Tamil rebellion to test new PM

THE United National Party, whose 17 years of iron rule has left Sri Lanka economically prosperous but shattered by civil war, conceded election defeat yesterday to the opposition Peoples' Alliance. The President, D B Wijetunga, dissolved the right-wing government and asked Chandrika Kumaratunga, the PA leader, to become prime minister.

At exactly 10:14 today, a time Buddhist astrologers have deemed to be auspicious, Mrs Kumaratunga, 48, will be sworn in by the President. She will need more than the stars on her side if she is to last the full six-year term.

Her party fell short of a majority in the 225-seat Sri Lankan parliament by eight MPs, and now Mrs Kumaratunga must be propped up by two smaller parties. One represents the island's Muslims, while the other is a faction of the Tamil ethnic minority. It is likely that this group, the Tamil United Liberation Front, will push her into ending the 11-year war between Colombo and Tamil separatist guerrillas, which has left tens of thousands dead. But any concessions to the Tamil separatists will be opposed by the Sinhalese majority and many MPs in her own party.

The UNP's defeat will be celebrated by many. Their long years in power gave them a tight grip over the state and police apparatus and, until the assassination of the late president, Premadasa, in May 1993, it seemed as though Sri Lanka was sliding into dictatorship. It was a sinister side to Sri Lanka artfully camouflaged from 400,000 tourists who frolic every year on the island's beaches and buy its sapphires and rubies.

The UNP will be gearing itself up for crucial presidential elections in less than three months. Mrs Kumaratunga has pledged to hold a constitutional assembly to remove many of the president's near-dictatorial powers. If she succeeds and the presidency becomes a merely ceremonial post, she will probably insist that her ailing, 78-year old mother, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, be nominated by her party for the job.