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Tamilnation > Struggle for Tamil Eelam > Conflict Resolution - Tamil Eelam - Sri Lanka > Norwegian Peace Initiative > Interim Self Governing Authority & Aftermath > President Kumaratunga talks to the Financial Times
President Kumaratunga talks to the Financial Times
Transcript: Interview with Edward Luce, FT's South Asia Correspondent in Colombo
14 November 2003
FT: How are you going to resolve the constitutional difficulties you are facing with Ranil Wickremesinghe, the prime minister?
Chandrika Kumaratunga: I wouldn't call it a constitutional difficulty. By my action I resolved the constitutional conflict. The constitution clearly stipulates that defence should be entirely under the president. If there are any doubts about it, there was a Supreme Court ruling the other day which is one of the reasons I took it over (the ministry of defence). It was not removing ministers or sacking ministers actually ... All three ministers are still in the cabinet. They are all holding other portfolios.
On taking over defence, in fact I was correcting a constitutional problem that was there, which is that defence is inalienable from the president according to our constitution. All previous presidents have held the portfolio of defence. For the first time it was given away by me two years ago with the change of government and this very difficult "cohabitational" situation.
And the prime minister, I didn't think he'd ask for it but he kept insisting on having it. I told him, "You know in Sri Lanka the defence ministry has always gone with the police. But if you like, you can create a separate ministry and take it because it is the police which has a day-to-day impact on the people." In fact it was their [Mr Wickremesinghe's] previous government that pushed the Tamil people to war after the massacre of 1983...
I came into power in 1994 and stopped all that - within 24 hours we brought back the rule of law, respect for fundamental rights and appointed commissions and all kinds of things. "You shouldn't have any fears," I told the prime minister. But they didn't like it and he kept insisting on having defence. And I did the very unusual and unconstitutional thing of giving it to him only because of two things: he told me he would continue the peace process I had begun. I was very happy with that because in Sri Lanka we have this horrible habit of going against the other party. I didn't do that when I took over first in 1994 - when I took over the premiership for a short period of time because the previous president was killed by the LTTE. At that time there was no proper peace at all. It did not form part of the political vocabulary. It was war, war, war. But in my case I wanted to change things for the better and immediately started talks.
But anyway, he [Mr Wickremesinghe] said he needed the defence portfolio because it was more convenient. Every act of commission and omission under the subject of defence - only the president and president alone is responsible. At the moment the president of Sri Lanka is immune [from prosecution] even after being president which I think it is a horrible thing...
But the prime minister said to me: "Every important defence decision will be taken in consultation with you." But he did not. So I have been telling him and writing to him and discussing with him and he just smiles and nothing else happens. Once he wrote to me: "Well I have got a mandate you don't need to tell me." But I have got a bigger mandate and I defeated him in the direct election to president whereas he has a parliamentary mandate with a very slight majority.
But I would like to refute very strongly the scandals that normally the media like to indulge in - that we are at loggerheads and that we cannot work together. We never argue together even. I have told him on certain matters where we have not agreed sometimes in strong terms and sometimes very nicely. Yesterday [12 November] we met for two hours. I would say it was definitely not negative. One or two of my officials will meet one or two of his officials tomorrow [14 November] and he said: "Talk to my people and get back to me early next week." And now I think he will be ready to see me sometime at the beginning of the week. With such serious problems you cannot expect serious decisions after two hours of discussion.
FT: Many of your supporters say that Mr Wickremesinghe's government is pursuing peace talks with the LTTE without broader guiding principles or even pursuing "peace at any cost". Is this a correct summary of why you've taken the action you've taken?
Chandrika Kumaratunga: I wouldn't agree that I took defence over because they were negotiating "peace at any cost". How could I correct a peace process that was going wrong by taking over defence, by going to war even? No, it certainly wasn't that at all. But the only reason that I said in my speech is that during the ceasefire period [which began in February 2002] and while this so-called peace process was going on, the government permitted the security situation to slide very seriously and dangerously. And people began to tell me - I always advised the prime minister and warned him sometimes very firmly but none of it was taken seriously - until obviously it came to this point. They just ignored it and then washed their hands of it - blamed somebody else.
I'll give you two examples. The main point is that because of the very serious security situation that was threatening the integrity of the state that I felt large numbers of people including those who voted for the UNP [Mr Wickremesinghe's United National Party] said to me: "You are supposed to be a powerful president you haven't used your executive powers, do something about it." And by the way, after I took over the defence portfolio, in the three days before I made the speech, some organisations have done some surveys and 82 per cent of the people shared my concerns and supported this.
