| “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
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
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
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
‘by default’. Maher did not pursue it any further.
Instead, Maher went onto to show that
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
Eva Peron, ‘very interested in power’.The Sri Lankan President’s
response to this was an enigmatic “History will tell’.
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
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
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
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
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
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
Michael Maher: Are you worried that the war could start
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Michael Maher: It sounds to me you have no intention of going
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.