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`The two major democratic forces have to get together'

Print edition : Dec 02, 2005 T+T-
SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

After 11 years as the constitutionally powerful Executive President of Sri Lanka, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga is scheduled to demit office later this year at the end of her second term. In a wide-ranging interview with V.S. Sambandan on November 7 - 10 days before Sri Lanka's 13.32-million-strong electorate was to choose her successor - the President spoke of her political legacy, her views on the changes the peace process has gone through and her concern over the rise of political extremism in Sri Lanka. She shared her personal moments of joy and regret, and said that she had no intention of holding any position in any government. Excerpts:

We are meeting towards the close of 11 momentous years of your presidency. Would you like to highlight one legacy and say this is what I brought for Sri Lanka?

Well, if you ask me where we were able to do the most, then I would have thought of two or three areas. But if you ask me to put it into one, I would say the main thing we did was that when we took over the government the country was floating about without a purpose, without dreams, without goals, and certainly without decency. We were able to bring back to the country a sense of purpose, objectives. The people knew where they were going, what they wanted, and that we were able to achieve by enunciating a very clear vision for the country. A vision that included several things: first, we called it the human face of our vision. Even when we talked about a free market, we talked of a free market economy with a human face.

At that time [1994] Sri Lanka was a killing field. The government was practising state terror against its democratic opponents as well as some violent organisations. There were two violent groups, one in the south and several in the north, who were also practising violence in competition with the state. It was an absolute killing field, there was no respect for human rights, for human freedoms; there was no media freedom. Somebody who was heard criticising the government in a village boutique would be taken away the next day by the police because somebody sneaked. It was like a police state. Full stop. I think the biggest thing we did was that people were able to breathe freely under our regime, which means everything.

There was no dignity in the public service. There was so much vindictiveness, all part of the network of state terror practised against everybody. They had absolutely no possibility of doing the right thing by the nation, doing their job properly. We gave them back their dignity, we gave them back total independence.

That is the qualitative difference we made to government.

During the past decade you have done considerable work to make federalism an acceptable word. As Sri Lanka faces another election, what are your views of the past and what the future holds?

Well, my views have not changed one bit and I don't think they will change much unless somebody can come up with a more feasible, viable-looking alternative solution. At the moment nobody has been able to give anything other than what we have proposed. Well, apart from war.

Are you concerned that the concept of a unitary state is being talked about again?

Very concerned. And I have told our party candidate. But there are some extremist elements - three parties that I would lump together - the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna [JVP], the Jathika Hela Urumaya [JHU] and the Sinhala Urumaya [S.U.]. They always have been extremist groups but now they are saying it openly, probably they were shy to say it before. I did not allow them to get close to the Sri Lanka Freedom Party [SLFP] and the People's Alliance [P.A.] until they at least agreed to look at devolution.

I never had anything to do with the JHU and the S.U. and I never will. Then I might as well have something to do with Adolf Hitler. But these people, though they are not very different, they were showing that they had changed, that they have learnt their lessons. And I am an eternal optimist where human beings are concerned. Being a practising Buddhist, I thought that what the Buddha preached could perhaps come true - that human beings can realise that they have done something wrong and try to change and move along the right path. And I thought we could get the JVP to do that. They have proved beyond doubt that they are not willing to change.

I definitely kept the barking dogs at bay - you can quote me - and, they have now been unleashed by some people on my side. Their true colours are coming out. It is very, very worrying. I am very concerned.

It should be a matter of great pain to you that a concept so dear to you is being disregarded in the overall election discourse.

It is not a personal pain. You know, for a lot of people, politics is personal. It was for me also because I am a very passionate person in what I believe in. I had been, from the time I was a child. I used to take up various causes and get all impassioned about it. But now I have received so many knocks by destiny, by fate, by life itself, that I tend to take life with equanimity. I don't get excited, worried, impassioned. It is just experience. Now I have learnt not to let things go beyond a certain point. I have many curtains - psychological curtains that fall. I don't allow it to hurt me personally. What would hurt me personally is if I see that the majority of the people of our country are following this lunatic fringe. But for the moment they are not.

