Mon, Nov 21, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Sri Lankan leader steps down, leaving uncertain legacy

CLOUDY FUTURE Amid ongoing tensions on the tropical island, observers aren't sure if the former president will leave war or peace in her wake


There's an old saying in Colombo that former president Chandrika Kumaratunga's father sparked Sri Lanka's seemingly intractable ethnic conflict, her mother stoked it and she was left to douse the flames.

"If that is true," said Rodney Fernando, a Colombo businessman, "then now what?"

Barred from re-election by term limits, Kumaratunga stepped down Saturday after 11 years to make way for a hard-line successor with an unclear mandate to govern a land that still simmers with war.

In her homeland, Kumaratunga is more than an ex-president. She's a woman who has lost a father and husband to the conflict that has defined modern Sri Lanka. She was sworn in for a second term days after being partially blinded in an assassination attempt. And she's the last, for the time being, of a political dynasty that gave Sri Lanka and the world its first female prime minister, her mother.

But at the end of her era, Kumaratunga's legacy is as uncertain as Sri Lanka's future.

war or peace?

"People say we are not going to go back to war," said G. Sataya, who was sharing a midmorning beer with Fernando in a dingy Colombo watering hole just up from the city docks. On a television behind them, images flickered of dignitaries arriving at the president's residence for the swearing in of Sri Lanka's new leader, Mahinda Rajapakse.

"But people do not think there will be peace," he said. "So we are not sure what Chandrika has left for us."

The peace process with the Tamil Tiger rebels is stalled. A cease-fire with the guerrillas, who have fought since 1983 for a Tamil homeland, can be described as shaky, at best. And efforts to rebuild from last year's tsunami are mired in the politics of the bloody insurgency.

deep divisions

Her successor, Rajapakse, has promised peace, but appears unlikely to deliver it -- he opposes nearly everything the rebels want, from the creation of a Tamil homeland to giving them a role in administering tsunami aid.

His election -- he won with just over 50 percent of the vote in large part because what amounted to a Tiger boycott kept many of the Sri Lanka's 3.2 million Tamils from the polls -- underscores Sri Lanka's deep divisions.

P.M. Saravanamuttu, a lawyer in Colombo, said the vote showed Sri Lankans "don't agree on how to make peace," and asked, "Does this mean we should go back to war?"

His defeated opponent, opposition leader Ranil Wickre-mesinghe, said the result would produce "a lot of question marks and uncertainty" and called Rajapakse's election "a setback for the peace process as you have a very polarized society."

studious silence

Kumaratunga, who since the 1999 assassination attempt has lived largely in heavily secured seclusion, hasn't publicly said a word about her one-time protege's election.

But she quietly broke with him in the weeks leading up to the vote, criticizing his hard-line on the Tigers. Instead, she backed the more conciliatory stand of Wickremesinghe, once among her fiercest political enemies.

It was another twist in a life that has tracked the shifts in Sri Lanka's modern history.

A member of Kumaratunga's family -- her father, her mother, herself -- has led Sri Lanka for more than half of its 48 years as an independent state.

Her father, Solomon Dias Bandaranaike, was elected prime minister in 1956, promising to restore to dominance the predominantly Buddhist Sinhalese, sidelined under British colonialism in favor of the largely Hindu Tamils. The first ethnic clashes came after his election.

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