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Sri Lanka's Political Turmoil May Undermine Peace, Stability - 2003-11-09


The political crisis that erupted this week in Sri Lanka, with a series of political maneuvers by the president to undermine the prime minister, shows no sign of letting up. Some fear that unless the two politicians find a way to work together, it will jeopardize peace negotiations aimed at ending a bloody, 20-year-old insurgency. It was a series of bold moves: Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga ousted three government ministers, suspended parliament, deployed soldiers in the streets of the capital and took over state media - moves that are often associated with the launch of a coup d'etat.

But analysts say Ms. Kumaratuna was acting within her constitutional powers, and her real aim was to weaken Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe by accusing him of endangering national security, and persuading members of his ruling party to defect to her side.

The analysts say she acted after months of frustration with the prime minister. The two fierce political rivals, each of whom heads a different party, agreed to form a government of "cohabitation" after Mr. Wickremesinghe's election in December 2001. But Jehan Perera of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, a peace advocacy group, says the president has found herself shut out instead.

"The Constitution vests tremendous powers in her, but after the election of December 2001 she has had virtually no part to play in the government," he said. "We all knew in Sri Lanka that sooner or later she would make a bid for power. … What caught us by surprise was she chose this time, this moment when the situation did not warrant an intervention, especially on the grounds of national security, because to me, the security situation has never been as good as it is today."

Sri Lanka's security situation has improved dramatically since February 2002, when the government signed a ceasefire with the Tamil Tigers guerrilla group, which has fought for a separate homeland for the ethnic Tamil minority for the past 20 years.

Last week, the rebels unveiled a proposal that would give them powerful rights of self-government in the Tamil area of the country for five years, at which point a final peace settlement would be implemented.

President Kumaratunga, however, who lost an eye in an assassination attempt by the rebels, says the prime minister has already given away too much in the negotiations. In a nationally-televised address Friday, she accused him of endangering national security by permitting the rebels to use the ceasefire to regroup and re-arm.

"Numerous shipments of arms have been permitted to be brought into the country," said Ms. Kumaratunga. "Nine such shipments were apprehended by the Sri Lanka Navy. The minister of defense and the prime minister gave instructions to release the first six of those, despite strong warnings by me at National Security Council meetings and elsewhere."

The Internet website of the rebels, who are also known by the initials LTTE, condemned the president for her actions of the past week, accusing her of trying to sabotage the peace process. Still, most analysts say the process has so far been unaffected by the political conflict in the capital.

"Substantive discussions on the LTTE proposals were going to take place in the New Year anyway," said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu of Colombo-based think-tank, the Center for Policy Alternatives. "And there were probably going to be protracted negotiations anyway. … All sides have reiterated their commitment to the ceasefire, their commitment to the peace process, not wanting to go back to hostilities, etc."

President Kumaratunga's political maneuvering began while Mr. Wickremesinghe was abroad. With tens of thousands of people lining the streets to show him their support on his return Friday, the Prime Minister called for the reconvening of parliament, where, despite the president's attempt to lure away his support, his party remains strong.

"I would like to say as far as the government is concerned the government's majority is intact and the numbers have already been shown to the honorable speaker and the president," he said.

The president has proposed that she and the prime minister form a government of "national reconciliation" for the good of the country, but politicians and the independent news media do not give the proposal much of a chance. At stake could be who becomes president when Ms. Kumaratunga's term ends in 2005.

Ms. Kumaratunga would reportedly like to amend the constitution, which bars her from running again after her current term. But Mr. Wickremesinghe, who is said to have eyes on the presidency himself, enjoys a majority in parliament, and is unlikely to give his rival the votes she needs. Faced with spending her remaining two years in office as a lame duck [marginalized], Ms. Kumaratunga might call general elections to try to increase her own party's parliamentary strength.

Mr. Wickremesinghe's spokesman says he will not respond to the president's call for a joint government for several days. Parliament is not due to reconvene until November 19. No one can say what will happen next. The only certainty, it seems, is that Sri Lanka's political turmoil is far from over.

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