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Home > Tamil National Forum > Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha > Prelude to the Indo-LTTE War (1987-90): An Anthology > Part 1 > Part 2 Broiling and Near-toppling of Rajiv Gandhi > Part 3 The Annoyance and Anger of the Sinhalese > Part 4 The Deals of Indian Mandarins of Deception > Part 5 The Rage of Sinhala Buddhist Monks > The Indo-LTTE War (1987-90) - An Anthology. Part 1 > Part 2 > Part 3 > Part 4 > Part 5 > Part 6 > Part 7 > Part 8 > Part 9 > Part 10 > Part 11 > Part 12 > Part 13 > Part 14 >
Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha
The Indo-LTTE War (1987-90) - An Anthology.
20 August 2008
Front Note by Sachi Sri Kantha
When Munich Olympics was in progress in 1972, Anantha Vikatan magazine’s cartoonist Mathan allowed his mind to romp on why members of the Indian contingent never showed up at the Gold Medal podium and came to a humorous inference. Mathan’s finding was that the sports in which Indians (as well as neighbouring Sri Lankans) excel were not included in the roster of summer Olympic competitions. As, Mathan’s sarcasm-dripping cartoon is worth preservation, I reproduce it here. The three sports in which Indians are unbeatable are, (1) speech-making (top panel), (2) speedy poster-pasting (middle panel), and (3) road pit-digging (bottom panel).
The metaphoric relevance of cartoonist Mathan’s three ‘top sports’ of Indians was distinctly visible during the Indo-LTTE war. Though the Indian Army was hardly winning its war against the LTTE [check the pragmatic caption of The Economist report of Oct.22, 1988; ‘Rajiv Gets Lost on a Tiger Hunt’], the splashy speech-making and speedy poster-pasting games of the Indian politicians, bureaucrats and flag-wavers provided an illusion that the Indian victory was around the corner. The road pit-digging game was very much in display in the turf battles among the contingents of India’s Intelligence circuit, namely the RAW, CBI, Indian military intelligence and PMO (i.e., prime minister’s office).
While mentioning the PMO, another funny cartoon of India’s ace cartoonist R.K.Laxman on Rajiv Gandhi’s limping performance (his right leg bandaged with ‘Punjab’ tag, his left arm in a neck holster tagged ‘Assam’ and sun glass covering blackened eye) of that period cannot be ignored in this context. Laxman had only scribbled the punch line in wily Jayewardene’s tongue: “It’s bound to work, Rajiv, when an expert like you okays it.”
When October 1988 rolled in, President Jayewardene had opted to ‘retire hurt’. William Burger and Ron Moreau (for the Newsweek magazine) had aptly summed up Jayewardene’s political epitaph:
That was the pathetic end of a Sinhalese patrician politician who preached ‘peace and justice’ but patronized deceit, thuggery and intimidation of all kinds. The Sinhalese in Southern Sri Lanka were mulling over who would win the second executive presidential election scheduled for December 19th 1988. Would it be the then UNP prime minister Premadasa (the ‘common man’s representative’ belonging to a non-Govigama caste, handpicked by President Jayewardene as his successor) or would it be the turn of SLFP’s prima donna Sirimavo Bandaranaike (the Govigama caste feudalist breed) who had suffered politically under President Jayewardene’s repressive regime? Both Premadasa and Mrs Bandaranaike actively courted the anti-Indian JVP vote on the common ground that both had opposed the Rajiv-Jayewardene Accord of July 1987.
As to the Indo-LTTE war’s progress, after one year, the anonymous Economist commentator opined, “Tigers are not alone in believing that one day they will get their Tamil Eelam. Some of the Indian officers fighting them believe so too. They have experienced the Tigers’ tenacity in battle and have interrogated Tiger prisoners. They reckon the guerrillas could go on figting indefinitely.” [Oct. 22, 1988].
Listed below, for the part 10 of this anthology, are 10 items (news reports, commentaries and an editorial) that had appeared in October 1988.
A National Sigh of Relief [William Burger and Ron Moreau; Newsweek, Oct. 3, 1988, p. 11]
To some of his countrymen he remains ‘The Colossus of Sri Lanka,’ but it’s unlikely that history will be so kind to Junius R. Jayewardene. When the Sri Lankan president announced this month on the eve of his 82nd birthday that he would not stand for a third term, the tide of public opinion was already turning against him. Over the last year Jayewardene has been the focus of criticism from all quarters, and most Sri Lankans clearly believed that it was time for him to step aside. ‘You could almost feel the country give a collective sigh of relief,’ a Western diplomat in Colombo noted afterward. ‘It’s certain to relieve tensions.’
It’s not difficult to see why. Under Jayewardene’s rule Sri Lanka collapsed into ethnic warfare between the dominant Sinhalese and the minority Tamil communities. Since 1983, when the Tamils began their push for a separate state, more than 8,000 Sri Lankans have been killed. Jayewardene not only refused to negotiate seriously with Tamil extremists, but he seemed unwilling to accept the reality of their revolution. ‘He should have moved quicker, further and more forcefully to address Tamil concerns before it was too late,’ says a Western diplomat in Colombo.
In the end, Jayewardene was undone by the very act he had hoped would be his greatest achievement: the 1987 accord with Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi that was supposed to bring peace to Sri Lanka. To the president’s dismay, most Sinhalese viewed the treaty as a sellout of Sri Lankan sovereignty to two enemies: the Indians, who dispatched a large peace-keeping force to the island, and the Tamils, who were scheduled to be given limited self-rule over the merged Northern and Eastern provinces. India’s 60,000-man peacekeeping force was unable to neutralize the fanatic Tamil separatist group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which has pressed on with its campaign of terror. Meanwhile, in the south, the militant Sinhalese People’s Liberation Front, which bitterly opposes the pact, has assassinated nearly 500 government officials, policemen and members of the president’s United National Party (UNP) since the agreement was signed.
