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Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home > Tamil National ForumSelected Writings - Ana Pararajasingham > A Review: Portrayal of a President: Sri Lanka’s Chandrika Kumaratunge

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Ana Pararajasingham, Australia

A Review: Portrayal of a President: Sri Lanka’s Chandrika Kumaratunge
First Broadcast on 12th July on ABC TV’s Foreign Correspondent Program

20 July 2005

"Michael Maher’s assessment was that she was a Sri Lankan version of Eva Peron, ‘very interested in power’. The Sri Lankan President’s response to this was an enigmatic “History will tell’."

 “With both her parents former Prime Ministers of Sri Lanka, and her brother currently a parliamentarian with leadership ambitions of his own, Chandrika Kumaratunga was born into politics. But President Chandrika claims not to be at all interested in the power that comes with the job”

It was with these words that the “Foreign Correspondent’ ABC (Australian Broadcasting Commission), TV’s flagship program began its portrayal of the Sri Lankan President.

Michael Maher, the interviewer, had little trouble drawing the Sri Lankan President into revealing her personality. Maher’s intention was to enlighten rather than sensationalize.  His approach was friendly, polite to the point of being deferent but probing. The Sri Lankan President obliged by speaking her mind out.

When Maher drew attention to the widely held view that she was enthralled by power, the President dismissed it by saying that she found the whole idea of her love of power to be a joke. She simply did not like power except of course the good that she could achieve through the use of that power. This bold assertion made with all the conviction that she could muster was blown away minutes later when the President’s sister, Sunethra Bandaranaike assured Maher in a separate interview that not only did Chandrika love power but that she thrives on it. This was in answer to a question by Maher addressed to Sunethera in the presence of brother Anura who sat quietly throughout this interview.

Then there was the matter of war resuming. Kumaratunge’s response was again a resounding denial, only to be countered by a Jesuit American resident of Batticaloa, Fr Miller, that war was the only way forward given the absolute lack of progress on the peace front. The priest pointed to the army rebuilding its bunkers in the East and the LTTE recruiting among the Tamil people. The priest’s interpretation was backed up by the LTTE’s spokesperson who told Maher that whilst the LTTE was not interested in resuming the war, it was ready to fight a war thrust upon it. 

Maher was also able to get Kumaratunge to admit that the Tamils had been oppressed by successive Sinhala regimes.  This came about when Kumaratunge referred to the LTTE as ‘terrorists’ and was told by Maher that others (meaning the Tamils) look upon the LTTE as freedom fighters. Kumartunge immediately changed tack by agreeing that the Tamils had indeed been oppressed. She then made the point that she was the first Sinhala politician to publicly acknowledge this ‘discrimination’. This candor, she went onto claim had placed her life in great danger. In her words ‘fatal’, and implying in the process the collective mindset of the Sinhala public when it came to acknowledging wrongs done to Tamils.

Also in the course of her interview, Kumartunge attributed the island’s woes to its ruling Sinhala elite. Under Maher’s gentle probing; she was soon forced to acknowledge that her own family, the Bandaranaike-Kumaratunge dynasty had played a part in this process, but ‘by default’. Maher did not pursue it any further.  Instead, Maher went onto to show that the violence endemic amongst the Sinhalese was that which claimed the lives of Kumartunge’s father and husband.

The Government’s role in the delivery of aid to the survivors of the tsunami was another area where Kumaratunga found herself making preposterous claims only to retract them or simply being exposed as someone who had no grasp of reality.
According to Fr Miller like the French monarch, Louis XIV, President Kumaratunge regarded herself and the state to be the same.  “L’État, c’est moi”  . (I am the State or “ what is good for me is good for the people". )

Michael Maher’s assessment was that she was a Sri Lankan version of Eva Peron, ‘very interested in power’.The Sri Lankan President’s response to this was an enigmatic “History will tell’.

Portrayal of a President: Sri Lanka’s Chandrika Kumaratunge
Feature on Sri Lanka's President, Chandrika Kumaratunga
Australian Broadcasting Corporation's 'Asia Pacific Focus' Broadcast
16 July 2005

Sri Lanka's president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, is at the helm of a country that's had its share of suffering, with two decades of sectarian violence and, most recently, the devastation of the Boxing Day tsunami.

In the past few months there have been bitter accusations that the recovery operation is bogged down in red tape and corruption, claims rubbished by Mrs Kumaratunga.

Michael Maher profiles the country's outspoken, charismatic leader and finds an almighty political mess threatens to spark another war on the fractious island.

