'We are willing to talk, I don't like to settle this by war'

Print edition : December 19, 1998
N. Ram interviews President Kumaratunga.

They may dispute her ideas, her judgment, her approach, her political style. They may hate her guts. But not even her enemies will seriously deny that 53-year-old President Chandrika Kumaratunga of Sri Lanka is a strong, authoritative and charismatic leader with big ideas and the determination to shape directions.

In 1994, a watershed year, she was elected, first, Prime Minister and then President in a tidal wave of a popular victory - under rules of the game fashioned by the conservative United National Party (UNP), under a Constitution the President herself characterises as "bizarre" and "fraudulent," as the head of a multi-party People's Alliance spearheaded by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) which her father founded and her mother, the battle-scarred and ailing octogenarian Prime Minister, led for decades.

When President Kumaratunga took over the reins from the UNP, which had gone through a prolonged decline related largely to the failure to solve Sri Lanka's principal national question - the long-festering and bloody ethnic crisis - there were huge expectations among all sections of the people, Tamil, Sinhala and the rest. "Never before," as she notes inter alia, "had the people of the North openly showed approbation of a 'Sinhala' leader like that."

A central part of the Chandrika Project was to function not as a Sinhala, but as a Sri Lankan, leader with a non-chauvinistic approach to (what she readily recognises as) the country's principal national question and a determination to resolve it by breaking with the past. It is very much part of her understanding, based on observed experience, that the tragic part of the history of independent Sri Lanka can be summed up in two phrases - the Sinhala Only trap and the Eelam trap. Only the Pol Potist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which has brought nothing but large-scale misery and "illfare," as Amartya Sen might characterise it, wherever it has been able to reign or reach, will deny the possibility of radical and genuine change offered by the Chandrika project.


The nature of the change can be expressed in the inter-play, and clear political distinction, between the words "unity" and "unitary" in the steadily deteriorating Sri Lankan national context. In an earlier era, on one parliamentary occasion relating to the Sinhala Only Bill which presaged ethnic tragedy, the inter-play and distinction were unforgettably expressed by a Sri Lankan politician from the Left, Colvin R. De Silva: "Two languages - one nation; one language - two nations."

For many years, Sri Lanka has had an active, progressive intelligentsia, men and women whose intellectual and enlightened political work has been characterised by the complete absence of chauvinism, and for whom the equality of different sections of the Sri Lankan people has been a social, political and moral given. There have also been small political parties, invariably on the Left, which have swum against the strong current of majoritarianism. The early influence of the universalist and progressive values of this enlightenment is a part of Chandrika's political make-up; Chandrika, who began her political career in the grass-roots Left, is the first genuinely non-chauvinistic Prime Minister or President of her country.

No predecessor government was willing to consider giving up the confining constitutional-political framework of a unitary state - and to move in a federal direction (by whatever name called). But President Kumaratunga seems to have no conceptual inhibition on this score: "Yes, unity - not unitary. Quite different." This is the main reason why the constitutional devolution package for the North-East that is on offer from her Government must be recognised as the farthest-going and most progressive attempt in the history of independent Sri Lanka to find a just solution to the Tamil question.

It remains to be added that the Chandrika project has run into fierce trouble in the North, with the LTTE which is engaged in a deadly and punishing armed conflict, and political obstacles in the South, where the main Opposition party, the UNP, has rejected the constitutional proposals and called for unconditional talks with the LTTE.

President Kumaratunga dominates Sri Lankan politics and her political charisma and direct popular standing (as distinct from the parliamentary prospects of the People's Alliance) appear to remain substantially undiminished. Not surprisingly under the circumstances, sharp criticisms and misgivings are being freely voiced about the effectiveness of her governance. These include allegations that the President is imperious and strong-handed, although no one has suggested seriously that her Government has resorted to any violence outside the context of the war against the LTTE or, for that matter, to anti-democratic ways experienced under various predecessor regimes, both UNP and SLFP. Again, while few disinterested observers question the fact that the media function under a more liberal environment under her Presidency than at any time in recent memory, there is unhappiness in various quarters over the domestic censorship imposed by her Government on the coverage of the war in the North-East.

To gain an insight into the tangled situation in Sri Lanka today, to gauge the prospects of peace given an intransigent and resourceful killer politico-military organisation which is also expert at deceiving national political leaders, parties and governments, and to probe various facets of President Kumaratunga's perspective and practice, I sought an interview, which was given at Temple Trees in Colombo in the afternoon of December 7.

Of Chandrika's major or substantive predecessors as head of state and government who grappled with the ethnic issue in the recent period, President J.R. Jayewardene was famously articulate, accessible but very different in style and content; and President R. Premadasa authoritative, organised and resourceful but virtually inaccessible to interviewers. President Kumaratunga comes out in a candid and honest way, bordering on come-what-may disinterestedness, which reflects both her politics and her personality.

