Sri Lanka pins hopes on idealist
President Kumaratunga reintroduces censorship on war news July 3, then prepares for new elections.
COLOMBO, SRI LANKA
Moments after she was the target of a suicide bomb attack last December, President Chandrika Kumaratunga made an entreaty: that there be no recrimination against the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka - whose extremists' attempt on her life left her with only one eye.Skip to next paragraph
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"The Tamil community must be protected," she said as aides rushed her to a hospital after the blast killed 14 people. "Our fight is not with them."
Today, 17 years into a separatist struggle led by Tamil Tiger guerrilla Velupillai Prabhakaran, the president is a virtual prisoner in Temple Trees, a heavily guarded compound in the capital of this island nation.
Yet the passionate and articulate daughter of two former prime ministers, whose very biography is a story of the tragedy of modern Sri Lanka, is still seen as the best hope to end one of the least publicized but most brutal ethnic conflicts on the planet.
The question in Colombo is: Has history passed her by? Has the president squandered the brimming hopes for reform that put her multiethnic "rainbow coalition" in office six years ago?
That question is more than theoretical. Next month, Sri Lanka is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections. Should the slim majority enjoyed by Ms. Kumaratunga's People's Alliance be lost, analysts say the country will face a divided government, an outcome that could undermine prospects for peace.
This summer Kumaratunga is shaping an on-again off-again "devolution" package to share power with Tamils in the north and east of Sri Lanka. And a Norwegian envoy is currently mediating peace talks. But the feelings of right-wing Buddhist monks opposed to a settlement weigh heavily - the same faction whose extremists killed her father, Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in 1959. Then there is a rapaciously partisan Colombo elite and an opposition party led by Ranil Wickramasinghe, which can derail her efforts.
Yet the president has shown herself as a fighter through a "peace through war policy." This spring, in the face of a withering Tiger attack on the key city of Jaffna, she stood her ground while government officials spoke of withdrawing. "She said 'No! We will fight,' " a source says. "She showed more backbone than anyone."
But as she heads into the election, Kumaratunga has seen a steady loss of support among the 20 percent Tamil minority. Yet among her peace-making credentials, Kumaratunga is the first - some say only - ethnic Sinhalese leader who does not harbor racist feelings against the Tamil minority, and who genuinely feels they have been wronged.
"She is the only Sinhalese leader who recognizes that power must shift in a way that allows greater equality among minorities," says a senior Western diplomat. "She is an unusual figure. Her family is a main reason this country is in trouble, and she seems to understand that things must change."
Kumaratunga's past reads like a microcosm of Sri Lanka's struggles. In ethnic wars that have taken the lives of an estimated 70,000 Sri Lankans, she lost a father and a husband. Her mother became the world's first female prime minister in 1960, ruling twice in what was a golden period for Sinhalese nationalism, but a time Tamils associate with their loss of identity, language, and rights. In 1988, her husband Vijaya Kumaratunga, a popular actor-turned-politician was assassinated, after efforts to negotiate with the Tigers.