While the statement lacks something as an apology, there's no doubting its veracity. Sri Lankan politics are ruthless and bloody, and as a member of the country's leading political family, Kumaratunga and her kin have been marked for death many times. Her father was assassinated by a Buddhist monk in 1959, Marxist revolutionaries are thought to have murdered her husband in 1988, and Kumaratunga lost her right eye in a 1999 suicide bomb attack by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (L.T.T.E.). And while an uneasy peace has prevailed between the government and the Tigers since 2002, Kumaratunga has remained a target because of her imperial and mercurial style. "She's Joan of Arc, Boadicea and Elizabeth I all rolled into one," says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, an analyst at the Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA) in Colombo. "And it can really infuriate people."
Few people have more reason to feel angry today than her own Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe. In the past five months, Kumaratunga has used her constitutional powers to seize his government while he was on a visit to Washington; dissolve Parliament; stall Wickremesinghe's negotiations to end a civil war with the Tigers that, with 65,000 dead in 20 years, is Asia's bloodiest and most intractable; and call a snap general election to try to unseat him. Like the crowd at Anuradhapura, the country has been hostage to Madam's whims as she plunged from controversy to controversy, ordering the army to seize the state media, castigating Norway's peace mediators, even deciding unilaterally to add another year to her term as President. Now, with a parliamentary election scheduled for April 2, Kumaratunga's Sri Lanka Freedom Party is set to go head-to-head with Wickremesinghe's United National Party at the ballot box. At stake is control of the government, the peace process and the economy. As Wickremesinghe puts it, the voting "will decide the future of Sri Lanka."
Thanks to the cease-fire, the Sri Lankan economy is expected to grow by a healthy 6% this year. But Kumaratunga's power play has stalled the peace talks, jeopardizing vital foreign investment in infrastructure and sparking fears that the country could slip back into disarray. In a March report, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned, "A prolonged impasse resulting from the ongoing political instability could hold back private investment and delay donor financing." The country's leaders, it continued, "need to make further progress in establishing a political environment that fosters lasting peace." The IMF delayed an $80 million aid tranche after the recent turmoil.
In an interview with TIME, Kumaratunga, 58, says she seized the government because Wickremesinghe's peace negotiations were a "farce." She accuses the Prime Minister of making "secret promises" to L.T.T.E. leaders that threatened to split the country between Sinhalese south and Tamil northeast. Both Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe are willing to concede the Tamils greater political autonomy by creating a federalist system of government. But Kumaratunga charges, with some justification, that the rebels were using the cease-fire to recruit and rearm. "Everybody is very happy there are no bombs going off and people in the north are happy their children are not dying," Kumaratunga says. "But people in the south are very worried about the way the peace process was handled."
Others view Kumaratunga's actions as a naked power grab by an ambitious President who had lost the initiative to a longtime adversary. Wickremesinghe denies the President's accusations, noting that L.T.T.E. leaders had proposed their own federal settlement two days before Kumaratunga took over and scuttled the negotiations. Kumaratunga's own efforts during the mid-1990s to make peace with the Tamils had failedas the bomb that took her eye illustrated so dramaticallyand she bowed out of the process when Wickremesinghe was elected Prime Minister on a peace ticket in December 2001. Her opponents claim that with a breakthrough appearing imminent, she was worried that all credit would go to Wickremesinghe. There was even talk of a Nobel Peace Prize for him. "If we had gone ahead with peace talks and development," says Wickremesinghe, "her party would have lost its chances of winning the next election."
Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe go back a long way, and their feud is as much personal as political. They knew each other as children, when Wickremesinghewho is younger than the President by four yearsused to play with Kumaratunga's brother in her family's home. But as adults they became political rivals, and Kumaratunga makes no effort to conceal her disdain for her mild-mannered nemesis. Complaining that Wickremesinghe excluded her from peace negotiations despite her requests to be kept informed, she derides him as "a liar ... [who] has no backbone" and who is "incapable of thinking big." She also fumes about what she sees as his disrespect for her. Wickremesinghe would call her "Madam" to her face, she says, "but sit there in Cabinet with a smirk on his face as his ministers abused me [with] the most horrendous insults."
To someone who had come to see herself almost as a personification of the nation after terms as Prime Minister and President and 50 years in Sri Lanka's First Family, the perceived slurs were intolerable. "In her mind, her future and the future of her party and the country are all tied together," says Saravanamuttu of CPA. "Hurt one in that context and you hurt them all." Wickremesinghe, who says he would have brought Kumaratunga into the peace process once he had established the outlines of a deal with the Tigers, suggests that the real problem is her ego. "The President has said before that politics and power in Sri Lanka is a Bandaranaike family preserve," he says.
While its leaders feud, the mood of the country is growing increasingly dangerous. Sporadic violence has broken out between supporters of Wickremesinghe and Kumaratunga; a handful of party workers on both sides have even been killed. Intolerance is also filling the vacuum in governance that has accompanied the stalemate: in a spate of recent attacks, Sinhalese Buddhist mobs have burned or vandalized more than 100 Christian churches.
To this uncertainty, the Tigers this month added more with the eruption of a leadership dispute of their own. Colonel Karuna Amman, the top commander for the eastern Tamil Tigers, split from the northern leadership, taking thousands of fighters with him, declaring he could no longer tolerate supreme leader Velupillai Prabhakaran's one-man rule. This tussle has every chance of turning bloody: in the past, the Tigers executed anyone within their own ranks accused of disloyalty to Prabhakaran.
The confusion and turmoil seem set to continue. Political researchers at Lanka Orix Securities say the most likely outcome of the upcoming election is a deadlock, with neither the Prime Minister's nor the President's party securing an outright majority in the 225-seat Parliament. Lanka Orix predicts Wickremesinghe will then form a government by joining with lawmakers from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), giving him a majority of votes in Parliament. Once an independent party, the TNA today is little more than a Tiger proxy, however. Diplomats say that while the Tiger's entry into Parliament through the TNA would be a welcome historic step, a government that relies on the Tigers for support while simultaneously negotiating peace with them would raise disturbing questions about the legitimacy of the peace process. Still, Wickremesinghe might have no other choice. He says the idea of forming a national government with Kumaratunga is unworkable because her overriding objective is "to defeat us and not to think about what happens to the country."
Should the election predictions prove correct, leaving Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister, the present impasse will endure. Eventually, Kumaratunga might withdraw from the stage: her second and final term as President ends in 2006, and she hints that she may leave politics after that. But until then, as supporters, enemies and rebels have all come to recognize, Sri Lanka's future will wait on Madam.