Church Tries to Mediate in Sri Lankan Crisis

Country Torn in Three: President, Prime Minister or Rebels

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COLOMBO, NOV. 7, 2003 ( The Catholic Church in Sri Lanka strives to bridge the gap between the country’s president and prime minister, Archbishop Gomis of Colombo tells «Fides.»

While Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wikramasinghe attended a diplomatic mission to the United States, Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga took advantage of constitutional powers to fire the Secretaries of Communications, Defense and the Interior, assuming their respective functions herself.

In addition, President Kumaratunga has suspended parliament for two weeks, declaring a state of emergency. The president explains her actions in national security terms, ‘to avoid making erroneous concessions’ to Tamil separatist rebels.

Since 1985 Sri Lanka has been torn by civil war between its regular army and northern guerrilla forces going by the name of “Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam” (LTTE). Government and rebels cosigned a cease fire truce in February 2002, followed by negotiations.

Some months ago talks halted. But recently the rebels presented a plan, including the installation of an interim authority in the Tamil controlled north. According to the Tamil plan, interim authorities could impose taxes, keep order, and control external trade within a federated system.

The LTTE has asked Norway, which has acted as a mediator in the past, to organize meetings to discuss the plan. Department heads of Prime Minister Wikramasinghe’s government met Tamil leaders saying they were hopeful the rebels’ proposal would be accepted. But President Kumaratunga claims it would mean conceding too much, accusing the prime minister’s party of wanting to change the constitution.

Sri Lankans are witnessing the difficult coexistence of a president belonging to the Freedom Party and a prime minister heading the United National Front, which has held a slight parliamentary majority. Though dissolving parliament is a presidential prerogative under Sri Lanka’s constitution, observers remain concerned.

«The crisis is a cause of concern for people but as yet there have been no scenes of violence,” says Archbishop Gomis, adding, «I can’t say I am very optimistic, but we’ll do all we can to restore calm.»

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