THERE'S an old saying in Colombo that former President Chandrika Kumaratunga's father sparked Sri Lanka's seemingly intractable ethnic conflict, her mother stoked it and she was left to douse the flames, Associated Press notes in a despatch datelined Colombo, Sunday (November 20, 2005).
"If that is true," said Rodney Fernando, a Colombo businessman, "then now what?"
Barred from re-election by term limits, Kumaratunga stepped down Saturday after 11 years to make way for a hard-line successor with an unclear mandate to govern a land that still simmers with war.
In her homeland, Kumaratunga is more than an ex-president. She's a woman who has lost a father and husband to the conflict that has defined modern Sri Lanka. She was sworn in for a second term, days after being partially blinded in an assassination attempt. And she's the last, for the time being, of a political dynasty that gave Sri Lanka and the world its first female prime minister, her mother.
But at the end of her era, Kumaratunga's legacy is as uncertain as Sri Lanka's future.
"People say we are not going to go back to war," said G. Sataya, who was sharing a midmorning beer with Fernando in a dingy Colombo watering hole just up from the city docks. On a television behind them, images flickered of dignitaries arriving at the president's residence for the swearing-in of Sri Lanka's new leader, Mahinda Rajapakse.
"But people do not think there will be peace," he said. "So we are not sure what Chandrika has left for us."
The peace process with the Tamil Tiger rebels is stalled. A cease-fire with the guerrillas, who have fought since 1983 for a Tamil homeland, can be described as shaky, at best. And efforts to rebuild from last year's tsunami are mired in the politics of the bloody insurgency.
Her successor, Rajapakse, has promised peace, but appears unlikely to deliver it -- he opposes nearly everything the rebels want, from the creation of a Tamil homeland to giving them a role in administering tsunami aid.
His election -- he won with just over 50 per cent of the vote in large part because what amounted to a Tiger boycott kept many of the Sri Lanka's 3.2 million Tamils from the polls -- underscores Sri Lanka's deep divisions.
P.M. Saravanamuttu, a lawyer in Colombo, said the vote showed Sri Lankans "don't agree on how to make peace," and asked, "Does this mean we should go back to war?"
His defeated opponent, opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, said the result would produce "a lot of question marks and uncertainty" and called Rajapakse's election "a setback for the peace process as you have a very polarised society."
Kumaratunga, who since the 1999 assassination attempt has lived largely in heavily secured seclusion, hasn't publicly said a word about her one-time protege's election.
But she quietly broke with him in the weeks leading up to the vote, criticising his hard-line on the Tigers. Instead, she backed the more conciliatory stand of Wickremesinghe, once among her fiercest political enemies.
It was another twist in a life that has tracked the shifts in Sri Lanka's modern history.
A member of Kumaratunga's family - her father, her mother, herself - has led Sri Lanka for more than half of its 48 years as an independent state.
Her father, Solomon Dias Bandaranaike, was elected prime minister in 1956, promising to restore to dominance the predominantly Buddhist Sinhalese, sidelined under British colonialism in favour of the largely Hindu Tamils. The first ethnic clashes came after his election.
He was cut down by an extremist Buddhist monk in 1959, leaving his wife, Sirimavo, to carry on policies that further inflamed the ethnic tensions during her two stints as Sri Lanka's prime minister, from 1960 to 1965 and 1970 to 1977.
Kumaratunga's husband, a rising political star and former film idol, was killed by a leftist assassin in 1988 as she looked on. In 1994, after a year as prime minister, Kumaratunga was elected president.
Her government initially held peace talks with the Tigers, but a rebel attack on the navy soon plunged Sri Lanka back into a war that she prosecuted fiercely, censoring the press, suspending local elections and, at points, imposing emergency rule.
Meanwhile, she became a familiar figure on the world stage - a charismatic speaker usually clad in a blue sari, and a scion of the island's ruling class who spoke fluent French from her days as a journalist at the Paris daily Le Monde.
Her tough stand on the rebels led to the 1999 assassination attempt, and she initially opposed the cease-fire, signed in 2002 when Wickremesinghe was premier. She forced him out two years later.
But in the twilight of her presidency, she ended up backing him, perhaps inspired by the words she offered Sri Lanka at her 1999 inauguration.
"I have suffered our nation's sorrow in every way humanly possible," she said. "In the vicious pain of losing a father. In the loving pain of motherhood. In the soul-destroying pain of losing a husband."
Another despatch by AFP from Colombo adds: Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers remained mute on peace talks offered by the new president whom they had dubbed the "war candidate" while a pro-rebel newspaper said Sunday new talks were not on the cards. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had not responded Sunday to President Mahinda Rajapakse's offer of direct talks, which he made as he took office the previous day after narrowly winning last week's election.
The pro-rebel Uthayan newspaper in an editorial posted on the LTTE website, said the Sinhalese majority had all but voted for war by failing to elect ex-premier Ranil Wickremesinghe, who began the current peace process in 2002.
"Through electing a head who refused to accept that a just and permanent solution to one of the peoples of this island is an absolute necessity, the Sinhala nation has exposed its innermost feelings," the Uthayan said.
"Majoritarian chauvinism has come shining through."
In his campaign, Rajapakse called for an overhaul of the Norway- backed talks with the LTTE while Wickremesinghe wanted to continue the process. Peace talks broke off in April 2003, but a fragile ceasefire has remained in place.
Rajapakse's main Marxist backer, the JVP, or People's Liberation Front, also wants an overhaul, including the removal of international truce monitors, whom they accuse of siding with the rebels.
The LTTE's silence on talks has led to concern of a return to fighting in an ethnic conflict between the majority Sinhalese and the separatists that has claimed more than 60,000 live since 1972.
Tensions rose in August with the assassination of foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, which the government linked to the rebels, a claim they denied.
The online editorial appealed to the world community-which has backed the peace process with the promise of billions of dollars in reconstruction funds-to "correctly judge this mentality of the Sinhala nation".
The majority had refused to put forward a leader who could act with an understanding of what was "just", it said.
Former Sri Lankan air force chief and political analyst Harry Gunatillake said the Tigers had actually wanted the moderate candidate to lose to a hawk to strengthen their case for staying away from the peace process.
"I am now convinced they may want to withdraw from the peace process," Gunatillake said. "They are already preparing for hostilities. I think by March or April things could get messy."
Rajapakse, in sharp contrast to his tough pre-election rhetoric, sounded conciliatory in his inaugural address to the nation as head of state and commander in chief of the armed forces.
"I want to state the dedication of my government to upholding the ceasefire (but) I am also ready to review the ceasefire agreement," he said.
"From this moment I will work towards my goal of making a new Sri Lanka," he said in Sinhalese. "I will try to achieve honourable peace for all. We will discuss peace talks with the LTTE and all political parties."
The Uthayan editorial, however, said that Rajapakse's previously stated rejection of a separate federal state for the Tamils did not bode well for the peace process. "There is no space to talk of federal solution," it said.
A former Norwegian peace broker said Rajapakse faces problems in calling for peace talks while ruling out one of the key demands of the rebels, which is to administer their own semi- autonomous state.
"The situation could be very difficult," Development Aid Minister Erik Solheim told Norwegian news agency NTB.