From the hour-long, tape-recorded interview, on the eve of the Sri Lankan President's official visit to India:

N. Ram (NR): It has been four years since you became President of Sri Lanka. What do you perceive to be the most significant achievement of your Government over these four years?

President Chandrika Kumaratunga(CK): Well, do you want only one significant achievement or would you be satisfied with a few?

LTTE Supremo V. Prabakaran.-

NR: With a few.

CK:: I think the most significant achievement of our rule is that after nearly two decades we have proved that even under great pressure, the Government in Sri Lanka can be democratic. For two decades people were made to believe that because there was an ongoing conflict and a civil war, governments couldn't help but be undemocratic and that they had to use a lot of terror at the state level to govern. Our greatest achievement is that we have proved that under all these pressures, the Government can continue to respect democracy and govern efficiently.

The other great achievement is that, for the first time, the Sri Lankan Government has consciously and honestly accepted that Sri Lanka does not need to be a unitary state. It can be united, can be one country, but it can have substantial devolution of power in order to satisfy the minorities in the country.

For both these achievements, especially for the second, we have had consciously to do a lot of political work, canvassing and campaigning. Convince the Sinhala majority, especially about the political solution offered as a solution to the minorities' problem. And we have been able to do even that successfully in Sri Lanka.

We were sincere enough not only to promulgate this or to announce it and try to make it law, but also to go to the people constantly - village to village, area by area - convincing them. We had a huge programme, the Sudu Nelum movement, the White Lotus movement. Have you heard of that?

NR: Yes.

Frontline Editor N. Ram interviews the Sri Lankan President at Temple Trees.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA


CK:: These are the sea-changes we have been able to make. There were also smaller achievements such as - and I feel that it is also a very important one - the third achievement, the anti-corruption drive that we started. I won't say we have been able to wipe out corruption but we have certainly, at the top level, managed to ensure that all big Government development projects are not decided on criteria based on corruption. We have also been able to tighten systems and procedures and bring in new systems and procedures to plug loopholes to the maximum extent possible.

Breaking with two traps

NR: In a sense, the tragic part of the history of independent Sri Lanka - there have been many achievements, but the tragic part - can be summed up in these phrases: the Sinhala Only trap and, in reaction to it and retaliation against it, the Eelam trap.

CK:: (Nods in firm agreement.)

NR: You, President, won a tremendous mandate on the promise and programme of breaking with this history. How would you judge your project four years from the time it was launched?

CK:: I was personally convinced that both traps are wrong for the country. Being a student of politics, I had studied the issue very closely and discussed it at length with friends who were interested and involved in the subject and who had suffered because of it. I was convinced beyond any doubt that we had to get out of both these traps.

I was so convinced, but my party wasn't convinced at all - they were caught in the same trap. They thought that one shouldn't even talk about these issues at election time! They thought as all the Sinhala-based parties thought, including the Marxist parties.

But I was so convinced of what the people thought because I had gone to the villages for twenty years before I became Prime Minister or President. I talked with them for hours. My style of politics was hands-on.

I had talked about this ethnic issue especially during my (Sri Lanka) Mahajana Party days and I was convinced that the people would respond. I took the bull by the horns, and, especially in the second of the four elections we had within eighteen months in 1994, the Southern Provincial Council election - the South is supposed to be very chauvinistic and pan-Sinhala - I tried this hesitantly at a couple of meetings and had a lot of response. And then went on and on. I was told, "Be careful, don't talk about the issue during this election," and we won a resounding victory there.

I was justified that time; and I was so happy that what I thought about the people's thinking was right. And therefore I got the courage. And we go on. We have had the courage right through. We still tell people, "This is what is right." I still believe that the majority of the people are with us. But the longer this goes on, the more tired the people will get - and less enthusiastic about possible political solutions.

Understanding the LTTE

NR: You have had to take two tracks: military operations and a willingness to go for political negotiations to find a solution within - I take it that the only stipulation is that it must be within - the framework of a united Sri Lanka. What happened? How do you look at the experience vis-a-vis the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam)? What did you actually expect along the political track?

CK:: Do you mean when we started discussions with them?

NR: Yes. You had a ceasefire and you had this tremendous mandate.

CK:: I had studied enough about the LTTE to know that they were not just going to jump into a peace agreement - and even less so Mr. (V.) Prabakaran, the leader. I saw him as a ruthless leader of a very rare type. I would classify him with Adolf Hitler and a few others.

