Former president of Sri Lanka Chandrika Kumaratunga at business centre of Grand Palace Hotel in Srinagar. Kashmir. India. 2008. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga calls it the first serious political interview I have given in six and a half years referring to the interview she has given Sanjana Hattotuwa, editor of the website Groundviews.

The least important segments of the interview deal with the SLFP.  Her remarks are revelatory though. She states that she “can’t be bothered fighting with Mahinda for power in a Bandaranaike party”, thus reasserting that the party is a family property in her view; her only problem being which family it belongs to. Her hardly covert tilt to Opposition candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe in late 2005 also belies her affirmation at the tail-end of the interview that she pretty much presented the candidacy to Mahinda Rajapaksa on a platter when only three of 59 members of the SLFP’s top decision-making body supported it. “I gave it to him” is how CBK recalls it today with characteristic graciousness.

Far more significant are her considered views, enunciated with the benefit of hindsight, of the most important events and watersheds in our contemporary history: terrorism, the ending of the war and its aftermath.

Forget the lurid anti-Sri Lankan propaganda which places the death toll of Tamil civilians in the war at a ridiculous 40,000; a figure which has been disaggregated and challenged by respected civil society voices such as the MARGA Institute. President Kumaratunga has a very much higher figure than Channel 4 or even the shrillest elements of the Diaspora Tiger demonstrators. She talks of “hundreds of thousands”:

“…you eat kiributh because you are happy that the war is over but you mustn’t forget that there was another angle, hundreds of thousands of our people– the Tamils are also our people–got killed; tens of thousands of our soldiers got killed; Sinhala and Tamil boys got killed. You don’t eat kiributh at a time like that…”    

What is our former Commander-in-chief’s view of the last war and its origins? Is it the case that Prabhakaran was preparing for it and had only been deterred from its launch by the tsunami?  Was Human Rights Watch – no friend of the Sri Lankan state– accurate when it headlined its report just prior to the war’s outbreak as ‘Funding the Final War’, in which it detailed the LTTE’s global fund-raising surge, driven by the slogan that it was for the final conflict? Did the Sri Lankan armed forces, underequipped, depleted and demoralised by Ranil’s CFA, have to buy time and equipment to prepare for combat, in the face of the LTTE’s aggressive attacks on convoys and off-duty soldiers within weeks, if not days, of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s election? Certainly not according to our distinguished ‘student of history’, CBK, who names the Sri Lankan government and not the Tigers as the aggressor:

“…No, no, they just had some talks with the LTTE and the Government attacked some place or the other and they just broke the talks in a very flippant way.”

How does CBK rate the victory over the LTTE and the successful termination of the decades-long war, a termination which means that no one dies or is maimed by bomb-blasts which struck all parts of the country? How does President Kumaratunga assess the restoration of the territorial unity and integrity of Sri Lanka? Here’s her considered evaluation:

“This government has defeated and eliminated the external manifestation of the Tamil problem, of the Tamil people’s problem. They have eliminated the external manifestation of the continuing unresolved Tamil people’s problem of this country which was terrorism but they have not eliminated in any way the deep rooted causes of the Tamil problem which gave rise to terrorism. So in other words, they have eliminated –it is like when somebody is having a bad cold you sort of give a hankie and the person wipes the hotu (snot-DJ) and you think this cold is ok or you sort of like inhale some dung (steam-DJ) and even the sort of stuffiness in the nose goes so then you can’t even hear the person being a bit nasal so you think that everything is fine but you have done nothing to eliminate the germ in the body, the bacteria that has caused it”.

Now it may be the case that this statement of our former president may get up the nose of many of us since the ‘external manifestation’, the ‘snot’ or ‘stuffiness in the nose’ that she so derisively speaks of, caused the citizenry of Sri Lanka to lose loved ones and limbs, and to live in fear of the loss of their parents or children during any given day over a quarter century.

Her statement may strike one as snotty for another reason. If the crushing of the LTTE, liberating us from the curse of weekly suicide-bombings and enabling citizens to travel freely across the island once again were as easy and simple as lending a hankie to blow a nose, the question arises as to why President Kumaratunga did not do so during the decade she was the country’s leader and commander-in-chief. So, either it was a much bigger deal than blowing a nose and ridding us of a mere external manifestation, or it wasn’t. If it were the first case then Mahinda Rajapaksa did that which CBK couldn’t, and if were the second, CBK didn’t want to rid of us of the scourge of terrorism because it would have merely been a blowing of a collective nose and ridding it of snot; a task that was so superficial it was beneath her sublime capacities and noble destiny.

Mercifully we are provided with a glimpse of her thinking on this subject, in the course of the interview.  When asked by Sanjana Hattotuwa as to how she was changed by the LTTE suicide bomb which was meant to kill her but damaged her eyesight, she says that she became:

“…much more committed to ending terrorism and violence…through non-violent means. I was getting more and more committed to my vision of a non-violent solution.”

