Sri Lanka's democracy in peril: Julian West reports from Colombo on the shattering effects of two assassinations in a week

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'SO WHAT do you think of our democracy?' asked the man in the telex bureau. The question came the day after the murder of one of Sri Lanka's most prominent politicians, Lalith Athulathmudali, a week ago, and it needed no answer. Everyone knows what they think of Sri Lanka's democracy. The answer was a dirty look.

This weekend Sri Lanka reeled from a second assassination: the murder of President Ranasinghe Premadasa, by a suicide bomber at a busy junction in the city centre. According to his press secretary, Evans Cooray, the President's last words were: 'Mr Lalith Athulathmudali was assassinated not very far from here. The shot aimed at Lalith was aimed not only at him, but at democracy.' Most Sri Lankans would agree.

Violent as this island may appear to the outside world, its many deaths and murders - more than a dozen prominent military leaders, and perhaps 60,000 ordinary people - have mainly been attributable to military conflicts: the ethnic war in the north- east, or the government's suppression of a Marxist uprising in the south three years ago.

But the killing of two political leaders within a week, with no immediately apparent motive, has shattered people's faith in a process they regard as sacrosanct - their democracy - in a country where electoral turn-out averages 80 per cent.

At the time of Athulathmudali's murder, most Sri Lankans blamed the president. Premadasa was known to employ ruthless tactics against his enemies. And Athulathmudali, the president's main political rival, was a former cabinet minister who had led an unsuccessful impeachment attempt against the president two years ago.

In addition, this murder was only the latest in a string of unsolved killings to occur during Premadasa's regime. The murderers of the defence minister, Ranjan Wijeratne, in 1991, and the commander-in-chief of the northern forces and other senior officers, last year, have still not been brought to book.

This, and the circumstances of Athulathmudali's killing by an unidentified gunman while campaigning for Provincial Council elections, fuelled suspicions against the president. However, the two assassinations, within a week of each other, have now left Sri Lankans not knowing what to think.

Most political analysts now believe that Sri Lanka is fated to be politically unstable for some time. The cabinet has appointed Dingiri Banda Wijetunge, the Prime Minister, as Acting President. But he is in his seventies, ailing, and functions mainly as a figurehead. The likelihood is that he will be replaced when MPs vote for a new president within a month.

However, there is no obvious candidate for president from the ranks of any of Sri Lanka's political parties. Premadasa chose a weak cabinet, in order to utilise his wide-ranging powers as executive president. The opposition, led by Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who is 77 and suffered a stroke last year, is fractured by political in-fighting and commands uncertain popular support.

Moreover, Premadasa, a man from a low caste, who endured contempt from high-caste Singhalese, was known to be sympathetic to the discrimination suffered by minority Tamils. He surrounded himself by Tamil as well as Sinhalese civil servants and was known to be the only Sinhalese politician without communal bias. As such, the Tamil Tigers trusted him. With his death the chances of a peaceful settlement to the island's ten-year civil war are slim.

Businessmen in Colombo are also worried about the future of the Premadasa government's economic reforms. As long as his United National Party remains in power, these are likely to continue. But investor confidence has been shattered by these assassinations, leaving the economic as well as the political future of the country looking grim.

Obituary, page 18