But I thought that a leader cannot be alone, especially a guerilla leader. I explained this to my people, my Cabinet Ministers and so on, when we started going for talks with them. I thought that a guerilla leader has especially to depend on his people. I believed that all his supporters, his cadres, were not as obsessed (with the armed struggle for Eelam) as he was.

We saw there was huge enthusiasm amongst the Tamil people when we came, amongst the people in Jaffna who were being ruled by Prabakaran. I wasn't just guessing - I was banking on the people's will which we had seen. I also realised that there must be a lot of young cadres who were with Prabakaran and the LTTE who also wanted peace - who also, for once, had some faith in a 'Sinhala' leader.

You know the euphoria there was in Jaffna soon after I won. I was banking on that popularity for his people, the ordinary citizens plus the LTTE cadres, to prevail upon Prabakaran and pressurise him to come to some kind of agreement outside of the war. But obviously, Prabakaran was stronger there than his people or his cadres! Secondly, I really banked on the people's power. Never before had the people of the North openly showed approbation of a 'Sinhala' leader like that.

NR: Yes. "A last attempt at humanism"

CK:: This is where Prabakaran had to continuously tell his people a lot of lies, in their publications and in their various media activities, against me. This was all to convince them about why he broke the talks. They told a lot of lies because the people wouldn't otherwise have accepted it.

My other thought was this. Just because you think somebody is impossible, that's not a good enough reason politically to say "Oh, I'm not going to talk to them." You have to keep trying. If the Israelis and the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation) could get together, if the Irish and the British could get together, we couldn't see why we shouldn't. So it was one last attempt - as far as I was concerned, it was a last attempt at humanism. Everybody had attempted in a very professional way to talk to Prabakaran and it had not worked. The Sri Lanka Government and the Indian Government put a lot of effort into it.

So I thought: at least let us show the man that there are governments in Sri Lanka that are capable of being human and of understanding the Tamil people's problems. And that is what I was attempting to do. That was the first stage, to break the ice, to build bridges (all of which were broken and blasted) between the two sides, the sides being the LTTE and the Sri Lanka Government. The Sri Lankan Government and the Tamil people was no problem, I knew, as long as we were sincere.

That is why I sent the first team; the team was briefed, saying "this will be the first stage." For the next stage it would be a more professional, political kind of team that would go - if they agreed to begin to talk about political solutions. The first team was just to find out - a recceing trip - and also building bridges and friendship.

Prabakaran-Chandrika correspondence, 1994-95

I have the series of - 42 - letters which I am going to publish very soon. The ones that he and I exchanged, 42 or 43.

NR: Will you give us copies?

CK:: Certainly, certainly. I will give you autographed copies as you were one of the people responsible for our meeting the LTTE (in Chennai) long ago.

NR: Yes, when your husband Vijaya (Kumaranatunga) and you came to Chennai in 1986.

Armed with rocket-propelled grenades, government soldiers cross a marsh near Mankulam in May.-

CK:: Yes. So right from the beginning, after we started talking with them - we came in on the 19th of August (1994), I wrote to him before the 31st of August, talks began somewhere in October, and two months later I wrote to him saying the political proposals were in hand: "Would you like to give dates to discuss this?"

As far as I was concerned, the delegation that was going was going for the purpose I mentioned and also to persuade him to give dates to us to begin talking. Talking about beginning the political talks. But he never - he refused to - he just did not touch on that. So we couldn't go on to the second phase of getting more professional about the discussions.

Even the LTTE has taken up the UNP's (United National Party's) criticism that we were not professional enough, that I didn't send a professional enough team. Well, I sent my Secretary, that's important enough. The LTTE says I made a joke of the talks. The Secretary to the President is the highest public servant in the country. He was a very senior lawyer in the country. He is the President's Secretary and everybody knows that he has my confidence; I thought it was the perfect person. He's a charming person, his PR is good and then I sent a group of other people - including one Tamil person - to talk, and as and when it was required we sent Army people and Navy people depending on what had to be discussed, right through that process.

NR: Were these only talks about negotiations?

CK:: It was partly that. It didn't begin like that. It was, as I said, mainly building bridges. And then talk about negotiations. What they used it for was to get as much as they could out of us materially to gain time with the ceasefire to build up militarily to start the war.

The LTTE model of political behaviour

NR: There is a deja vu about this. Since the anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983, the LTTE has apparently shown no willingness to talk substance or propose an alternative to their Eelam. The only time they spelt out anything was at Thimphu in 1985: the right to self-determination and the three other "cardinal principles," they pitched it at a very high and abstract level. Even India failed to get anything where the LTTE could be pinned down to say, "This will be a reasonable alternative to Eelam," federalism or whatever. It's the TULF (Tamil United Liberation Front) that did this, the LTTE didn't do it. There is nothing on record that suggests - and this is a question - that the LTTE is willing to propose, or be serious about negotiating, any alternative short of Eelam. Or could it be different?

