The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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War at the top erupts in Lanka

Nov. 4: Sri Lanka plunged into a deep political crisis that threatens the truce with Tamil rebels after the President declared open war on the Prime Minister by sacking three powerful ministers, suspending parliament and ordering troops to guard vital installations.

An infuriated Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, now in Washington where he is scheduled to meet President George W. Bush, described the moves by arch-rival President Chandrika Kumaratunga as “desperate and irresponsible” and said they could plunge the country into chaos and anarchy.

The split has been building since Wickremesinghe’s party won parliamentary elections in late 2001, with Kumaratunga sharply critical of government efforts to end the 20-year war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The conflict between the President and Prime Minister threatens the bid to end the civil war that has killed 64,000 people, diplomats said. “This is bad, the focus on the peace process will be gone,” said a western diplomat in Colombo.

The pro-Tiger Tamilnet website said the President’s actions had “dimmed” prospects for peace, adding that the status of the ceasefire, brokered by Norway and in place for 20 months, had become uncertain.

In the evening, Kumaratunga went on television to defend her actions and to reach out to the Tigers. “I remain willing to discuss with the LTTE a just and a balanced solution of the national problem within the parameters of the unity, territorial integrity and sovereignty of Sri Lanka,” she said.

An implacable foe of the Tamil rebels after a bomb attack four years ago left her blind in one eye, Kumaratunga is renowned as much for her unpredictability as for her passionate oratory.

Kumaratunga is elected separately from the Prime Minister and parliament, and has vast powers. Ironically, it was Wickremesinghe’s United National Party that had introduced an all-powerful executive President while Kumaratunga’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party was in favour of returning to the Westminster style of government.

India expressed “surprise” at the unfolding events in the neighbouring island nation and hoped that they would not lead to a “constitutional crisis” that would affect the peace process. Kumaratunga is scheduled to be in India on a three-day visit from November 7.

Both Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe have excellent ties with Delhi. Even during the tense days when the Indian Peace-Keeping Force was deployed in Lanka, Wickremesinghe had kept his lines with Delhi open.

Kumaratunga’s dismissal of the defence, interior and media ministers comes three days after the Tigers unveiled power-sharing proposals. The President feels that the government is giving away too much to win peace.

The suspension of parliament for two weeks will postpone the announcement of the budget that, political analysts said, would have been populist to pacify Sinhalese restive over the truce.

Kumaratunga could have wanted to pre-empt the sweetener and keep the discontent simmering — a situation that will be conducive to her party if she calls snap polls. “She has control over the media, police and army — perfect for an election,” said an analyst.

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