US embassy cable - 04COLOMBO185

Cohabitation channels remain open, but dispute over Defense Ministry continues

Identifier: 04COLOMBO185
Wikileaks: View 04COLOMBO185 at
Origin: Embassy Colombo
Created: 2004-02-02 11:14:00
Classification: CONFIDENTIAL
Tags: PGOV PREL PINR CE Political Parties Elections
Redacted: This cable was not redacted by Wikileaks.
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 COLOMBO 000185 
E.O. 12958:         DECL:  02/02/14 
TAGS: PGOV, PREL, PINR, CE, Political Parties, Elections 
SUBJECT:  Cohabitation channels remain open, but dispute 
over Defense Ministry continues 
Refs:  Colombo 155, and previous 
(U) Classified by Ambassador Jeffrey J. Lunstead. 
Reasons 1.5 (b,d). 
1.  (C) SUMMARY:  Cohabitation channels between the 
President and the PM remain open, but the two sides have 
still not come to agreement on how to divide Defense 
Ministry functions.  As the impasse continues, there is 
renewed talk that parliamentary elections may be in the 
offing, perhaps in conjunction with the Provincial 
Council elections tentatively slated for April.  There 
remains significant pressure on both sides to show 
flexibility in resolving the cohabitation dispute, so as 
to avoid parliamentary elections, which would be 
expensive and violent, and probably inconclusive.  END 
2.  (C) CHANNELS STILL OPEN:  Cohabitation channels 
between President Kumaratunga and Prime Minister 
Wickremesinghe remain open.  The two sides, however, 
have still not come to agreement on how to end the 
impasse, which began in November 2003 with the 
President's takeover of the Defense, Interior, and Mass 
Communications ministries.  The President-PM joint 
committee formed to discuss the situation last met on 
January 23 (see Reftels) and it may meet again this 
week, perhaps as early as February 3 according to 
contacts.  In the meantime, Mano Tittawella, a 
presidential adviser and Kumaratunga's chief 
representative on the joint committee, told the 
Ambassador on January 28 that messages are being passed 
between the two sides.  In a February 1 discussion with 
Pol FSN, Malik Samarawickrama, the PM's key 
representative on the committee and the head of his 
United National Party (UNP), also confirmed that 
messages are being passed. 
3.  (C) Regarding the exact nature of the ongoing 
dispute, both Tittawella and Samarawickrama confirmed 
that the key issue under discussion remains how to 
divide up control over core functions of the Defense 
Ministry.  The PM continues to maintain that he needs 
maximum control of security issues in order to move the 
peace track forward, while the President has set out a 
complex plan that would keep her in charge, but provide 
the PM significant input (see Reftels). 
4.  (C) NOT MUCH OPTIMISM:  Although channels remain 
open, representatives from both sides report that the 
situation does not look particularly positive with 
respect to a settlement of the dispute.  In a January 30 
meeting with Ambassador Lunstead, G.L. Peiris, the 
Minister of Constitutional Affairs and a key adviser to 
the PM, related that no deal was imminent and 
downplayed, as unrealistic, any degree of optimism for 
an impending solution.  The two sides had been close to 
a deal in recent weeks, he said, but he felt that the 
President had let senior advisors talk her out of coming 
to terms with the UNP coalition. 
5.  (C) As for the Prime Minister, Peiris averred that 
Wickremesinghe needed to be flexible, but warned that 
the UNP coalition could not compromise on powers it 
thought of as "indispensable" to the functioning of its 
government.  From the President's side, Mano Tittawella 
made similar comments to the Ambassador on January 29. 
Characterizing the situation as "not looking good," 
Tittawella wondered whether the political will necessary 
to resolve the cohabitation impasse was truly there on 
either side.  If there was political will, Tittawella 
said, then the means could be found to resolve the 
thorny Defense Ministry issue. 
6.  (C) PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS?:  As the cohabitation 
impasse continues, there is renewed talk that national 
parliamentary elections may be in the offing.  The 
discussion revolves around the following factors.  Under 
Sri Lankan law, it takes roughly two months between the 
time when the President dissolves Parliament and when 
the elections are held.  If no agreement between the PM 
and the President is reached by mid-February, the 
President could call for elections at that time, just 
two months prior to the Provincial Council (PC) 
elections tentatively slated for the end of April.  This 
would allow the two sets of elections to be held on the 
same day.  (Note:  The Supreme Court is currently 
reviewing a proposal agreed to by the President and the 
PM regarding the holding of the PC elections.  It 
remains possible -- but not likely -- that the tentative 
April timeframe may shift somewhat if the Court decides 
the law requires it.) 
7.  (C) Both the President and the PM have recently 
given tentative indications that early parliamentary 
elections may be unavoidable down the line. 
Kumaratunga, for example, recently publicly stated that 
she did not "think that these two powerful parties can 
cohabit for a long time."  This comment was taken as a 
hint that she was seriously mulling over near-term 
elections.  The PM was also recently quoted as saying 
that he was confident that his party would win if 
national elections were called. 
8.  (C) Queried on the matter, Peiris told the 
Ambassador that he thought it was unlikely that the 
President would call elections.  He reasoned that the 
radical Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) would likely 
gain seats in a parliamentary election.  This would 
increase its leverage vis-a-vis the President's Sri 
Lanka Freedom Party, which the JVP recently joined with 
in an alliance.  Kumaratunga does not want that to 
happen and thus might be reluctant to go to elections, 
he said. 
9.  (C) COMMENT:  There remains significant pressure on 
both sides to show flexibility in resolving the ongoing 
cohabitation dispute.  Simply put, no one wants to face 
the likely alternative:  parliamentary elections, which 
are historically expensive and violent in Sri Lanka 
(over 50 people were killed in the 2001 elections, for 
example).  Moreover, in all likelihood, the election 
result would be inconclusive, with neither of the two 
major parties gaining a clear edge over the other.  That 
said, at this stage, the Prime Minister is hanging tough 
to his stance that he needs control of core defense 
functions in order to move forward with the LTTE on the 
peace track, while the President maintains she has 
offered to compromise, and it is the PM who is 
unreasonable.  Both protagonists seem to want to drag 
things out, evidently hoping that the onus to compromise 
somehow swings over to the other side.  Both also may be 
inclined to await results from the Provincial Council 
elections.  END COMMENT. 
10.  (U) Minimize considered. 

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