CK:: No, we have no indication at all that they will change... for the moment.

NR: I read Prabakaran's address on Heroes' Day where basically, he says: we are willing to go for peace talks - he uses the words "peace talks" for talks that might lead to negotiations and "political negotiations" for what might lead to a solution. For peace talks, he says we are not putting down any conditions but the atmosphere should be conducive. Reading it, it appears that you must make concessions on the control of Jaffna (they call it "occupation"), the "economic blockade" and so on. He says the LTTE is ready to participate in peace talks with international, third party mediation - because we have no faith in the "Sinhala leadership," he explains. This comes in response to what you have said. You have reiterated your willingness to go for a political settlement. What would be your response to that?

CK:: As I said, we have always, from the moment the LTTE without any rhyme or reason broke the talks, had the same position. It has not changed. We are willing to talk because I do not like to settle this by war. We are not a military type of government. We'd much prefer to settle this politically and are consistent about that. And at this stage, we will be willing to discuss, as I have always said to various people. We don't want mediation, we are willing to take third party facilitation... foreign. We have many offers, so we can choose.

NR: Would that be a good offices role? Time frame and framework of future talks

CK:: Something like that, yes. And we would want discussions without very many conditions, except the one that there should be, as I have said, a limited time frame that we should decide upon at the beginning of the talks. If not, the LTTE will do what they have always done - that is, drag on and on and on until they build themselves up again militarily and then start attacking again. So we want to have a fairly tight schedule and, if the talks are not finished by then, we say bye-bye to the talks. Apart from that, we are not asking for very many more conditions.

There is, of course, one more. We have said that the unity of the state is not negotiable.

Unity, not unitary NR: Not unitary, but unity...

CK:: Yes, unity - not unitary. Quite different.

NR: You're emphasising this. Now, may I have a brief assessment of the military experience? It seems to have had its ups and downs. The Sri Lankan state was able to regain possession of Jaffna, repeating what the IPKF (Indian Peace-Keeping Force) did in 1987. That seemed to be an impressive military achievement. There have been other gains and progress in your attempt to open the Main Land Route (MLR). But there have been setbacks as well, like Killinochchi. And today we read that the Deputy Defence Minister and the three Service Chiefs had a narrow escape. Are these part of the game or...

CK:: Part of whose game?

Troops enter Killinochchi on September 29, 1996.-REUTERS

NR: The game of war. The question is about the military balance since the peace process broke down in 1995. I asked your political opponents this question: would you say the LTTE is weaker, stronger or about the same? Some people say they are stronger. Many other assessments say that there have been net gains for the Sri Lankan state and that the LTTE has been weakened or checked. You, President, would know the most about this.

"The LTTE is much weaker"

CK:: Let me tell you very honestly that the LTTE is much weaker than it was when we took over from the UNP government. In 1994, the LTTE was absolutely ruling the entire Northern Province, other than in tiny Army camps here and there, where the Army had just locked themselves up inside and were not even moving out. When the Palaly people had to go out to collect their water, they had to ring up the LTTE and ask permission and go and collect the water. We had seen this happening continually. It was completely under their sway.

We have taken the whole of Jaffna Peninsula and we have taken parts of Mannar. We have now taken the entire road - there are only two main roads from the South to the North; we have taken the one that goes west towards Mannar. We have taken two thirds of the one that goes straight up to Jaffna. To Killinochchi and beyond.

They have lost a lot of cadres and so are physically much weaker. They are also politically much weaker, because they have lost their people. Eighty-five per cent of the Tamil people who live in the Northern Province are now living in Government-controlled areas. And these people are helping us, as I'm sure your Frontline people would have gone to Jaffna and reported to you. They say, "We are much happier now than under the Tigers" - though, of course, things are not yet back to normal in Jaffna.

Once again thanks to the Tigers! They won't allow development work to go on properly. They have started blasting guns here and there. So we have to go very slowly. They keep threatening people, their people have killed two Mayors of Jaffna. We had just started the work nicely after the local government elections. They keep harassing the normalisation process but we go on - slower than we would if the LTTE was not harassing us, sabotaging the development work we are trying to do for the Jaffna people. And they have told foreign journalists, "Please don't let the LTTE come back again. We prefer to be under the Army than to have the LTTE here."

Forcing children into war

I think that is a huge victory for the Government and a big defeat for the LTTE politically. They are finding it difficult to get cadres. They have recently been - you would have heard that also - taking them forcibly from their parents. And the parents were protesting. Some of the children who had been taken have run away.

NR: Could you tell us something about the experience of these children? At what age do they start?

