Photo via Club Madrid

In 1994, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, at the age of forty nine years, was elected as the youngest and first ever female President of Sri Lanka. Twenty one years later, in June 2015, as she celebrates her 70th birthday, it is appropriate to look back at the legacy of this amazing lady, who has so significantly impacted and helped shape the contemporary history of our nation.


The epilogue to the politics of President CBK, is surely her single handed leadership in crafting the politics and creating the rainbow coalition of the National Democratic Front, which defeated the populist but corrupt, divisive and authoritarian rule of her successor and one time Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapakse, in his bid for an unprecedented third term, in January 2015.

As President Rajapakse changed the constitution via the 18thamendment to run for unlimited terms of office and prepared to call early elections on the advice of his astrologers, diviners and magicians, CBK realized that defeating the Rajapakse’s kleptocratic, dynastic and dictatorial political project required a divided government and a unified opposition. Both seemed impossible. Mahinda Rajapakse was firmly entrenched with an iron grip on power and the political opposition deeply divided, both within the UNP and amongst the other smaller opposition political parties. It was the unique political trust that all anti Rajapakse forces reposed in CBK, from the factions of the UNP, to the JVP, including General Fonseka, the SLMC and the TNA, which enabled the winning formulae of the Common Candidate, President Maithripala Sirisena. Her political credibility two decades after leaving office, was epic in proportion and history changing in impact.

The origins of a peace agenda

It may be difficult even for CBK to lay an exact finger on the origins of her peace agenda. However, the fact that this began early and during her youth is undeniable. If not during school days at St.Bridgets Convent, then definitely through the idealism of her university days at the Sorbone in Paris, at that time a bastion of free thinking about liberty, equality and fraternity. If CBK’s deep personally ingrained commitment to justice, tolerance, plurality and human dignity ever needed a practical and political outlet, it emerged from her marriage to Vijaya Kumaratunga, both of whom, together were arguably the first Sinhala leaders, who made the politics of peace, a populist exercise. CBK and Vijaya while as opposition politicians, launched a ground breaking initiative to dialogue with the Tamil militant groups in India. Though making little progress, it legitimized and created the space for a political engagement with Tamil political militants and armed groups. The cruel assassination of her husband Vijaya Kumaratunga, could only delay but not deny, their populist politics of peace and when as a  presidential candidate in 1994, on a pro peace platform, CBK secured an amazing and as yet an unrivaled sixty four percent (64%) of the popular vote, it was the culmination of her real political tribute to Vijaya.

Winning the Sinhala vote on a peace platform

When CBK secured the political leadership of the SLFP dominated People Alliance in 1993, she acquired a political grouping that had opposed even the 13th Amendment and provincial councils. However, she resolutely and single handedly moved to change direction. In the remarkable Southern Provincial Council elections of 1993, which the SLFP then in opposition won, under her leadership, she constantly presented the electorate with a peace agenda, much to the consternation of senior SLFP leaders on stage at the rallies. However, the impossible was achieved and victory was won. Even after her emphatic victory in the 1994 presidential election, the Sinhala polity had to be further convinced of the need for a political settlement with minority communities or a new social compact amongst our nation’s peoples. To appeal and speak direct to the people, rather than through a ethno nationalist leadership elite, she launched a “Sudu Nelum” or White Lotus movement, a remarkable public outreach program which conducted literally hundreds of seminars or town hall meetings and a popular pro peace street drama program called Thavalama. Current Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, then a young, energetic and newly elected second generation young Minister from Matara, was her key point man in the mobilization of people for peace. The results were independent opinion polls and surveys which demonstrated a two third majority or roughly 67% public support for a political solution to the ethnic problem.

President CBK’s approach to peace 1994-2005

The CBK peace initiative can be roughly divided into two phases, approximating her two terms in office. The first phase was from 1994 to 2000 with a political package of devolution, which ultimately culminated in the August 2000 draft new constitution, which fell short by just eight votes in Parliament of the required two third majority and accordingly had to be abandoned. The constitution making exercise was a bold attempt at something even more than state reform, it was a nation building exercise, a  new compact with and amongst our peoples, using CBK’s enormous political capital to mould public opinion. It was ultimately derailed by the LTTE, who had been cleared out from Jaffna through the war for peace, which prevented the TNA from providing the crucial votes which would have seen a new inclusive, tolerant and pluralist Sri Lankan State, a union of regions. It was not to be, a unique and historic opportunity defeated through terror by mad men with warped mentalities, from deep in the jungles of the Wanni.

The saga of CBK’s second phase of peace making surely begins with the LTTE’s attempt to assassinate her during the final political rally in her presidential re-election campaign of 1999 at the Colombo Town Hall grounds. Blinded in one eye by the force of the explosion from the suicide bomber, the remarkable feature was that she still bore no ill will towards her would be assassins and continued remarkably doggedly in her quest for peace. In the assassination of her late father, husband and almost her own, which left her blinded in one eye, President CBK has paid a huge price in the quest to resolve Sri Lanka’s unfinished nation building exercise.

