Interview with Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga: Governance and politics today, future plans and prospects

On 25th July, Groundviews met with former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga in Colombo to get her views on Sri Lanka’s present state of governance, plus a range of other issues, including – as is often today hinted at – the chances of re-entering active politics.

This is the first in-depth interview she has given any media in over six and a half years since she left office.

We talked for close upon two hours. The podcast is edited for length and content. Approximate time codes are provided when questions are posed or when particularly important points are made by the former President. This brief write-up is by no means a comprehensive account of what she says and readers are strongly encouraged to listen to the podcast in full, which you can download as an audio file here (plays in iTunes, Quicktime or VLC).

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  • 2.14:What are you doing these days? At around 4:40 she talks about the South Asia Policy and Research Institute [SAPRI] and the nature of its work and constitution.
  • 5:53:Do you regret not being able to abolish the Executive Presidency? Around 7:50 she talks about the ’95 constitutional proposals, which included the abolition of the Executive Presidency, and how Prabhakaran may have reacted to them. Around 8:18 she talks about how Prabhakaran would have been isolated from the Tamil people had the proposals gone through, the support she had for them from the Tamil people and also the pro-LTTE Tamil diaspora.
  • 9:25:The future of the SLFP and how much the party has changed from when she led it. Around 10.20, after speaking about the way in which the incumbent President has stripped her of her powers in the party, she calls the SLFP a ‘Bandaranaike Party’. She calls the fate of the SLFP today ‘tragic’ and goes on to note that it is not a party that can be destroyed by Mahinda Rajapaksa or his family.
  • 11:10:Asked if she would play a leading role in architecting change in the SLFP. Her response is direct – she will not return to active politics.
  • 11:50:What are the chances for meaningful constitutional reform in post-war Sri Lanka? Around 14:10 she speaks about the ‘Tamil peoples problem’ whether there is a war of not, of the long history of this problem, and its root causes. She clearly notes the ‘Tamil peoples problem’ cannot be wished away just because the war has ended.
  • 17:00:Is the re-emergence of violence inevitable if underlying structural conflict isn’t addressed? In the course of her answer, around 18:32 she notes that the underlying conflict could have been much easier to resolve had the Rajapaksa government not being in power post-war, and speak on a missed opportunity to use a totally different discourse to what was used post-war. Around 19:50 she also refutes the President’s assertion, made in his first address to Parliament after the end of the war, that there were no longer any majorities or minorities in Sri Lanka.
  • 21:00: Assassination attempt by the LTTE in December 1999 – what do you think about it now and how has it changed you?
  • 29:00:Asked how what she sees as the failures and excesses of the incumbent government are in fact any different to the timbre of governance when she was President, and under her government.
  • 40:15:How successful was the war for peace strategy? How do you see your own strategy against that which happened on the banks of Nandikadal in May 2009? If you don’t see a continuation of the same idea, what’s the difference? Around 43:48 I ask whether she could not see parallels between what led her government back to war against the LTTE, and what led the Rajapaksa government to war, when talks with the LTTE failed in 2006. She also goes to explain why she said many years ago that terrorism cannot be defeated only by military means, and reiterates why even after the end of the way, Sri Lanka is no closer to a durable settlement to the ethnic conflict.
  • 46:50:If you had a message to give to the Tamil people in the North and East, what would it be? Around 48:00 she has a number of interesting observations on the Tamil diaspora, including the fact that those who supported terrorism in Sri Lanka should now come back and invest their money in developmental projects in the North and East. She also speaks of the need for a new Tamil political leadership to enable the Sri Lankan Tamil people and the Tamil diaspora fashion what they believe is a durable solution.
  • 50:19:Would you today think of going back the constitutional proposals of the mid-90s, which included extensive power sharing, as those that are still viable? Around 52:20 she suggests that if the present government does not want to go that far, they can still implement the 13th Amendment ++ (she goes on to say what ++ means to her).
  • 53:22: Notes that she is extremely concerned about the way the present regime has changed the thinking of the Sinhalese people, “to a point of being extremely extremist against all non-Sinhala Buddhist people”. There is a further comparison made a little later to early Nazi propaganda. She also laments the radicalisation of even Colombo based professionals, who get their news and information from the mainstream media.
  • 56:10:What does she now think about the allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity made in the Channel 4 video, which she referred to two years ago, in light of earlier comments on how she had investigated, when she was President, killings done by the Army. She notes that there is some glimmer of hope only because of the “very vociferous interventions by the international community” that makes government “even slightly sensitive to the need to resolve those issues”. The lecture she refers to here, and once or twice elsewhere in the podcast is the Justice Palakidnar Memorial Oration.
  • 58:10: Notes that this is the first serious political discussion she has had with any media in six and a half years.
  • 58:30:Asked what she intends to do in the future to address all of what she said was wrong in Sri Lanka today. She goes on to state that Sri Lanka needs a serious systemic change. She also goes on to counter allegations that she is personally jealous of the incumbent President. Soon after she goes on to note how little support Mahinda Rajapaksa got, at the time the SLFP was looking for a Presidential candidate, from the central committee of his own party (just 3 out of 59). Inter alia, she also says the incumbent President was the one person who didn’t support her devolution proposals.
  • Chrissy Abeysekera

