Sri Lanka: A Fake Crisis

6 November 2003

Sri Lanka: A Fake Crisis

By Gwynne Dyer

It seems like a textbook case of a 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 up to a year without charge “to prevent a further deterioration of the security situation.” 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. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe didn’t even bother to rush home from Washington, where he was meeting President Bush. “This is not the first crisis I have had,” he said when he got the bad news on 4 November. “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 ten days anyway). The parliament was only suspended for two weeks, and when it meets again on 19 November the majority of its members are going to be very cross indeed at President Chandrika Kumaratunga. By then Prime Minister Wickremesinghe will be home, and unless the Tamil Tigers do something really stupid the crisis will be over.

The Tamil Tigers (formally the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam — LTTE) are what this crisis is all about. After twenty years of war, the guerilla leaders who have established their control of the Tamil-speaking, largely Hindu minority in the north-east 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 twenty months, there has been a cease-fire while they try to cut a deal for autonomy within Sri Lanka.

Prime Minister Wickremeshinghe is ready to cut a deal too, recognising 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 seems to threaten the unity of the country, but they have also watched for a whole generation as the country of some 20 million people consistently failed to fulfill its promise of becoming another Asian ‘tiger’. They are sick of slow growth and constant death (an average of ten people killed by the war each day for twenty years), so in 2001 they turned their back on the hard-liners and voted for Wickremesinghe’s United National Party.

Until then President Kumaratunga, the heiress of a political dynasty that has always beaten the Sinhalese nationalist drum, had it all her own way, with her Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) in control of the parliament and her elderly mother as prime minister. She used her almost unbridled power to launch an all-out, years-long offensive against the LTTE in search of a decisive military victory, and ended up proving to most people’s satisfaction that it could not be done. By the end of the 90s, the Sri Lankan army was suffering humiliating routs and experiencing mass desertions, so the voters abandoned her.

Ranil Wickremesinghe was elected prime minister in 2001 with a mandate to negotiate peace, and with the assistance of Norwegian mediators he had a cease-fire by the end of the year. 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 also conceded that there will be some kind of autonomy for the Tamils within Sri Lanka, the rest should be just a prolonged haggle — and 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 President 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 Prime Minister Wickremeshinghe’s absence abroad 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.

The pretext for her dramatic move was the publication of the LTTE’s proposals for the kind of autonomy that the Tamil province should have. It was more than most Sinhalese would want to grant, naturally enough, being the statement of a negotiating position, but Kumaratunga declared that it meant “a further deterioration of the security situation” and acted. The headlines blared and the Sri Lankan stock market crashed, but it isn’t going to work.

It won’t work because the LTTE knows that 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.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 9. (“Until…her”; and “The pretext…work”)