Sri Lanka's ex-prez Chandrika Kumaratunga on her political comeback

  • Prashant Jha, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Sep 06, 2015 09:08 IST

After the end of her presidency in 2005, Chandrika Kumaratunga was living a life of semi-retirement in Sri Lanka. She had made it clear she was not interested in formal political power. Her party rival, Mahinda Rajapaksa consolidated his grip over the state, defeated the LTTE in a brutal war, expanded his family’s control, won the presidential and parliamentary elections and looked invincible.

Kumaratunga’s isolation was not merely self-imposed. Rajapaksa had made it clear that no elected representative of the party, Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP) could meet her. When someone bumped into her at a public event and spoke to her for a few minutes, he/she would get a call from Rajapaksa the next morning, asking about the content of the conversation with ‘that woman’. He also closed the office she was entitled to as the former president, and she only had two people to assist her. Her meetings were closely monitored and it was a ‘police state’.

But people kept coming to meet her, to suggest she should take on a more active role. She felt that after 2010, when the war had ended and Rajapaksa had comfortably consolidated, things may improve – but they did not.

Corruption and family rule only intensified. The ethnic polarisation only deepened. Representatives of the international community, with whom Rajapaksa shared a bitter relationship, came to her and ‘lamented’ about the country’s situation. But as a politician and political scientist, Kumaratunga felt there was no point ‘in forcing the hand of history’; unless the people in a democracy changed their minds, and were ready, it was best to wait.

And suddenly, two years ago, those stirrings of change began. Citizens began organising themselves -- fishermen, students, villagers protested and were killed; university professors began long marches from Kandy to Colombo and Galle to Colombo; civil society rose up; and it was evident that the tide was turning. People who called on Kumaratunga became more ‘aggressive’ in asking her to come back. She felt she and her family had done enough -- she had seen her father and her husband assassinated after all -- but would ‘help’.

It did help that Kumaratunga had maintained ties with her old rival, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe of the United National Party. He used to be her brother’s classmate and had served as PM under her. He used to call on her once a year; they sometimes had a meal together. And for about two years, the discussion veered towards politics and the need to fight together. And then, Kumaratunga began looking for a common candidate around which the entire opposition could coalesce.

By design or due to a set of circumstances, she was back in active politics.

Fighting a ‘common enemy’

On Saturday morning, speaking to a small group of journalists in New Delhi, on her first trip to the Indian Capital after the political change in Sri Lanka, Kumaratunga traced back the past decade and then recalled how she narrowed down on Maithripala Sirisena, the current President as a common candidate.

“He had worked under me, and was not known to be corrupt or a murdered. It was difficult to find someone in my party at the leadership level who met those parameters,” she said, with a smile.

The challenge was now in ensuring communication and coordination. Remember Rajapaksa was still in power, and communication was closely monitored. The alliance tumbled upon Viber. “The Government of Sri Lanka did not know how to tackle Viber. I later checked with intelligence agencies and you can identify who is calling whom on Viber and Sri Lanka did not know how to do that. Otherwise, we would all have been dead,” said Kumaratunga.

The former president admitted it was the ‘common enemy’ who brought them together. But the alliance worked and in January, Rajapaksa was defeated. Sirisena became President; Wickremesinghe was PM; and Kumaratunga played the role of the political elder, counseling the two. She however rejected any suggestion that she is the ‘bridge’ between the two.

However the alliance and the triangular relationship frayed when Sirisena gave a ticket to Rajapaksa to contest parliamentary polls. Kumaratunga admits she was upset with him, but he redeemed himself by certain actions. “He was determined not to let the baddies come in. But he was trying to keep the party together and in that process, he trusted two party secretaries who were deceiving him.”

This was a dangerous moment. If Rajapaksa had won in the August 17 parliamentary elections, Kumaratunga said, “many people would have been killed". Fortunately for the alliance, that did not happen. Sirisena and his supporters backed Wickremesinghe against their own party. And the former won, getting sworn in as President. Kumaratunga’s hard work had paid off.

The Tamil question

Kumaratunga believes this is a ‘golden opportunity’ for Sri Lanka to address the Tamil question, for both the major parties of the country are in government together. Otherwise, the track record has shown that when one party attempts something, the opposition does its best to wreck it. “Only Rajapaksa is outside now, but without a party apparatus, he will not be able to do much.”

She is now the chair of the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation, which is kicking off a set of projects. This includes returning large tracts of land, that were taken away by the military, to the people; it would include trauma counseling for the families which have seen enforced disappearances and have not attained closure; it would also include resettlement and building houses with the assistance of the international community.

The issue of war crimes and justice has been the bone of contention both within Sri Lanka as well as between Sri Lanka and the international community. Kumaratunga said Human Rights Council in Geneva has already had discussions with the government, which is pushing for an internal -- rather than an international -- mechanism and trying to give the confidence that this would be done ‘effectively and honestly’.

She told reporters that they are looking at possible structures for the internal mechanism, and would prepare this in consultation with representatives of the north. Some Tamil leaders have pushed for an international mechanism but Kumaratunga felt that the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) could be convinced if the internal structure is done ‘properly’, based on discussions with them.

When asked if she sensed any fear and apprehension among the top rungs of the Sri Lankan military that they may be held accountable for war crimes, Kumaratunga said, “I will not be telling the truth if I say there is no fear and apprehension. But the forces will not do anything illegal against these processes. It is a democracy.”

HT asked her if the fear of losing the Sinhalese nationalist base would deter the SLFP and UNP from making substantive concessions power sharing to Tamils. Kumaratunga paused and replied, “It is a factor that has restrained Sinhalese politicians wrongly. I started announcing in election rallies that Tamils have a problem but people voted for me and elected me. Sinhalese people are not racist.”

She recounted an instance where she had commissioned a survey when in power, and discovered that only 23% of the Sinhalese people were for a political solution -- because they were familiar only with the discourse of the war, and not of peace and conciliation. “But I was convinced and we did an outreach. We went to every single constituency with the message of peace. And the proportion of citizens seeking a political solution and saying they would vote for devolution proposals had increased to 68%.” This meant, she warned, that leaders had to take to people and take them into confidence.

Indian hand

Kumaratunga rejected the suggestion that India had anything to do with bringing together the opposition alliance and said they were old enough to manage themselves.

Soon after the January elections, Rajapaksa blamed India’s external agency, Research and Analysis Wing, for his defeat. When HT asked her if R&AW was perceived to play an overbearing role, she said, “No. If it was playing an overbearing role, it would have done it with me too. Rajapaksa was not expecting to lose and had to find scapegoats.”

But she does see a key role for India in Sri Lanka’s future, including on the Tamil national question. “India can play a very dynamic role to assist us and we appreciate what the current government is doing.”

Kumaratunga said is clear that India is the region’s big power and no one can wish that away even if they want to. “Rajapaksa was trying to do that. But even if Sri Lanka attempts it, the world recognises India as the leader in the region. We have to deal with the realities.”

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