    Sanjana, you should have questioned from this good lady as to her most ‘serious mistake’ when in politics, in appointing her chum Sarath Silva as CJ and thereby being virtualy singlehandedly responsible in bringing down the country’s Supreme Court!

    Why did you not do so? In my opinion, this was the beginning of the end – and though much can be said about the Rajapaksas, very little was expected from them in terms of decent rule. In the case of Kumaratunge, much more was expected and she miserably failed to deliver and also, went to the extent of attacking journalists.

    Now look who is moralising!Who wants to listen to these political rejects. I certainly will not listen to the podcast. Sorry.

  • http://---- A Concerned Citizen

    Thanks to Groundviews for making the interview Sanjana has had with Chandrika available for the readers of groundviews to listen to. I am sure there is going to be a host of questions and a lot of discussions on the statements she has made. It certainly is going to be lively.

    I would like to raise just a few issues to start with.
    (a) On her own admission she had failed to abolish the Presidential system which she now says is the bane of the country today. She has often referred to the Constitution as the ‘bahubootha viyavesthawa’ but had failed to take any serious attempt either to change the Constitution or abolish the Presidency. She would have certainly received the support of the Parliament for the latter if not for the former. So she has to take the blame for the present State of the government in the country today.
    (b)When answering to a question about the solution to the Tamil problem today she mentioned about the need for the 13th Amendment ++ etc. and added that ‘limited police powers and power over land’ should be devolved. Perhaps she has forgotten that these powers are already there in the 13th Amendment and the Government is refusing to allow the Provincial Councils to exercise these powers. So her statement that 13th Amendment ++ means giving these powers, is palpably incorrect. Therefore the 13th Amendment ++ which she mentions is never going to be the solution to the demand for more devolution of powers.
    (c) Chandrika has to take the full blame for the continuance of the disappearances and abductions taking place today. She who came to power in 1994 on a pledge to end such incidents and promised to bring the culprits to book if she was voted to power. Having won the elections she appointed the three or rather four Presidential Commissions of Inquiry into Disappearances of Persons with a view to honour this pledge but did not proceed to deal with the recommendations of those Commissions to punish those identified by the Commissions as perpetrators. Nor did she take a serious note of the recommendations made by these Commissions on the steps that were needed to be taken to prevent the re-occurrence of such incidents in the future. Therefore she has to take the full responsibility for allowing such incidents to continue with impunity and embolden the bad eggs in the forces. This eventually led to the breakdown of law and order in the country.
    (d) Chandrika has proudly stated that she boldly initiated action to find out the persons responsible for the 21 odd bodies of Tamils found floating in the Bolgoda Lake and other places. Has she forgotten that about 20 STF personnel was eventually found to be responsible for those killings. They were arrested and kept in remand for a short time and later released on the submissions made by the Attorney General. Those cases were never pursued thereafter and are lying in the courts as accused unknown cases. It was strongly rumoured that the then Deputy Minister for Defence was responsible for their release. Chandrika failed to pursue these cases in all earnest.
    (e) Speaking about the steps she took to end corruption during her regime – she appears to have forgotten that a large sum of foreign currency was found in the Bank locker of the then Deputy Minister of Defence and he could not explain how he came by that amount of money. So much for her attempts to end corruption.

