Woman behind Sri Lanka's turmoil

Observers see the president's surprise state of emergency as a bid to remain at political center stage.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When President Chandrika Kumaratunga decides to do something, she does it big.

Just this week, she has suspended parliament, sacked key ministers, declared a state of emergency that give her vast powers of arrest and detention, and thrown the 20 month-long peace process with Tamil insurgents into doubt.

The woman behind all these dramatic moves is no political novice. She has been at the forefront of Sri Lankan politics - and an early advocate of peace talks with the Tamil Tiger militant group - for nearly a decade.

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Now facing a presidential term limit in 2005 and a slow diminution of her power, she has made what observers suggest is a bold attempt to remain at political center stage as Sri Lanka enters a critical juncture in its history.

"It's one hell of a gamble, and it could end in disaster for her and her party," says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Center for Policy Alternatives, an independent think tank in Colombo. "She's quite a canny person, and a very good tactician, but the question is this: Does she have an idea of what to do next? She may have a broad view of her objective, but does she know how to get there?"

From the beginning of her meteoric rise to power, from a simple state minister in 1993 to prime minister a few months later, Kumaratunga has been a divisive character. Supporters called her charismatic and bold, while her critics considered her reckless and short-sighted.

Kumaratunga's sacking Tuesday of key ministers responsible for peace talks with the Tamil Tigers topped off a long-running feud with the prime minister and his party, which holds the majority in Parliament. An initial sponsor of the talks, Kumaratunga has criticized her rival of not been tough enough with the Tigers, whom she says have used the past 20 months to consolidate their military positions and to rearm.

Things came to a head after the Tamil Tigers made a key concession last week, releasing their first ever proposal that recognized the sovereignty of the Sri Lankan government's territory, and dropped its goal of independence in favor of autonomy. Meanwhile the government has agreed for the first time to share power with the Tigers.

With Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe in Washington to discuss the peace proposals, Kumaratunga made her surprise move - casting doubt on the future of the peace process. It also dealt a significant blow to the nation's economy, which had been on the rebound during the cease-fire. Sri Lanka's stock exchanged plunged Wednesday, and Mr. Wickramasinghe's spokesman said the turmoil had slowed progress on a proposed free trade agreement with the United States.

This week, as troops guard key installations around the city, it's hard to know who holds the largest support of Sri Lanka's citizens, Kumaratunga, or her rival, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, with whom she shares a coalition government. All outward signs of protest are faint. There have been no protest marches or rallies, and Mr. Wickremesinghe's party continues to call for calm. Just as important, there have been no signs of a return to violence by the Tigers.

But even Kumaratunga's close allies say that the president may have become so isolated and reliant on advisers that she overstepped her public mandate. "She's going into a precipice which could provoke war inadvertently," says an official in Kumaratunga's party who has had close ties to the president. "I would say she is a mixture of brilliance and madness, and in fact it's a risk for the entire country as well as for her career."

Some say that Kumaratunga is carrying the weight of a political dynasty on her shoulders. Her father was a former prime minister, her mother a former president, and her husband a parliamentarian. But this dynasty has seen more than its share of grief. Her father was killed by a Buddhist monk. Her husband was killed by political rivals, and Kumaratunga herself was seriously injured in a suicide bomb attack in 1998 by the Tamil Tigers.

But it is this legacy of victimhood which forms Kumaratunga's greatest political appeal, says Jayadeva Uyamgoda, a political scientist at the University of Colombo. "She comes as a victim of political violence, and people could identify themselves with her," he says, because they themselves were victims of a long political war.

Mr. Uyamgoda, who once worked with Kumaratunga during the 1994 negotiations with the Tigers, says that Kumaratunga "has a combative personality, but personally I would say she is a brave woman, and I've always admired her for that."

But he chastises Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe for letting a personal power struggle get out of hand and threaten the "larger interests of the country, of the people." He is now helping lead a signature campaign to convince both of the major ruling parties to set aside the squabbles.

Political experts say that Kumaratunga now has two options. She can provoke an election and hope to sway enough parliamentarians to her party. Or, she can dissolve parliament, appoint a caretaker government, and hope that her prospects get fairer over time.

Thursday, as rumors swirled that Kumaratunga might try to arrest the prime minister after he returns from Washington early Friday morning, Wickremesinghe's party vowed to overturn each of Kumaratunga's actions of the past week, and force the president to reconvene parliament. "As the government of Sri Lanka, we will do what we can to minimize the negative effects of the very shortsighted and selfish actions of Her Excellency, the president," said G.L. Peiris, the government's spokesman, at a press conference. "We can reverse actions that have been taken, but we will not overreact to the situation. We will not react in an emotional manner."

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