Thu, Oct 30, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Leaders fight like cat, dog

PETTY BICKERING While Sri Lanka struggles to end a war, its prime minister and president, once childhood playmates, ceaselessly hurl angry insults at each other


The country's president calls her prime minister spineless. The prime minister calls the president a "Hitler madam."

Words like "worm" and "snake" fly between them regularly.

While Sri Lanka struggles to end a 19-year civil war, the country's two leaders, once childhood playmates, are locked in a battle of petty bickering.

Battle-weary Sri Lankans worry the fragile ceasefire between government forces and the Tamil Tiger rebels won't hold for much longer -- not because of occasional clashes, but because of the animosity between the two leaders.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe argue about nearly everything, from who will give important speeches to who will head what government ministry.

But the most bitter topic is the peace process.

Both insist they want peace for this embattled island nation, where two decades of civil war have cost the lives of 65,000 people, as ethnic Tamil rebels have fought to carve out a homeland in the country's northeast, dominated by the Hindu Tamils.

Wickremesinghe signed a February last year Norwegian-brokered ceasefire agreement with rebels that ended the fighting. Six rounds of talks aimed at finding a political solution were held before the rebels walked out in April.

Kumaratunga says the prime minister caved in to Tiger demands for autonomy without insisting they disarm first, or stop violating human rights.

In an 11-page letter in October, Kumaratunga blasted Wickremesinghe for putting the country's security at risk in the name of peace.

Repeatedly, she has threatened to use her broad powers to fire the prime minister and dissolve parliament.

The animosity between the two is likely to further intensify when the rebels spell out their demands for political and financial authority in the northeast. Their proposals were expected to be released tomorrow.

Sri Lanka's sharp political divisions have many worried.

"A united voice in this crucial time ... is critical to move forward successfully," US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs Christina Rocca said during a May visit.

The feud climaxed at the international level in early September, when the two leaders were unable to agree on who would represent Sri Lanka at the UN General Assembly.

Kumaratunga eventually gave in, saying she would not attend. She told UN Secretary General Kofi Annan that her absence was "due to the situation at home."

The bickering has given the rebels more excuses to stay away from the negotiating table.

"Your administration is unstable and caught up in a ferocious cohabitation war with the all-powerful president," Anton Balasingham, the chief rebel negotiator, wrote in a letter to Wickremesinghe in June.

Unsurprisingly, the two put the blame on each other.

Kumaratunga's spokesman, Harim Peiris, says Wickremesinghe ignores her.

But Kumaratunga declined to meet Wickremesinghe before he left for the UN, saying she was "indisposed." She has refused to meet with him on several other occasions.

Raised in Sri Lanka's small political elite, the two were friends as children. That ended when their political careers took off.

Kumaratunga was re-elected president in December 1999, three days after the Tigers tried to kill her in a suicide attack. She rode a sympathy vote to narrowly defeat Wickremesinghe and installed her aged mother as prime minister.

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