Though declaring a state of emergency means more power for the Sri Lankan president, government officials tried to tone down the implications of the move, saying Kumaratunga is not intending to damage relations with Tamil Tiger rebels.
The rebels have been fighting for independence for the Tamil people for 20 years, but have honored a cease-fire with the government for more than 18 months. Tamils, who are mostly Hindus, feel discriminated against by the Buddhist Sinhalese majority on the tropical island off the southern tip of India, home to 19 million people.
Presidential advisor Lakshman Kadirgamar told reporters the cease-fire still stands. “The president has no intention of resuming or provoking the resumption of hostilities,” Kadirgamar said.
The state of emergency that will take effect at midnight Thursday is intended for the government to “take stock of the security situation,” senior presidential aide Eric Fernando told the Associated Press.
The power granted under the emergency allows the military to enter homes without warrants, arrest people without reason, and gives the president power to enact laws and control the media.
Meanwhile, Kumaratunga’s political opponent, Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, was in Washington meeting with President Bush. The prime minister has been at odds with the president of Sri Lanka about the treatment of rebels.
“This is part of Sri Lankan politics,” Wickremesinghe said. “For 25 years we have had these ups and downs.”
Kumaratunga has accused the prime minister of being too soft on the rebels. The rebels signed a cease-fire in 2002, which ended the fighting. They have dropped out of peace talks, however, and demanded administrative powers in the Tamil-majority areas in northeast Sri Lanka if they are to return to the peace talks, the AP reported.
The Tamil Tiger rebel group and more than half of Parliament support Wickremesinghe, who helped negotiate the cease-fire.
“We have full faith in the prime minister,” Labor Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe told reporters, quoting a letter signed by 124 of the 225 members of Parliament.
Sri Lanka’s constitution grants powers to both the president and prime minister, but when Wickremesinghe’s party defeated Kumaratunga’s in the 2001 parliamentary elections, Kumaratunga lost some of her power because her earlier prime ministers had come from her own party.
In the main rebel city, Jaffna, concerned residents stocked up on food, gas and other supplies. Many parents chose to keep their children home today, fearing a violent outbreak.
“People are worried here,” said Jeya Devadasan, a schoolteacher in Jaffna.
Kumaratunga said on television last night that she would talk to the rebels to “find a transparent and just solution to the ethnic conflict.” The president did say, however, that she would use armed forces to help maintain order.