Chandrika's Coup and its Impact

 by T. Sabaratnam in Colombo


Sunday, November 9, 2003

Colombo is calm. With the daily evening showers, the weather is cool and refreshing. People are going through their normal routine life.

Churches are full. Buddhist religious schools are full with little smiling children. Ramakrishna Mission is full with pavadai-clad girls.

Markets are full with people and goods. Roads are packed with cars. Everything looked normal. There is no talk of war.

“What war?” joked a retired journalist, Anton Fernando, leisurely marketing at the Welawatte market. “The fight now is over peace.”

Over the last few days, everyone is saying they are for peace. Kadirgamar announced on Thursday that President Kumaratunga had authorized him to announce that the ceasefire would be kept. Kumaratunga, in her address to the nation on Friday, pledged that her commitment to peace is total. And Ranil on his triumphant return on Friday declared that his top priority would be peace.

Added Sittampalam Kandasway, who returned from Jaffna on Saturday, “The Tigers are also for peace.” He said he did not see any sign of war anywhere, all the way from Jaffna to Colombo. The initial jitter about a possible closure of the road between Jaffna and Colombo did not take place. It is being kept open and traffic on it was as usual.

Yet there seems to be an air of uncertainty. On Sunday, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe told the four co-chairmen of the donor community that he would not be in a position to handle the peace process if he is not allowed to do it on his terms and offered to step down to allow President Kumaratunga to continue the peace process on her terms.

He told that to US Ambassador Geoffrey Lunstead and Norwegian Ambassador Hans Brattskar when he met them in his office on Sunday. He conveyed the same message to the other chairpersons, Ambassador Yashushi Akashi of Japan and Chris Patten from the European Union.

He also told them his government being in charge of the Ministries of Defence, Interior and Media was essential for his effective implementation of the ceasefire agreement and the implementation of any future agreements his government would enter into with the LTTE.

Political commentators see in this stand of Ranil Wickremesinghe a clever political maneuver to win back the three ministries Kumaratunga snatched from the government on November 4 and to permanently oust her from the peace process.

Ranil reacts coolly

Wickremesinghe handled the constitutional crisis Kumaratunga had inflicted on him Tuesday morning with tact and coolness which won for him local and international approval and support. The news of Kumaratunga’s coup was given to him at 1.40 am on Tuesday (Washington time) when he was fast asleep at the Presidential Suite at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Washington. “Sir, the President has taken over the ministries of Defence, Interior and Media,” the caller from Colombo, Sri Lanka Telecom chairman, Thilanga Sumathipala, told him. The prime minister, who was in a batik sarong and a T-shirt, summoned Ministers Tyronne Fernando and Milinda Morogoda, who were occupying the adjoining rooms, and the other officials for consultation. He told them to alert the international community.

Minister Karu Jayasuriya telephoned him a little later and informed him about the development. “Sir, the entire cabinet is here with me. They are anxious to launch a counter attack. They want to hand over to the Speaker an impeachment motion and prevent her from dissolving parliament,” he said.

Ranil disagreed. “Don’t worry about impeachment. That will be counter productive. That will win her sympathy. Now, we must show the country and the world we enjoy the confidence of parliament. Draft a letter of confidence in the government, the prime minister and the cabinet and obtain the signature of the majority of the members and hand over the original to the Speaker and the copy to the president,” he said.

Ministers Karu Jayasuriya and Mahinda Samarasinghe did that. By Thursday, they obtained the signatures of 127 members and gave the original to the speaker and the copy to the President. They obtained two more signatures later, Sri Lanka parliament has a total of 225 members.

Wickremesinghe also sent a message calling the people to be calm. “I have overcome many hurdles. I will overcome this also,” he said in that message.

He also decided not to cancel his meeting with President George W. Bush and to complete his tour as scheduled.

On Tuesday, soon after she took over the three vital ministries President Kumaratunga was buoyant. Everything went as planned. The gazette notifications were printed and the ministries were taken as planned. On Wednesday, she called a meeting of her party’s parliamentary group where she was given a hero’s welcome. Opposition leader Mahinda Rajapakse, usually her critic, called upon the parliamentarians to put up their hands as a show of approval. Most of them raised both their hands.

In the evening things took a different turn. Indian High Commissioner Nirupam Sen called on her and advised her not to take further steps and spoil the peace process. US Deputy Chief of Mission James Entwistle called on her and asked her not to take any action that would disrupt the peace process. The High Commissioner of Britain and the Ambassador of Japan also called on her and cautioned her.

The Japanese ambassador also read a written statement which warned that the aid package pledged at the Tokyo meeting would not be available to Sri Lanka if the peace process was disturbed.

Kadirgamar who was present wanted to know whose statement it was. Japanese ambassador replied: That was from my government. Kadirgamar wanted to have a copy of it. The ambassador declined to give a copy.

The biggest shock Kumaratunga got was from Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. He told her in a 20-minute telephone conversation that India was anxious about the political developments, that the constitutional crisis should be averted and that the peace process should not be disturbed. Chandrika assured Vajpayee that she would not do any of those things.

Caught in the international safety net Ranil had carefully laid Chandrika is wriggling to get out of the situation she had pushed herself into.

Can she take over the negotiating process? Will the LTTE agree to talk to her on the conditions she wants?

Analysts say Chandrika had Ranil more popular with the Sinhala people and the international community. They add that Pirapaharan had gained more than Ranil. The international community looked at Pirapaharan as the probable disrupter of the peace process. Now they know the real troublemakers.

President Bush asked Ranil when he met him at the White House, “Mr. Prime Minister! Was that done to embarrass you when you are my guest?”

Ranil smiled. He did not want to admit to a foreigner that his president was the troublemaker.

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Posted November 17, 2003