Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe told diplomats on Sunday that since President Chandrika Kumaratunga had taken over the crucial defence portfolio, she should take over the peace process, said Constitutional Affairs Minister Peiris.
“It will be desirable to explore the possibility of President Kumaratunga, who has taken over the three ministries, defense, interior and media, to be asked to carry on the process herself,” said Peiris.
The government’s latest move came hours after Wickremesinghe met the ambassadors of three nations that have strongly backed his peace efforts with Tamil Tiger rebels, including the United States, Norway and India.
There was no immediate reaction from Kumaratunga’s office.
Wickremesinghe was to meet later on Sunday with diplomats from Japan, also a major player in Sri Lanka’s peace efforts.
The move appears to be a political manoeuvre, made while peace talks are stalled and as a sweeping self-government proposal from the rebels is pending.
It would be difficult for any administration in Colombo to accept the rebel proposal in its present form and still keep the country’s Sinhalese majority happy.
But the rebels, who made a failed attempt to assassinate Kumaratunga in 1999, may not accept her as the leader of the process. She has been critical of Wickremesinghe’s peace efforts.
Meanwhile, Kumaratunga has promised not to call early parliamentary elections unless she is forced by further developments in the political crisis.
PM Wickremesinghe (R) returned
Kumaratunga, who has fired three key ministers and suspended Parliament in a showdown with the prime minister, said her party, which is the parliamentary opposition, was ready for an election.
But she told India’s New Delhi Television News late on Saturday that she would not call a new election unless “forced by further developments which I don’t… intend to cause or provoke.”
Kumaratunga also denied that her actions last week had sparked a constitutional crisis.
“I don’t think it’s a constitutional crisis unless Mr Wickremesinghe and some of his ministers make it into one,” she said.
Angered by the prime minister’s approach to peace talks with the rebels, Kumaratunga last week fired three powerful cabinet ministers, ordered Parliament suspended for two weeks and briefly declared a state of emergency – all while the prime minister was out of the country.
The state of emergency was later revoked.
Wickremesinghe’s administration has spearheaded efforts to end the war with Tamil Tiger rebels, who have fought for two decades to create a homeland for the country’s minority Tamils.
But Kumaratunga has long opposed the prime minister’s peacemaking style. She says he has been too quick to agree to Tiger demands and has not even required the guerrilla group disarm first.
Kumaratunga has defended her decision to take over the defence portfolio-a move which has alarmed the rebels.
Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe belong to rival political parities and share a cohabitation arrangement in the Indian Ocean island nation.
Wickremesinghe’s United National Party defeated Kumaratunga’s Peoples’ Alliance in December 2001 elections.
But the prime minister only has a two-seat majority in the 225-member Parliament, and the president has broad powers to sack him and Parliament.
On the defence
Kumaratunga has defended her decision to take over the defence portfolio – a move which has alarmed the rebels.
“It was a very normal action, almost routine that I should have done some months ago,” said Kumaratunga, who is also the commander in chief of the 120,000-soldier Sri Lankan armed forces.
On Saturday, Wickremesinghe’s supporters conditionally rejected her appeal to form a coalition government.
Despite the power struggle, officials have said an upcoming 10-12 November visit by Norwegian peace brokers, who are coming to encourage resumption of the stalled peace talks, is on track.
Kumaratunga has insisted she will neither break the ceasefire nor scuttle the peace process, though her moves have infuriated Tiger commanders.