International Papers

Queen of Colombo

Sri Lanka, a state in emergency.

The island of Sri Lanka is in turmoil this week after President Chandrika Kumaratunga temporarily disbanded parliament, declared a state of emergency, and assumed control of three crucial government ministries on Tuesday, all in the name of “national security.” With meticulous timing, Kumaratunga waited for her political rival, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, to depart for Washington, D.C., before removing ministers loyal to him and shutting down his majority power in parliament. Wickremesinghe returned to Colombo earlier today, where thousands greeted him. Kumaratunga then rescinded the state of emergency, but the situation remains tense, particularly since the turf war could ruin a promising cease-fire with the Tamil Tigers, which has held since February 2002.

Most papers within Sri Lanka met the news of the power grab with anger, except of course the state-controlled press. As soon as the president replaced the minister for mass communications with her appointee, government-run papers, which had previously attacked the president, changed gears and adopted a celebratory tone. “Sri Lanka’s president supreme in defense,” said the Dinamina, a Sinhala-language paper (translation thanks to MSNBC). However, other Sri Lankan papers voiced disapproval with her tactics. An editorial in Sri Lanka’s Island described the “pall of gloom” that settled over the capital city Colombo, and a Daily Mirror editorial bewailed the “unprincipled party system,” which encourages the president and prime minister to fight each other instead of helping Sri Lanka, unable “to abandon their party interests and prejudices even at times of national crisis.”

Regional papers delved into why Kumaratunga may have made the sudden grab for more power. Most agreed that she feared the prime minister was giving away too much sovereignty to Tamil Tiger negotiators who seek total autonomy. The Sydney Morning Herald ran a long article on the history of Tamil resistance to Sri Lankan rule. “To outsiders, the ferocity of the Tigers’ resistance is unsettling,” which may explain why Western governments support peace negotiations even though the Tigers are considered a terrorist organization. An op-ed in Australian daily the Age called Kumaratunga’s maneuvers a “constitutional coup” but at the same time, noted that “[i]f anyone in Sri Lanka has compelling personal reasons to want an end to the savage sectarian violence … it is Chandrika Kumaratunga.” She lost her father and her husband to terror attacks and narrowly escaped a similar fate herself. The Age also noted that her precision strike gave her control of the interior, mass communications, and defense ministries, thus “robbing [Wickremesinghe’s] Government of the main spoils of incumbency in an election campaign.”

In a sweeping op-ed, the Indian Hindu argued that “Sri Lanka’s two-year-old cohabitation experiment now stands at the edge of collapse.” According to the piece, Kumaratunga’s ploy made sense as a reaction to Wickremesinghe’s “adventurist move to impeach, first, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and, then, the President herself.” A Times of India editorial elaborated on the dilemma, which it called “dyarchy”—two competing sources of constitutional authority, the president and the prime minister. Pundits the world over echoed the Times’ lede on Sri Lanka’s troubles: “For democracy in South Asia, it is crisis time once again.”