Various residents of Sri Lanka
Gerard Chaliand, Professor, École Supérieure de Guerre,
This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.
JEFF MARTIN: This is Common Ground.
ANTON MARCOS: So we have to consider all these things. We can’t say, counting the
production targets, and say that it is sexist. We have to consider their daily life, their
cultural aspect, and all aspects.
MARTIN: In this edition of Common Ground, a report on the economy of Sri Lanka.
Rapid industrialization has boosted the economy’s performance but left many workers behind. Some
of them are organizing to protest the situation.
DAVID DUNHAM: It will be unfortunate if the labor unrest that the country’s been
suffering over the last few months was to be exacerbated by this kind of confrontational
MARTIN: Later in the program, an expert on international terrorism urges that we keep
that problem in perspective.
REESE ERLICH: It’s extremely overrated. It’s essentially a relationship between the
terrorisms and the medias, and the medias do overrate.
MARTIN: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape
events. It is produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Jeff Martin.
By the standards of some international business people and economists, Sri Lanka is an economic
success story. For the past 15 years, the once backward island nation has been privatizing
state-run companies, establishing free trade zones, and attracting foreign investors. But for
many Sri Lankan workers, the new wealth hasn’t trickled down to them. And with the intensified
civil war between the government and Tamil Tiger guerrillas, the economy is really hitting the
skids. Reese Erlich reports from the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo.
ERLICH: A woman washes clothes by hand in front of her boarding house near the country’s
oldest free trade zone. The term “boarding house” is a little misleading. It’s really a rickety
building where five workers jam into ten-foot-square rooms. They all work in the free trade
zone’s electronic and garment factories. They pay one-third to one-half of their monthly wages in
rent. A male friend helps translate for this woman worker.
MAN: Is this considered one of the good or one of the bad boarding houses?
WOMAN: This is living good, a little better than others, because in other boarding
houses, too much [sic] people.
MAN: So in the other houses, how many girls would be sleeping in one room like this?
WOMAN: Something like ten living there.
ERLICH: The women walk over to the communal kitchen. It’s really only a
four-by-twelve-foot room in which to build wood fires. There’s no electricity or running water.
WOMAN: Only one kitchen, this one. They use this kitchen, because this one like this,
then they cook some rice and curry. They cook here.
MAN: And this is all…
WOMAN: Thirty women. Only this one.
ERLICH: Many of the women work in garment factories sewing shirts and pants for $30 a
month, that end up selling for $30 apiece in the United States, Australia, or Europe. Benalika
Priyangani is a 30-year-old worker who says women in the free trade zones are often subjected to
sexual harassment from supervisors. She discusses one infamous case.
WOMAN: There was a Filipino manager, and the women workers had to obey his requests.
Those who refused to obey his requests, he victimized them. Sometimes he would sack them or find
some other allegations. They could be fired.
ERLICH: Women are expected still to be virgins when they get married, so does this mean
that these girls will have trouble getting married? Is it that serious?
WOMAN: That’s a big problem. I know one girl because of that situation, she really got a
mental problem. Finally, she had to resign from the factory.
ERLICH: The free trade zones were supposed to bring prosperity to Sri Lanka. Back in
1979, the government set up the first specially enclosed zone. It had good quality
infrastructure, and the government lured in foreign businesses with subsidies and tax breaks. But
the zones mainly attracted garment and electronics factories that shipped in all the raw material
and exported the finished product, providing little in the way of economic development for Sri
Lanka. And employers kept unions out. Today, after enduring years of low pay and difficult
working conditions, Sri Lankan workers are fighting back. Here at a meeting outside Colombo,
workers plan strategy for unionizing the free trade zones. Anton Marcos, joint secretary of
General Transport and General Workers Union, says the free trade zones have not really benefited
MARCOS: It’s a terrible situation, if you were to see the factory or if you were to see
the boarding house. You will see the real situation there, and the workers are facing a lot of
cultural conflicts and religious conflicts. Their whole life system has been changed. We have to
consider all these things. We can’t say, counting the production targets, and say that it is
sexist. We have to consider their daily life, their cultural aspect, and all aspects.
ERLICH: The Sri Lankan business community disagrees. David Dunham, an economist at the
Pro-Business Institute for Policy Studies in Colombo, says the free trade zones have provided
thousands of jobs. He says they’ve proven to be a successful model. Subsidies and tax advantages
once offered only to businesses in the zones are now available throughout the country.
DUNHAM: There were initially distinct advantages for firms to be in the free trade zone.
