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He talked of peace but died fighting to the end
Asian consumers go back to basics in downturn
SEOUL: Forget about bells and whistles. Asians have gone back to basics in the economic slowdown and are opting for no-frills, lower-priced products rather than brand names and items with fancy features that rarely get used. Manufacturers across the region, the world’s largest producer of electronics and white goods, are more than happy to oblige as they scramble for orders that will keep their heads above water until the economic tide changes. “People are hesitant to buy top-notch, expensive models, but they still want to buy decent ones with some useful functions,” said Kohei Ueda, a general manager at Bic Camera, a major consumer electronics chain in Japan. From laptops without standard accessories such as CD-roms, to rice cookers and microwave ovens with minimal functions, brands such as Samsung and LG Electronics are quickly introducing basic items that can be sold at lower price points. It’s all about surviving the slowdown which has dealt a severe blow to Asia’s export-dependent economies such as South Korea which saw exports drop 25% in the first quarter of the year alone. “In an economic downturn, liquidity problems outweigh the factor of profits. Therefore, it would be important to keep their factories running and pay back debt,” said Choe Soon-kyoo, a professor of Yonsei University’s business school in Seoul. “They are adopting that low-price strategy to maintain liquidity rather than to make profits,” he added. Buoyant sales from these products are providing relief, and much needed cash flow, to companies that posted heavy profit falls or swung to quarterly losses early this year such as Samsung Electronics whose earnings plummeted to 619 billion won in the March quarter from 2.2 trillion won a year ago. Some companies such as LG Electronics are introducing new products to capture market share during a time of uncertainty. Late last year, it introduced the Cookie, a smart phone that sells for 590,000 won (US$475), 20-40% cheaper than other smart phones with price tags of US$600-$800. “Our Cookie phone is designed to fit in the recession environment,” Skott Ahn, President and CEO of LG Electronics’ Mobile Communications unit, remarked at a recent media event. “Acceptance of touchscreen phones is growing but there’s a price barrier. Our target is making premium phones more affordable and widely available”. Doing away with redundancies in functions and rationalising product line-ups helps companies cut back on costs. For consumers, it may reflect a desire for simplicity at a time of austerity, a sharp contrast to the rampant materialism of the bygone boom years. “Until now consumers had vague expectations that multi-functioning products would be good ones and they could not help paying higher prices to get quality functions,” said LG Economic Research Institute in a recent research note. “But consumers started being fatigued with multiple functions, and (began) looking for divergent products with core functions.” The ‘no frills’ attitude goes beyond electronics. Sales of cheap staples such as noodles and fast-food meals have risen even as purchases of items such as meat have fallen due to the slowdown. In Japan, one of the country’s leading department stores has reduced the range of products it sells by 40% to cut down on inventory costs as Japanese retail sales slow to the lowest levels in four years. “It’s time for back to basics. Customers have changed dramatically in the past few months,” Motoya Okada, the president of Aeon Co Ltd department store, said at a news conference in March. “By reducing the variety of items, the number of suppliers will be also reduced, which will be reflected in our bargaining power,” he added. One store in Tokyo, run by Aeon, saw its sales of frying pans rise after it cut variety to 37 styles from 60, according to officials from the firm. Park Jean, an analyst for Woori Investment & Securities in Seoul, said reducing the breadth of product lines is an effective way of cutting costs in a difficult business environment. “It is a matter of efficiency,” he said. “Mass production of a few core products can lower production costs rather than producing a variety of models on a small scale.” Making profits is tough in a difficult economy with the International Monetary Fund predicting that private consumption in Asia will remain subdued as long as rising unemployment, weak confidence and low asset prices weigh on household spending. Kim Rando, a consumer science professor at Seoul National University, said the trick is to differentiate products and cut production costs by designing easy-to-use products that retain the functions that consumers most want and need. – Reuters But despite Balasingham’s political savvy, it soon became clear that the implications of the conference had not been thought through. Prabhakaran was held responsible for the assassinations of Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan president Ranasinghe Premadasa and other political leaders. The Tigers had been proscribed as a terrorist organisation by both Britain and the United States. Prabhakaran had clung to power by killing off his rivals and terrorising moderate Tamils into silence. When the LTTE seized control of the Jaffna peninsula in the island’s far north, its 40,000-strong Muslim comOnce these fundamentals are munity had been recognised, and if the