Controversial and charismatic, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga is one of the most striking political personalities of South Asia.
The heir of Sri Lanka’s most prominent political family, she has known what it is to wield power from a very early age. Both her parents have been prime ministers of their country, and she has presided over Sri Lanka’s fortunes for almost the last one decade.
But she is also very well aware of the price one pays for power. Both her father and husband were assassinated, and she has escaped several attempts on her life. She is one of the most heavily protected politicians of the world, and the threat of an assassin’s bullet will accompany her till the last day of her life.
Born on 29 June 1945, Chandrika Kumaratunge was educated at St. Bridget’s Convent, Colombo and at the Aquinas University College Colombo, where she studied for LLB. From there, she went on to the University of Paris, from which she graduated in Political Science. She also obtained a Diploma in Group Leadership from the same University.
The radical students movement in Paris of the 1960s left a profound impression on her. “The abiding element of that influence in today's vastly changed world circumstances is her deep commitment to the welfare of the deprived, the underprivileged and the disadvantaged,’’ states Sri Lanka’s official website.
Fuelled by the idealism of the Paris days, Chandrika returned home to take an active part in the land reform programme undertaken by her mother’s (Srimavo Bandernaike) administration in the earl 1970s. She served as a Director and as the Principal Director of the Land Reforms Commission (1972-1976), subsequently becoming Chairman of the Janawasa Commission (1976-1977).
This Commission was responsible for the settlement of several thousands of educated and under-educated youths under the Janawasa Commission law.
In 1978, she married film star Vijaya Kumaratunga, and subsequently the couple split from Srimavo Bandernaike’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) to form the Sri Lanka Mahajan Party. The formation of the party was accompanied by the rise of the Tamil separatist movement, and in the next ten years the once idyllic island of Sri Lanka was ripped apart by ethnic tension and civil war. Vijaya Kumaratunge was assassinated in 1988, and fearing for the safety of her two children, Chandrika fled to Europe.
She returned in 1992 to revive her family’s SLFP, and in 1994 was elected president, as she campaigned to bring peace and prosperity. While her victory ended 17 years of United National Party (UNP) rule, it did little to halt the bloodshed in her country. Her attempts to broker peace failed as the Tamil Tigers renewed their campaign of terror. In the mid-1990s, the Sri Lankan army was successful in regaining control of Jaffna from the Tigers for the first time since 1989. However the long civil war has destroyed the economy and drained the coffers of the state.
In 2001, Chandrika’s old opponent Ranil Wickramasinghe was elected prime minister of the country. He was successful in reviving the peace process and in effecting a cease-fire in the strife torn country.
However, Chandrika has not been happy with the progress of the peace process and the independence shown by her old opponent. The parliamentary election this year and the presidential election next year represent an opportunity for the old foes to lock horns again.