Michael Maher, ABC correspondent:

For two decades, waves of violence have crashed down upon these shores. Tens of thousands have died in fighting between the majority Singhalese and the Tamils, who want their own homeland. Then last year, a freak of nature cut yet another swathe through the country. This train was lifted from its tracks by the Boxing Day tsunami. Like Sri Lanka, it's derailed, mangled and its survivors are deeply traumatised.

It's going to take Sri Lanka years to recover from the devastation wrought by the tsunami. But in the months since the giant wave struck, a bit of a blame game's been under way in this divided island nation. Aid agencies accuse the central government of allowing the relief operation to become bogged down in a sea of red tape and corruption.

But the woman who says she's taken personal charge of the recovery effort dismisses these claims as rubbish. President Chandrika Kumaratunga has survived an assassination attempt, she's fought her civil war, and now she's making it plain she's not about to let a tsunami get in her way.

So, who is this woman some of her compatriots refer to as Sri Lanka's Eva Peron? Kumaratunga was born into politics, another testament to Asia's dynastic urges. Her father, SWRD Bandaranaike, was prime minister. Her mother was the world's first woman prime minister and her brother is a parliamentarian with leadership ambitions of his own. Politics is the family trade.

Chandrika Kumaratunga, Sri Lanka's president:

I'm a workaholic, I like to work. And I'm in this, not to fill my pockets like lots of others, or because the idea of power thrills me - I find it a joke.

Michael Maher: A joke?

President Kumaratunga: Yes. I find power a joke - I laugh or I get very angry with it.

Michael Maher: You're a rare politician then...

President Kumaratunga: I like a simple life. I must be.

Michael Maher: That you don't find power alluring...

President Kumaratunga: I find it a joke.

Michael Maher: ... attractive.

President Kumaratunga: No, no, I don't like it at all. The only thing that attracts me in power is that it gives me the authority and the possibility of doing what I think should be done for this country.

Michael Maher: Singarajha Sarswathi has lost everything. She's a shopkeeper from the north-east of the country where the tsunami exacted its biggest toll. Six months on in the largely Tamil city of Batticaloa, the recovery effort is proving painfully slow. The city's foreshore remains a wasteland, a harrowing reminder to Singarajha and thousands of others like her of the day the waters washed away their lives.

Singarajha Sarswathi, shopkeeper: I had a daughter who died in the tsunami. She had two children who also died - my grandchildren. My house also is gone. Now I live inside a mill. My belongings and comfort are all gone. I was left with only my petticoat. I buried my children and returned to live in the mill. I am very sad thinking about my children.

Michael Maher: Batticaloa has been overrun by aid agencies from around the world but coordination and order are in desperately short supply. For this, Singarajha blames the president.

Singarajha Sarswathi: President Chandrika has not done anything for us. She has been saying continuously that she will give 6,000 rupees. The President said we would be given money for six months. We were given only enough for two. They have cheated us.

Michael Maher: Not far from Batticaloa's battered shoreline lives a teacher who's witnessed most of this country's suffering.

Father Harry Miller, Catholic Priest (reading an article on the Pope): "...that he's a man of deep intelligence and profound love for the Church..."

Michael Maher: Catholic priest Harry Miller has been here since independence in 1948. A straight-talking 80-year-old from New Orleans with an intellect honed by the Jesuits, Father Harry's strong views have won him great respect as well as a few enemies.

Father Miller: She can say the most outrageous things and so we don't really know who is the real Chandrika and we're all afraid of what she could be if she became the whole show, as well as the dog under the wagon, huh.

Michael Maher: Father Harry warns the millions given by Australia and other donor nations are being badly spent.

Father Miller: It's not being well spent. I think that the problem is the lack of efficiency getting it down to the people who have lost. This is paralysing the ability of people even to get back to their homes, and they're languishing in the camps. And it has not been intelligently handled, no.

President Kumaratunga: No, that's not true and we have been promised more aid than we expected. Uh...

Michael Maher: But it's the delivery of that aid that's the problem, isn't it? We've travelled around the country a bit and certainly what a lot of people are saying is that it's the NGOs which are delivering the aid.

President Kumaratunga: Did you actually speak to the people or the NGOs?

Michael Maher: Both.

President Kumaratunga: That's a canard that is spread by the NGOs. All the aid that was given to the people was given by the government.

Michael Maher: But are you satisfied with the performance of your government in distributing aid?

President Kumaratunga: Can I tell you some... I'm very satisfied.

Michael Maher: Can you categorically say though that there is no corruption in your government when it comes to handling tsunami funds? Because I think you said last year in an interview in 'Time'...

President Kumaratunga: Quite definitely not.