people given 24 hours to are satisfied, we will consider flee. Now peace giving up the demand for Eelam.” his – Prabhakaran was within the grasp, was man who had younger than his 47 years, devoted his life to the armed dressed as usual in green struggle going to announce a combat fatigues, pounding historic change? up on to the stage closely Speaking in a squeaky hemmed in by muscular voice at odds with his fearyoung bodyguards, all wear- some appearance, Prabing sunglasses. Someone in hakaran insisted that he was Prabhakaran’s camp had ready to compromise. been watching too many The Tigers were commitvideos. ted to a Tamil homeland, The event was the brain- nationality and self-deterchild of Anton Balasingham, mination, he said, but “once long the political brains of the these fundamentals are Tigers, a former employee of recognised, and if the people the British High Commission are satisfied, we will conin Colombo, drop-out from a sider giving up the demand South Bank Polytechnic PhD for Eelam” – in other words course, married to Adele, an for the Tamil nation state. Australian who was the only But could a man with so known western Tiger. much blood on his hands really change? Could the ruthless brigand chief really mutate into a democratically elected The leader of Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tiger rebels, Velupillai Prabhakaran, leader in a suit? We looked at him and his has been shot dead while fleeing government troops. His death goons and wondered. What comes as the Sri Lankan army claims it has liberated the entire country was he prepared to say, for 1956: Minority Tamils marginalised Kilinochchi War zone example, about Rajiv Ganafter government makes Sinhala dhi’s assassination. 8km Puthukkudiyirippu the official language “It is a very sensitive is5 miles sue,” he fudged. “It is a tragic 1976: Rebel incident that happened ten LTTE formed by Prabhakaran and years ago.” Velupillai And the suicide bombtwo deputies killed Mullaittivu Prabhakaran to ings, his own invention, the in ambush while fight for separate LTTE’s hideous trade mark trying to escape Tamil state in until aped by Al Qaeda? in ambulance north-east of island “Since we are now 1987: India deploys peacekeepers committed to peace,” he Kilinochchi INDIA squeaked, “we don’t want to Tamil areas but they leave in 1990 to make any comment 1993: President Ranasinghe about suicide attacks at this Premadasa assassinated by LTTE stage...” INDIAN suicide bomber in capital, Colombo We piled back into our OCEAN Area under 2002: Government and rebels vans and rumbled through LTTE control the night to another corner sign Norwegian-brokered ceasefire April 2008 of the jungle where we filed 2005: Mahinda Rajapaksa our stuff. SRI LANKA elected president Sri Lanka was finally at 2006: LTTE resumes attacks peace: all over the island, Colombo Tamils and Sinhalese were 2008: Government annuls ceasefire More united in joyful relief. than 70,000 Jan 2009: Army takes main rebel But not a few of us asked people have bases of Kilinochchi and Mullaittivu ourselves if Prabhakaran 80km been killed in could succeed in transformMay: LTTE concedes defeat after 26-year conflict 50 miles ing himself, or whether he army overruns rebel-held area would die in those fatigues. Picture: Getty Images © GRAPHIC NEWS – The Independent
A worker checks a MP3 player at a small-scale assembly line of South Korean MP3 maker BBT in Seoul. Asians have gone back to basics and are opting for no-frills, lower-priced products.

LONDON: He was the most reclusive guerilla leader of modern times, cocooning himself in the dense jungle of the Vanni in northern Sri Lanka surrounded by bodyguards and his closest comrades, never photographed, never betrayed, never spotted. It was ten years since he had given his last interview, and the only western journalist to try to reach him since then, Marie Colvin of the Sunday Times, failed in the attempt and lost an eye in the process. But in 2002 the Norwegians coaxed the two sides in the island’s civil war to the negotiating table where they brokered a ceasefire that for the fi rst time really looked like holding. And Velupillai Prabhakaran, founder and undisputed chief of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), was persuaded that the time was ripe to introduce himself to the world. He decided to hold a press conference. But “thambi”, “little brother” as he was known to his supporters (he was the youngest of four brothers), was taking no chances. He was not going to set foot outside the jungle for our benefit: we would have to find our way to him. And to minimise the chances of his being killed by a suicide bomb, the terrorist device he had invented and used to kill two South Asian heads of state and hundreds of other people, the security was meticulous. We were ordered to arrive in Kilinochchi, the rebel-held town closest to

his hideout, a full 24 hours before the event. No indication was given of when the great man might show up. After hanging around in sticky heat for half a day, finally vans arrived to ferry us to the venue, a tin-roofed hall open to the jungle in the LTTE’s Political Academy deep in the jungle. We were obliged to leave anything that might contain a nasty surprise, including satellite dishes, computer bags and even wallets, back at base. Ears, mouths and socks had all been minutely inspected. More hours of waiting ensued in the sticky monsoon heat of evening – then suddenly he was among us, short, tubby, looking