa's Report Card, One Year On
DE RUEHLM #1978/01 3320806
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 280806Z NOV 06
FM AMEMBASSY COLOMBO
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 4816
INFO RUEHKA/AMEMBASSY DHAKA 9643
RUEHIL/AMEMBASSY ISLAMABAD 6573
RUEHKT/AMEMBASSY KATHMANDU 4630
RUEHLO/AMEMBASSY LONDON 3351
RUEHNE/AMEMBASSY NEW DELHI 0276
RUEHNY/AMEMBASSY OSLO 3440
RUEHKO/AMEMBASSY TOKYO 2528
RUEHCG/AMCONSUL CHENNAI 7114
RUEHBI/AMCONSUL MUMBAI 4921
RHHMUNA/HQ USPACOM HONOLULU HI
UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 COLOMBO 001978
E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PREL PGOV PHUM PTER CE
SUBJECT: SRI LANKA: PRESIDENT RAJAPAKSA'S REPORT CARD, ONE YEAR ON
1. (SBU) SUMMARY: President Mahinda Rajapaksa came to office in
November 2005 after a campaign highlighting his strong Sinhalese
nationalism. He made electoral pacts with the Marxist, Sinhalese
chauvinist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the hard-line
Buddhist monk-based Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). Rajapaksa's
pre-election rhetoric, compiled in his manifesto "Mahinda Chintana"
(Mahinda's thoughts), focused on a "unitary" Sri Lankan state and
made a number of economic and infrastructure commitments, most of
which he has not fulfilled. One year into the Rajapaksa presidency,
the peace process has stalled, the ethnic conflict has re-ignited
and economic development has not met the average voter's
expectations. Yet economic growth remains high thanks to continued
strong remittances and healthy rains that will help the politically
crucial agricultural sector. The populist Rajapaksa remains popular
among his Sinhalese base, despite widespread dissatisfaction among
the intellectuals and elites of Colombo. End summary.
MAHINDA CHINTANA: "UNDIVIDED COUNTRY,
NATIONAL CONSENSUS, AND HONORABLE PEACE"
2. (SBU) President Mahinda Rajapaksa hinged his 2005 campaign on
Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict, committing in both his electoral pacts
and his manifesto "Mahinda Chintana" (Mahinda's thoughts) to review
the 2002 Cease-Fire Agreement with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil
Eelam (LTTE). His pacts with the Marxist, Sinhalese chauvinist
Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and Buddhist monk-based Jathika Hela
Urumaya (JHU) led analysts to believe Rajapaksa would take a hard
line on the LTTE. However, Rajapaksa surprised many by later toning
down his rhetoric and making overtures to the LTTE, resulting in
government talks with the LTTE in Geneva in February 2006. Despite
the initial positive step, the peace process did not move forward,
and Rajapaksa's first year in office has seen a breakdown of the
2002 Cease-Fire Agreement and an upsurge in violence. On the
positive side, Rajapaksa asked Norway to remain as facilitator for
the peace process, despite vigorous objections from his erstwhile
coalition partners, the JVP and JHU.
3. (SBU) Rajapaksa followed through on Mahinda Chintana's
commitment to "Undivided Country, National Consensus, and Honorable
Peace" by assembling an All-Party Conference (APC). Ambitiously, he
promised to complete APC discussions within three months and to have
a viable negotiating position to open direct talks with the LTTE.
However, various Tamil parties, and even his principal opposition,
the United National Party (UNP), did not participate. In October
2006, Rajapaksa made another effort to build a "southern consensus"
on the ethnic conflict by negotiating an historic Memorandum of
Understanding with the UNP to work together on the peace process and
other critical issues facing the country.
4. (SBU) Nevertheless, Rajapaksa has yet to fulfill campaign
promises that could address some of the ethnic conflict's underlying
causes. To date, he has failed to institute teaching of both the
Tamil and Sinhala languages in schools, and to build two Tamil
schools in Colombo and a Muslim Boys' school in Kandy. Rajapaksa
has also reneged on promises to resettle the conflict's internally
displaced persons (IDPs) expeditiously and with government financial
assistance. His proposed "Jaya Lanka" program to assist
tsunami-affected persons has yet to materialize, except for the
permanent shelter component in his home constituency Hambantota.
MACRO ECONOMIC MANAGEMENT
5. (SBU) Mahinda Chinthana promised to achieve 8 percent growth over
the next 6 years and ensure that benefits of growth filtered in to
the general public and the poor. According to recent government
projections, Sri Lankan economy is well on its way to achieving 7
percent growth in 2006, with growth projected at 7.5 percent in
2007. Mahinda Chintana has resulted in high inflation, with average
inflation currently running over 12 percent (and 17 percent during
the year beginning October 2005). Defending the high cost of
living, the President in his budget speech said that people are
ready to and should make sacrifices for national security. The
budget deficit for 2006, estimated at 8.6 percent of GDP, has come
at the expense of a substantial cut in public investment. Due to
increased welfare spending and salary increases, recurrent expenses
have increased sharply by 23 percent in 2006. Public debt is
estimated to come down to 91.5 percent of GDP from about 105 percent
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as nominal GDP expanded due to inflation, not because government
borrowing has been reduced.
