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Sri Lanka pins hopes on idealist

President Kumaratunga reintroduces censorship on war news July 3, then prepares for new elections.

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She is a mixture of tradition and progressivism that is unusual for this island nation - whose elite wealth is inherited from tea, rubber, and coconut plantations, and whose elite culture is said to derive from the British upper-class. Her dynastic family ties are typical of South Asia, and her common touch sells well in the countryside.

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By temperament, however, Kumaratunga is also an outsider - a non-conformist who chose to marry the son of a fishing-caste family. Instead of studying in London or New York, she went to Paris - where she participated in the student uprisings of the late 1960s.

Yet while Kumaratunga shows inspiring qualities of leadership in a crisis, friends and critics say she lets down in the day-to-day running of government.

"She is idealistic, but when the sweeping reforms of 1995 failed to materialize, she just retrenched. Now, she may have lost the confidence of the moderate Tamils," an analyst says.

Today, old allies speak wistfully of 1995 - an election that brought a new generation of moderate liberal Sri Lankans together in a Muslim, Tamil, Sinhalese, and Christian consensus. They now say the reforms have since been watered down.

"She had the greatest potential of any Sri Lankan leader. When others fail, we don't regret it; we expect it," says Jayadeva Uyangoda, a political scientist at the University of Colombo. "She had the moment, but now she must recapture it. She needs to convince the Sinhalese ruling class that it must deal with our problems. This won't be easy."

The pressing need for reforms has also been hampered by the civil war that has consumed much of the nation's political energy. Last week the Supreme Court ruled that censorship introduced in May was illegal. When it was lifted, newspapers quickly published extensive criticisms of the ruling party. On July 3, Kumaratunga reinstituted the ban.

The deeper problem, say experts, is a political culture that often seems driven by little more than antipathy. While Kumaratunga and the leader of the opposition, Mr. Wickramasinghe, seem to agree for the first time on the need for a "power sharing" package for Tamils, the history of their cooperation is brief. It is also highly exploitable in an election season.

"Elections and the party system in Sri Lanka, despite a democratic voting since 1936, have been extremely rancorous," says Ajay Behara, of the Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis in Delhi. "The party that wins takes everything. Everything changes hands, down to small offices."

"We have no middle ground in Sri Lanka," says a senior official here. "You have sychophants on one side, and antagonists on the other. There's very little in between that could be called a civil society."

Critics of the president say the excessive emphasis on sharing power has done little to win the hearts of Tamils.

"There is a lot Chandrika could do short of this monumental devolution," says one observer. "She could build some schools for the Tamils, she could give them some jobs and make them feel a stake in things."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society