Are you confident that a secular Sri Lanka will prevail?

You know, in the political history of a country there are moments of sliding back. There are moments of defeat of a grand project. I call it a grand project only if it is what is required for the country. And I believe it is. I may be proved wrong, but I doubt it on this issue.

There may be moments of defeat - temporary defeat - but I think the project is so big and in the past 11 years, we have worked sufficiently hard for it to have gone too deep into the hearts and minds of our people for it to be turned back. But there may be a temporary phase of chaos on this issue. I sincerely hope not. Here this is not the political leader who is talking; this is a student of politics.

Your concept of devolution of powers is at a phase when it could take off or drop off altogether. Is it in doubt?

I had never had such a difficult task to perform as I have had since September 7 - the day before some agreement was signed with the JVP and thereafter the JHU without my knowledge. I will not say who it is. I have to play the role as a leader of the party [SLFP]. Here it is the leader of the party, not the President of a country. As the President of the country, I am playing my role quite well and there is no problem about that. As the leader of the party trying to balance these things, I do not believe ever directly or indirectly going against a candidate I myself proposed.

At a time when a group of people went against our candidate - Mr. Kobbekaduwa in the first-ever executive presidential election in Sri Lanka [1982] - I was just shocked. [My late husband] Vijaya [Kumaratunga] and I and a vast majority of the party supported Kobbekaduwa against them. The conflict that began there caused Vijaya to be sacked from the party and we had to form a new party. I never believed in going against any party decisions. Even there were times when I took decisions against my own judgment because the majority in the party wanted it.

Do you think there is a way out of this bind because the party is going on a particular track that could negate what you have brought in? Is there a way out?

This is why I say it is a very difficult task I have to perform because whatever you say or do could damage your candidate's chances at the election. I shall answer that after the 18th [of November].

What are the high points of the three peace processes you initiated with the LTTE in the past 11 years?

There are clear demarcation lines. When we first started in 1994-95, the LTTE, quite definitely, had no intention of coming for any peace. They only wanted to stall for a little while until they built themselves up. You know the reasons. It is very clear. They had no intention of going for anything other than Eelam at that time.

The second effort. I kept trying to bring them to the table. Finally we brought in Norway in March 1999. They did not agree to talk because they tried to kill me. They failed in December 1999. They tried to take Jaffna in April 2000, they failed, and then we won the presidential and parliamentary elections again for another six years. They were getting a bit weak. He [LTTE leader V. Prabakaran] could not keep his people together because he gave them the dream of taking Jaffna back. That was one of the dreams that they were fighting for and suffering. In October 2000, having lost Jaffna and seeing us coming in for another six years, they saw the Norwegians pressurising them.

I had brought in an international factor. For them, appearing like good boys on the international scene is very important - otherwise the LTTE would not be. The money they collect from those countries is what keeps them going. So therefore they said OK. They talked. There was a qualitative difference. I think internationalising [the conflict] persuaded him and he was willing to talk... on much lesser conditions than before.

Then he was sent messages by the UNP [United National Party] saying `don't talk with them, we are toppling this government'. Actually the plot had started the December before. I thought everything was tickety-boo.

As the mindset had changed, [former Prime Minister] Ranil Wickremasinghe was able to come in and take it over from there [in December 2001]. There was a definite change. Not the ceasefire agreement - where I think too much was given to the LTTE. But in the Oslo accord and all that there was a change. It wasn't a sea change, but there was a change.

The biggest change, I think, was the Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure [PTOMS]. For the first time in 20 years of war the LTTE had agreed to come into the process of government. Until then it was just signing a ceasefire and an agreement not to kill each other. They did not sign anything else. The conditions were very, very different... . Earlier the conditions were such that they could go towards a separate state. Here it was absolutely not. Again, I would say it was the physical conditions - the political conditions - that made them probably come half way.