CONCESSIONS FOR SOME SECTORS
6. (SBU) The government has been forced to find funds for newly
created government jobs, salaries, subsidies and welfare measures
through increased taxation. Since coming to power, Rajapaksa has
increased corporate and personal income taxes, import tariffs and
other import charges. In addition, a new stamp duty on a range of
transactions was introduced. The magnitude of the tax burden was
highlighted by the World Bank in its Doing Business Report.
According to the report, Sri Lankan businesses face one of the
highest tax rates (75 percent of profits) in the world. Rajapaksa
has kept to promises to assist some local industries, such as the
film industry, construction, gem and jewelry and footwear with
tariff protection and tax concessions.
MOST EDUCATIONAL AND ECONOMIC PROMISES UNFULFILLED
7. (SBU) On the social services side, Rajapaksa has begun to
fulfill some of his key promises on the Samurdhi welfare program, an
income transfer scheme aimed at the poorest of the poor. He
increased Samurdhi payments by 50 percent in August 2006 - but only
to half the recipient families. Other, less efficient programs have
languished. He also promised an ambitious five-year development
plan to establish a Ministry for Children and provide greater
assistance to children's homes, daycare centers, and pre-schools.
Most analysts discounted these as mere electioneering, and in fact,
the president has not delivered on any of these commitments. He did
establish a Ministry of Child Development and Women's Empowerment.
8. (SBU) Rajapaksa kept his "University for All" promise from the
Mahinda Chintana, earmarking increased scholarship money in the 2007
budget. However, in his 2006 budget, Rajapaksa managed to create
only 3000 jobs of the 10,000 public sector jobs he had promised to
unemployed graduates. He included funding for an additional 7000
jobs in 2007. From the beginning, it has been clear that the
promise of employment was to win votes rather than to improve the
bloated government -- which has over 70 ministries crammed into
numerous office buildings filled with bored, underworked staff.
Some new employees have reportedly been encouraged not to show up
for work since there is nothing for them to do, and no workspace.
AGRICULTURAL, INFRASTRUCTURE POLICIES:
WAITING FOR IMPLEMENTATION
9. (SBU) Rajapaksa partly fulfilled one key campaign promise to
provide fertilizer at a subsidized price. However, to date only
paddy farmers have benefited from the subsidy, while other farmers
have not. Rajapaksa's proposed Paddy Marketing Board to set price
floors for rice sales is still on the drawing board. Mahinda
Chintana also pledged the rehabilitation of 10,000 water "tanks"
(irrigation ponds), but the government failed to deliver. The
promised National Land Policy to allocate 100,000 plots of land to
farmers did not even reach the discussion stage in 2006.
10. (SBU) Rajapaksa also included "Electricity for All" in his
manifesto, promising research and construction of thermal, hydro,
wind, and solar power plants. The government has taken no tangible
steps with regard to these initiatives, although a coal power plant
in Norochcholai is under development. Meanwhile, the government
continues straining its limited coffers to keep afloat inefficient
state-owned companies which manage subsidized energy production.
Mahinda Chintana also promised to tap offshore oil and natural gas
deposits and to channel benefits public quickly. Rajapaksa declared
that oil and gas revenues would be a panacea for Sri Lanka's
economic problems. Despite political pressure for a rapid
exploitation of reserves, it appears that politicians are willing to
wait for a well-designed plan that will strike a reasonable balance
between appropriate development and expediency.
PROMISES TO HIS CONSTITUENCY
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11. (SBU) Regional development beyond the well-off Western Province
(which includes Colombo) was a key part of Rajapaksa's campaign
rhetoric. Rajapaksa is clearly attempting to keep his promise to
people in his constituency in the Sinhalese south. Work on the
highway connecting Colombo to Matara continues. Recently the GSL
and donors decided to widen the highway to 4 lanes by 2010 and are
conducting feasibility studies to extend the road to Hambantota.
Government agencies are planning an airport and a port in
Hambantota. On the other hand, Mahinda Chintana had promised to
construct 20 overpasses in Colombo within three years to minimize
traffic congestion and accidents at road-rail crossings. The Road
Development Authority reported no discussions to date on these
12. (SBU) COMMENT: Rajapaksa has a no better than average record for
politicians when it comes to delivering on his campaign rhetoric.
While the long-running ethnic conflict is no closer to resolution
now than when he took office, the Tamil Tigers bear a large share of
the blame for the resumption of hostilities. The focus on the
violence has taken up most of the national debate - and taken some
heat off the President to perform on his other promises. Still,
Rajapaksa could do more to address Tamil concerns, for example, by
promoting dual-language instruction in schools according to the
commitment he made in Mahinda Chintana.