Strike, Dry Spell Leaves Sri Lanka Powered Down

The government-imposed end of a three-day strike that plunged this island nation into a total blackout means electricity has been restored to weary Sri Lankans, desperate for respite from the sweltering heat.

Normal life and commercial activity had ground to a halt, and there had been scenes of chaos in the capital as residents flocked to shops to buy fuel for lighting and other essential supplies.

For a country that already experiences acute power shortages, last week's strike was a devastating blow to a once-buoyant economy. President Chandrika Kumaratunga invoked emergency powers and ordered the strikers back to work, saying, "Democracy or no democracy, we will use whatever means necessary, short of killing people, to get these workers back to their jobs."

Ruling out negotiations with the unions, Ms. Kumaratunga said she had ordered a police operation, code-named Operation Shock, to round up the strikers and force them back to work.

An influential group of parliamentarians, whose support is crucial to the governing coalition, also held talks with union leaders who are demanding an end to the government plans to privatize the country's power industry, and electricity was eventually restored.

The strike came amid a power-supply crisis in Sri Lanka, a nation about the size of West Virginia that depends on hydropower for more than 80 percent of its electricity. The failure of the last monsoons left crucial reservoirs dangerously low. Power cuts of eight hours a day are being enforced across the island to avert another blackout.

"Sri Lanka's power crisis is as much to do with bad planning as bad weather," says Leslie Herath of the state electricity board. The demand for electricity has grown, he says, but the government has not built additional power stations to respond to the demand.

The power cuts hit small businesses the hardest. They account for more than 80 percent of the country's income. Analysts say the power crisis, along with a long-running war against ethnic Tamil rebels, is diminishing Sri Lanka's hopes of becoming an "Asian Tiger" economy.

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