    These are just a few of the questions for which she is answerable if her claim to have been a better President is to hold water. Of course it could be said without hesitation that the law and order situation during her regime was much much better than it is today. She has to be given the credit for trying to solve the problems of the Tamils as best as she could, but her proposals did not win the support of the Parliament. On the contrary the present President is still dilly dallying on a solution to the problems of the Tamils the symptom of which was the terrorism which Mahinda claims to have ended. The causes are still lying unattended.

  • P.L.J.B.Palipana

    The Country Needs A U Turn≫ Hon.Mahinda Rajapaksa Is Not Ruling The Country.Hon.Ranil Wickramasinghe Is The Only Alternative To Tackle The Relative Situation Nationally &Amp; Internationally.

    • Toronto

      Mahinda Rajapaksa is a manipulative dictator, who dictates by keeping his party going.
      Ranil Wikramasinghe is a downright dictator who will destroy his party.

    • http://lankaweb Jay Ranaweera

      Palipana is speaking thru his [edited out] as he is unable to distinguish the differences between the Rajapakses and Wickremasinhes.
      Rajapakses saved sri lankan ltte terrorists menace within a short period of 3 yrs!
      but,wickremasinhes almost destroyed our motherlanka thru the cfa which paved way for killer ltters to rome anywhere in sri lanka unchecked and carried out more killings!!

  • Mirak Raj Banda

    Mrs. Kumaratunge is no different to Rajapakshe clan or an ordinary Sri Lankan politicians who looks for greener pastures in overseas (after retirement).
    I reject her!
    Mr. Wickramasinghe had many opportunities to prove his good governance and he failed too.
    God, please save my motherland!!

  • Don Quixote

    Great interview Sanjaya ! You are seriously getting some respect as an interviewer worth listening to, well done.

    I only wish you had adresses a 67 year old former president of the Country with a little more respect than “Chandrika”. You may be on first name terms and you may have wished to display that on air but you are now setting an example to the younger generation.

    Please address this issue as it is said with your own interests at heart.

    • http://www.groundviews.org Groundviews

      Thank you for having my interests at heart, very kind of you.

      If the only lesson in over an hour of speaking is that I refer to Chandrika, as Chandrika, I sincerely hope it is one emulated by my nearly six year old son and a wider, younger generation. My own unshakable irreverence towards political power and those who wield it is because authoritarianism, especially under the guise of supine deference and honorific titles, continues to hold us all hostage to the worst excesses of governance.

  • Dr Dayan Jayatilleka

    I have just begun to listen to the audio and am looking forward to the links of the recent lectures at Harvard and the Univ of Virginia that CBK has delivered.

    I also look forward to a full transcript of the current audio interview, as it would be easier to engage with critically.

    The audio was a good idea though, as it far more revelatory and evocative. A video would have been even better.

    • http://www.groundviews.org Groundviews

      Dayan,

      As you may have guessed from the recent call for a co-editor, right now Groundviews is just me. Much as I would love to do it, a transcript is just beyond me at the present moment. I will try to put one up in the weeks ahead, and appreciate anyone from GV’s readership to contribute one if so inclined, and for the benefit of so many others too.

      I believe the lecture at the Uni of Virginia is available in full, but the one delivered at Harvard only through secondary reporting. I will ask her for full copy, and post if and when she responds.

      Sanjana

      • Dr Dayan Jayatilleka

        Hi Sanjana, thanks. I have finally managed to listen to the entirety of the interview and take down notes.