CK:: We have children they have taken at the age of eleven. And they send them to battle. They train them for about a year. They don't let them see their parents. Earlier they used to pay the parents two thousand rupees, now they pay three thousand.

NR: Including girls?

Some of the LTTE's 'child soldiers' captured by the Sri Lankan Army. The LTTE is said to have trained these children, some of them in their pre-teens, for a year before sending them to battle.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

CK:: Including girls. We have two little girls with us (we have lots of girls now, I'm talking of the first two we've had). They came in a group to attack one of the Army camps in the North and the attack was repelled. But quite a few of the girls - Sea Tigers - who came were arrested. And the Sea Tiger leader, what's her name, Akila, who trained...

NR: ...who is an accused in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, A-3.

The death of Akila the Tigress

CK:: Exactly. She was the leader. She was the one who trained the women, who used to train them - she's now dead. Akila trained the woman Dhanu, who assassinated Rajiv Gandhi, and Akila also came for this attack. They were arrested by the Navy: some of them ran away, some were killed, these two girls were arrested. Akila was older and she ordered all the girls there to swallow their cyanide capsules, which some of them did. These two girls did not: they pretended to bite on the capsules but threw them away. Akila thought they had also bitten on their capsules. She bit on her cyanide capsule and she died.

NR: Is that right?

CK:: Yes, she died about two-and-a-half years ago. And these two girls were caught together with Akila. She died in that incident. And the two girls were there. I got them moved down to Colombo. They were then thirteen and fifteen; they had been taken at the ages of eleven and thirteen. On their way back from school, the two girls had been grabbed, forcibly, in Jaffna (then the LTTE was still in Jaffna) and taken to some camp, also within the Jaffna Peninsula, and trained.

In three years they had been allowed to go and see their parents only once and they were accompanied by LTTE cadres in case they ran away. And they said, "We don't like this. We don't like to be here." We asked them what they wanted. They said, "All we want is to be sent abroad somewhere, because if we live there (in Jaffna), we will be killed by the LTTE. And we want to continue our studies." Those girls are still with us. We, in fact, interviewed them within the first one week; they talk only Tamil. We have the whole cassette. That was sent all over the world.

The LTTE is very annoyed about this and they have been asking us for these two girls back, saying they would give us ten, then twenty, then it became forty of our arrestees - "if you give these two girls back." They are very keen on having them back. It's very bad publicity.

Now we have loads of them, dozens of children in the recent six months. Some of them have run away and come to the Army camps for protection; others were taken (prisoner) by us after attacks.


NR: So they speak of Army desertions, but not LTTE desertions.

CK:: Exactly.

NR: Now about the Army itself, the morale of your Army and the phenomenon of desertion that has been reported. Are you very concerned about it? There was even talk that some kind of conscription or draft might be introduced.

CK:: (Smiles.) Well, there is about five to eight per cent desertion. That's not very high, given the intensity of the military conflict that is going on. But then when we give them amnesties, a lot of them come back again and we keep giving amnesty all the time.

"The war has to end"

What I'm worried about is not desertion so much as the whole war itself. It has to end. It's terrible, the idea of young boys dying; sometimes I go to funerals of people I know, from families I know. It's terrible.

NR: Do they know what they are fighting for? Is that clear?

CK:: They know, they know. And after we took over, they also know that they are not fighting the Tamil people. I made some very clear speeches on this. I suppose you saw those speeches?

NR: Yes, they were reported.

CK:: I said that it is a battle for peace. That it is not a war against Tamil people. That it is only a war against those who are enemies of peace, the LTTE.

NR: Prabakaran, in fact, in his recent speech refers to some of these phrases.

CK:: Really? NR: Yes, he has quoted them. CK:: And he is criticising me for them. LTTE characterisation of Chandrika

NR: He sees you as the most brutal, he calls you "the protagonist of..." You really want to know precisely how he characterises you?

CK:: Yes. They depict me in the most terrible ways. They had some booklet where they had me, you know, like a Dracula, with these two teeth sticking out. Have you seen that?

NR: No.

CK:: It's terrible. They have taken one of those very popular photographs of mine where I'm smiling broadly and they have drawn - you can do that in the computer - two pointed teeth coming out of my mouth like this, with blood pouring down the teeth.

NR: This is the translation from the Tamil original, not the thing they put out in English (there are some differences): "We do not believe that Chandrika, who figures as the protagonist of the most blood-stained chapter in the fifty year history of racial oppression in Sri Lanka, will, having established peace in the land, solve the Tamil national question in a peaceful way."

CK:: Where did he make this speech? NR: It's Prabakaran's Heroes' Day speech. CK:: This time? NR: Yes, this year (on November 27, 1998). CK:: But then why does he want...

