Sri Lanka pins hopes on idealist

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

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.

"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.

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.

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

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