There were tax holidays and other incentives which were offered to them. Now these incentives are
being somewhat eroded over time, because firms who met the government’s export criteria—90
percent of exports are production being exported in the case of manufacturing, 70 percent in the
case of agriculture—would be entitled to the same incentives. From that score, the island has
become one big free trade zone.
ERLICH: In 1994, Sri Lankans elected the social democratic government of Chandrika
Kumaratunga. She ran for president on a program promising significant improvements for workers
and a crackdown on abusive employers. The workers took her at her word. During the summer of
1995, workers staged dozens of spontaneous strikes demanding better pay and unionization.
Sometimes the workers sat down in the factories and refused to allow managers to leave. Dunham
says Sri Lankan workers have legitimate complaints, but the strikes went too far.
DUNHAM: The Chambers of Commerce and Industry have already expressed some reservations in
this regard, and it would be unfortunate if the labor unrest that the country’s been suffering
over the last few months were to be exacerbated by this kind of confrontational possibility. I
wouldn’t say it’s been encouraged by the government, but certainly the government has been rather
reluctant to come out open and forcefully against it. Their stand has been somewhat ambiguous in
that respect. I would think that, for foreign investors at the moment, labor unrest is one of the
ERLICH: Labor leader Marcos defends the labor militancy, pointing out that most of the
strikes were angry, spontaneous outbreaks.
MARCOS: Because of the oppression, and this oppression with the last government, workers
who supported this government with the expectation that they will be able to get more
opportunities and more freedom and more rights. That is why when the government changed workers
started to react. Most of these factories went on strike, spontaneously, because they’d been
denied the opportunity to organize trade unions. Trade union rights were suppressed.
ERLICH: Listening to the noisy traffic of Colombo, Rev. Dr. Rienzie Perera sits calmly
at his desk. He’s general secretary of the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka. He says Sri
Lanka’s economic problems stem in part from policies imposed by The World Bank and the
International Monetary Fund. Sri Lanka has had to sell off state companies, encourage private
investment, reduce trade barriers, cut government services, and reduce government regulation. The
policies certainly enrich the Sri Lankan business class, says Reverend Perera, but ordinary
people benefited little.
REV. DR. RIENZIE PERERA: We expect the government to come in, not to control totally. But
certain safety mechanisms must be assured to the people. That should be the basic health
standards, security. Things must be assured of the people. I’m not talking about everyday going
on strike for better wages. No. Certain decent, dignified, wage scales should be given. Also, the
government must see that our environment—our seas, the water, the air—is protected. What has
happened in other parts of the world should not be encouraged here. The government should be
there protecting us. I think that’s right. I don’t think anybody can say otherwise. Also, because
the trickle down theory has not worked anywhere in the world.
ERLICH: Whatever has trickled down is now in danger of stopping altogether, because of
Sri Lanka’s widening civil war. Rice mill owner, Muhammad Juffry, stands proudly in front of a
husking machine at his factory in the northeastern city of Kathankudy. A friend translates.
MUHAMMAD JUFFRY: Yes. We’re moving the paddy inside and removing the husk here.
ERLICH: Juffry says the country’s civil war has had a devastating impact on the economy.
The war intensified some 12 years ago. The government sought to impose the language and Buddhist
religion of the Senegalese majority onto the Tamil minority. The Tamils, who are mainly Hindu,
demanded greater autonomy. Today, the Tamil Tiger guerrillas are fighting to create an
independent Tamil state in the north and east of the country. Juffry says the fighting has made
business quite difficult.
JUFFRY: In early 1987, this mill was affected due to the world condition. All the
machinery was removed in ’87. After that they established it again. In early 1990, they
reestablished all over the Middle East.
ERLICH: Today, business is even harder. Juffry buys rice from a village 23 miles away.
The military checkpoints along the road delay shipments for days, thus driving up the price of
rice in this area tenfold in the past year.
JUFFRY: In 23 miles there are five or six military checkpoints. At each checkpoint they
want us to unload and…
DUNHAM: It most certainly had a serious effect from a macroeconomic point of view.
ERLICH: Economist David Dunham.
DUNHAM: A crucial problem from a macroeconomic standpoint is the budget deficit. The
government is extremely concerned about this, and the expenditure on defense is a very key
component. If this expenditure were reduced, the budget deficit problem, the management would be
much less. And that could be more readily resolved. The present government has placed very high
priority on peace. I think that’s an admirable development. We would all like to see that. But
that has been somewhat at the price of economic policy. While we have policy statements, the
government is continuing its priorities for economic liberalization. There’s not been quite as
much movement, quite as much clearcut political thrust, in that direction as we would like to
ERLICH: Back at the union meeting, labor leader Marcos offers a very different criticism
of the government.
