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S.Lanka political showdown overshadows civil war
( 2003-11-08 14:40) (Agencies)

 When President Chandrika Kumaratunga sits down at the weekly meeting of the cabinet she heads, she sees at the end of the table her biggest political foe -- Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

 Even though the two have known each other almost all their lives, there is little they can agree on -- least of all a peace process with Tamil Tiger rebels who have been fighting for a separate homeland for minority Tamils since 1983.

 The animosity between Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe has so destabilised domestic politics for nearly a decade that some in Sri Lanka say peace between the two is more important than peace with the Tigers.

 It is a clash of personality, ego and vastly different political backgrounds. It's also a battle for power, prestige, control and recognition.

 "They are like two children, fighting for the attention of the country and sometimes even each other," said a businessman, who asked not to be named.

 As a daughter of two former prime ministers, Kumaratunga is a proud inheritor of a political dynasty that ruled Sri Lanka for many years. Wickremesinghe represents the urban rich, the business that has always backed his United National Party (UNP).

 Kumaratunga and her ministers have squabbled over whether she should bring her dog to cabinet meetings. Some ministers have accused her of carrying a secret video camera in her handbag.

 She has called Wickremesinghe a prime minister "without a backbone" and accused him of trying to assassinate her.

 The two have also fought over who should represent Sri Lanka at meetings of the United Nations.

 But it was the peace bid with Tamil Tiger rebels that finally broke the straw.

 Kumaratunga used her wide constitutional powers to sack three ministers and suspend parliament while Wickremesinghe was on an official trip to Washington, saying he was giving away too much to the Tigers and the country's security was at risk.

 On Friday, the stakes were raised further after the prime minister, fresh from a successful meeting with US President George W. Bush, returned home to a rapturous welcome by tens of thousands of his supporters.

 Kumaratunga, who was seriously wounded by a rebel suicide bomber in 1999, came out fighting and said that while a Norwegian-brokered ceasefire would hold, Norway's role in the peace bid needed a closer look.

 She asked all parties to join her to form a "grand alliance...with the objective of forming a government of national reconciliation".

 What the two failed to say was if or when they planned to meet.


 The trouble between the two began in 1994 when Kumaratunga's party won parliamentary elections to end the UNP's 17-year rule. Wickremesinghe was then prime minister.

 "That was the first direct confrontation. It happened soon after Ranil's advent as the leader of the United National Party, which was in opposition," said Irwin Weerackody, a member of the working committee of the UNP.

 Kumaratunga's popularity rose sharply after that and she won the presidential election a few months later. She began peace talks with the Tamil rebels, which ended in the eruption of some of most bloodiest fighting in the country's history.

 This week's showdown, which has rattled donor nations, investors and the markets, has been looming since Wickremesinghe won parliamentary elections in 2001, campaigning on a platform of pursuing peace with the Tigers to defeat Kumaratunga's party.

 Since then, many Sri Lankans have been on the edge -- wondering whether the political battle would be prolonged and foreshadow a return to the days of bombs, assassinations and howling ambulances bringing back dead and wounded from the war front.

 "It is obvious that the issues at the heart of the present political crisis pertain principally to power, prestige and control," the state-run Daily News said in an editorial. "The parties to the conflict need to pause a while to ascertain whether they intend placing power over the well-being of the country."

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