SRI LANKA was plunged into crisis yesterday after President Chandrika Kumaratunga took advantage of the absence of the Prime Minister to make a grab for power.
Ranil Wickremesinghe, Mrs Kumaratunga's long-term rival for power, was preparing to meet President Bush in Washington when word arrived that the Sri Lankan President had sacked the key ministers of defence, interior and information, and seized their minis- tries. She also suspended parliament for two weeks and ordered troops on to the streets to guard a government-run printing press, state television and a power plant.
A spokesman for the army said: "Several platoons have been deployed to prevent any unwanted incidents and to maintain law and order."
Sri Lankans were stunned by the apparent attempted takeover. Despite years of brutal civil war with the Tamil Tigers (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) in the north of the island, Sri Lanka has preserved the democratic proprieties throughout its 55 years of independence. Power has alternated repeatedly between the two main parties.
Mrs Kumaratunga's action cast a pall on hopes that peace talks between the government and the Tigers, brokered by Norway, would resume any time soon. A ceasefire in the civil war, that claimed 65,000 lives, has held for 18 months but negotiations have repeatedly foundered on the issue of how much power the Tigers, who say they no longer aim for a fully independent state, are prepared to settle for. A Tigers spokesman said yesterday that prospects for talks had "dimmed" as a result of Mrs Kumaratunga's actions.
She gave only a cryptic explanation for what she had done. A statement from her office said: "This step was taken after careful consideration, in order to prevent further deterioration of the security situation in the country." Her spokesman later said parlia- ment had been prorogued for two weeks; a step seen as blocking MPs from challenging her actions. Mr Wickremesinghe's party has a small parliamentary majority.
Speaking from Washington, he said the Sri Lankan President had "precipitated a national crisis in an attempt to subvert the mandate given to my government". He went on: "Your government will not be deviated from the mandate given to it by the people to pursue the path of peace, security and economic prosperity …