`I did it in the larger interest of the nation'

Published : Dec 05, 2003 00:00 IST



Interview with President Chandrika Kumaratunga.

As the constitutionally all-powerful head of state, Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga took over the portfolios of Defence, Interior and Mass Communication on November 4. With this single move, the Sri Lankan peace process and also the bitter cohabitation government in Colombo have been jolted into a mid-course reality check.

In a 45-minute interview on the night of November 8-9, the President told V.S. Sambandan that her principle "very frankly, was that even the most unacceptable position of your adversary can be a basis to begin discussions". The President asserted that the November 4 moves were "in the larger interest of the nation" and called for a coming together of the Sri Lankan polity to "strongly negotiate" with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

On a personal note, the 58-year-old Chandrika Kumaratunga, who completed nine years in office on November 12, said she would "dearly love to see peace" and "go home as fast as possible" from the "terrible life" of being Sri Lanka's `head of state, head of the executive and of the government, and the commander-in-chief of the armed forces' (Article 30, Constitution of Sri Lanka). Excerpts from the interview:

Madam President, Sri Lanka, you said, is now at a crossroads. How do you plan to take it forward from now?

I would take responsibility for Defence while the Prime Minister (Ranil Wickremesinghe) will be called upon to continue the peace process. If he wants my participation, I am willing to consider it. I did offer it at the beginning, but now I have to think twice about it because they have, by their un-professionalism, created havoc in the peace process. The way I have been treated by the state-controlled media, the Prime Minister's family controlled-media and the lies that they have said about me, I would not want to put my hand into something which I see is beginning to go the wrong way and then be given the blame for it.

You said Sri Lanka is at a crossroads. How do you see it going specifically on the peace process?

When I said a crossroads I did not mean anything specifically. I meant Sri Lanka is at a crossroads of history, because we are between peace and destruction. Not total destruction but destroying ourselves as a nation, in a general sense of the word.

I feel that in Sri Lanka we had this very petty thing of two major parties. When the one in power wants to resolve the one major problem we face, the other party opposes it. And vice versa, it goes on. The most recent example of that is that Mr. Wickremesinghe for seven long years not only opposed but also sabotaged in the most heinous way the peace processes that I began.

So it was the first time that the political party (in the Opposition) and myself especially, had not, for one whole year, opposed a peace process. I kept quiet. But then it started to go through the wall. Political parties were not kept informed about what was going on. The peace process that I did, I kept the political parties, including Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe, informed all the time. The country was informed, not fully - you can't talk all details about a sensitive thing like this.

(Now) when (the country) is not informed, they become suspicious about it. The violations of ceasefire, the recruitment of children - seven-year-old children - increasing the cadres from 6,000 to 18,000, attacking Muslim towns 16 or 20 times, killing, abducting, demanding ransom, harassments of Tamils and Muslims in the north and the east especially. Then the Sinhalese people and the others do get worried. So I could not hold them back.

And having watched for a long time I could not do so without being treacherous to the nation. I think it will be very unfair to say that I did this to get power, as some people are saying, or to sabotage the peace process. I did it only in the larger interest of the entire nation. The larger interest of the entire nation means the larger interest of the vast majority of civilians.

Your office and you have reiterated thrice in the past three days your commitment to peace. There is a perception that Opposition parties sabotage the peace process...

If I had wanted to sabotage, Mr. Sambandan, I should have done it a hundred times in the last two years. There have been gross violations of the Constitution by the Prime Minister. For example, he signed the ceasefire agreement when he had absolutely no authority to sign it. Without telling me, without even by your leave, he signs it and comes and gives it to me. That's the time I could have reacted.

Having told him this is what I can do, I said: But I am more committed than you to peace. You sabotaged my peace process consistently for seven and a half years, but I will not sabotage yours. I care for this country.

Therefore I waited and watched, while warning, of course. Which is my role.

After the LTTE's counter-proposals came, Madam President, three positions have been put on the table - the government's proposals, the LTTE's proposals and your draft Constitution. You have also strongly said that the Constitution has to be changed, has to be done away with. Where do you think is the starting point to move away from the constitutional lock?

In the first place, the 1997 draft Constitution, I would say, was much better than the 2000 one for the minorities as far as their rights and demands are concerned. The only reason why the proposals were slightly watered down was the strict insistence of Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe and his party [United National Party], when I discussed it with them for six long months.

The Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) then walked out of the 2000 proposals - they were very happy with the 1997 proposals - saying that they were not willing to accept Ranil's suggestions for watering them down. But now they are willing to work with him. So I want to know how they reconciled with that. Politicians are opportunists, but this is the height of opportunism.

As for your main question, I still feel the 1997 proposals were the best and we could go back to them. Much, much, much, better than the UNP's proposals.

Do you see the LTTE's proposals as something that can be negotiated? Is there a starting point at all?

You see, my principle - some people in my party don't agree with me - very frankly is that even the most unacceptable position of your adversary can be a basis to begin discussions. That does not mean that we can accept or pretend to accept the proposals. The LTTE's proposals as they are, unless they are willing to amend them during negotiations, cannot come within the Constitution of any country in the world because it is asking for another state. It can only come within the Constitution of a separate state.

If one may go back to Sri Lankan politics, one will find that fierce political rivalry has been a constant repetition. You have a challenge on that front as well. How do you see yourself changing that?

I am hoping and praying that other partners, would-be partners, of that grand national alliance I am talking about would have the greatness of heart and mind to rise up to the challenge. If I could (do so), after all the abuse, I don't see why the Prime Minister cannot rise up to this great occasion that I am offering them.

Do you see it happening? Are you optimistic?

I would say there is a 50-50 chance of it happening at the moment, but the situation could get worse or better. The situation is politically volatile at the moment in Sri Lanka.

The LTTE says this has been the history of southern politics.

Even if the LTTE has not said, I have been saying that for a long time. The Prime Minister has also been talking about the need for a government of alliance or whatever one may call it. The major political forces - whatever one may think of one another - have to get together and rise up above their personal, petty, or not petty, conflicts for us to resolve this issue.

If I may end with a political question, there has been talk about an alliance between the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). Don't you think there are fundamental differences between you and the JVP on what is closest to your heart - devolution of powers? Do you see it reconciling at all? How do you see it going from here?

If we come to an alliance it will be on some agreement - whatever may be written down in documents - that the devolution process will go on, if we come into government some day.

Madam President. Thank you very much.

I wish to say one other thing. There is a thread through all what we have been discussing. There is a feeling among many people that the actions I had taken a few days ago had caused political instability in Sri Lanka and also uncertainty about the peace process. I don't think it needs to cause any uncertainty. Even the stock market has not remained crashed. There is no crisis around. I don't think there is a political crisis.

The President has simply taken on the Defence powers as all other Presidents had. This President also had for seven and a half years. But she had temporarily given them away, unconstitutionally and illegally, according to two Supreme Court rulings, only because the Prime Minister came appealing that because he was going to undertake the peace process again, it would be more convenient. Which was true, practically speaking.

But I knew this was something very unconstitutional. Do you know, Mr. Sambandan, if some day the presidential immunity (goes) - I am always for the abolition of the executive presidency - if it happens say tomorrow or next year, and I become an ordinary person, I could be jailed for life for treason against the state for some of the things that the recent Defence Minister had done.

So all I did was to take back this in order to prevent the degradation of the security situation. That is all. Full stop.

It is the hysterical running about, the constant rumour-mongering indulged in by some in the UNP, that has caused the instability. Not me. Because I did not participate in their hysteria, things have settled down in two days.

On a personal note, you just said one day you will have to step down.

Even tomorrow. I even proposed it to the Cabinet. Mr. Wickremesinghe went on a very unruly march in mid-1999, asking me to abolish the executive presidency and get out. But now that he's a stone's throw away, he does not want to abolish it.

[A presidential aide: a heartbeat away, as they say in the U.S.]

Some say a heartbeat away; some say a bullet away. If the President gets killed or resigns, then the Prime Minister gets it.

You are in your second term of presidency, how do you see the future from now?

For myself or for the country?Both.

Well, for the country, one thing I would dearly love to see, obviously, is peace. And now that it has become more than evident that the only way to achieve that dream is for the two main parties and the JVP and the minority parties to get together and then strongly negotiate with the LTTE. I would very much like to achieve that. But I fear that many of the others, whose hands I need to clap, while mine is raised, may be a little too cussed and petty in their hearts and minds.

And on the personal front?

To go home as fast as possible and indulge myself a little (I have suffered for a long time, 10 years) - read, write, play music, paint - all of which I do.

To spend more time with my friends, because friendship is very important to me, with those whom I love and of course, my children. Look at the trees, walk about the roads as a normal person.

Do you miss that a lot?Yes. This is a terrible life, personally.Is that on the record?It is on record.Thank you very much, Madam President.
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