Michael Maher: ... corruption is rampant in the country.

President Kumaratunga: Corruption is rampant but everybody rose up, to a man and a woman, during the tsunami and, uh, they were... they were not in a mood to rob.

Michael Maher: It was hoped that the biggest natural disaster to strike the country would help galvanise it in the task of solving its biggest man-made disaster, the nation's long-running civil war. But post-tsunami goodwill has quickly faded. 70,000 people have died in the war over Tamil demands for a separate homeland. A cease-fire has been in place since 2002 and a Joint Mechanism has just been signed to coordinate the tsunami relief effort. But the central government and the Tamil Tigers haven't held peace talks for two years now.

Michael Maher: Are you worried that the war could start again?

Father Miller: I am a little bit more than worried. I feel that that may be the only way that we're going forward now because neither side is capable of talking to the other, and what's left?

Michael Maher: This lagoon separates Batticaloa from the regional headquarters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the LTTE. We board a ferry for a crossing that takes us to what is effectively another country. The terms of the cease-fire give the Tigers formal control of parts of the north. Here, the Tigers fly their own flag, have their own government and their own army.

Thaya Mohan, LTTE Leader: The Sri Lankan government, intelligence services and the armed forces are promoting a state of war. The Sri Lankan government is trying to impose a war on us. No one should think we want war. We are a race who are prepared to accept our rights and live peacefully. No one should think we are addicted to war. But if war is thrust on us we are prepared to meet the challenge.

Michael Maher: How close is this country to going down the path of war once again, of civil war?

President Kumaratunga: Not very close, I would say, because the cease-fire, with all its problems, has lasted over three years now. Three years and three months. Uh, there have been violations of the cease-fire by the LTTE, the Tamil terrorist group.

Michael Maher: Of course the claim, along the lines of the old adage, that they're freedom fighters, that they've been oppressed by the Singhalese.

President Kumaratunga: Well, they have been oppressed for some time. I have been the first Singhala leader to pronounce on election platforms, which is normally considered fatal, politically, that the Tamil people have been discriminated against, that we have to correct the situation, that we have to share power with them, etc. And I still say it, and I'm deeply convinced about it.

Michael Maher: But Kumaratunga's concessions haven't stopped the bloodshed. Death is always close at hand in divided Sri Lanka.

In the capital, Colombo, the chief of army intelligence is laid to rest with full military honours. Gunned down in broad daylight, Brigadier Nizam Mutalif's death has been blamed on the Tigers. He's just one of the latest casualties of Sri Lanka's dirty war. It's a conflict that has caused ordinary citizens to despair of their leaders.

Kumaratunga herself is no stranger to the entrenched violence of Sri Lankan politics. Her father was assassinated in 1959 and in 1988, she lost the love of her life.

President Kumaratunga: When I heard the shots I went running out and saw him lying on the ground and this assassin shoot... pumping bullets into his head. He was dead by then.

Michael Maher: Her husband, a matinee idol turned politician, was shot by a left-wing extremist.

President Kumaratunga: In fact, my daughter was holding his hand when he got shot. It was a terrible experience. I ran away. Soon after this I just picked up the children and ran away to London and didn't come back for three years.

Michael Maher: Were you afraid as well?

President Kumaratunga: I was for a little time because of the shock and the trauma. And I wasn't given time to get over it. You know, politicians in Sri Lanka are terribly, terribly selfish, they don't give a damn what happens to you - sorry for the word. And they push you into whatever they want, whatever they think is best for them. And they didn't even allow me time to mourn. They pushed me screaming and kicking against it, into a campaign, to do a campaign for the party.

Michael Maher: The killings have condemned the president to live within a shell of tight security. Trips outside her heavily fortified palace, like this one to the ancient town of Polonnaruwa, are very rare. Hanging over the celebrations, at this prize-giving at a local school, is a pall of tension and fear. There's a sense that anything could happen at any time - that one lone gunman could once again alter the course of Sri Lankan history.

It was at an event like this one that Kumaratunga had her own brush with death. In 1999, the Tamil Tigers sent a suicide bomber to kill her. The bomber - a young woman - and 26 other people perished. But miraculously Kumaratunga survived, though the explosion cost her an eye. Shortly after this attempt on her life, she appeared on national television and vowed to carry on with the peace process.

President Kumaratunga: There is not one doubt in my mind that this victory with which the gods have seen fit to honour me, is a victory not only for myself, not only for my two children whose mother has been spared, but a resounding victory for our entire nation.

Michael Maher: At that point, did you seriously consider getting out of politics?

