COLOMBO // Sri Lanka's armed forces, having defeated the Tamil separatist rebels in May this year, were yesterday preparing for another battle: running the country's essential services - water, electricity, fuel and ports as trade unions claimed success in a protest over wage demands.
Unions belonging to the main opposition party, United National, and the People's Liberation Front, Sri Lanka's third largest political force, claimed success in the work-to-rule campaign, which began yesterday in the institutions that are responsible for fuel, water, electricity and the ports across the country. Work-to-rule involves employees working strictly "by the book" and in line with their contracts, refusing overtime and shift work and not standing in for absent colleagues.
The military spokesman, Brig Udaya Nanayakkara, told reporters that the army said the government would not allow the public to suffer and would ensure an uninterrupted flow of services. The military has been mobilised to run public utilities in similar emergency situations in the past. The unions' wage demands vary from a 6,000-rupee (Dh192.5) per month allowance to a 50-per-cent wage increase. A last-minute government offer on Tuesday to increase salaries by 22 per cent at the state-owned Ceylon Petroleum Corp was rejected by the workers.
"The protest is successful," said Palitha Athukorala, the convener of the UNP-controlled National Workers' Union (JSS). "Work has been disrupted and the navy hasn't been able to step in at the Colombo harbour and ensure a smooth flow of work." The navy was called in to operate the tug boats at the Colombo port, but with the tug masters refusing to co-operate, that effort failed, claimed Udeni Kaluthanthri, the leader of the JSS's Colombo port unit.
Close to 5,000 workers gathered inside the port during a lunch-hour protest and shouted slogans demanding wage increases, while senior executives were "hooted" as they drove back after lunch, he said. Mr Kaluthanthri claimed that a worker from a breakaway group of a pro-government union was assaulted by pro-government workers and taken to hospital. The protesting workers have also threatened to block an oil tanker, carrying thousands of tonnes of fuel for the Ceylon Petroleum Corp, entering port today. "It's anchored in the outer harbour perimeter. We won't allow it inside if workers are subject to assaults," Mr Kaluthanthri said.
Queues formed outside petrol stations in Colombo on Tuesday in anticipation of a shortage and by nightfall, the fuel sheds were empty. "The crisis will emerge tomorrow," Mr Athukorala said. Petrol stations outside Colombo were also short of supplies, although mainly because motorists were stocking up on petrol, buying three to four times more than their usual quantities, fearing a shortage. The government has accused the trade unions of a political conspiracy, saying the wage demands are a ruse to embarrass the administration. On Tuesday at the opening of a technical college in the central region, the president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, said he would not allow anyone to "destroy the country and a nation that was liberated by the armed forces".
He accused unnamed parties of conspiring to topple the government. He urged Sri Lankan youth not to be used as pawns by these political parties, and yesterday presided over a meeting of treasury and other government officials where it was decided to provide state jobs to more than 17,000 unemployed university graduates. Last week, hundreds of unemployed graduates staged demonstrations, a kilometre away from the president's office and clashed with police. There are more than 25,000 graduates from local universities, mostly from low-income families who have been waiting for government jobs for several years.
The current crisis has added to Mr Rajapaksa's problems as he prepares for presidential and parliamentary elections in coming months. On Sunday, the president is due to announce the day of the presidential poll when he speaks at the annual convention of his ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party. The likely date is in mid-January. Parliamentary polls would follow immediately, though there was speculation that he might hold both polls on the same day.
The country has been awash with speculation about the political future of Gen Sarath Fonseka, the chief of defence forces and widely credited with leading the army to victory over the rebels in May. While Gen Fonseka has not committed himself on whether he will enter the race against Mr Rajapaksa, daily media reports and website stories have spoken of the general receiving the backing of the main opposition parties as a common candidate to defeat the incumbent, whose popularity soared during the period of the war, but which has since slipped because of public anger over the rising cost of living, state corruption and mismanagement.