No elections: In retrospect, the accord’s failure seems very much in keeping with Jayewardene’s political record. He is a man whose good intentions have all too often fallen prey to his own political shortsightedness. It was he who unwittingly touched off bloody anti-Tamil riots in July 1983 by staging a state funeral for 13 Sri Lankan soldiers who had been slain by the LTTE. In the aftermath more than 1,000 Tamils were slain by Sinhalese mobs. Jayewardene, who professed a strong belief in democracy, was at the same time prone to fits of authoritarianism. In 1978, less than one year after being elected prime minister, he pushed through a constitutional change making him president with increased powers. In 1982, after his re-election as president for another six years, he engineered a referendum that extended the life of Parliament, with the result that Sri Lanka had no parliamentary elections for a decade.
In spite of his growing unpopularity, however, Jayewardene has thoroughly dominated the political scene, and his departure is sure to transform it. On the day of Jayewardene’s announcement, the UNP chose Ranasinghe Premadasa as its presidential candidate for the elections now set for December. Though he was Jayewardene’s choice, Premadasa, an ultranationalistic Sinhalese, was so deeply opposed to the Sri Lankan-Indian accord that the final cabinet decision to sign the treaty was taken while he was on a trip to Japan. When he returned, he boycotted the signing ceremonies in Colombo. Premadasa’s chief opponent will almost certainly be Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the country’s prime minister from 1960 to 1965 and again from 1970 to 1977, who, if anything, is even more outspoken in her opposition to the treaty. At best, Premadasa will give the treaty only lukewarm support. At worst, Bandaranaike will campaign against it.
Still, given the geopolitical realities – India’s military strength, its 60,000 troops in Sri Lanka – it is doubtful that a new Sri Lankan president can totally repudiate the accord. Having allowed the Indians to occupy one quarter of the country, Colombo cannot simply evict them. ‘It’s unlikely the new president would take a confrontational attitude toward India,’ says Neelan Tiruchelvam, a moderate Tamil attorney in Colombo. ‘The new president will probably view the accord as an unhappy legacy.’ And the blame will be placed, fairly or not, on Junius Jayewardene.
Spiking a Bill [Anonymous; Asiaweek, October 7, 1988, p. 39]
In late August India’s Lower House of Parliament passed the 1988 Defamation Bill, a law proposed by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress (I) party as an adjunct to the country’s libel laws. The crux of the legislation was a new offence called ‘criminal imputation’, which covered any suggestion made in the press falsely alleging that a person had committed a crime or anything that might amount to one. Although the bill was little more than a clarification of existing law, it ran into a storm of protests nationwide from journalists, lawyers and opposition politicians. Reason: anyone charged with the offence had to produce evidence to prove the imputations were true and for the public good. Many Indians also reckoned the legislation was an attempt to make the media think twice before making allegations of corruption in the administration, reports of which have been widespread in recent months. At any rate, surprised at the sharp reaction, the government called for public opinion on the issue. ‘The press must come and convince me,’ insisted Gandhi.
The press did just that. After three weeks of strikes and rallies, the government withdrew the bill from Parliament’s Upper House, where it was next to be debated. Many saw the move as a political setback for Gandhi. Said Harkishan Singh Surjeet of the Communist Party of India (Marxist): ‘This is a great victory for the people.’ Still, the administration scored some points as well. The withdrawal of the bill, said Congress (I) general secretary Ghulam Nabi Azad, ‘is the most democratic act of the present government.’ Added Calcutta’s Telegraph newspaper in an editorial: ‘Rajiv Gandhi has shown real courage by accepting a mistake.’
The topic is far from dead, however. ‘While the bill stands withdrawn, the issue of defamation remains,’ noted Gandhi. The embattled PM called for a national debate on the subject. Said he: ‘The freedom and rights of the individual are equally sacred. It is for this reason that the issue of defamation is a serious issue.’ The Hindustan Times agreed. Said the independent newspaper in a front-page editorial: ‘The withdrawal of the bill has placed on the press an enormous responsibility for self-examination and finding ways how it should examine the conduct of public men without offending their rights as citizens.’
Marching Orders [Anonymous; Economist, October 8, 1988, p. 32]
If Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike is elected president of Sri Lanka on December 19th, the Indian soldiers brought in to bring peace to the island are likely to be asked to leave. Her son, Mr Anura Bandaranaike, leader of the opposition in parliament, said during a private visit to London this week that most Sri Lankans are fed up with the Indians. In his view the Sri Lankan army is fully capable of dealing with the Tamil Tiger guerrillas who continue to fight for a separate Tamil state in the north-east of the island.
The Indians arrived in Sri Lanka after the two countries has signed an agreement in July 1987 designed to end Sri Lanka’s civil war. Sri Lanka agreed to give limited autonomy to the Northern and Eastern provinces, where the Tamils predominate. The Indian troops, said to number around 50,000, were to be a peacekeeping force that would disarm the guerrillas and generally see that the Tamils and the majority Sinhalese stopped killing each other in the north-east. None of this has fully happened. When the Tigers refused to surrender, or to abandon their campaign for a separate state, the Indians took them on, killing or capturing at least 200 of their best fighters. Despite this, the Tigers battle on.
Worse, violence has spread to the south of the country, where a Sinhalese guerrilla group, the People’s Liberation Front, has been killing government officials. It claims that last year’s agreement was a sell-out to India, which, it says, wants to run Sri Lanka. During the past year Front gunmen have killed more than 450 people, ten of them this week.
Mr Bandaranaike’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party opposes the agreement. It proposes a tougher line with the Tamil separatists than has been taken by the government of President Junius Jayewardene. Mr Bandaranaike claims that Sri Lanka’s own soldiers were doing all right before the Indians came in last year. He condemns the Front’s violence but believes it may end once the Indians go. He is convinced that ‘Indians Out’ is a vote-winner that will sweep his mother into the presidency, ending 11 years of rule by Mr Jayewardene’s United Naitonal Party.
