Sri Lankan president casts pall over peace talks

A political crisis leaves no one to deal with rebel Tamils.

Hopes are dwindling for the resumption of peace talks to end Sri Lanka's long ethnic civil war in the wake of a series of unorthodox maneuvers by the president that has thrust the island nation into political turmoil.

In one of the world's least likely political alliances, President Chandrika Kumaratunga's party joined forces yesterday with a Marxist party that she once accused of assassinating her husband. The two parties are diametrically opposed to one another - except for a shared fear that negotiations with the Tamil Tiger rebels could result in the creation of a separate Tamil state.

The once-promising talks had been led by Ms. Kumaratunga's chief rival, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The peace process halted last November after the president undermined Mr. Wickremesinghe while he was traveling abroad by dismissing three top ministers. In another bold move to boost her power, Kumaratunga announced last week that she would continue to be president until 2006, which according to the prime minister's party is a year beyond her electoral mandate.

Analysts see little hope for the peace process resuming until the president and prime minister resolve their increasingly intense standoff, or voters end the divided government. While the president's newfound alliance with the Marxists could give her party an edge, many observers doubt that this marriage of opposites will last until elections scheduled for 2007.

"The message that is being sent internationally is that this country is heading for more instability and even turmoil until 2007," says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternatives. "It looks like the peace talks will remain on hold until there is a general election."

With a peacemaker image, Kumaratunga was first elected president by a strong majority in 1994. Soon after, she signed a cease-fire with the Tamil Tigers, only to have the rebels unilaterally break it several months later, prompting the president to pursue "war for peace." One year ahead of the end of her first six-year term, she sought and won reelection in 1999 - losing an eye from a Tiger suicide bomb attack during the campaign. Soon after the election results were announced, she took oath in December 1999.

Now Kumaratunga says that since she had not completed her first term of six years, she took the oath of office again in December 2000. A swearing in ceremony was held secretly at the president's Palace, she claims.

"So far there has been no explanation of the secrecy surrounding the second swearing-in which is alleged to have occurred," says Gamini Laxman Peiris, cabinet spokesman and a federal minister. "The country is entitled to an explanation of this extraordinary situation. In our view this degree of arrogance is unacceptable with regard to the tenure of any public position."

Mr. Peiris said that as far as the government was concerned, Kumaratunga's term would end in December 2005.

It is clear that the president is in no mood to compromise. A statement from the President's Palace says: "Respected legal opinions have been expressed supporting the validity of the second swearing-in, on the ground that a swearing-in was legally necessary only after the completion of the first six year term. If the decision is deemed to be unconstitutional the only body with the authority to do so is the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka."

For his part, the prime minister has refused to press ahead with the peace efforts, saying that it would not be possible without having control over the defense ministry - something he lost when the president dismissed the Defense Minister last November. That move also prompted the Norwegian government facilitating the peace talks to pull out of the process.

However, the cease-fire agreement signed between the prime minister and the LTTE chief Velupillai Pirabhakaran in 2002 continues to hold. The LTTE, which has fought a bloody 20-year battle - including suicide attacks - to carve out an independent state for the minority Tamil community in the north and east of country, says it is committed to a peaceful resolution.

So far there are no indications that the Tamil Tigers would revert to hostilities. But Mr. Pirabhakaran has cautioned the government and the international community that if the aspirations of the Tamil community are not met, then the LTTE will be left with no choice other than to seek a separate state.

"It is unlikely that the LTTE would start a war again," says Dharmalingam Siddarthan, head of People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam, a former militant group opposed to the LTTE. "The Tigers have displayed tremendous patience. It is now left to the Sinhalese polity to respond positively."

The president and the prime minister held three rounds of negotiations to hammer out their differences. They also appointed a committee of officials to chalk out a strategy where the two leaders could work together on issues of national interest. But the talks ended in December without any outcome.

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