Politics cloud Sri Lanka’s independence celebrations

COLOMBO, Reuters

Sri Lanka celebrates the 53rd anniversary of its independence on Sunday with political tensions over the economy threatening to upstage official plans for a quiet display of patriotism in the war-torn country.

At the same time, with memories still fresh of a 1999 Tamil rebel suicide bomb attack which wounded President Chandrika Kumaratunga, the government is taking no chances with security ahead of the celebrations.

On the political front, the main opposition United National Party (UNP), angered by a government decision to float the rupee, plans to launch a five-day protest march on Sunday from Sri Lanka’s second city of Kandy to the capital Colombo.

Prices rose after the rupee went into a tailspin soon after its flotation on Jan. 23, though the currency has since recovered some ground.

“I ask these people not to black mark this epoch-making day,” Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake said of Sunday’s anniversary of independence from Britain, in remarks carried by the state-owned Daily News.

Concerned that things might spin out of control, the government has told its own supporters to focus on honoring soldiers fighting a bloody rebellion by minority Tamils.

But the opposition appears determined to make its point and says that it is bracing for a violent backlash from supporters of the ruling People’s Alliance along the 120 km (70 miles) route.

“We are ready for any eventuality,” UNP deputy leader Karu Jayasuriya told a news conference on Friday.

Kumaratunga has warned her party loyalists against making “heroes” of the UNP.

“I bring to your attention that you should not hamper this march,” state media quoted her as telling the party. “It is prudent… to have programs to commemorate the slain members of the armed forces and the serving members,” she added.

The government has launched a massive army recruitment drive, hoping to cash in on patriotic fervor to swell the ranks depleted by 18 years of fighting the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Though the LTTE, which wants a separate Tamil state, has extended a unilateral truce by a month to Feb. 24, a tight security cordon has been thrown around Colombo — a city scarred by dozens of rebel suicide bombings.

Kumaratunga has prepared an address for the main ceremony on Sunday but it was unclear whether she would attend in person. She did not show up last year after sustaining serious injuries in the suicide bomb attack in December, 1999.

Norway is trying to broker an end to the conflict and its envoy, Erik Solheim, was due to leave Colombo on Saturday after holding talks with Kumaratunga and other political leaders.