Subsequently from the year 2000 to 2005, it was necessary to engage the spoiler and seek a negotiated conflict transformation. Accordingly there was an attempt through Norwegian facilitation, to dialogue afresh with the LTTE, which resulted in the Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) of February 2002, signed by a then recently elected UNP cohabitation government.  The CFA process, was the antithesis of the constitutional reform approach, focusing exclusively on dealing with the LTTE, accepting the reality that the Tamils were under the gun and were not really free to decide. The CFA continued throughout President Kumaratunga’s second term in office, providing much relief to the people and the economy and survived the defeat of the short lived UNP Administration in 2004. When the LTTE subsequently pulled out of the CFA and resumed the war, it ultimately led to their complete defeat in 2009.

The CBK groundwork for the war victory

The CBK peace processes of 1994 to 2005, laid a crucial groundwork for the war victory which followed in 2009. Basically the whole world had watched, supported and cheered as a remarkable female political personality, with a unique political pedigree sought to change the modern history and political destiny of her nation. That this attempt at solving the ethnic problem, on the international radar screens post July 1983 with the resultant Tamil refugee Diaspora in the western world, was thwarted by the LTTE became an accepted international community norm by the end of her term. If the first term process could be faulted for insufficient political engagement and solely a military engagement with the LTTE, then the CFA process which focused solely on engaging the LTTE, remedied that criticism leveled from the LTTE dominated Tamil side. Under President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, the Sri Lankan State, eliminated violent racism of the 1983 type and demonstrated the robust nature of its democracy’s ability to attempt state reform. That this was thwarted by the non democratic and terroristic force of the LTTE, was accepted by the world.

In 2004, President Kumaratunga issued a public, national apology to the Tamil people, for the ethnic riots of July 1983. A special presidential commission appointed subsequently paid out some further compensation to those that had received no restitution for their past losses due to communal violence.

Accordingly the world and especially India, were ready to believe the Sri Lankan government, when indications were made of moving beyond the 13th amendment. Therefore when the LTTE withdrew from the CFA, the world supported the war against the LTTE fully. From weapons systems, to intelligence sharing, to squeezing LTTE international financing networks, the world both West and East, supported Sri Lanka. President Kumaratunga and her international credibility on peace and the foreign affairs policies of her Administration, could legitimately lay claim to all of the groundwork and the credibility that Sri Lanka had internationally to wage war against the LTTE. The LTTE were rightly blamed for the failures of CBK’s peace initiatives of 1994 to 2004 and the politics of CBK, had made the world, ready to see a future without the LTTE. Further the CFA period of 2002 to 2006, allowed the Sri Lankan Military to rearm and become the dominant force which so decisively won the war in 2009. While the LTTE’s rearming exercise was globally curtailed by post 9/11 anti terror laws worldwide, under President Kumaratunga the Sri Lankan military rearmed with state of the art equipment, including the Kfir jets, which came complete with renewed diplomatic relations with Israel, the Chech multi barrel rocket launches, Russian Antanov aircraft, American Bell helicopters, heavy artillery from Pakistan and a hugely increased deep sea naval patrol capability. When the LTTE resumed fighting after the end of CBK’s term, they were no match for the rearmed Sri Lankan military, she bequeathed her successor.

Reflections through the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) and the Club de Madrid

In the two decades since leaving office as President, with dignity and grace, due to term limits and not due to an electoral defeat,  President Kumaratunga fairly quickly evolved in to a global elder stateswoman sharing her experiences in conflict transformation through the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) and the Club de Madrid, that exclusive Association of former heads of state and government, who contribute their expertise and moral standing towards addressing issues of public importance and resolving conflicts. In such forums she has been candid about the political weaknesses of the attempts of her administration to make peace, including after the devastating Tsunami of December 2004 and the subsequent Post Tsunami Operational Management Structure (PTOMS) negotiated with the LTTE.

Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR)

Reforming the Sri Lankan State so that it reflects the true diversity of her society and eliminating what LTTE suicide bomber victim, the late Neelan Tiruchelvam, so aptly described as the “anomaly of imposing a mono ethnic state on a multi ethnic polity”, is perhaps the unfinished business at hand for President CBK as she is thrust once again to the forefront of national affairs in the President Maithripala Sirisena Administration, her one time general secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).

Accordingly President Kumaratunga has been vested with the leadership of the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) tasked with the enormous challenge of creating national unity and consolidating post war social reconciliation.

Today, the forces of narrow ethnic nationalism on both sides of the political divide are the weakest they have been in decades and certainly weaker than when CBK was president. The Tamil people are no longer led by the LTTE, but rather by the democratic and moderate TNA political leadership committed to a united and undivided Sri Lanka. In the Sinhala polity, the divisive chauvinism of the Rajapakse’s is now no longer in the political mainstream and its cheer leaders are minor parties of petty demagogues, such as the MEP and the NFF, with mercifully very limited public support.

Standing behind President CBK on a stage in Jaffna’s Valigamam North, in April 2015, at the public ceremony where private land held by the military was released to their original owners,  by President Sirisena, President Kumaratunga, Prime Minister Wickramasinghe and the Military Commanders, I could only wonder in amazement at this remarkable human being, who still at age 70, is influencing and guiding through sheer moral persuasion and the courage of her convictions, the destiny and direction of our nation and her peoples.

(The writer is the Chairman of the Resettlement Authority)