NR: I suppose this also means that the military campaign is hurting.

CK:: But why then, in the same speech, does he want discussions with us? He doesn't know what he wants. If he has lost faith in Chandrika, then why is he...

Women Tigers patrol the streets of Jaffna, which was an LTTE stronghold until December 1995.-

NR: I don't want to make any trouble for your plans...

CK:: (Laughs.)

NR: ...for your peace moves! Maybe this is rhetoric. Your original, and now reiterated, project of finding a non-chauvinistic solution to this longstanding ethnic question, which may be considered Sri Lanka's principal national question perhaps...

Prospects of a political settlement CK:: It is.

NR: ...has been the boldest attempt by any government to respond to Sri Lankan Tamil aspirations. I have this assessment from people who are objective, Tamil moderates in particular. There was the high point of the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of July 1957; I think the political package that came with the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of July 1987 was substantially a step forward; but everyone is agreed that your Government's constitutional proposals represent something beyond what your father (Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandanaranaike) attempted - and it was thwarted - and what the Indian engagement attempted. What previous governments had inhibitions about - that is, going beyond the unitary framework - you clearly went beyond. And you have made it clear that you are committed very much to this. What do you think is a reasonable time frame for this attempt? Prabakaran may be very intransigent, but surely there are the Tamil people, other political parties, moderates...

CK:: Well, if the UNP agrees to at least discuss constructively and then finally come to a consensual agreement with us and make this law, I think Prabakaran's intransigence is not important. If we can bring in legally the solutions that we have proposed - long-lasting solutions to the problem - the Tamil people (as I sometimes rhetorically say, for I believe something like that will happen), the few Tamil people who are left with Prabakaran will turn against him.

But we have to prove this to the Tamil people. For once the Tamil people know that in fifty years of Independence, here is a 'Sinhala' leadership that is sincere in wanting to live with them in peace while giving them all their rights. They know that in their heart of hearts and they say so. But we have still not been able to constructively give them what we have wanted to.

Obstacles: Constitution and electoral system

We have started all the processes but we have not been able to conclude them satisfactorily simply because of this bizarre Constitution of the UNP, which they themselves amended sixteen times in nine years. It is a fraudulent Constitution, as I say, which stipulates that even to change a dot or a comma in the Constitution, you need a two thirds majority!

And on the other hand, you have a very, very bizarre electoral system - one does not exist and has not existed anywhere else in the world - that this Constitution brought in. They have ensured that no party will ever make two thirds in Parliament. If you look at it in terms of India's electoral system (the first-past-the-post system), our party won 80 per cent - not two thirds but eight tenths - of the seats in Parliament in the '94 parliamentary elections. But when it is translated into figures according to the way votes are counted under this Constitution, we have only one vote more in Parliament.

The UNP's historical responsibility

So it is the UNP's responsibility. They started this war. They made it worse. They brought in a Constitution which will not allow a political-constitutional solution of the problem. So it is their bounden duty to vote with us. We have said we do not expect you to accept this lock, stock and barrel. Come, let's discuss. But for three, four long years, they have shown intransigence and have been lying through their teeth - you can quote me like that.

That is the only problem. I think that if we can make this law, the Tamil people, the few who are left with Prabakaran, will turn against him. That will be the end of Prabakaran's intransigence.

"UNP games" and a key linkage

NR: You will still try to engage the UNP in an attempt to find bipartisan agreement on the constitutional proposals?

CK:: We are still trying but they are still playing their usual games! Now they are having secret meetings with the LTTE. The C.I.D. investigated an incident in which the UNP's MP, Dr Jayalath Jayawardana, got into the vehicle of an NGO and went into the Wanni jungles and met with (Anton) Balasingham (Political Adviser to the LTTE) and Tamilchelvan (a senior LTTE leader). And strangely now, you find Prabakaran saying something and one week later the UNP's leader says the same thing!

NR: Another question, linked but somewhat different: the executive presidency. You made a promise to abolish the executive presidency and there are proposals for change, but it is linked with the resolution of this principal national question. Would that be right?

CK:: Yes. That is also part of the constitutional proposals. Some amendment has to be made in the form of the new Constitution. It is part of the new Constitution that we are proposing.

NR: The UNP doesn't like this linkage.

CK:: We are not going to just give them everything they want without their giving us anything! I say, "Okay, you agree to the resolution of the ethnic problem," which they started, which they made worse, "We will agree to the abolition of the executive presidency." Don't you think that's fair?

Aspiring soldiers sign up for recruitment in Colombo in December 1995. Given the prolonged and intense conflict with the LTTE, the Army also faces a problem of desertion.-

NR: Yes, I think there should be that link. May I also ask you about your thinking on the sequence of elections ahead, because there is a lot of speculation in the press and in the political arena about which election will come first, the parliamentary or presidential...

