Setback for peace in Sri Lanka?

The president declared an emergency Wednesday after a rebel offer raised hopes.

For months, the Sri Lankan peace process seemed to be the single most positive news trend in South Asia. But now a feud within the Sri Lankan government itself may put negotiations on hold for good.

On Wednesday, President Chandrika Kumaratunga, declared a state of emergency, one day after suspending Parliament and removing the ministers of defense, interior, and media from their posts. The president's actions are legal under Sri Lanka's Constitution, and she justified the surprise moves as preventing what she called "the further deterioration of the security situation."

President Kumaratunga says that she supports peace talks with the Tamils, but criticizes her coalition government partner, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, for giving up too much ground to the violent separatist group known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The Tamil Tigers have waged a 20-year-long struggle - famous for use of child soldiers and suicide bombings - that has claimed some 65,000 lives.

The state of emergency and shake-up comes just days after a landmark move by the Tamil Tigers to officially drop their demand for independence in favor of autonomy. Now many political observers say the turmoil inside the Sri Lankan government leaves open the question as to who is really in charge, and whether this peace process can indeed go forward.

"This is a political crisis, and a setback for the peace process," says J.N. Dixit, India's former high commissioner to Sri Lanka, who helped negotiate a previous cease-fire with the Tamil Tigers in 1987. "I hope I am wrong, but if the Tamils find that the peace process is delayed, they may withdraw from the talks altogether and resume violence."

For Western and regional diplomats, the political crisis comes at a difficult time. Already busy with conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the West has little energy left to maintain pressure on the Tamil Tigers to keep the 20-month-long cease-fire going. So with the resumption of peace talks appearing close just days ago, observers say the country can only wait to see if sheer momentum keeps progress moving forward.

"I doubt this will lead to a breakdown in peace talks, but it might stall them for a while," says Jehan Perera, media director for the National Peace Council, a nonpartisan organization in Colombo. "The larger peace process will continue. Even the president and her party want to negotiate with the LTTE. My only concern is that the Tamil people will start to think that the Sinhalese are hopelessly divided, they can't get their act together. That is the negative sense that may come out of this crisis."

Resolving the historic divides between the mainly Hindu Tamil minority and the mainly Buddhist Sinhalese majority would be difficult enough. Since the country gained independence from Britain in 1948, Sri Lanka's two largest ethnic groups have been at loggerheads over everything from the national language to the national religion to voting rights for recent Tamil immigrants.

Tamil claims of being second-class citizens under Sinhalese rule led the Tigers to seek independence through violence. Meanwhile, powerful Buddhist monks, who view Sri Lanka as a religious refuge and bulwark against Hindu India, have been loath to give ground to the Hindu Tamils.

But today's political crisis has a more complicated - and personal - edge. President Kumaratunga belongs to one political party, the People's Alliance, and the prime minister and his cabinet belong to another, the United National Party. Their co-habiting government, elected in December 2001, agrees on the need for peace through negotiation, but on little else.

In a speech justifying her actions, Kumaratunga said, "I remain willing to discuss with the LTTE a just and balanced solution of the national problem." But she added, the "ineffective steps taken by the administration to ensure national security have led me to take the view that firm and steadfast action is necessary to remedy this situation."

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, who was in Washington to update the Bush administration on the peace process, said called Kumaratunga's actions "a desperate and irresponsible attempt to undermine the peace process." He called on citizens and the armed forces to remain "calm and vigilant."

"This is mainly a political crisis," says Mr. Dixit, the former Indian diplomat. "This is between the prime minister and his narrow majority on the one hand, and the president who has vast constitutional powers under her control. It is a crisis fed by the Buddhist clergy, elements in the army, and the majority of citizens who still don't trust the LTTE. And it's a crisis that could convince the Tamils to resume violence."

For now, the Tamil Tigers, have reportedly withdrawn their representatives from all government-held areas, but there does not appear to be any immediate move to take up offensive positions. Sources with ties to the Tigers suggest they are waiting and watching to see what President Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe are going to do next. Wickremesinghe returns Friday.

"To a certain extent this is disturbing, but I think the Tigers are really looking forward to the peace process," says Visaka Dharmadasa, founder of Sri Lanka-based Parents of Servicemen Missing in Action, and a mediator who has a rare level of access to the Tigers. She says that the arduous peace process is reaching the "beginning of the end," pointing to a recent statement by a Tamil leader who renounced the return to war. "It took a long, long time for them [to reach this point]."

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