  • Ranjith Subasinghe

    A good interview. But I was there when this lady governed the country. It was absolute rubbish and she worked for a personal agenda [edited out]. No progress in any front and the worst era in Sri Lankan history. She can twist her tongue nicely. She denied that she said that terrorism has to be defeated by the war. She is a great liar in this country. She said that she was not able to solve the problem of corruption within 11 years. How can a government solve an ethnic problem within 3 years? Though the present government is run by bloody thugs, she was a thug during her period as well. She thinks other professional does not read and their decisions are based on information given through the media. She thinks she has thorough knowledge of politics and history. This is rubbish. I am sure many Sri Lankan have 1000 times better brains than this [edited out] to think rationally. In Sinhalese it says that a pot full of water does not move. [Edited out].

    • CINCINATTUS

      Children,at a stage in their lives, tend to believe that that their father or mother are all-powerful and can do anything.And when they discover that the parents are not that powerful feel betrayed. These criticisms of CBK sound like that:She was all-powerful but did not achieve all she set out to do and disapppointed all her supporters.The fact of the matter is that no elected leader is all-powerful and has to rule with the coperation of many others as well as deal with the opponents– not to speak of undercutters and ambitious snakes in his or her ranks.Then there various lobbies which he or she has perfoce to confront.In addition he or she has to operate with the support of the bureacracy and the services– miltary and police.(In addition in SL one has to fear assasinations from one side or another!)He or she may be the titular head of all these institutions but they have their own powers and have ways of controlling their titular leaders.The powers of every elected official — whatever the title he or she may have — is always circumscribed by these many factors.IN CBK’s case in addition she had to face the duplicity and intransigience of the Tamil forces.
      In the face of these circumstance, and in the absence of goddess-like powers, CBK did as well as could and many of these criticisms are truly misguided and based on unrealistic expectations.

  • Saman/South Africa

    Short and Sweet During her tenure Nothing was right,So many operations after Operations lots of Army got killed for nothing,Killinocchi,Mulative,Eliphant Pass debacle and Interest rates were sky high ,Nothing was happening

  • P.L.J.B.Palipana

    thans lot gentlemen.at this moment we salute hon.ranil wickramasinghe>.as the president of srilanka our madam converted our country to a negative(-) economy.tacticlly hon>ranil wickramasinghe resisted that relative situation signing the peace agreement with the ltte>.strategically(john argenti) he divided the ltte to two fractions>.today karuna & pillian are in the democratic process>.that fracture provided a strong base for the mr+gr+sf triangle to defeat the ltte militorily>.a militory defeat is only a tactical effort & mr has no any plan to counter strategically the prevailing relative situation towads a dynamic reconciliation process. he is destoying the country with his very unpopular goons & crooks.we need a brave man like hon.ranil wickramasinghe to save the country politically & economically.so a regime change is inevitable as soon as posible.no use wininig these useless pcs elections because following that the country will forward towards a bankrupcy.don’t forget that that relative situation existed pre 1959 era in cuba>.

  • katta kuvera

    Sanjana, Let me give you some good advice. This woman did nothing for the country when she was in power. So, let sleeping dogs lie.

  • sabbe laban

    The former pres stopped short of telling as to what happened to those STF personnel who were arrested in connection with the bodies found in the Diyawanna Oya! [Edited] What happened to those who were arrested? Does anyone know?

  • http://sanjaya SR

    As a founding family member of SLFP party, and Sri Lanka’s past president Madam Chandrika Kumaratunge has an obligation towards the people and the party to talk her unbiased views on how the country is governed today.She also says that it was she who nominated President Mahinda Rajapakse as current party leader though others opposed. Everything happens in this world on trust and there’s no other way to check one’s integrity until the responsibilities are executed.If the given promises to the people are broken or not carried out, Madam Chandrika has a right to be critical, question and to correct those issues.This is what we as her supporters expect from her.

  • P.L.J.B.Palipana

    During the 1970-1977 era i met with mrs.bandaranayake twice at the republic building with my father. Today i analyse how she loved the common people. What happend today? Hon.chandrika has the full responsibility remedy the situation if she loves truly the people of srilanka because this regime is ruining the country. Hon.chandrika, hon.ranil, hon.gen fonseka ete..ete..needs to activate a social revolution to save the country from this stupid administration.sorry for expressing the truth.

