Sri Lanka in turmoil after President's bid for power

With the Prime Minister absent, rival makes attempt to seize power, which could reignite civil war
Click to follow

Sri Lanka was plunged into crisis yesterday after President Chandrika Kumaratunga took advantage of the absence of the Prime Minister to make a grab for power.

Ranil Wickremesinghe, Mrs Kumaratunga's long-term rival for power, was preparing to meet President Bush in Washington when word arrived that the Sri Lankan President had sacked the key ministers of defence, interior and information, and seized their ministries. She also suspended parliament for two weeks and ordered troops on to the streets to guard a government-run printing press, state television and a power plant.

A spokesman for the army said: "Several platoons have been deployed to prevent any unwanted incidents and to maintain law and order."

Sri Lankans were stunned by the apparent attempted takeover. Despite years of brutal civil war with the Tamil Tigers (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) in the north of the island, Sri Lanka has preserved the democratic proprieties throughout its 55 years of independence. Power has alternated repeatedly between the two main parties.

Mrs Kumaratunga's action cast a pall on hopes that peace talks between the government and the Tigers, brokered by Norway, would resume shortly. A ceasefire in the civil war that claimed 65,000 lives has held for 18 months but negotiations have repeatedly foundered on the issue of how much power the Tigers, who say they no longer seek a fully independent state, are prepared to settle for. A Tigers spokesman said yesterday that prospects for talks had "dimmed" because of Mrs Kumaratunga's actions.

She gave only a cryptic explanation for what she had done. A statement from her office said: "This step was taken after careful consideration, in order to prevent further deterioration of the security situation in the country." Her spokesman later said parlia- ment had been prorogued for two weeks; a step seen as blocking MPs from challenging her actions. Mr Wickremesinghe's party has a small parliamentary majority.

Speaking from Washington, he said the Sri Lankan President had "precipitated a national crisis in an attempt to subvert the mandate given to my government". He went on: "Your government will not be deviated from the mandate given to it by the people to pursue the path of peace, security and economic prosperity ... Your government will not allow this desperate and irresponsible attempt to undermine the peace process and economic prosperity of the people to succeed."

The two leaders, elected to their respective offices in separate polls, have diametrically opposed ideas about dealing with the civil war. Through the late 1990s, Mrs Kumaratunga pursued an aggressive war campaign against the Tigers. It backfired, leading to military humiliation and rout, and massive defections from the army. Since his election in 2001, Mr Wickremesinghe has forced the pace of peace, bringing the first glimmer of a return to stability and economic prosperity to an island that has often seemed close to emulating the economic success of south-east Asian countries such as Thailand and Malaysia.

But now fears are growing that Sri Lanka could be heading back into conflict. One Western diplomat said of the President's move: "This is bad. The focus on the peace process will be gone."

A neutral Sri Lankan policy analyst, Paikiasothy Saravanamutdu, of the island's Centre for Policy Alternatives, predicted popular unrest. "What is the government going to do?" he said. "It can only pit parliament against the President. And, because parliament is prorogued, they're going to have to shift that area of resistance or opposition out into the country at large. So one is looking at a period when there will be heightened political activity and tension."

The long-term danger, however, is of a slide back into civil war. The ceasefire provoked rejoicing throughout the island, equally among the majority Buddhist Sinhalese, the Hindu Tamils and the Muslims and Christians. Hope had returned to the island and the vital tourism industry had revived. Next week, the England cricket team is scheduled to arrive on tour. The north of the island, cut off from the south for decades and stuck in poverty and deprivation, with many of its towns destroyed by war, began to breathe again. All that is now, once again, at risk.

One Sri Lankan expatriate in London commented: "Once again politicians are putting their selfishness before the welfare of the people. The last two years have brought peace and prosperity to ordinary Sri Lankans, particularly the poor ... Who will suffer as a result of these new developments? The poor, of course."