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Sri Lanka President Fires 39 Junior Ministers - 2004-02-11

Sri Lanka's president has fired 39 mid-ranking officials, just days after calling national parliamentary elections for April. Critics say the president is trying to limit the officials' ability to campaign for the party headed by her rival, the country's prime minister.

Sri Lanka President Chandrika Kumaratunga announced she had informed 39 junior and deputy ministers that they had been removed from office. She said they had also been informed that the government would take back their official vehicles.

Most of the officials removed were so-called "non-cabinet ministers," a step down from full cabinet members. They had been appointed by Ms. Kumaratunga's rival, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Ms. Kumaratunga dissolved parliament Saturday and scheduled elections for April 2.

Sri Lanka's Director General of Policy Research and Information, Eric Fernando, who is a supporter of President Kumaratunga, says the removal of the ministers is routine now that parliament has been dissolved.

"In the run-up to the election after the dissolution of parliament, these gentlemen become Mr. So-and-So," he said. "That is traditional - except for those gentleman who have been in the cabinet."

Balakrishnan, who has only one name, is with the National Peace Council in Colombo. He says, to the contrary, that this is the first time a president has removed ministers from power and taken away their official cars prior to an election campaign. He says the move should be seen as a political maneuver.

"Everybody knew that the cabinet ministers were using the state vehicles and state resources in an unlimited manner for their part in the election campaign," said Balakrishnan.

Ms. Kumaratunga has been locked in a power struggle with Mr. Wickremesinghe for months. Last week, in what is seen as part of the political battle, she called snap elections three-years early.

The president and prime minister are from different political parties. Sri Lanka's constitution allows for both to play strong roles, which has helped fuel their rivalry, and has led to a political deadlock.

Much of the rivalry between Ms. Kumaratunga and Mr. Wickremesinghe is centered on how to handle peace talks with the Tamil Tigers - a guerrilla group that has fought for the past 20 years for greater rights for ethnic Tamils.

The rebels signed a cease-fire with the government two years ago, but the peace plan has been stalled for nearly a year. Rebel leaders say they will not break the cease-fire, but they warn that the political chaos in the capital could lead to a resumption of war.

Ms. Kumaratunga precipitated the political crisis in November, when she exercised her constitutional power to seize control of three government ministries including defense, which is considered the key to managing the peace process.