To be fair by Ms Kumaratunga and the historical record, her actual policy practice was far less absurd than this makes her sound. Having liberated Jaffna during her first term, in the year after the suicide bomb attack, she, together with Deputy Minister of Defence Anuruddha Ratwatte – and she above all others—resolutely resisted the LTTE’s offensive on Jaffna following the army’s retreat from Elephant Pass. She also sanctioned –albeit belatedly (going by Prof Rohan Gunaratne’s account)–the first LRRP ‘deep penetration’ operations behind LTTE lines, which were discontinued despite their success, by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. That said, the statement I have quoted from her landmark interview provides the evidence of how confused her thinking on terrorism had been, how that confusion caused the vacillation and strategic incoherence prevented her from winning the war and how the absence of such confusion generated the policy cohesion that enabled her successor to do what she could not.

This serious strategic confusion carries over into President Kumaratunga’s perspective on post-war Sri Lanka. She says:

“If the Rajapaksa regime was not in power it would have been much easier to resolve after the war. It would have been much easier to resolve after the war, any other government with a different policy, that’s what I mean…”

Now it should be obvious that there were other governments or ‘regimes’ with different policies while the war was on and that the Rajapaksa government was in office for only a fifth (20%) of the war’s total duration. No one but themselves prevented these governments, enlightened and ennobled as they were with “a different policy”—such as that of President Kumaratunga’s — from winning the war. Had it or its several predecessors performed this overwhelming historic duty, there may not have been an opening for a Rajapaksa government or it might have had a very different orientation.  If the “discourse” of the Rajapaksa administration is the reason that this problem is not “easily solved” as CBK says it can be, then it must be recognised that the regime’s policy, discourse and configuration are the default option of the vast majority of the citizen-electors following the failure of previous administrations and their respective policy discourses–not least that of the immediately preceding one, that of President Kumaratunga. Had she not failed in her fundamental duty of defeating the Tigers, she would have been able to put in place the policies she stood for and continues to commend.

She must reflect though, on the fact that even at the peak of her considerable popularity and a decade before “the state media” of the Rajapaksa government “washed the brains” of the Sinhalese – as she claims in her interview—she was unable to secure consent for her devolution ‘package’ of 1995 which remains, as she reaffirms to the interviewer, the best long-term solution (by her reckoning) to the Tamil people’s problem.

The most praiseworthy point in the interview is the assessment she makes of Tamil politics today and the constructive suggestions she puts forward for the Tamil Diaspora.

At the interview’s conclusion she reveals that: “Once again as a person who likes to hope, I see some glimmer of hope only, only [the word is repeated-DJ] because of the very vociferous interventions by the international community”.

Given the views she expresses here, it is little surprise and completely logical that President Kumaratunga does not repose her hope in the Sri Lankan society and people, their democratic traditions, or even in the party of which she is patron and her father was founder.

  • It appears that Dayan is full of praise for Mahinda Rajapakse for “the victory over the LTTE and the successful termination of the decades-long war” and faults Chandrika for not venturing to do what Mahinda did so ‘successfully’ as Dayan claims.
    Does it mean that Dayan thinks that the end justifies the means ? Does he condone the manner in which Mahinda proceeded with the war, ignoring all the rules of war, the Geneva conventions on how prisoners of war should be treated, how civilian casualities should be avoided. Of course there were no prisoners of war, but only dead bodies, some strewn all over the place, others in mass graves, still others in heaps that had been set on fire. Lets not squabble over the numbers of civilians killed for Mahinda or how the war was fought as Mahinda is so far effectively resisting attempts by independent persons or institutions to look into what actually happened during and after the war. So the true is yet to come out. But the fact remains that a large number of civilians were killed. Could it not be that Chandrika was aware that a war with the LTTE could not be won without committing all the violations that Mahinda has committed and is facing consequence now and more that he will inevitably have to face in the years to come.
    I hold no brief for Chandrika but surely she must have considered the pros and cons and taken a stand that she should try as best as she could to solve the problems of the Tamils and the consequent terrorism without going to an all out war. It is true she failed miserably. But surely the methods Mahinda adopted to end the conflict has brought shame on the nation and hardly any of the kudos he expected from the international community.
    It is true Mahinda won the war by hook or by crook but he has miserably failed to usher in peace to the country. Perhaps because Chandrika knew that this would be the consequence that she avoided using Mahinda’s tactics to deal with the issues.

  • Sie.Kathieravealu

    You can gauge the mind-set of the “majority” in the “majority community” as to how the “Tamil problem” CANNOT be solved.