So I did not take the defence portfolio back to attack some LTTE camp or other things. I had to take over defence. Even according to the ceasefire agreement there are certain limits the LTTE are meant to follow. But the defence minister and prime minister allowed some gross things to happen. They said: "Well madam you have to turn a blind eye to some of this." Six shipments of arms [for the LTTE] were allowed to be brought in. Some of them were 60-tonne ships carrying surface-to-surface missiles. In other words, they allowed the LTTE to do things that no sovereign state would even dream of permitting. So all I did was try to balance it.
The LTTE has now surrounded the chief naval base of the country in Trincomalee, which is also the second largest port in the country. They have surrounded it with 17 camps put up in total violation of the ceasefire agreement. And the government is doing nothing about it. When I got official reports from the navy on the situation and the army and I kept telling the PM he was doing nothing about it - at the national security council meeting they would say "How did you get this information?" and they kept dismissing it. But the army and navy were getting very restless and kept telling me: "Do something about it." And finally it came to a point where we confidentially briefed some representatives of countries that are important to us - I didn't but I got some of my advisers to do that - then we told some senior editors of the situation. This was in August or September. But before we talked about it all this was leaked in the Sunday Times (Sri Lanka). And so I talked to the commander of the navy and blasted him and he said: "Madam what are we to do? We are not supposed to tell you anything." And then we told a few people because we love this country.
And then the prime minister found out about it and started saying that we were trying to sabotage this peace process. Obviously I know it's a tightrope walk to keep the ceasefire and dialogue going with the LTTE and at the same time not permitting them to do all the things they are doing at the moment. But I think if one was firm they [LTTE] would understand. So all I did was taken over defence portfolio and gave instructions as soon as I took over not to allow LTTE to do anything that would harm the ceasefire arrangement. Today I had a much more detailed discussion with the commanders about the pros and cons on this situation. And I have given very specific instructions and guidelines within the law - please keep the status quo and do not harm the peace and dialogue process. But this had better stop.
Now this defence minister and the prime minister handed over the entire responsibility of the government of Sri Lanka to the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission [Scandinavian ceasefire monitors]. The government was putting the whole thing onto the monitors. And the government says "Why don't you tell them to remove the camps?" But they [the monitors] can't. Dismantling a camp is entirely the government's job. The poor things didn't know what to do.
FT: How can a government of national unity address these problems? Do you really think you can operate in unison?
Chandrika Kumaratunga: I don't see a problem. What I told the prime minister yesterday was: "Do you see me as a worse adversary than Mr Prabhakaran [the head of the LTTE]? We are on the same side and we belong to the same government." But I have been excluded totally. The whole of last year I was treated in the most horrendous fashion that any woman would have been treated, let alone a president.
So they tried to intimidate me [over the defence disagreement]. But I thought in the name of cohabitation and peace I would give them the defence ministry but they didn't know how to handle it. Did you know that the state media and the private media - there have been 640-odd headline attacks that were complete lies, that I have robbed and killed. Who have I killed? I offered to waive my immunity and appoint any commission of inquiry to look into these baseless allegations. But they kept on saying on the radio and the television, state broadcasting, and the corrections that I issued to the press were only published on the inside pages, and only eight corrections.
FT: Is it possible to have a reconciliation in these circumstances?
Chandrika Kumaratunga: Well, that's a question you can ask. I am making a superhuman effort for the sake of the country. When I saw Mr Wickremesinghe I put all the cards on the table and told him of all this and reminded him of what I told him when I invited him to take over the premiership. I said: "Your personality and mine are very different. I don't believe in your political vision, you know this." ...
But I told him there are other things that we seem to agree on such as economic policy and that sort of thing. At least now we agree on other things, such as peace and the economy. This is a golden opportunity for the two major parties to work together to resolve the ethnic problems and also get the country going economically. And thereafter we will separate because we are a bicameral [sic] sort of country and it is not proper to have a one-party system. Very dangerous. The prime minister believes in the one-party system, but I don't. I am a democrat, a socialist democrat. So we can solve the problem for one maximum two years.
It is going to be almost impossible to work in this situation. But I have one of two choices. Either I shut up and go home, which my children would dearly love me to do. My children keep telling me this all the time. They say: "Get out, get out, get out." Even an ex-president gets security, I don't know whether it would be sufficient. I have to run the risk of being killed. I have to go through enormous mental suffering having to govern with this lot. Buddhists believe you only die once and you only die when you are meant to die.