Mrs Bandaranaike, who is 72, was prime minister of Sri Lanka for two terms in the 1960s and 1970s, when her socialist-minded government ran a closed economy. According to her son, she plans to retain the present market economy (which, because of defence costs and lost tourist money, is in poor shape), although economics is not likely to be the main election issue.
One complication for the Sri Lankan voter is that the United National Party candidate for the presidency, Mr Ranasinghe Premadasa, is also opposed to the agreement with India, even though he is prime minister in President Jayewardene’s government. Puzzling. Unless, as some people believe, the astute Mr Jayewardene intends to go on controlling party policy during his retirement, which was unexpected. It is a cynical view, on a par with the widely held belief that the Indians will find reasons to stay permanently on the island. There is a lot of cynicism in Sri Lanka at the moment.
Transferred [Anonymous; Asiaweek, October 21, 1988, p. 54]
TRANSFERRED: Sathasivam Krishnakumar, alias Kiddu, 28, a senior leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a separatist group fighting for a Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka; to the custody of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka; from detention in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu Oct.9. The Indian government declared it was tired of negotiating with the Tigers and arrested Kiddu and several Madras-based militants on Sept. 12. Kiddu threatened to begin a hunger strike if the prisoners were not freed or tried in court. He was supported by Indian oppositionists, who threatened to launch state-wide demonstrations. Kiddu and 156 fellow detainees were taken by military plane to an airbase under Indian control in Jaffna, northern Sri Lanka.
Rajiv Gets Lost on a Tiger Hunt [Anonymous; Economist, October 22, 1988, pp. 25-26]
Trying to be the kindly friend who would help to end Sri Lanka’s civil war has brought India little but pain. More than 500 of its 50,000 soldiers who came in to keep the peace have been killed, almost all of them by the Tamil Tiger guerrillas, who want a separate state in Sri Lanka. Three times that number have been wounded. The operation has cost a lot of rupees. The International Institute of Strategic Studies said in London this week that India will have to cut some of its planned defence programmes because of the cost of the Sri Lanka adventure. And there is the incalculable damage to the army’s pride from its failure, despite more than a year of effort and a vast superiority of arms, to subdue the Tigers.
Still, India seems determined to press on with the principal undertaking promised in the accord it signed with Sri Lanka in July last year. This is the merger of Sri Lanka’s Northern and Eastern provinces, where most of the Tamils live, and the setting up of an elected council to run the merged province. On the face of it, this seems benign enough. The council will be able to levy local taxes, administer the police and run the services expected of any local authority.
The new, merged province is designed to make the Tamils, a minority in Sri Lanka, feel that they have some control over their affairs. But the north-east is where the Tigers want to establish an independent state called Tamil Eelam; they will settle for nothing less. They have said that anyone standing for the council will be killed as a traitor.
The Indians were not having this. On October 10th, the last day for handing in nominations, they gave lifts by helicopter to candidates brave enough to go to the registration offices. In the Northern Province there was one candidate for each constituency – all of them Tamils of apparently reasonable views. On November 19th they will be declared elected. In the Eastern Province, where the Tamils do not have a majority, several Sinhalese and Muslims are running, some in contested races. Courtesy of Indian guns, the north-east will get its council.
Will the council last, even for a week or two, let alone until next year when a referendum is supposed to be held to let the Easterners say whether they want to stay merged with the North? The Indian government of Mr Rajiv Gandhi will at least be able to say that it has done what it can. Not that this will win India much sympathy from the Sri Lankans, who seem increasingly hostile to the Indian force. On October 19th around 5,000 people took to the streets of Colombo and other towns calling for the end to the Indian ‘invasion’.
The two candidates in the presidential election on December 19th think these are not just malcontent views. Both Mr Ranasinghe Premadasa, who is standing for the ruling United National Party, and Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the opposition candidate, say they want the Indians to go home. Mrs Bandaranaike, who is saying it louder, is sure she is on to a vote-winner; she is believed already to have had informal talks with India about when its soldiers will leave. Political analysts and astrologers, who have about equal status in Sri Lanka, predict that the contest will be close, but they marginally favour Mrs Bandaranaike.
The best vote-winner would be a promise of peace, but no politician has the gall to offer that without a lot of maybes. Mrs Bandaranaike thinks she can end the violence at least in the south, where a group of Sinhalese guerrillas, the People’s Liberation Front, has been killing government officials and supporters of the accord. If the Indians go, the Front may holster its guns.
In the face of all this ingratitude, the Indians may wonder whether they were wise to go into Sri Lanka at all. They had, naively it seems, not expected that they would have to fight the Tigers. India’s soldiers were told they were there to accept the arms which the Tigers were willing to lay down – but were unwilling to hand over to the Sri Lankan army, whose soldiers are mainly Sinhalese. Instead, since last October, the Tigers and the Indians have been killing each other.
One theory about what went wrong is that the Tigers never agreed to abandon their demand for a separate state, as other Tamil groups did. In the rushed negotiations that preceded the accord, their agreement was assumed rather than specifically obtained. An alternative theory is that the Tigers’ leader, Mr Vellupillai Prabhakaran, at first thought the accord was worth going along with, but later changed his mind.
Some people close to Mr Prabhakaran say he has lived in the jungle, and been a killer, for so long that he would be unable to adjust to normal society. In any event, he has been responsible for the deaths of so many rivals that, sooner or later, he would himself be murdered in revenge. This being so, he may as well stick with the only calling he is fitted for, that of guerrilla.
The Tigers have lost some 350 men since fighting resumed in earnest last October, and now have around 2,000 in the field. Their strength as a terrorist force is their total heartlessness. On October 10th, as candidates in the council election nervously deposited their nominations, Tigers massacred 45 villagers for no other reason than that they were Sinhalese. This week they killed six more civilians for being ‘informers’. Three of them were young children.