MARCOS: Basically, there is no difference between the earlier government and the new
government, because both governments are trying to encourage the investment. They want to
encourage the investors to come. To do that, they definitely had to suppress the workers’ right.
Of course, after this government the workers got some freedom to organize, freedom to speech.
Even when there’s a strike, the police are not behaved like earlier government. That freedom is
there when emergency regulations are not there.
ERLICH: The government recently began national discussions about adopting a worker’s
charter. A document that would allow greater unionization and workers’ rights. The workers
charter is strongly opposed by the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups. Marcos and
other union leaders plan to take full advantage of any opening provided by the charter to begin a
campaign of unionization in the free trade zones. Between the civil war and worker unrest, Sri
Lanka’s economy appears to be headed for some difficult times. For Common Ground, I’m
MARTIN: Common Ground continues in a moment with comments from an expert on
GERARD CHALIAND: Remember when Mr. Arafat was called just a terrorist, and you don’t talk
with terrorists? Finally, the Israeli government admitted that Mr. Arafat is the representative
of a people which is called the Palestinians, and they have some rights.
MARTIN: Audiocassettes of this Common Ground program are available. Listen at the
end of the broadcast for details on ordering. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley
Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts varied programs and activities
meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.
MARTIN: First the Irish Republican Army broke its 17-month cease-fire. Now the Hamas has
renewed its terrorist campaign in Israel. Terrorism and guerrilla warfare seem to go hand in
hand, but in this segment of our program, Mary Gray Davidson reports that there is an important
MARY GRAY DAVIDSON: There is an expression that says “one person’s terrorist is another’s
freedom fighter.” Gerard Chaliand from McGill University in Montreal has observed armed conflicts
from both perspectives for the past 30 years, studying combatants from Guinea Bissau to Nagorno
Karabakh. The important element that distinguishes a terrorist campaign from a guerrilla war,
says Chaliand, is the base of support. Where a guerrilla war like the one in Ireland may employ
terrorist techniques, it also has wide support among the population.
CHALIAND: Terrorists, on the other hand, can be just a bunch of people. It can be a few
dozen and be a sort of self-proclaimed vanguard. Many of those Islamic groups or any of the true
believers of other societies or other religions are very few; and they don’t need much to be, up
to a certain point, efficient. You need a little bit of money, a few weapons, some passports, if
you have a state who gives you some help like yesterday from Iraq or Libya or Syria or today from
Iran. It’s quite easy to be acting as a terrorist group. All you need is to be underground and
possibly have some kind of local network in the country where you want to act.
DAVIDSON: Do you see very often terrorist movements which are very small moving into a
guerrilla warfare that does have more popular support?
CHALIAND: That has happened. I would say probably the classical case in this century
would be Algeria. Algeria, who was occupied by the French for about 130 years, had a movement
called Front of National Liberation. They were about 150 people, the first of November, 1954.
They decided that that night there will be a whole night of sabotage and terrorist action all
over the country, and they did it. They were isolated, but slowly, slowly they were able to build
their infrastructure. In 1962, in other words seven years later when there was a referendum
asking that you want to remain French or would you like to become Algerian, 95 percent of the
population voted for independence. So they did succeed. It’s easier to succeed when you’re
oppressed and fighting for national freedom, than most of the programs that we see today about
the cessation of a minority or the revindication of a small religious group.
DAVIDSON: Would you classify what’s going on in Algeria today as a small group that is
using terrorist tactics to take control of the government?
CHALIAND: In the case of Algeria, they have some backing. It’s a fact. Unlike Egypt,
where the Muslim brothers and the elder Islamists are rather isolated, I would say that in
Algeria there is some backing. But women don’t back that movement, because it’s extremely
antifeminist. Learned people don’t back it. They also try to terrorize also their own people to
force them to behave the way they think they should.
DAVIDSON: If the Islamists in Algeria become successful in their efforts to impose an
Islamic regime, do you see that as a foreshadowing for that happening elsewhere in the Middle
East? There are some analysts who say, well then Egypt will be next in the efforts to overthrow
that secular rule?
DAVIDSON: The domino theory is…
CHALIAND: Yes. I don’t believe in the domino theory. Some people are trying to sell it
again now, selling anxiety with the problem of Islamism. Iran is Islamist since 1979. Okay, what
did we see? Did it really go to Iraq? Has it changed the balance of the Middle East? Did they do
something important as far as growth is concerned? No, it’s a failure. All in all, it’s a
failure. It’s a nuisance, but it’s a failure. I don’t believe that the Islamists are going to win
in Algeria. I think it’s extremely improbable, I’m not saying that it’s impossible but highly
improbable. And even though they would, it will not bring collapse in Morocco where the king is a
legitimate king and knows what power means. Tunisia is a country which economically is going
well. In other words, the problem in Algeria is that they have a population which has doubled,
and in the last 15 years they had no growth at all. In other words, every year the economic
situation in Algeria is worse. This, of course, helps whoever is dissenting. Fifty years ago or
40 years ago or two decades ago, it would have been the classical ultra-left who would have
dissented. Now it is fashionable that it is Islamist, because that kind of far left is finished.
