Charles finds Sri Lanka in sombre mood

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The Independent Online
Celebrating Sri Lanka's Golden Jubilee yesterday with the most down-beat speech imaginable, President Chandrika Kumaratunga said: "We have failed ... to build a strong and united nation. The silent majority watched in horror whilst a great nation ... veered into a terrifying era of ethnic, political and social violence."

There was only one more chance to get it right. "We have missed many chances. We cannot ... miss this one last moment, rich with opportunity." But these words were followed by a display of military muscle. As well as tanks, ex-Israeli attack jets and Antonov transport planes, 4,000 men and women in uniform were on display. This dual approach has marked out Mrs Kumaratunga's period in office. Her words to the Tamil minority, 3 million out of a population of 18 million, has been unprecedentedly conciliatory.

But she has prosecuted the war with fierce determination. If the claims of both sides are to be believed, 600 soldiers have died around Kilinochchi, in the far north, in the past week.

Yesterday's celebration was as subdued as the President's speech. Colombo residents grumbled that Mrs Kumaratunga was celebrating Sri Lanka's independence by putting the population of the capital under house arrest. All roads in the city were closed to private traffic, and anyone venturing out was subject to endless checks.

Public buildings were strung with coloured lights, yet the city might have been abandoned for all the life there was. The Golden Jubilee celebration had been switched to the lakeside parliamentary complex following the suicide bomb blast that damaged Kandy's most important temple, the intended site, 10 days ago.

The Prince of Wales, the guest of honour, donned sunglasses and buried himself in a book as the President's speech was declaimed in three languages. The scale of Mrs Kumaratunga's difficulties became clear when moderate Tamil parties in parliament, including the Tamil United Liberation Front, boycotted the celebration, despite her conciliatory statement that "since 1948 the Tamil population has been discriminated against," and that there was therefore nothing to celebrate.