These sound like acts of desperation. Yet the Tigers are not alone in believing that one day they will get their Tamil Eelam. Some of the Indian officers fighting them believe so too. They have experienced the Tigers’ tenacity in battle and have interrogated Tiger prisoners. They reckon the guerrillas could go on fighting indefinitely.
Even those who do not accept that bleak view now suspect that the Tigers cannot simply be wiped out, as it was once thought they could be. If the Indians cannot do it, the Sri Lankan army, which is half the size of the Indian force in Sri Lanka, seems unlikely to. The one piece of hopeful news to come from the north-east recently is that the Tigers are trying to conscript Tamil youths because volunteers are no longer coming forward. The loss of popular support for the Tigers among the Tamils may prove, in the end, to have been the real accomplishment of the Indian occupation.
Saying ‘No’ to Peace [Ron Moreau; Newsweek, October 24, 1988, pp. 17-18.]
Darkness had set in on the Sinhalese village of Poonewea when the Tamil guerrillas arrived. There were about 80 of them, and with brutal precision they roused the sleeping villagers, dragged them from their huts and systematically stabbed and hacked to death 45 of them, including 11 women and 18 children. The massacre at Poonewea, 150 miles northeast of Sri Lanka’s capital of Colombo, was the worst in 12 months of continued ethnic strife across the island. It was surely carried out by ‘Tiger’ gunmen belonging to the Tamil separatist group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The message they were delivering to Colombo, to New Delhi and to the 60,000 Indian Army peacekeepers in Sri Lanka was unmistakable: the LTTE will go to any means to derail the 14 month-old Indo-Sri Lankan peace accord.
To that end, the Tigers are setting out to disrupt the provincial elections scheduled for late next month. The Poonewea slaughter came on the eve of the final day that candidates could register to run for the provincial council that is to preside over Sri Lanka’s northern and eastern provinces, which are to be merged under the terms of the accord into a semiautonomous Tamil enclave. The LTTE opposes the merger because it falls short of its goal of a totally independent Tamil homeland. So far the Tigers’ campaign of terror has worked: with most moderate Tamil politicians refusing to run for office, more than half of the council’s seats, mostly in the north, are uncontested and will be filled with candidates chosen by Tamil groups armed and sponsored by the Indians.
Ethnic Warfare: As if the Tigers aren’t enough of a threat to the pact signed last year by Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President Junius R. Jayewardene, electoral politics in both countries are also jeopardizing the agreement. In the face of continued ethnic warfare at home and charges that he has ‘ceded’ the northern and eastern provinces to the Indian Army, the 82 year-old Jayewardene decided only last month not to run for a third term this December. His party, the United National Party (UNP), has nominated Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa as its candidate. Premadasa, a Sinhalese nationalist, has already hinted that his first act as president would be to ‘renegotiate’ the accord. His certain opponent, former Prime Minister Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike, has gone even further. She flatly threatens to abrogate the pact if elected and has said that she will call for the immediate withdrawal of Indian troops, which would leave the door open for the Tigers to re-establish their political and military dominance on the predominantly Tamil Jaffna Peninsula. In either case, the treaty seems certain to be weakened.
The accord is increasingly unpopular in India as well. New Delhi had hoped that it could quickly tame the Tigers, hold the provincial-council elections to satisfy moderate Tamil demands for autonomy and then graciously withdraw its forces. It has not gone according to plan. Since last October more than 1,000 Tamil guerrillas and nearly 600 Indian soldiers have been killed in the fighting. Last week New Delhi was forced to release a senior LTTE leader, who goes by the name Kittu, when he threatened to stage a hunger strike until death unless freed from a Madras jail. The Indians had hoped to convince the former LTTE commander, to help win Tiger support for the accord. But Kittu refused to deal, and when he began fasting New Delhi released him before he could achieve any sort of martyrdom. Though India tried to portray the release as a ‘goodwill gesture’, in truth there was nothing to be gained – and much to be lost – by keeping him.
‘Unwelcome guest’: New Delhi’s biggest worry is that the peace accord may become a huge political liability for Rajiv Gandhi. In Tamil Nadu, home to 60 million ethnic Tamils generally sympathetic to the Tamil movement in Sri Lanka, the DMK opposition party, which opposes India’s involvement across the Palk Strait, is favored to win state elections in Tamil Nadu scheduled for early next year. Some Indians have even begun referring to the military operation as ‘India’s Afghanistan’. As a result, there seems to be growing support for a pullout. Last week, the Statesman, one of India’s most prominent dailies, wrote, ‘The time may not be inopportune for Rajiv Gandhi to admit that the accord has outlived its utility and that by persisting as an unwelcome guest in a sovereign country he is merely sacrificing lives of Indian soldiers for no apparent advantage.’
Bombs and assassinations: Nowhere is the treaty and the Indian military presence more unwelcome than in Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese south. Ever since the accord was signed, a radical Sinhalese chauvinist group, the People’s Liberation Front (JVP), has gone on an antigovernment rampage. It has assassinated more than 500 government officials, UNP workers and other treaty supporters. JVP zealots, who accuse the government of having sold Sri Lanka’s sovereignty to the Tamils and the Indians, have recently organized paralyzing strikes in Colombo and in other southern towns and set off bombs outside shops which had refused to heed the protest. Last week the Sri Lankan Army marched onto seven university campuses to quiet JVP-led student unrest, and a strict curfew has been imposed on five southern districts after the government used helicopter gunships to breakup antigovernment mobs that were attempting to overrun several police stations. At least 13 civilians were killed in the Army’s sweep. ‘The deep south bears a sinister resemblance to Jaffna of the early ‘80s,’ warns a Sri Lankan professor who has taught in both regions of Tamil and Sinhalese militancy. If that is indeed true, Sri Lankans may find that not even a change of presidents will be able to break the cycle of ethnic strife. [reported by Mervyn de Silva/Colombo, and Sudip Mazumdar/ New Delhi]
Ballot Box War: Ethnic Rivalries Heat Up [Michael Serrill; Time, October 24, 1988, p. 14.]
