It seems like a textbook coup. While the elected leader of the government is out of the country, the president suspends parliament, fires the ministers of defence, information and interior, and takes over their departments, and puts troops on the streets of the capital to guard the state television station. The next day, she declares a state of emergency that gives her the right to jail people for upto a year without charge. At this point in the process, usually, the police are going around with lists of government opponents, kicking doors in, and a lot of people are going into hiding.
Not in Sri Lanka, which has been democratic since independence 55 years ago. The prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, didn’t even bother to rush home from Washington, where he was meeting President George W. Bush. “This is not the first crisis I have had,” he said on getting the bad news on November 4. “When I go back, I’ll sort it out.” He probably will, too.
Things are less bad than they seem in Sri Lanka. Nobody has actually been arrested under the state of emergency (which expires after 10 days anyway). Parliament was only suspended for two weeks, and when it meets again on November 19 the majority of its members are going to be very cross indeed at President Chandrika Kumaratunga. By then Wickremesinghe will be home, and unless the Tamil Tigers do something really stupid, the crisis will be over.
Do the deal
The Tamil Tigers (formally, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) are what this crisis is all about. After 20 years of war, the guerrilla leaders who have established their control of the Tamil-speaking, largely Hindu minority in the northeast of the island have accepted that the changed global attitude towards terrorism post-9/11 means that they are not going to win their war for independence, at least not in this generation. For the past 20 months, there has been a cease-fire while they tried to cut a deal for autonomy within Sri Lanka.
Wickremeshinghe is ready to cut a deal too, recognizing that a clear-cut military victory over the LTTE is impossible. Most of the Buddhist, Sinhala-speaking majority in Sri Lanka profoundly dislikes any change that threatens the unity of the country, but they have also watched for a whole generation as the country consistently failed to fulfill its promise of becoming another Asian “tiger”. They are sick of slow growth and constant death (an average of 10 people killed each day for 20 years), so in 2001 they turned their back on the hard-liners and voted for Wickremesinghe’s United National Party.
A game of bluff
Ranil Wickremesinghe was elected prime minister in 2001 with a mandate to negotiate peace. With the help of Norwegian mediators, he had a cease-fire by the year end. The talks have been difficult, but there has been no shooting in Sri Lanka for almost two years now and the LTTE has publicly dropped its demand for independence. Since Wickremesinghe’s government has conceded that there will be some kind of autonomy for the Tamils within Sri Lanka, the rest should be just a prolonged haggle. The return of peace had already unleashed an economic boom that was making the whole process acceptable to even dedicated Sinhalese nationalists.
But not to Kumaratunga (who has lost her husband and an eye to the LTTE, in separate attacks). Her party has rejected the peace talks with the LTTE, condemning the Norwegian mediators as “salmon-eating busybodies”. And she has seized the opportunity of Wickremeshinghe’s absence to stage a provocation — it’s not really a coup — in the hope that she can trick the Tamil leadership into walking out of the talks.
It won’t work because the LTTE knows she’s bluffing, and that Wickremesinghe will not be diverted by the nonsense. Every action Kumaratunga has taken is legally within the rights of the president, but she can’t keep it up very long without parliament’s agreement — and well over half the members of parliament have already signed a letter condemning her actions. Normal service in Sri Lanka will soon be restored.