Option two is to stay here and do what is to be done properly - no halfway house. And in order to do that I have to join hands with the prime minister. The prime minister was promoting this when he came into government two years ago because they were very unsure of themselves. They toppled the government and we made some false moves at that time. It was difficult for us to face when important ministers in our government were turning rat.
So our government fell. And this was after I had won an election with a resounding majority. Then the prime minister was asking me and harassing me to govern together and I said yes. If was given the choice and somebody - my fairy godmother - asked me I would have said: "I don't want to govern the country with you [Mr Wickremesinghe]." But I don't have a choice and I think it's a golden opportunity - forgetting your personality or mine - for the two parties to get together. The problem was that there was a lot of mistrust. But every word I have told him I have kept to but he has not kept his word to me. Of course he wanted it on his terms. He told me if we come together you will have to be a rubber-stamp president. I said: "You know this constitution was formulated by you and your bosses so let's change the constitution [to get rid of the executive presidency]," but he didn't even want that. I said I am against the executive presidency but he didn't want to change it.
FT: It sounds very much to me like this will be difficult if not impossible to pull off. What happens to Sri Lanka if you fail to work together?
Chandrika Kumaratunga: Yes it will be very very difficult. Extremely difficult. But you see, I am an eternal optimist even though many things have happened in my own life to make me the most depressed person on earth perhaps. [She laughs]. But I am losing faith in my optimism also. But we could try because, dialectically speaking, even though the situation has been made impossible by the prime minister - he is impossible, the peace process is supposed to be inclusive but it has been handled entirely exclusively.
But the forces of the UNP and my party, the vast majority of the country want us to join hands. And they keep saying that if that happens this problem can be resolved, to work in tandem, to put up a united strong front and talk unitedly with the LTTE. And on the economy, look at our resources, they are much richer than most third world countries, but we just don't seem to take off. During my years in power we had growth of over six per cent a year. It's only in the last six months that growth has become minus. But both parties account for about 85 per cent of the vote at the last general election. So if we can work together we can solve things. So the people are demanding very stridently for this. Each party has come in during the last 55 years and done horrible things.
FT: What are the chances that Ranil will accede to your demands for a government of national unity?
Chandrika Kumaratunga: There are some definite things that cannot be agreed to and others that we will discuss. But we will have to wait and see.
FT: How do you think the LTTE are responding to this? The theory is that when the south is divided the LTTE is happy.
Chandrika Kumaratunga: Probably. But I must say that for the moment they are conducting themselves responsibly. I know that some people think they will start attacking and taking over the A9 highway [the country's main arterial road that was the battlefront during much of the 20-year civil war]. But the LTTE corrected this and said we don't want to take over the A9 highway. They are behaving responsibly. I'm told by intelligence people that they are waiting and watching.
I have sacrificed much more than any Sri Lankan leader ever to resolve the Tamil people's problems because of my very deep commitment to no war and to a negotiated settlement and peace. I was the first political leader who said at elections that the Tamil people have problems and other people have problems. I was the first leader to have presented this to the country and that requires a lot of courage, I don't wish to sound immodest, but it did. I presented a constitutional draft to resolve the Tamil complaints and we offered vast amounts of devolved powers to the Tamils -the widest possible devolution. And the devolution we offered was much greater even than the Indian constitution.
I am deeply committed to peace and I have done a lot for peace. What the present government is riding high on is the work we did on a lot of sweat, tears and blood - my own blood also. I nearly died in that [Ms Kumaratunga lost an eye in 1999 to a terrorist attack]. And many of my colleagues have been killed by the LTTE. So I will never go away from that commitment. But also I cannot forget that it is not only the LTTE's problem. It is also the problem of the Tamil people and Muslim people and of the entire nation. And we have to arrive at a solution that will not endanger the lives of other people. At the moment the LTTE is endangering the lives of ordinary Tamil civilians.
But they have stopped killing, which is already very good. I am not saying they haven't changed. They have already changed quite a bit. There are many positive aspects of this whole process in the last two years. But there are many seriously negative aspects which have to be dealt with without turning a blind eye. In other words, it is not peace at the cost of the sovereignty and security of the Sri Lankan nation. It is peace with security for all. And all the human rights and fundamental rights assured.