Ominous sounds woke Chandralatha, a 28 year-old Sri Lankan woman, one night last week in the remote jungle hamlet of Mahakongaskanda. Sensing danger, she told her husband to hide under the bed. Instead, as she later recounted from a hospital where she was recovering from bullet wounds, ‘He kept his body against the door and tried to hold it closed. They shot through the door, killing him.’ Chandralatha’s one year-old baby was also killed, and two of her other children were wounded. Altogether, 44 residents of Mahakongaskanda, including 18 children, were shot or hacked to death with machetes in the bloody attack on the Sinhalese village.
The massacre bore all the hallmarks of the guerrilla group known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and came almost exactly one year after Indian troops launched their offensive to disarm the Tigers. In July 1987, 70,000 Indian soldiers arrived in Sri Lanka to help implement an Indo-Sri Lankan agreement that gives the minority Tamils a greater measure of autonomy. But militants on opposite sides of the bloody Sri Lankan conflict united in rejecting the agreement.
Although the pact would grant the Tamils some self-rule by combining Sri Lanka’s northern and eastern provinces, where they are in the majority, the Tigers insist it does not go far enough. Meanwhile, Sinhalese extremists led by the People’s Liberation Front (JVP) object that the accord gives away too much. The two chief candidates campaigning to replace retiring President Junius Jayewardene, 82, in a December vote are opponents of the agreement and have avowed to send the troops home.
The violence came the day before nominations closed for Nov. 19 elections to form a provincial council in the new northeastern Tamil province. The Tigers say the council will have too little power, and have labeled those who support the election traitors ‘who will not be forgiven.’ The point was ruthlessly driven home last week, when three members of Tamil organizations taking part in the voting were shot dead, bringing the number killed this month to five.
But the Tigers reserve most of their wrath for the Indian soldiers sent to enforce the agreement. Once considered protectors of Tamil autonomy, they are now the chief target of the insurgency. Just hourse after the massacre at Mahakongaskanda, Indian soldiers ambushed a band of 40 Tigers and killed twelve. But in the past year, more than 600 Indian military men have been killed by the guerrillas. ‘People here don’t want elections,’ said a lecturer at Jaffna University. ‘Unless the Tigers are brought in [to the process] and peace restored, the poll would be meaningless. The Indians must do a deal with the Tigers, at any price.’
Meanwhile, President Jayewardene has his hands full in the south, as radicals among the Sinhalese majority continued their own agitation against the Indo-Sri Lankan agreement. Six people were killed late last week, including a policeman whose severed head was displayed in public. Antigovernment demonstrations have flared and spread as weven schoolchildren took to the streets in protest. Anti-riot police killed three students before the government closed down all schools indefinitely. On Monday, the JVP called for a ‘day of resistance’ against the provincial election they claim would elad to the partition of Sri Lanka. More in fear than in sympathy – the JVP has in the past year murdered some 450 supporters of the accord – most of the Sinhalese population cooperated, virtually shutting down their part of the country. The strike marked the second time in a month that Sinhalese rebels paralyzed Sri Lanka, reinforcing the impression that Jayewardene is losing control of a nation many fear is on the brink of anarchy. [ Reported by Qadri Ismail/Colombo and Anita Pratap/New Delhi]
The Militant Factor [Manik de Silva; Far Eastern Economic Review, October 27, 1988, p. 30.]
Presidential hopeful Sirima Bandaranaike, whose party is often accused of consorting with Sinhalese subversives believed to be behind the current wave of violence in the south, fears the government may use the political killings as an excuse to postpone December’s presidential election. She has warned that if it does so, the opposition will take to the streets in a massive show of protest.
Apart from the strikes and murders in the south, generally ascribed to the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), nearly 10,000 schools gripped by student agitation have been closed and most of the universities, which were opened for classes for a short while, have closed again. The Inter-University Students’ Federation supports Bandaranaike, a former prime minister who heads the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), for the presidency.
Violence is also still widespread in the Tamil-dominated north where the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the dominant Tamil separatist group, is determined to wreck the 19 November provincial council election for the newly merged North-East Province. The LTTE and the best established of the Tamil political parties, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), will not contest the elections, the TULF saying the LTTE has made it impossible for a non-violent group like itself to contest. The LTTE has threatened reprisals against government officials who help run the elections and there is little doubt that voters will be scared off from going to the polls.
In the campaign for the presidential election, both Bandaranaike and Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa, the ruling United National Party’s (UNP) candidate, have found common ground on the presence of the 50,000 – strong Indian Peace Keeping Force which was called into the north and east in July 1987 to quell the Tamil guerrillas. Both are committed to the withdrawal of the Indians. Bandaranaike wants the controversial accord that brought them in to be scrapped while Premadasa wants it replaced with a treaty of friendship and cooperation.
Premadasa believes that one of his best assets in the current campaign is that he has the common touch: he does not come from the landowning or professional elites from which Sri Lanka has traditionally chosen its leaders. In his 10 years as prime minister he has cultivated various interest groups among the clergy, artists and sportsmen, and through a massive public housing programme has kept a high public profile.
But the UNP’s decade in power has also provided the opposition with handy election ammunition. The cost of living and inflation is up, and law and order has deteriorated sharply. Bandaranaike is also fond of saying that when she handed over the government to the UNP after her 1977 election defeat, Colombo ruled all the island, yet now India was running the north and east and lawlessness in the south was rife.
The government has often accused the SLFP of consorting with the JVP to topple the government – the SLFP has offered the JVP three ministries in the government it hope to form. But though the SLFP claims that the JVP is among eight opposition parties backing Bandaranaike, the JVP itself, which has been underground since 1983, has not publicly said where it stands.