CK:: We haven't actually decided. Actually, I haven't decided. So we will have whatever we think we can win. That is obviously our goal.

NR: Within the Constitution.

CK:: Within the Constitution. We will certainly have the elections in time. But now the question is whether you are having them early or not.

NR: And which election first? The presidential...

CK:: (Laughs.) That is what everybody is speculating about. I shall leave you in suspense on that one.

NR: And would you like to say anything on the non-binding referendum? It was mentioned in the press that if the UNP did not cooperate, you would perhaps resort to that technique to put, I suppose, moral pressure...

A business initiative for peace

CK:: All that may be part of the process I was telling you about. If the UNP doesn't respond.

I just want to make one other point: the business community of Sri Lanka has done its bit (the private sector umbrella effort under the chairmanship of businessman Lalith Kothalawala to bring together the ruling People's Alliance, the UNP and others for an interaction on, inter alia, the ethnic question). I thought that was a very good effort, because for the first time, civil society was getting involved. They are really sick and tired of this deadlock - a deadlock not from our side, but from their side. And I thought it was a jolly good idea, especially given the fact that all the big people in the business community are very close to the UNP.

The Government was very supportive. We said we would participate and let the UNP also come. Mr. Ranil Wickremasinghe (the UNP leader) is being totally dishonest on this issue, utterly and completely dishonest. First, he was looking for any excuse not to participate. He said he was not coming because G.L. Peiris (Minister of Justice, Constitutional Affairs, Ethnic Affairs and National Integration, and Deputy Minister of Finance) was coming. I do not know what he has against G.L. Peiris. I was surprised, because he was very friendly with G.L. Peiris, he has come here many times with him to discuss devolution matters and all that. And all of a sudden, he said because he was there... he was just picking quarrels for nothing. At which point I said, "Okay. I don't know what quarrel he has with him, let's not waste our time. If he doesn't like G.L.'s face, I will lead the delegation. I will come to the BMICH (Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall)." He said, "Oh, even if she is coming, I am not coming." That was the first thing, a shocking thing.

Then, secondly, he now has written ... finally he said we will nominate our delegation, let the Government nominate their delegation. I nominated three people, a very good list of people, not all of them politicians. The UNP kept delaying. Apparently this group had rung up Mr. Wickremasinghe and he had sent some absolutely stupid letter, which is just playing ducks and drakes with the whole thing, saying things that had not happened.

Telling the Chairman of this initiative that when they discussed the matter, Mr. Wickremasinghe had said he would discuss with the Government only if the LTTE was also there. He said that in the letter but the business people say, "We never talked of the LTTE." How can they bring the LTTE? They have neither the power nor the ability to do that.

Their main point was to get the UNP and the Government together. Because they were devastated that the two sides were just not succeeding in getting together. You know, facilitate the getting together of the UNP and the SLFP (Sri Lanka Freedom Party), because they knew people from both sides at a personal level. He says, "You know I told you that you should get the LTTE. So what is happening, is the LTTE coming?" He is just being very dishonest about the whole thing. That means this will not happen either.

India and Sri Lanka

NR: You will visit India later this month and there have been preparations for the conclusion of a Free Trade Agreement, which will be a major development. Other subjects will be covered. You have always been seen as a friend of India and during your Presidency bilateral relations have been very good, according to the press. But how do you, as a leader, see the engagement of India in this business, the plus and minus points? Some of us would say that India is morally obliged, given the inputs it made earlier, to help Sri Lanka and your Government to find a solution in better ways perhaps than have been on offer. How do you see that?

CK:: Well, I would tend to agree with you. I think India does have a moral obligation, given the fact that they were also partly responsible for the commencement of the war. Not India, but the Indian government of that time. But we have had a lot of moral support from Indian Governments and, perhaps excepting one or two instances, not much more than that.

Significance of Free Trade Agreement

NR: I see. How do you see this Free Trade Agreement and why is it so important? You seem to have personally spent a lot of time on bringing this forward and taken a lot of interest in the details. It would be very significant?

CK:: It would be. For the Sri Lankan economy, it would be very significant. India stands to lose very little by giving us these concessions, but we stand to gain a lot.

The role of non-LTTE Tamil parties

NR: Your impression of the other, the non-LTTE Tamil parties, both the democratic TULF and the militants who seem to have entered in some way the democratic stream. Do they amount to much?

CK:: (Smiles.) NR: Are they working with you?

CK:: They are working with us, they are very supportive of political solutions we have offered. They have, of course, been critical of some of the clauses and we have done some discussion with them, as we have tried to engage the UNP. We have, of course, done this consistently.