    They do not want to recognize that the Tamils are “citizens” of this country. That is the “real” problem. And not surprisingly Dr.DJ accepts it directly in an indirect way.

    First settle the “real” problem and then, IF NECESSARY, (now claimed as NOT NECESSARY by those in power) the “Tamil problem”.

    In my humble opinion the true problem is that those “in power” and those aspiring to come to “power” i.e. the “rich and mighty” or “haves” do NOT WANT TO SHARE the “political power” with the “have-nots”.

    As at present the name given to the “have-nots” is Tamil. Soon the “have-nots” would be called by their true name “have-nots”.

    CHANGE THE SYSTEM OF GOVERNANCE to provide space FOR ALL to be “empowered” politically so as to be able to PARTICIPATE in the governance of the country directly. They should be able to “challenge” the “deeds” of those “in power” without fear of any sort.

    DIVIDE THE POWERS OF THE PARLIAMENT AND UNITE THE PEOPLE.

    The best political solution or system of governance to address the problems faced by various sections of the Sri Lankan society – particularly the poor, the politically weak and the various categories of “minorities” who do not carry any “political weight” – would be to DILUTE the powers of all elected representatives of the people by separating the various powers usurped in by the present Parliament and by horizontally empowering different sets of people’s representatives elected on different area basis to administer the different sets of the separated powers at different locations.

    • Happy Heathen

      Sie.Kathieravealu
      July 29, 2012 • 5:13 pm

      A fair comment.

      However, ” Tamils are “citizens” of this country.”….not really, according to the list stated in
      http://groundviews.org/2012/07/29/tamil-civil-society-memo-to-the-tna-regarding-the-eastern-provincial-council-elections/.

      They are citizens of Tamil Ealam.

      This is the crux of the problem, conflating of legitimate problems as you have eloquently alluded in the last paragraph with the Tamil Nationhood.

      It is very unfortunate considering when majority of the Sinhalese (including Intelligentsia) are for equal rights for all minorities, the Tamil political leadership and the Intelligentsia concentrate their efforts on traditional homeland and nationhood.

      I find concepts of homeland and ethnic enclaves are parochial and tribal. To call oneself a Tamil or a Sinhalese is to demonstrate such tribalism in a modern world which is very sad and unfortunate.
      In fact it is a downright insult to the citizens of the world

  • nathan

    The only thing I find funnier than Dayan talking about pluralism and democracy is Chandrika talking about the same.

    Isaipriya of today was but a sequel of Krishanty of yesterday.

    (Am sure DJ would justify both with some irrelevant analogy)

    As for the body count she accuses at MR’s war, we should also take into account the body count when Jaffna was ‘liberated’.

  • CINCINATTUS

    How adroitly Jayatilleka avoids discussing the other issues raised by CBK and focuses exclusively on a defense of the cuurent regime.Defeating the LTTE apparently gives a license to do whatever a regime wants without regard to laws,customs and conventions and ordinary decencies of civic life.
    I suppose that is the role of a propagandist — of course I mean an official spokesman

  • Gamarala

    Dayan, might I ask, whether you and Off the Cuff are related? After all, an entire post which is predicated on nothing but nit-picking and pedantry, suggests some familial or intellectual connection 😉

    1. CBK’s claim on the figures – The war has indeed taken in excess of a hundred thousand lives in its 30 year duration. Therefore, her claim depends on whether you look at recent history or its entire duration. Why this excessive pedantry in looking only at recent history? Is her meaning any less diminished – that eating Kiribath at a time like that – is inappropriate? Why raise this red-herring Dayan?

    2. CBK’s claim that MR broke off the talks in a flippant way – did you miss the part where she said that MR had never offered a serious solution to the problem during said talk? Why is there no mention of that in your “critique”?

    3. CBK’s use of an inappropriate analogy – so CBK was stuck for a good analogy – sue me! Why do you go on and on about that, when it should be reasonably evident that she couldn’t come up with the best analogy? Does it diminish anything from her point that no effort has been made to address the root causes of this problem?

    4. CBK’s claim that a non-Rajapakase government post-war would have been better – Did she mention anything about the Rajapakses’s doing badly during the war? It was the post-war action that she criticized. Is that invalid? Good lord man, what’s with the sudden inability to grasp the point?

    The only valid point in the whole of your post – is that Chandrika did not succeed in selling the “package” during her time, so the chances of being able to sell a “package” after the war might be just as poor. You do not mention however, that Rajapakase being the “darling of the nation”, post war, could very easily have sold whatever the heck he wanted – if he had the will to do it. Why didn’t he?

    • CINCINATTUS

      It is somewhat reassuring to find that there are some intelletuals in the belaegured island who can challenge and refute the noxious propaganda disseminated in these blogs.
      More power to you Gamarala.May your tribe increase!