Both candidates realize that JVP support can be helpful. Premadasa and Bandaranaike have said there is no proof that the JVP is behind the current violence and indeed an organization calling itself the Deshapremi Janatha Viyaparaya (DJV, or Patriotic People’s Organisation) has generally been shown to be responsible. But the DJV is generally believed to be the JVP acting under another name. Premadasa, who released a number of JVP detainees in a conciliatory gesture several weeks ago, appears to now believe that he made a tactical mistake. The current thinking in the UNP is that many voters distrust the SLFP’s links with the JVP and this could work to the UNP’s advantage.
Premadasa is also pushing ahead with a poverty-alleviation programme under which he is pledged to give Rs. 2,500 (US$ 76) a month over two years to 1.4 million families now on food stamps. About half this sum is expected to be set aside as savings to amass Rs 25,000 per family at the end of that period. Premadasa believes families will be able to use this as capital to help themselves.
When former finance minister Ronnie de Mel, who quit the UNP to join the SLFP earlier this year after 10 years with the government, wondered where the money would come from, Premadasa said: ‘ I would like to ask our former finance minister how he got Rs. 50 billion which was spent on defence since 1983. If that money had been made available to tackle poverty, we could have given Rs 25,000 not only to the food stamp families but [to] a greater number.’
There is still no indication whether the United Socialist Alliance (USA), a grouping of the old Left parties, and the Sri Lanka Mahajana Pakshaya (SLMP), which broke away from the SLFP, will field a candidate for the presidential election. Bandaranaike’s younger daughter, Chandrika, who heads the SLMP, will not contest and is unlikely to figure in the campaign as she has lived in England since February when her politician-filmstar husband Vijaya Kumaranatunge of the USA was assassinated.
The UNP is ensuring the support of the ‘Indian Tamils’, who are stateless people of recent Indian decent. It plans legislation which will confer citizenship on several thousand of them. How the indigenous ‘Jaffna’ Tamils, who have lived in the north and east for hundreds of years, will vote is an open question. While neither candidate can expect their support en bloc, the minorities may well tilt the scales in a situation where the majority Sinhalese vote is more or less divided.
Rule of the Jungle [Anonymous Editorial; Asiaweek, October 28, 1988, pp. 18-19.]
It’s election time in Sri Lanka. Break out the bunting and balloons. Come fill the cups and raise a toast to freedom, the exercise of the people’s voice and choice. On second thought, leave the cups and balloons where they are, for whatever the island chooses in weeks ahead seems bound to leave them and much else in Sri Lanka’s fragile civilization irreparably smashed. In the first presidential contest since ethnic strife erupted into a raging blood-feud five years ago, Sri Lanka’s two major candidates are both pandering to the logic of the mob and the constituency of the gun. Both oppose the fifteen month-old pact with New Delhi under which Indian peacekeeping troops have trespassed on the sanctity of their blessed isle. Each seems to be in thrall to a chauvinist underground ‘student’ gang that proposes to create a desert and call it peace. Meanwhile, the Indian Army is stumbling around the combat zone of the Tamil northeast like Keystone Kops, shooting the purpose of their mission in the foot and alienating the very people who could preserve the nation. This is democracy-plus: ballots and bullets.
In the grand tradition of Sri Lankan politics, of course, the two presidential candidates are only doing what comes naturally: beating the drum for Sinhalese supremacy, and damn the consequences. So why should there be an election at all? President Jayewardene, who has prolonged his parliament under special authority, has ample grounds to consider the circumstances surrounding his own office an even greater emergency. But Mr. Jayewardene, just turned 82, has had to face the harder truth. He was able to negotiate his deal last year with the Indian prime minister, Mr. Rajiv Gandhi, on the strength of his remaining above politics. If it seemed that he was citing this accord now as an excuse for staying in power, all support for it is likely to vanish. So he is retiring and hoping that his peace plan will survive the crucible of a vote to replace him.
On its face, the wisdom is unassailable. No peace, even such as it is, can endure if public opinion isn’t behind it. The trouble, however, is that ‘public opinion’ is hardly a philosopher’s touchstone in Sri Lanka. It has been shaped and crippled by a climate of fear-mongering that has never given the merits of tolerance and power-sharing a chance. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the rabble-rousing former prime minister, refused all attempts to form an all-party consensus on answering Tamil grievances right up to the point of Mr. Jayewardene’s desperate remedy, which she promptly labeled a ‘sell-out’. Though she is a bit less militant towards India’s middleman role now, Mrs. Bandaranaike still sounds as though Tamils would get a meaningful form of provincial autonomy only over her dead body. At least everyone knew what to expect from her, however. More astonishing has been the campaign of erosion within Mr. Jayewardene’s party by his own long-serving prime minister, Mr Ranasinghe Premadasa, now the party’s presidential nominee. Opposed to the deal from its outset, Mr Premadasa is campaigning on behalf of a complete withdrawal of the Indian troops – which, given their record, they may be only too happy to do.
When the Indian forces swarmed ashore in Jaffna last year, their brief was to disarm the Tamil Tigers and other separatist guerillas in preparation for a devolution of power to the Tamil-heavy Northern and Eastern provinces. Mr Gandhi apparently thought that all he needed to do was collect a few guns, watch over a couple of polls, and then the jawans could come marching home. He didn’t reckon on one thing: the Tigers never had any intention of surrendering their weapons or goals. Though India had long championed the guerillas, the IOUs Mr Gandhi undertook to call in were simply torn up. Even though the Indians mounted an all-out siege of Jaffna, the Tigers only melted into the countryside, regrouped and carried on their arms smuggling and terrorism with impunity.