NR: So they have been more positive than the UNP?

CK:: Much more positive than the UNP. All the minority parties and, as you know, every single one of the minority parties in Parliament is either in the Government coalition or supporting us in Parliament. I would say that as a whole all these parties are trying their level best, but the LTTE systematically decimated the Tamil leadership of this country. Systematically. So how they can call themselves liberators of the Tamil people, I don't know. They have killed off some of the best of the best Tamil leaders. Political leaders, intellectuals, professionals - anybody who opposed the LTTE's violence and terror has been killed off.

I think that it is a very big tragedy for the Tamil people today that they do not have a sufficient number of strong democratic leaders. Those who are there are now ageing. There are a few young people but it is not enough.

The LTTE and South Africa

NR: One of the complaints in Prabakaran's latest Heroes' Day address is that the international community is apathetic and insensitive to history and to the sufferings of the Sri Lankan Tamils. He pays tribute to international sensitivity to other human rights issues, "but not to us." This is a clear complaint, several paragraphs are devoted to this plaintive complaint.

Against this background, we have published in Frontline (December 4 and 18, 1998) a two-part article by Rohan Gunaratna on the LTTE in South Africa. This has also been covered in the press in Sri Lanka. First, the organisation had a base in South India - Tamil Nadu in particular - and once that was over, after 1987, it shifted to South Africa. It has worked to establish links with the Tamils there, the descendants of former indentured Tamil labourers who form a substantial section of the South African population. The LTTE seems to have made some contacts with ANC (African National Congress) leaders or at least individuals. Gunaratna's investigative article speaks of training camps in South Africa, some procurement and so on. It is also reported that your Foreign Minister has taken this up and you yourself have expressed concern. Could you tell us something about this? Is there truth to these reports?

CK:: Well, it is true that we are concerned about the South African Government's probable - whether it is the Government or the ANC, I don't know - links with the LTTE. The LTTE has successfully pulled the wool over their eyes by pretending to be liberators. And the ANC, I suppose, having had a history of liberation, was sympathetic. But we are now striving to explain to them the nature of the LTTE, its behavioural patterns and the dangers which lurk for anybody who supports the LTTE. They must not forget that the LTTE systematically kills off all those who support it!

But it is only the South African Government - all the other governments that at one time, because of the UNP's wrong and idiotic policy towards the ethnic question, all those western governments and others who supported the LTTE or sympathised with the LTTE have now completely veered from that policy. Because they accept that this Government has an intelligent, humane and correct policy towards the problem.

Members of the Sri Lankan Government delegation led by Lionel Fernando (left) are greeted by LTTE negotiator V. Ravi as they arrive in Jaffna on October 13, 1994 for peace talks.-

Prabakaran and the Rajiv Gandhi assassination

NR: There is another complication, it seems, legally. Prabakaran is Accused No. 1 in the Rajiv assassination case. This is not some dubious trial, but very professionally done. And Pottu Amman is Accused No. 2 and Akila, if it is the same one (you referred to as dead), is Accused No. 3. So here is the leader of a movement who is wanted in your neighbouring state. I suppose he has not surfaced and, therefore, it is not up to the Sri Lankan Government, which can't reach him. Do you think that at the moment it is an academic question or a real question: that is, that talks are possible for a negotiated settlement and the leader (of the movement) is the prime wanted in a major criminal case? Have you thought about this?

CK:: Well, I suppose this is an issue that comes up with many guerilla leaders, but that doesn't, that shouldn't, prevent a government from talking with them - if a solution is possible.

An appeal to all Sri Lankans

NR: Any concluding thoughts on how Sri Lankans, the ruling coalition and alliance, the Opposition, Tamil parties, the people of your country should respond to this challenge? What would be your appeal as head of state and government? What do you expect them to do over the next few years?

CK:: Well, I have been consistently saying this. We expect them - both sides - to move away from the traps that you were mentioning earlier: Sinhalese from the Sinhala Only trap and the Tamil people from the Eelam trap. And I believe they have already moved away, so there is nothing much to appeal to on that score.

Of course, there will always be the extremists but we don't have to take notice of them. If history took notice of the extremist minorities, the human race could never have moved forward. I believe that a majority of all people of this country want peace. That is what we want them to continue to want - and support us in seeing through these measures.

We cannot wait for ever, jelled in a situation where the UNP has fixed the Constitution, fixed the war, and refuses to make it change. We refuse to be jelled to that situation and be frozen there.

We will very soon have to take decisions that may not completely be in keeping with the present Constitution - but will not be anti-constitutional or anti-democratic. My request, my appeal to the people of Sri Lanka is to support us politically on that issue.

NR: Thank you very much, President.

A letter from the Editor

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