  • http://rangakalugampitiya.weebly.com Ranga Kalugampitiya

    CBK sure had her own set of imperfections. Her imperfections were quite visible because she didn’t use highways or harbours or concrete monuments to hide those. She failed to improve the economy of the country, but she definitely improved the minds of the people. She changed the rigid nationalist stance of the SLFP and pushed our divided society towards social reconciliation. She tried to give the minorities a solid constitutional guarantee that their rights would not be violated in the future. She never allowed tensions along ethnic lines to surface. She gave some solid value to the concept of human rights. The Human Rights commission and the chapter on human rights in the draft Constitution she presented in the parliament in 2000 indicate her commitment to democracy and human rights. Her decisions were more futuristic than populist. (If anyone reading my comment wants to brand me as an apologist CBK, well, please go ahead. I don’t mind being one for a leader whose value has not been recognized simply because she was ahead of time.)

  • http://javajones.wordpress.com Java Jones

    I could never figure out why CBK surrounded herself with a bunch of creeps like SBD, Merv and others of the same ilk when she had two great chances to straighten out a lot of the country’s ills – first when she was newly elected and second, in the aftermath of the Tsunami when she made a mess of the offers of reconstruction and rehabilitation from the international community. And then, she compounded it all with the selection of MR when he was neck-deep in the ‘Helping Hambantota’ issue.

    How the worm turned!

  • Walter

    I voted for Chandrika during the first election, she appeared charismatic and capable of dismantling the Ex.Presidency she promised.
    I was misled and dissapointed but was not surprised at Chandrikas frivlous attitude coming down from the Bandaranaike’s the couple which destroyed two “PACTS” disgracefully not caring about their own image and other consequences.
    I believe many of you who are commenting are professionals but none of you are extending the spillover from these Monkey Politicians.
    You See The Majority Sinhala Buddhists Are The People Who Voted All These People.
    These People Who Voted For The B’s Did Not Even Notice That They Have Been Let Down By The B’s Destroying International Agreements.
    This Sinhala Buddhist Nation is still the same, they are not shy that MR brought in the 18th amendment making everybody slaves.
    They are not shy that Gota has gone berserk.
    They are not concerned that P B Jayasundara was debarred by the Supreme Court from holding Government Office. They are not concerned that he was fined that means he cannot hold a government job.
    Gentlemen, Being critical of Ranil, MR, Gota or Chandrika serves no purpose for this Country. [Edited out], THE VOTED AND THE VOTER.
    Please try and create a forum for the average Sinhala Man.
    He is deaf, dumb, and blind because he does not wish to hear, to see or talk.
    They have an iron curtain round their “brains”
    If all of you can remove that curtain only then this Country can be salvaged.

  • georgethebushpig

    Dear Sanjana,

    Heading for a Pulitzer Prize in journalism eh? Well done!

    I appreciate the candor with which the former President speaks although a little objective self reflection wouldn’t hurt. This is an historic interview and when time permits the transcripts in English, Sinhala and Tamil will be most welcome.

    It was too bad that the LTTE didn’t accept the package that CBK put forward; it was arguably the most comprehensive devolution package put forward by a nation state (ever?). It did in fact expose the LTTE for who they really were – certainly not a group interested in the rights of the Tamil people but their own survival and parochial interests.

    It would be interesting to hear from CBK whether she regrets adopting a single-track approach of bilateral negotiations with the LTTE on the devolution package rather than an approach that reached out to the Tamil people through community consultations and other ways of building buy-in. Many Tamil people don’t even know what that devolution package contained and what a missed opportunity that was for avoiding the horrible bloodbath that was to follow.

    Regards

  • georgethebushpig

    On another note what happened to the Peace and Conflict Timeline (PACT) website? It says account expired! This was an excellent site that helped track things that happened related to the conflict and would help verify some of the points made by CBK.