The ‘peacekeepers’ then turned pragmatic. Rather than ship home their own boys in body bags, they began to use rival Tamil guerillas as proxies, arming them and licensing their habit of ‘taxing’ travelers and raiding homesteaders. Ordinary Tamils now feel abused and betrayed by the saviours from across the water. And with machine-gunning badmashes still running wild, hurry-up provincial council elections are doomed to failure. No moderate wants to contest a poll whose likely outcome is death.
Such has been what Mr. Gandhi has wrought in struggling to avoid ‘India’s Vietnam’ – a spectacle in which New Delhi has serially played the roles of Hanoi and Washington. India wanted to get involved, of course, to advertise South Asia as its sphere of influence. It may think again in future. Now that the troops are there, though, it would be fatal to withdraw them precipitately. Colombo’s forces have their hands full in the south trying to fend off Sinhalese terrorists who oppose giving the island’s most decent Tamils anything suggestive of a fair shake. The Sri Lankan armed forces were never any model outfit in the first place, and they can scarcely fight two wars at once – especially since the Tigers are not going to be declawed until their own people, average Tamils, get the sympathy and support needed to stand up to them.
What a thing it would be if Sinhalese politicians gave such people that. Instead, the mutiny within Mr Jayewardene’s own party, Colombo’s winking at the Indian Army’s proxy game, the presidential candidates’ vying to be endorsed by jingoistic Sinhalese bomb-throwers – all these high-minded tactics condemn them to further bloodshed and unconscionable waste. India hasn’t won any stars in its bid to become the subcontinent’s exclusive policeman. But democracy as usual in Sri Lanka isn’t much to celebrate, either. Mr Premadasa and Mrs Bandaranaike could help save this tragedy overnight by showing people that heroism does not come out of the barrel of a gun.
Gearing for a Showdown [Anonymous; Asiaweek, October 28, 1988, pp. 31-34.]
Early on Saturday, Oct. 1, soldiers patrolling in Central Colombo spotted a group of youngsters putting up a poster on a wall. Handwritten in bold letters across the bright red bill were the questions: ‘Who is He? What is He Doing?’ The cryptic message seemed inoffensive enough but the troops nonetheless swooped on the bunch. Reason: the scarlet sheets looked like the handiwork of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), a militant Sinhalese group which in recent months has wreaked terror among supporters of the ruling United National Party (UNP). The arrested youths, however, insisted they were not JVP men but had been recruited by Sirisena Cooray, the mayor of Colombo. The posters, they added, were meant to kick off the election campaign of a star presidential candidate – Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa. A telephone call to the mayoral offices confirmed the story.
But why had the premier permitted Cooray to design an election poster similar to the JVP’s? ‘Is he trying to get mass support through a campaign that’s tailored to look like a JVP one, with JVP approval?’ wondered Sarath Gunawardene, a Colombo political analyst. Indeed, the incident of the posters highlighted an unusual twist in Sri Lankan politics in the run-up to the presidential polls scheduled for mid-December. Until June 15, when the UNP government lifted a five-year ban on the party, the JVP was the target of a massive security sweep. The crackdown was ordered by President Junius Jayewardene not long after Colombo signed a July 29, 1987 accord with New Delhi granting greater autonomy to the island’s Tamil minority. The agreement also called for Indian troops to keep peace in Sri Lanka’s troubled north and east. The JVP rejected the accord as a ‘sellout’ to the Tamils and began terrorist attacks on UNP legislators. But despite violent methods, the JVP’s message soon gained wide acceptance among Sinhalese critics of the India-Sri Lanka pact. Among them: PM Premadasa.
Political parties were quick to capitalize on the JVP’s surging popularity. On Sept. 29, the pro-Sinhalese opposition Sri Lanka Freedom Party announced it had joined hands with the JVP and six other groupings in the presidential battle. The front’s common candidate: SLFP chief Sirimavo Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike, an ex-premier and opponent of the peace pact. Included among other alliance members are the Muslim Congress, the Eksath Lanka Janatha Party and, surprisingly, the Tamil Congress, which has close links with Tamil separatist guerillas and is ideologically opposed to the JVP on the ethnic issue. ‘What we have is a potentially explosive situation,’ noted a senior SLFP member. ‘Groupings such as Eksath Lanka Janatha Party and the JVP are not prepared to budge an inch from their positions vis-à-vis granting rights to Tamils.’
The coalition solemnised other marriages of convenience as well. After a bloody insurrection in 1971, the JVP was virtually wiped out by the United Front coalition government, then headed by Bandaranaike’s SLFP. The group was banned and its fiery leader, Rohana Wijeweera, sentenced to life imprisonment. Bandaranaike’s son and lieutenant, Anura, recently declared that the greatest achievement of the eight-party front was in bringing the JVP back into the political mainstream. ‘There will be no need for the JVP to continue its armed struggle if Mrs. Bandaranaike is elected president, as it would automatically become part of the government,’ he said. ‘The JVP is fully agreed with us on the two basic issues of preserving the island’s territorial integrity, independence and sovereignty while at the same time endeavouring to restore democracy in the country.’
The formation of the SLFP-led alliance stunned the Premadasa camp. ‘For some time now, the prime minister had been building up his image as a UNP cabinet minister who was soft on the JVP,’ said analyst Gunawardene. ‘It was evident he recognized how important a part the JVP could play in the presidential elections and wanted its endorsement.’ Towards that end, Premadasa maintained a conciliatory attitude to the JVP in his maiden campaign speech delivered, curiously, during a stopover last month in Hongkong en route to London. In a prepared statement, which was telexed verbatim back to Sri Lanka, the premier refused to accuse the JVP of inspiring violence in certain parts of the country. ‘I can do so only after charges, if any, have been framed against the JVP and it has been convicted by a proper court of law,’ he said. ‘Up till now, neither the JVP nor its leaders have accepted responsibility for any violence or crimes.’