President Kumaratunga: Yes. But I wanted to finish the one unfinished thing I came to do, the other things I thought I had finished.

Michael Maher: How did you shut out the trauma, though? I mean, you came within an inch of losing your life. I know. How did you go on?

President Kumaratunga: Something in me that made me do it. I went on because this was one thing that fired me, I had to do it.

Michael Maher: You're a pretty tough person, aren't you?

President Kumaratunga: Must be. I don't know.

Sunethra Bandaranaike, the president's sister: She's very stubborn...

Michael Maher: Not far from the presidential palace, in another of Colombo's colonial mansions, Kumaratunga's brother and sister voice their fears about the president's safety.

Sunethra Bandaranaike: Of course it could happen again and again. Yes. Definitely. That was one's first reaction. And it won't stop there necessarily. Why in Sri Lanka? I have always asked this question of myself.

One of the answers I have come up with is 20 years of war. People get used to killing. Soldiers run away from the killing fields but indulge in killing, assassinating, shooting, robbing, raping, that kind of thing. People have got used to seeing dead bodies all the time. Violence became something that people became kind of immune to.

Michael Maher: And not all of the killing has been between Singhalese and Tamils. This is a predominantly Buddhist nation, and tonight the faithful are celebrating the birth, death, and enlightenment of Lord Buddha.

But in the religious and ethnic patchwork that is Sri Lanka, violence has become endemic within as well as between communities. Kumaratunga's father and husband were both killed by fellow Singhalese from the Buddhist south. The woman at the centre of it all concedes her country's in a mess.

President Kumaratunga: The southern violence and the northern violence has either killed off some of the most talented people in this country or driven them out of the country.

Michael Maher: That's a remarkable statement to make, isn't it? That the political talent of this country has been decimated...

President Kumaratunga: Decimated.

Michael Maher: ... through assassination.

President Kumaratunga: Not only political, even managerial talent. Lot of them. Lot of public servants were killed in this violence.

Michael Maher: What has gone wrong, though? Has there been, sort of a moral decay, if you like, in this country?

President Kumaratunga: Yes, there is. Very serious moral decay. You know, when the leaders... If you have parents who are drunkards or drug addicts, what happens to the children? Either they become drunkards or drug addicts or they become psychologically lost causes. This happened to our country. We had leaders for 17 years in this country, 17 continuous years, who thought that violence, immorality, and the power of force could resolve every problem.

Michael Maher: But, of course, Madame President, your opponents say that you and your family can't escape blame, after all you've been president for a considerable period of time. Your father was prime minister. Your mother was prime minister. Does the Bandaranaike/Kumaratunga dynasty accept some responsibility as well for the state of the nation today?

President Kumaratunga: We would have to, but certainly by default. Some of our governments have also contributed to, ah, to the decay of the...the situation.

Michael Maher: Constitutionally, Kumaratunga must step down as president by the end of next year. But few, including members of her own family, believe she's ready to depart the political stage.

Michael Maher: Does she like power?

Sunethra Bandaranaike: Very few people don't. I think she loves it. Absolutely. She thrives on it. Because she told me, and I must say I was a little sceptical, that she hated power. She probably believes that. Or she probably wants to believe it. But power is a kind of like a petty drug, isn't it? Place power in the hands of anybody, any type of power, and you just watch. No, I think she loves it.

Father Miller: She's a politician. She's one of the elitists and she doesn't see down to the lower levels of things. It's almost like "l'etat c'est moi", you see, and "what is good for me is good for the people". Basically this is the way it comes across to us. And she interprets everything in the light of her own ability to succeed and the glory of her family, the Bandaranaikes.

Michael Maher: Your daughter is reported as having said that...as having beseeched you to get out of politics. She said that it's destroying your soul and your spirit. Is she right?

President Kumaratunga: She is.

Michael Maher: That's a pretty heavy price to pay.

President Kumaratunga: Very heavy price to pay for somebody who is - for whom morality, spirituality matters.

Michael Maher: Will you continue to pay that price?

President Kumaratunga: I will decide at the end of my presidency.

Michael Maher: It sounds to me you have no intention of going anywhere.

President Kumaratunga: We will see.

Michael Maher: Because of course some of your critics suggest that you are a Sri Lankan version of Eva Peron, that you're very interested indeed in power.

President Kumaratunga: History will tell. You can see that for yourself very soon - whether I am or not.

Michael Maher: Outside the grounds of the presidential palace candles are lit and Buddhist prayers offered for a new beginning. But in Chandrika Kumaratunga's Sri Lanka, new beginnings always appear just out of reach.




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