Sri Lanka: Sri Lanka is sliding

The Straits Times
Sri Lankans must wonder if their patricians could ever be trusted to deliver on an opportunity to remake the country.
An editorial from The Straits Times.
Before the weekend's parliamentary election, the country had enjoyed relative stability and growth in spite of the suspended peace talks between the Wickremesinghe government and the Tamil Tigers. The ceasefire with the rebels had withstood cheating on both sides to hold for two years, since February 2002. This was a considerable gain. Chiefly on the promise that conditions were reasonably good for a settlement after two decades of strife, the markets and business rallied.

The country posted 5 per cent growth last year, stock values almost doubled. Foreign governments and aid agencies pledged US$4.5 billion (S$7.6 billion) at a donors' conference as inducement to underwrite the peace. This was both a robust indication of what Sri Lanka could accomplish if there was a consensus among the religious and ethnic groups to pull together, and the outside world's faith in the good sense of the feuding political families. But the truncated outcome of the parliamentary polls is a playback of the deep animosities that have divided Sri Lanka. A durable peace between the state and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is still possible, but Sri Lanka essentially is back to what had obtained before the defeated Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe launched his campaign to talk peace with the rebels. In short, uncertainty and even the possibility of turmoil loom.

Consider the state of the new Parliament. President Chandrika Kumaratunga has prevailed in her virtual coup against her prime minister, staged in November last year when she sequestered the defence, internal security and information portfolios in a move to claw back what she saw as his reckless show of licence when dealing with the LTTE. Her party's merger with the rabidly ideological JVP won the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) the most seats in the 225-member House. But its 105 seats are short of a majority.

The UPFA will still form the government, as Mr Wickremesinghe's United National Front has only 82 seats and few options in junior-party support. But there is a further complication: the House is speckled with a mix of assumed pro-Tamil LTTE proxies (22 seats), anti-Tamil Buddhist monks (nine seats) who said they would not do a coalition deal with either of the two main parties, and the insecure Muslim constituency which won five seats. Furthermore, her partner, the JVP, accounted for a sizeable 40 of the UPFA's seats, which is big trouble as the party labelled as Marxist in Sri Lanka's striated political spectrum is pathologically suspicious of Tamil intentions.

Sri Lanka is now so deeply polarised along religious, race and doctrinaire lines that even a strong chief executive would barely be able to contain the inevitable backbiting and undercutting. Mrs Kumaratunga's choice of prime minister will have to make do with either a minority government or a coalition arrangement indebted to anti-LTTE hardliners. This is Sri Lanka's gravest danger, far more than the mere fact of the LTTE warning that civil war could be reignited if the peace process reached a dead end. Mrs Kumaratunga has gained full control of the state levers, but she is going to feel hemmed in by obligations to the JVP and her own distrust of the Tigers. She may be tempted to exploit the split in LTTE ranks between the eastern command and the dominant northern Wanni faction. In the political misalignment as in the natural hardening against the LTTE that this would imply, Sri Lanka is in for nervy times.