Sri Lanka’s shifting political equations

Feizal Samath

Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga has had many ups and downs in her political career cum connected family life spanning nearly 30 years. So, were last week’s events the high or low-point of her career or routine developments that the charismatic leader is taking in her stride?

Hard to say but she appears – to many - to have convinced people that the government won’t collapse; the JVP pullout may be the best thing that has happened and that Sri Lanka may be closer to a peace deal than many believe. The JVP or Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, a hardline Marxist group, has now twice joined Kumaratunga’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and quit over the signing of an administrative pact to disburse tsunami relief with the LTTE. The JVP is opposed to any truck with the Tamil guerrillas while Kumaratunga says there is no other way to rebuild tsunami affected areas in the northeast. The international community is also backing the administrative unit called the joint mechanism and lately the Post Tsunami Operational Management Structure (P-TOMS).

The two diametrically opposite parties came together in 2003 to defeat the then ruling United National Party (UNP). The alliance vowed to change that and continue the peace process but on their terms – not the LTTE’s as the case has been since the UNP launched negotiations with the rebels signing a truce with the rebels in early 2002. The peace process meandered with no real result. Peace talks had stumbled in April 2003 during the UNP regime. That worsened during the current administration with the JVP opposing whatever step Kumaratunga wanted to take to re-start talks with the reb-els. Ironically opposition to whatever step taken by Kumaratunga in a bid to resume stalled peace talks came from the JVP and not the UNP and its leader Ranil Wickreme-singhe, her biggest political opponent.

In the meantime, the tsunami hit Sri Lanka last December – rapidly chan-ged the situation. The political focus shifted to the devastation caused in the south, north and east and for a moment there were all parties (SLFP, UNP, JVP, LTTE) coming together, though briefly, as one to rebuild the country.

Kumaratunga, on the last leg of her final term (she can serve only two, 6-year terms as president) is keen to finalise the joint relief mechanism but was being blocked by the JVP. Radical Buddhist monks also joined opposition to the proposed deal. Then the JVP, feeling let down by the government, threatened to quit the regime in the hope that Kumaratunga would bow down to the threat. Interestingly the President gained strength from her arch political foe, Wickremesinghe, who has promised support to the Kumaratunga concerning the joint mechanism and said he is not interested in ousting the government. With the next election most likely to be the presidential poll in around December 2005 – whatever fresh controversies that may arrive over the date – the alliance government now as a minority administration is unlikely to fall unless the UNP changes tack.

Samath, a freelancer, writes for THT from Colombo