  • Dayan Jayatilleka is the cheer leader of
    Rajapaksa and Co. To him the armed uprising by the Tamils is terrorism per
    se and nothing else. The former President Chandrika Kumaratunga is dead
    right when she states “They have eliminated the external manifestation of
    the continuing unresolved Tamil people’s problem of this country which was
    terrorism but they have not eliminated in any way the deep rooted causes of
    the Tamil problem which gave rise to terrorism.” Unsurprisingly, this
    statement is not to the taste of (edited out) like Dayan Jayatilleka. He
    foolishly thinks that the defeat of the LTTE has solved the Tamil problem.
    Since May 2009, LTTE leader Prabhakaran has been proved 100% right when in
    one of his Heroes Day Speeches he claimed that “The Sinhala nation continues
    to be entrapped in the Mahavamsa mindset, in that mythical ideology. The
    Sinhalese people are still caught up in the
    legendary fiction that the island of Sri Lanka is a divine gift to Theravada
    Buddhism, a holy land entitled to the Sinhala race. The Sinhala nation has
    not redeemed itself from this mythological idea that is buried deep and has
    become fossilised in their collective unconscious.” (Veluppillai
    Prabhakaran, Heroes Day speech 2005) Dayan Jayatilleka is addicted to this
    fiction.

  • I do not think Chandrika is right in her statement as re-iterated by Thanga, that “they have eliminated the external manifestation of
    the continuing unresolved Tamil people’s problem of this country …” Mahinda Rajapakse has only been able to defeat the LTTE which was the most virulent external symptom of the problems of the Tamils. This defeat has in no way wiped away the sympton of the Tamils of Sri Lanka living in a state of despair in which they lived then and continue to be in now. The terrorism of the LTTE has been replaced with the terrorism of the State. The defeat of the LTTE has only led to the marked increase in the activism of the Tamils in the diaspora. That is going to be the bane of the country and that is bound to proliferate to a frightening degree and make the government of Sri Lanka eventually regret the manner in which it has been treating the Tamils then and now.
    As for the Mahavamsa mindset, enough has been said on that matter, and even many Sinhala historians and researchers have decried this tendency. Let us hope that sanity will prevail before Sri Lanka gets deeper into the abyss.

  • Bedrock Barney

    My Dear Heathens, village persons, citizens and retired roman generals! lend me your ears!! The reason to read Dayan is the fact that he writes very well. The form, the structure and the delivery of his prose is of a high standard. He is guilty, occasionally, of ostentatious erudition but that is a common problem among political scientists. The content of his articles are in sync with the (govt)position he holds. It cannot be any other way. CBK said what was required to be said, during the course of the interview with Sanjana. However, there is a huge difference between her “talk” and her “walk”. By that same token Dr DJ can only say something within the overall script. I don’t know, but I highly doubt, given his level of education, that these are his personal views. He has the wherewithal to counter all points raised so far in the comments sections. So if you don’t like the programme, just use the clicker!

  • Matupala Silva

    CBK has not leran many lessons form past,she is still sandstiil of prtaice and knowledge of politics.CBK is poltically economially and socially wavering between pre-capitalsm and remmants of semi-fedulaism system.
    No doubt she toe line of neo-colonial policy of US & UK re-orinted NEW POLICIES.She is working on Foreign base AGENDA.

  • Walter

    Thanga
    You are perfectly right.
    Raising a sword to defend ones birth right, ones language ones tradition cannot be construed as “Terrorism”
    This so called “Tamil Terrorist” terminology was fished out from obscurity by the Sinhala Buddhist Politicians to impose their hegemony.
    When the LTTE killed 13 soldiers in Jaffna why did the Government go on a rampage all over the Island.
    They should have gone to Jaffna and dealt with the problem there.
    They could have kept the rest of the Tamil speaking population out of this equation and this would have contained the outbursts of the world.
    The answer is simple
    Not all, but many of the Buddhist Sinhala folk were wanting to bring the Tamil man to his knees. They wanted the Tamil man obscured.
    JR and Premadasa implied that the Tamil man must be taught a lesson of his life. He must stop agitating and just live as their told.
    Even recently Gota said what do you want, you have shops you have houses you have money so what the hell do you want.
    Why did they bundle the Tamils out of Colombo in buses?
    Why did they burn the Jaffna Library?, merely and purely to destroy the “Pride” the Jaffna Tamils had about their library.
    So Thanga
    To the average man in this Country killing is simple, the Public outcry is insufficient. Therefore killing a Tamil man a man who has robbed them of the North and East, robbed them by being successful in their Education and business and now demanding equality in the legislature cannot be tolerated and must be totally subjucated or eliminated.
    TAMIL MAN IS ALSO BORN FREE BUT IN FETTERS IN SRI LANKA