A crisis in Sri Lanka

Print edition : December 05, 2003

The island state's cohabitation politics and peace process move to the brink with President Chandrika Kumaratunga's assertion of her constitutional powers by taking away key portfolios including Defence from the Ranil Wickremesinghe government.

in Colombo

President Chandrika Kumaratunga addresses the nation in a live broadcast on national television on November 7.-ANURUDDHA LOKUHAPUARACHCHI /REUTERS

There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which, when taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; Omitted, all the voyage of their life Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

- William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar.

ON November 4, Sri Lanka's first real cohabitation government and the Norwegian-facilitated peace process started facing their latest endurance test. Exercising her constitutional powers, the President, Chandrika Kumaratunga, took over the portfolios of Defence, Interior and Mass Communication, and prorogued Parliament. Constitutionally and legally, Kumaratunga was on a firm footing in wresting the portfolios that were allocated by her to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's United National Front (UNF) coalition government.

Wickremesinghe, not one to roll over and play dead, and the UNF rallied their forces together and the next three days saw a high-decibel political battle, planned behind closed doors, fought through media briefings and put to demonstration on the roads leading to Colombo.

On November 7, when Wickremesinghe - he was on an official visit to the United States when his Cabinet colleagues lost their portfolios - returned to Sri Lanka, he had practically converted his constitutionally weak wicket to a politically strong one. The 10 days from November 4 to 14 saw the island in a frenzy, a heady upsurge of political emotions. Though the political tide has receded, the swift presidential move has left its impact which has serious connotations for the future of the island's cohabitation government and, more important, its latest attempt to find peace.

Four days after the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had presented its first-ever blueprint for a solution to the island's separatist conflict, Sri Lanka was still weighing the consequences. Analysts, political leaders and commentators were reading - and re-reading - the fine print of the LTTE's demand for an Interim Self-Governing Authority (ISGA). Phrases were put under the microscope to explore hidden meanings and connotations. The nation was still to recover from the dazed stupor that it had sunk into after the LTTE at last made it clear what it wanted.

Then came the presidential move. And when it came, there was no resistance - constitutional or legal. Kumaratunga, who is also the head of the Cabinet, took over the portfolios of Defence, Interior and Mass Communication. A shocked Wickremesinghe administration had no cover, constitutionally or legally.

The November 4 action of the President has implications on two broad fronts - the peace process and the power struggle between the island's two largest and bitterly opposed political parties: Wickremesinghe's United National Party (UNP) and Kumaratunga's Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).

On the peace process, over which there is considerable international concern, it means that for all practical purposes the Prime Minister is no longer in charge. The ceasefire agreement, signed separately by Wickremesinghe and LTTE supreme V. Prabakaran, has been at the core of the current peace process. With the guns silent, territories frozen and, to use an oft-quoted phrase, the "balance of military forces" maintained, the peace process went from one phase of talks to another.

The key to this, as the UNF administration would highlight in the days following November 4, was that the sensitive Defence portfolio was under the control of Wickremesinghe, as Tilak Marapana, a UNP MP, held it. With the leverage over the military situation lost following the presidential move, the Prime Minister and his party were quick to emphasise that they could not be held responsible for the peace process any longer.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe at a meeting with the Norwegian peace mediators in Colombo on November 13.-ZAINAL ABD HALIM/REUTERS

Hours after she took over power, Kumaratunga, for her part, went on national television and reiterated her commitment to peace. Her constitutional moves, she emphasised, were in the "larger interest of the nation". While the takeover of the Ministries of Defence and Interior was deemed necessary because they had to do with the security of the nation, the takeover of the Mass Communication Ministry was explained by presidential circles as a move to correct the "biases" that had crept into the state-run media during UNF rule.

The next day, on November 5, the President's move was further consolidated by former Foreign Affairs Minister and Senior Presidential Adviser Lakshman Kadirgamar, at a press conference.

Allaying a main immediate concern, Kadirgamar said that the President wanted to make it clear that "the ceasefire agreement stands and will stand. There is no question about that". The presidential moves, he said, were entirely constitutional and would not affect the peace process. There was "no intention whatsoever of a resumption, or provoking the resumption, of violence", he said.

In a clause-by-clause criticism of the LTTE's counter-proposals, Kadirgamar made the point that while the "sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka is not negotiable", some of the rebel proposals "can be talked about".

Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helgesen with LTTE supremo V. Prabakaran at an undisclosed location near Kilinochchi on November 13.-LTTE HO/AP

The issue appeared to be settled. The President, for all practical purposes, was fully in charge and there was little room for the UNF to wedge its way back. Or so it seemed.

In the next couple of hours, the political pendulum swung from the constitutional end to the political end. Defence attaches based in Colombo were called and told that the island was headed for a "short-term" emergency. Orders were sent to the Government Printer to print a "revised emergency regulations", and the political mood changed, yet again.

Confirmation of the state of emergency was late to come, but there were repeated assurances that it would only be a short-term one. Security forces started taking positions, of all places, in the state-run media houses that had been taken over by the President a day earlier. International journalists from near and far converged on Colombo.

