Sri Lanka's War of Widows To Set Pace for Peace Talks

Presidential vote pits candidates with different ideas on civil war

ON Nov. 9 Sri Lankans will cast their votes in a presidential election that will likely determine the course of the country's 11-year civil war, one of Asia's longest-running guerrilla conflicts.

The two leading candidates, both women, offer very different ideas of how to deal with the Tamil Tigers, a guerrilla group that has been fighting for a separate homeland for the country's ethnic Tamil minority.

The voting marks the end of a campaign marred by violence, including the assassination on Oct. 24 of the opposition candidate, Gamini Dissanayake. He was killed in a bomb blast during a campaign rally near Colombo, the capital. Two days later, the United National Party (UNP) chose Dissanayake's widow, Srima, as its new candidate.

In fact, voters will choose between two widows for the country's most-powerful post. Chandrika Kumaratunga, the current premier and leader of the People's Alliance Party also lost her husband to the endemic political violence here.

Mrs. Dissanayake, a lawyer with little political experience, has been abruptly thrust into the political limelight. ``I am very shocked....'' she told The Island, a Colombo newspaper. ``But I have a strange determination to carry on the work that [my husband] has done.''

Dissanayake has not held any public rallies, conveying her message instead through the media. Her advertisements unabashedly appeal to voters' sympathies. Campaign posters show her standing with her late husband in an old photograph. Her campaign motto is equally direct: ``Fulfill His Dream.''

The sympathy appeal seems to have worked with some. ``He's not dead,'' says Sarath Fernando, a taxi driver, pointing to a picture of the slain candidate on his dashboard. ``He's winning.''

Preelection polls, however, suggest that Mrs. Kumaratunga is leading the race. Some analysts believe the ``sympathy vote'' tactic, which has helped propel several South Asian leaders into office, won't work this time. ``People are tired of that phenomenon,'' says Jayedeve Ugangoda, a professor at Colombo University. ``They don't want any more weeping widows appealing to their tears, as well as their votes.''

Even after the bombing, the campaign has been marred with violence. On Nov. 5, three people were killed in Kagalle when fighting broke out between supporters of the two major parties. On Nov. 6, one person was killed and 15 wounded when a bomb exploded at a UNP meeting in Pannala. More than 40,000 police officers will be deployed at polling stations around the country.

The main issue of the campaign has been the pace of peace talks with the Tamil Tigers. Under the Sri Lankan Constitution, the president oversees the country's military, and therefore could dictate the pace of the peace pro-cess. Dissanayake, the opposition candidate, has promised that, if elected, she would not hold any peace talks with the Tigers until they laid down their arms.

During her three months in office, however, Kumaratanga eased an economic embargo on the Jaffna Peninsula, an area controlled by the Tamil Tigers, and opened preliminary peace talks with the rebels. Some Sri Lankans believe she moved too quickly. ``These things should have come in stages rather than ... at once,'' says Vijitha Yapa, a Colombo businessman.

Kumaratunga, meanwhile, has not abandoned her peace-maker image. In her campaign posters, she is dwarfed by a large white dove floating in the background. Responding to charges that she's been too soft on the Tamil Tigers, Kumaratunga said in a campaign speech, ``Our government has not granted any special favors to [Tigers]. We have only expressed... our sincere and determined commitment to bring an end to the murderous ... war.''

In fact, many Sri Lankans are weary of a war that has disrupted life and hampered growth of the country's otherwise robust economy. Sri Lankans enjoy the highest standard of living in South Asia, with per capita incomes twice that of nearby India and Bangladesh. Sri Lankan business leaders are trying to transform Sri Lanka into the financial and trade hub of the region. But that hasn't happened, partly because the war with the Tamil Tigers consumes a fourth of all government spending.

The recent assassination is only the latest incident in a pattern of political violence that is decades old. Unlike previous killings, however, this one provoked little public outrage. ``People have seen so many assassinations and bombings ... they are just numb,'' says Arjuna Mahendran, an economist here.

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