There were two things. One was the devastation they suffered because of the tsunami. Two, I would say, is the opening up of the whole process during Ranil's government, where large numbers of the LTTE [cadre] went abroad. They were able to come to Colombo, I continued to allow them to do that. They were able to see another world outside of their dark, little dingy holes and the tigers' den. And they began to see there is a better world outside than what is being promised by Prabakaran.

I am quite sure that [the former LTTE district military commander] Karuna would not have broken away even with all these conflicts between Jaffna Tamils and Batticaloa Tamils if Karuna had not been allowed to go out so many times.

And I am not saying it only by imagining, some day when I write the history - it's still too hot to write - by the messages that Karuna sent to me. He wanted to speak to me. I never spoke, on the basis that I don't speak directly to any terrorist. But the messages were very clear... .

When was this?

Soon after he broke away. Before he left Batticaloa and after he left Batticaloa.

And you have not spoken to him?

I have never spoken to him, never ever. But, I said if he needs anything, give us any message for his protection and all that because [if] Prabakaran asks for his protection I will give that also. He is a citizen of Sri Lanka. But I have no dealings with him [Karuna]. Unless, of course, he wants to come to the negotiation process and talk with us officially, which he has not suggested until now. So that was also a very big change. I think there is pressure on Prabakaran from his people, `let us not go back to war, let us go for some negotiated thing'. All these things made a huge difference and the qualitative difference that you see in PTOMS is due to all that. I am saying this from the very bottom of my heart, I feel it deeply in every fibre of my body, that every single person who opposed PTOMS will be, very soon be known by Sri Lanka as the biggest traitors this country has ever known. This was the beginning of the solution, quite definitely. It is the qualitative difference that I am talking about. But now it is too late. They have hardened again their positions. It is one year since all this happened. That is how history always occurs. The physical, political, economic, psychological factors have all to conjoin to give a certain situation and this did, at that time.

In 1994, you had a template for a solution of the ethnic issue. Now it does not seem to be moving towards that. How would you see that movement take place?

Well, given the fact that I am the only head of state or government in this country since Independence who had a clear template on the issue even before coming to power, I am not surprised that others don't have it. I am only sorry that having received a template, which has got the acclamation of over 80 per cent of the people of the country, some others don't seem to think it is the best [and] again becoming vague about their policies.

So it is a cause for concern?

It is cause for deep concern. I don't intend to hold any position in any government. I will not take any position at all. I decided about that a long time ago... . So it is not through self-interest. I have given a lot of myself to the country's cause - not only the ethnic issue... poverty alleviation, re-establishing human rights and human decency in the country. Good governance is half way. After that, seeing all this being thrown out of the window without a better alternative.... If there is a better alternative, I would have been the first person to put up not just one hand, but both hands. I don't think I am God Almighty that everything I said is right, should be right. In any case I do not want any position. When I first came I said I am going home in eight years, now it is not 8 it is 11-and-a-half.

There has also been a lot of thought that one possible way out for reaching a solution is a national government. Do you see that on the horizon?

I have been suggesting - for the first time - a real national government since 1995. Mr. Ranil Wickremasinghe has been rejecting it, with politeness of course. I still think it is the only way.

South Asia has this problem at the moment. I think one of the reasons is the extreme poverty that prevails in certain areas of our countries, more so in yours than in mine perhaps, to varying degrees. The sudden onslaught on the strong traditional systems by the so-called free-market economy and the various arms by globalisation is breaking them down so badly that it is having all kinds of fallout in our countries. One of the most obvious kind is extremism of different types. Extremism is a force we have to reckon with in our countries for some time. In Sri Lanka we have the extremists in the north and the extremists in the south completely at odds with each other. Exactly the opposite things, but still luckily those extremes are the extreme minority. I would say that if Prabakaran went for a free and fair poll with his LTTE types and the JHU, the S.U. and the JVP, if all these four active extremist groups go to the polls, they will get a maximum of 10 per cent of the votes in Sri Lanka.