DAVIDSON: We’ve been talking about the Middle East and North Africa, is that where most
of the terrorism today is concentrated? The reason I ask that is at least in the United States,
when there is something like the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, most people’s
first thought was, these are Islamic terrorists. But as it turned out, at least in the
preliminary investigation, it’s a home-grown terrorist movement.
CHALIAND: Yes. I would say that terrorism is a technique, it’s not a characteristic of
the Middle East. It can be home-grown. You have known it. We had it in France, it was called
Actione Directe (direct action). The Germans had it, the Baader-Meinhof gang, called in German
the Red Army Faction. The Italians had the Brigate Rosse, the Red Brigades. The Belgium’s had it,
etc. The Japanese have some. In other words, it can be home-grown. But it is a fact that if we
look to the last 25 years, since 1968, many of the terrorist groups have been from the Middle
East for at least three reasons. One is that Lebanon, which from 1975 to 1985 was in a total
anarchy, was a country where you could go without any passport, train, receive shelter, weapons,
etc. So it was very convenient. Many groups went there, including the IRA or the Germans or the
French. Second, some of the states of the Middle East were backing as a sort of diplomatic
terrorism, some of the groups. Those states were Libya, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. Third, Islamist
groups or Palestinian groups were trying to use terrorism, because they had no other means of
doing anything serious. The Palestinians, for instance, used terrorism for the very simple reason
they were not able to wage a guerrilla warfare in the occupied territories. It was, up to a
certain point, the acceptance of their weakness.
DAVIDSON: You said that the period between 1945 and 1975 was really a classical period of
guerrilla warfare. There were a lot of liberation movements against colonial powers. Is that why
those European groups that you listed earlier—the Actione Directe, the Baader-Meinhof, the Red
Brigade—were not successful, because they weren’t fighting a colonial power that the majority of
people saw as illegitimate?
CHALIAND: Yes, certainly. They never had any backing. Their analysis which was a sort of
distorted Marxism-Leninism was absolutely incoherent. Their idea was that our states—in other
words the United States, Canada, Western Europe—are not democratic, apparently, for them. That
the state still was the representative of the bourgeoisie and that the state was coercive and
repressive. How are you going to show that to what they call the masses? Through terrorism. In
other words, there is a cycle. They said, you start terrorism, the state will repress you. Then
you go on for some more terrorism, and then the repressive side of the state will be obvious to
the masses. They will join you as the revolution. Of course, it was a stupid doctrine.
DAVIDSON: I just wanted to make one clarification and that is the word terrorist is such
a loaded word. In your study of terrorism, how do you distinguish between say terrorist groups
that may have legitimate complaints about a government that may be truly repressive. I’m trying
to think of how I would phrase this question.
CHALIAND: I understand you. I would say that personally to me it essentially is it a
movement backed by a large popular movement. Yes or no? Not the first day of the fight, but after
a few years, you see if the movement has real backing. In other words, if it really corresponds
to some kind of oppression, some kind of aspiration, that has been the case of the Algerians.
They were using some terrorist techniques, but they were not just terrorists. Do you remember
when Mr. Arafat was called just a terrorist, and you don’t talk with terrorists.
DAVIDSON: Not long ago.
CHALIAND: Finally, when the Israeli government admitted that Mr. Arafat is really, really
the representative of a people which is called the Palestinians and that they have some rights.
DAVIDSON: I know people who are afraid to travel. They hear about bombings in Paris or
other parts of the world. But is terrorism a greater threat to people today than it ever has
CHALIAND: No, not at all. It’s extremely overrated. Terrorism is essentially the most
violent way of making psychological warfare. It’s essentially a relationship between the
terrorisms and the medias, and the medias do overrate terrorism. We make some sensationalism
about it. All in all, militarily speaking, it’s absolutely an efficient, even if you know we
consult the figures that the Rand Corporation has counted. It’s very few victims. Of course, it’s
too many; but it’s very few victims. It’s a lot more dangerous to drive drunk or to go on some
sections of US big cities than to go to Paris today. This is extremely marginal. It can make
headlines, because it’s nice to sell anxiety. But it’s a very, very minor thing.
DAVIDSON: For Common Ground, I’m Mary Gray Davidson.
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