The immediate responsibility for this crisis falls squarely on President Kumaratunga. "She took these decisions alone... to take power into her own hands," says Mahinda Rajapakse, vice president of Kumaratunga's People's Alliance party. A Colombo-based diplomat says international observers were "flabbergasted" by the timing of Kumaratunga's moves. Just three days earlier, the LTTE had injected new life into a peace process that had been moribund since talks were broken off in April by submitting a comprehensive set of demands to Colombo. While uncompromising, the LTTE proposals were only a starting point for negotiations, the diplomat stresses. Moreover, for the first time the Tigers explicitly withdrew their claim to create a separate nation in the north and east of the country. "[Kumaratunga] has erased at a stroke the personal rapport and confidence built up between the Tigers and members of the government," says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of Sri Lanka's nongovernmental Center for Policy Alternatives. "At best, the peace process is in cold storage. At worst, anything could happen."
Perhaps most alarming was the realization that Kumaratunga was counting on the Tigers to stand back calmly and watch the power struggle play out. The LTTE has previously refused to deal with the President, claiming it cannot trust her. "She's almost daring the Tigers to mobilize," Wickremesinghe told TIME on his return. Quite how dangerous a game Kumaratunga is playing is apparent in the small print of a public-security order she issued last Friday ordering the army to deploy across the island's 25 districts. If carried out to the letter, this would effectively mean a new army offensive on LTTE territory. "That would result in some problems," was Tiger spokesman Daya Master's dry comment.
The deeply personal animosity between President and Prime Minister stems from the instrumental role Wickremesinghe played in unraveling Kumaratunga's coalition government in 2001 and later defeating her party in a general election. Wickremesinghe has gone on to jealously guard for himself the international acclaim he has won for holding talks with the Tigers, excluding Kumaratunga, who made initial peace moves in the 1980s and 1990s, from any role in the negotiations. "At most times, I came to know of decisions on defense matters after they were taken and only from the media," complained Kumaratunga in her second national address. "Ranil is also very selfish," says Jehan Perera of the National Peace Council, a Colombo-based independent NGO. "He didn't support her when she tried to make some good changes when her government was in power. He also wants power for himself."
In an interview with TIME as he drove into Colombo, a smiling and joking Wickremesinghe was clearly relishing what he saw as a strategic blunder by a President who he believed had overplayed her hand and succeeded only in galvanizing his support. The unexpected scale of his reception appeared to confirm the widespread assessment that Kumaratunga was in danger of losing any trace of moral authority and also any snap election she called. Gesturing at the crowds, Wickremesinghe said, "I can't complain, can I? If there is a crisis here, the crisis is not mine."
All of which adds up to weeks, if not months, in which Sri Lanka's peace process will be mothballed or, worse, derailed. "This is a job without end," sighs a Western diplomat involved in the negotiations. "We've learned not to set fixed goals." It's an odd statement when that goal is peace. But in Sri Lanka, it might also be a realistic one.