The UNP and SLFP, on the other hand, accounted for 73 per cent of the total votes cast in the year 2001 - the last time we contested separately. In the grand national project the two major democratic forces have to get together if we are to avoid the horrors of extremist politics taking over a substantial minority or the majority itself, as it happened in Hitler's Germany or something like that. I think this is crucial. This does not mean we have to destroy these extremist forces. Once the democratic, moderate forces begin to dominate, the extremist forces will also come to the middle path. The JVP is pretending to be in the middle path, but to some extent they have come only because of this. The SLFP's greatest achievement was that when everybody became violent, we did not.

To a large extent Sri Lanka's politics has also been the story of the Bandaranaikes. Who next?

In the dynasty? I don't believe in dynasties, really trust me, I don't believe in dynasties. By the way, strange, but we hold a Guinness record for unbroken representation of one electorate for 78 years by father, mother, daughter and now son. No other family - not even the Nehrus - has done for that long, and father, mother and daughter leading a party for 57 years, unbroken.

Are your children interested in politics?

They are very interested in what is going on in the country. They read every day. My son reads every day, my daughter doesn't. They read it on the web sites, they call me and give their opinion, sometimes very critical. But I have, from a very young age, brainwashed them against it. I don't want them to come into politics as long as it is so dirty as it is in Sri Lanka. The decent people don't come into politics. Sri Lanka's most decent are out of politics or abroad.

The attempt on your life was a personal and a political moment. How do you look at that now?

I haven't actually begun to analyse it. What I did then was I had to go on after that doing the same things. I had to pluck up the courage not to think about it and get scared about it and look over my shoulder all the time thinking that somebody is going to kill me. So, I suppose, I went into it without thinking about it - some amount of emotional, psychological denial, just closing the door on it and going. Now that the end is drawing near for my political career, I will have to start thinking about it. Per se it was a horrendous moment. You know one thing, I never felt - fear. I never for a moment felt fear. I thought I might die at one moment when I was at the hospital. All I did was to tell friends and people close to me who came to see me - please look after my children if anything happens to me. I was too drugged even to fight. They had given all sorts of sedatives and all that. And then, when in two days they said I could go home and my brain was not damaged I was delighted. Then I was taking too many risks as usual even with my health. My daughter was told to act as the guardian.

She was shouting at everybody, shouting at me and ensuring that I did what was right medically.

Doctors in England told me: "Madam President, all we can tell you is somebody up there was looking after you." Because of the way those pellets avoided lots of fatal spots, not one but three points. And then I went on. There was a time when I was rather depressed and I was not accepting it. I took anti-depressants, which helped me a huge lot and improved the quality of my life. Because I was losing my temper.. I began loosing my hair because of depression. It was fine but it did change me drastically. Not personality, but I would tell me what my daughter told me was the best way. "You are so high-spirited. I haven't seen all the shocks in your life. I wasn't there when your father was killed, I wasn't there when your fiance was killed, I was there when our father was killed, and when you were bombed and after each one of them you bounced back," she said.

I was very fun-loving when I was young, not just young, quite old also, but fun-loving in the nice sense. But she said after I had to govern with the [Opposition] United National Party: "I can see your spirit broken. That is very bad for you. I can see you listless. Get out." That was her only solution. I think after that I did not quite come back. You know a lot of people break after one shock. I probably had the resilience of 100 people or 200, and was bouncing back and wanting to do things still. Not getting depressed by it. But there comes a time when the vessel is full. For some people the vessel becomes full very fast, mine took a long time, and finally it did. To a large extent the spirit was beaten and hammered. That is also another reason why I want to get out. Most other people would have come into politics at the age of 30 with the amount of spirit I have now and not more. But knowing myself, having had so much of spirit, faith, confidence, commitment, verve, I never took no for an answer - because of that commitment and spirit we got a lot of things done. For me, for CBK, without that going on is not right somehow. I will have to call it a day. There comes a time. I have lots of things to do in life.

Such as?

That is for the next time. Reading, writing, there are lots of things I can do, helping poor countries with projects, even my country. I want to have a trust where I will do a lot of work for our people, but I don't want to get involved directly in politics and doing this one's and that one's dirty jobs.