The President's office remained silent for two days. The proclamation was being reprinted, went one explanation, as there were "printing errors". It will be for a short period and will be back-dated, went another. For all practical purposes, the feel of the state of emergency filled the island's political sphere on November 5 and 6. With the President's move having been made and the UNF having raised a shrill protest that the act "went against all vestiges of democracy", the nation awaited the return of the other key player in this political opera - Prime Minister Wickremesinghe.

ON November 7, the roads leading to the Bandaranaike International Airport, some 30 km from Colombo, turned green - with the colours of the UNP headed by Wickremesinghe. Known for its organisational abilities, the party had ensured that its leader, who had just lost a constitutional battle, would be accorded a victor's return.

Troops guard the government press in Colombo on November 4, after the President took over the Defence, Interior and Communication portfolios.-ANURUDDHA LOKUHAPUARACHCHI /REUTERS

Streamers had been raised across the roads, groups of supporters milled around on roadsides, and there was a band playing music on top of a lorry. The road leading to the entrance of the airport, about a couple of kilometres from the highway, was filled with party supporters waiting for Wickremesinghe. Cabinet members and mediapersons headed for the tarmac of the airport, waiting for the Prime Minister's reaction.

Wickremesinghe, who read out a prepared text, avoided taking on the President. Rather, he said, he would stay by his mandate - to find peace - and would remain committed to it. His 19-month-old association with the peace process, clearly, was starting to pay political dividends.

After a rousing reception on the tarmac, Wickremesinghe's convoy wound its way through the packed crowd and hit the road leading to Colombo. Sri Lanka's highways are notorious for traffic jams even on a normal day. With such welcome being accorded to the Prime Minister, the traffic crept, inch by painful inch. It took Wickremesinghe a good eight hours to reach the city. Opposition front-benchers dismissed the event as an "organised" one, but the Prime Minister had made his political point.

Around the same time that the Prime Minister arrived, the President's Office termed the state of emergency a "non-event" as the proclamation, required to make it law, was not signed.

The next two days saw the Prime Minister huddled in party discussions and the UNF's protests getting shriller. But on one count both the President and the Prime Minister held on, patiently - on the ceasefire agreement and the peace process. Both emphasised that the peace process was on, that there would be no return to violence, and that the ceasefire agreement would hold.

The LTTE, for its part, said it was watching the situation. Smirking at the turn of events, its leaders dismissed it as a continuation of the differences in the south.

With the UNF abdicating responsibility for the peace process, the latest attempt to find a negotiated settlement was rapidly moving to the hold mode. The President insisted that the Prime Minister should continue with it. Wickremesinghe, for his part, refused to have anything to do with it unless, as his Cabinet put it, "all portfolios are returned".

John Amaratunga, who lost his Interior portfolio.-ANURUDDHA LOKUHAPUARACHCHI /REUTERS

The peace process, simply put, had become the UNF's main leverage point at the time of the crisis. The President, when she took over the Defence Ministry on November 4, was bolstered by a Supreme Court observation that the defence of the island was "inalienable" from the President. Her party spokesman, Sarath Amunugama, was to say later that "even if she wanted to", Kumaratunga could not part with the Defence portfolio.

Tamil commentators had, meanwhile, started to point out that without Wickremesinghe's hold over Defence, the "restraining force" over the military would not be there. The LTTE, for its part, had started giving orders to its cadres based in government-held areas to return to rebel-held territory.

The peace process was heading towards a grey zone. The President's office kept reiterating her commitment to peace, while the UNF reinforced its point that it was not in control of the peace process, and the rebels continued to maintain that they were waiting and watching the situation.

IT was under such circumstances that Norwegian facilitators flew down to Sri Lanka on November 10. What was scheduled as a trip to set the stage for restarting the negotiations turned out to be one that formally put the peace process on hold.

Former Defence Minister Tilak Marapana.-ZAINAL ABD HALIM/REUTERS

Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helgesen, Special Envoy Erik Solheim and Ambassador Hans Brattskar held meetings with the President, the Prime Minister, leaders of political parties, intellectuals and civil society leaders, and then Prabakaran.

For the facilitators, who had come a long way since their involvement in the peace process began during the earlier People's Alliance government, the sudden turn of events gave "mixed signals". Even before their formal statement on February 14 putting the peace process on hold, the peace-makers clarified that they did not want to get into the business of making truce between the island's two bitterly opposed political parties.

Assured by the President, the Prime Minister and the LTTE that each party would abide by the ceasefire, but visibly disappointed that the resumption of talks were put on hold, the facilitators decided to wait for the political situation to stabilise and returned to Oslo.

"Our options here have exhausted... we will go home and wait," said Helgesen, after meeting the Sri Lankan political leadership. On the ceasefire and the political impasse, Helgesen said that though the peace process was "in good shape", there was no ruling out a deterioration of the ground situation.

"We need to make clear that the ceasefire will be much more difficult to sustain in a political vacuum. If progress in the political negotiation is made impossible, the ceasefire will become increasingly fragile." With this note of caution, Helgesen left for Oslo. And on this ominous note, Sri Lanka enters its next phase of cohabitation politics. It is time Sri Lanka's two top political leaders - President Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe - worked out a meaningful way of political cohabitation and ensured that the latest peace process, and along with it the political future of the country, is not weighed down by the historical baggage of bipartisan bickering.

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