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Last Updated: Monday, 10 November, 2003, 18:01 GMT
Analysis: Dicing with Sri Lanka's future

By Frances Harrison
BBC correspondent in Colombo

Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe (left) and President Chandrika Kumaratunga
Rivals are playing political chess

I keep on asking diplomats, fellow journalists and academics what they think the outcome of Sri Lanka's current political crisis will be.

"I don't know," is the answer every time.

Sri Lanka is now in uncharted waters - a constitutional struggle between two political parties that threatens to rupture the government of co-habitation and the fragile peace of the last two years.

Normally, few outsiders would be interested in the intricacies of Sri Lankan parliamentary politics.

But with the international community heavily involved - this time in the peace process led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe - it is a different story.

'Saving the nation'

The prime minister has been quite blunt about the risk to the peace process and he has, in effect, abdicated responsibility for it - saying he needs powers over defence if he is to continue running it.

I have repeatedly heard ordinary Sri Lankans say that politics in their country is a game - their politicians are dicing with their futures
He has asked President Chandrika Kumaratunga to take the process over.

However his spokesman, GL Peiris, said everyone involved in the peace process - including the Tamil Tigers - would have to endorse President Kumaratunga leading negotiations.

It looks as if the prime minister is hoping the Tigers will come out on his side and refuse to talk peace with his rival, the president.

That would allow him to claim he is the only man who can bring peace to Sri Lanka, in contrast to the president who says she is saving the nation from the Tamil Tigers who still want a separate state.

The irony is, of course, that both leaders believe in a negotiated settlement to the civil war through devolution of power to the Tamil Tigers - they just seem unable to back each other.

Bargaining position

The prime minister rejected the president's devolution package just as she criticised his peace initiative.

Another sea clash could cause events to spin out of control
I have repeatedly heard ordinary Sri Lankans say that politics in their country is a game - their politicians are dicing with their futures.

There are some members of the majority Sinhalese community who say they back the president's actions, because they do not want their nation divided.

They believe the Tamil Tiger rebels' interim administration proposal was going to lead to a separate state and have the impression the prime minister was going to agree to it all.

In reality, the Tigers articulated a bargaining position which they said they were willing to adjust and the prime minister had not agreed anything.

Then there are minority Tamils, who now feel threatened by the political instability.

Civilian fears

In the frontline town of Vavuniya, Tamils are now carrying their identity cards again for the first time in almost two years - fearful of being stopped by the security forces and questioned.

Some people in Jaffna are cancelling trips away in case they get stranded and cannot return to the town to care for their families.

Those who have relatives abroad in the huge Tamil diaspora are, once again, wondering if they should leave Sri Lanka and join them.

The fear is creeping back even if war is not.

Optimists say nobody wants war now so Sri Lankans are safe.

The worry is, if the country slips back into a state of tension and there is another clash at sea between the Tigers and the navy, tempers could fray and the situation could get out of control.

It is possible to stumble back into conflict - especially when nobody knows who is in charge of the peace process now.

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