Premadasa also hit out at the accord and the continuing presence of Indian troops on Sri Lankan soil – two pet JVP gripes. The Indo-Lanka agreement had neither been reciprocal, he said, nor had its timing been ‘opportune’. He accused Indian soldiers of committing ‘certain excesses’ while fulfilling their obligations in Sri Lanka. New Delhi, which denies the charge, maintains it will pull out troops from Sri Lanka as soon as scheduled elections are held next month to create an autonomous council for a joint Northeastern Province. The merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces was a key clause in the peace pact.
The SLFP got maximum mileage out of Premadasa’s statement. ‘The UNP cannot claim we are committing murder in collusion with the JVP,’ declared Anura Bandaranaike at a Colombo election rally. ‘The prime minister has himself cleared the JVP.’ As some observers saw it, the JVP took Premadasa for a ride. ‘It was quite obvious the prime minister wanted the JVP to come to his fold. And it was also obvious that the JVP was playing along with the prime minister,’ noted a senior SLFP leader.
An alliance with the Sinhalese extremists holds potential danger for the SLFP, however. ‘One can never be sure when and where their guns will be turned against us,’ warned a partyman. In fact, just five days after the coalition was formed, copies of a JVP letter criticizing Bandaranaike were hand-delivered to newspaper offices in Colombo. The missive accused her of entering into a secret understanding with New Delhi over the 1987 accord, despite her public rejection of it. Although JVP officials later claimed that the letter pre-dated the coalition talks, they could not explain why it had been delivered at all. Sources said, however, that the letter was intended to be a slap in SLFP’s face for resisting some radical proposals made by the JVP at the alliance negotiations.
How will the formation of the SLFP-led alliance affect Premadasa’s chances? Sirimavo Bandaranaike considers the PM a weaker opponent than the incumbent, Jayewardene. ‘The UNP bloc vote, which is estimated to be around 30-35% would have voted for Mr. Jayewardene,’ she told Asiaweek. ‘But professionals such as engineers, doctors and even [members of] the top business community who constitute a majority of the UNP vote do not consider Mr Premadasa to be the ideal UNP candidate. His track record of leadership is sketchy and does not inspire the professionals.’ For New Delhi, it’s a toss-up as to which of the two candidates will be less hostile to the peace accord, although Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi said recently that the agreement should not be threatened by a new leader moving into the presidential house in Colombo. Remarked he: ‘Realities come home quickly when one comes into the government.’
The Indians had earlier backed the candidacy of Sri Lankan Lands Minister Gamini Dissanayake, who had initiated the talks that led to the accord. But when the nominations came, Dissanayake and National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali, another contender, were sidelined in favour of Premadasa. ‘No doubt it was Jayewardene who persuaded the two young Turks to toe the line and support Premadasa for their own survival,’ a senior cabinet minister told Asiaweek. ‘But it was Premadasa who convinced Jayewardene that he should be nominated over and above the two others.’ In making his choice, Jayewardene showed he gave little weigtage to such matters as caste. Premadasa does not belong to the high govigama (farmer) caste from which the UNP has traditionally drawn its leaders.
The government’s more immediate concern, however, is upcoming provincial polls in the north and east. Both Colombo and New Delhi are playing for high stakes there: the success of the 1987 peace pact. So far the odds are not in their favour. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the most powerful Tamil separatist group, has rejected the elections and warned candidates and voters to stay away. Like the JVP, the Tigers have denounced the accord and the Indian presence in Sri Lanka. Registration centres opened on Oct. 3 in the newly created Northeastern Province, which is Tamil-dominated, but few nominations were received.
Sri Lanka’s two Tamil political groups, the Tamil United Liberation Front and the Tamil Congress, declared they would not participate because a safe environment for staging elections had not yet been created. Interestingly, the Tigers’ bitter rival, the People’s Liberation of Tamil Eelam, joined the boycott. Tamil parties that did file nominations were viewed with suspicion by nay-saying brethren. Carped Tamil Congress boss Kumar Ponnambalam: ‘Several groups, who are in the pay of the Indian Government, have consented to contest the elections. Little do they realize they are helping in the creation of a puppet regime subservient to the Indians in the Tamil homeland.’
Although he did not name them, Ponnambalam was referring to the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation, the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Front and the Eelam National Democratic Liberation Front. An electoral alliance of the trio last week bagged without contest 36 seats in the 71-member Northeastern provincial council. That meant they had clinched five of the eight districts up for grabs. Balloting in the remaining three – Batticaloa, Amparai and Trincomalee – was expected on Nov. 19.
It has become increasingly likely, however, that the polls will be held against a backdrop of violence. Anti-government demonstrations, most of them ignited by JVP extremists, erupted last week in the predominantly Sinhalese south. The authorities closed 115 schools nationwide as students, some only in their early teens, rampaged through the streets. The unrest followed a successful nationwide strike called by the JVP on Oct.10, the last date for filing nominations.
The boycott coincided with the massacre of 45 Sinhalese civilians in north-central Ullukulama village, allegedly by the Tigers. The charge was hotly denied by the militants, who blamed the killings on rival guerilla groups. ‘The aim of this malicious report is to discredit [us],’ read a Tiger statement. ‘We suspect it could be the dirty work of Tamil terrorist groups operating with the help of the Indian peacekeeping forces.’ Many Sri Lankans believe the Indians have been arming other Tamil militants to fight the Tigers.
But the raging ethnic passions in Sri Lanka have not dented Jayewardene’s determination to see the provincial polls through. At a recent by-election meeting in north-central Anuradhapura district, the 82 year-old warhorse exhorted people not to be intimidated in the struggle to bring peace to the troubled north and east. ‘The security forces have learned to fight, wage war, kill and get killed,’ he declared. ‘The ordinary people too should learn to die and not fear death.’
Ranasinghe Premadasa: Rural Champion
Not long after President Junius Jayewardene and Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa visited London in 1981 for the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana, an unkind joke about the premier and his wife, Hema, began circulating in Colombo. It went like this: at the wedding dinner, Hema was taken by the gold cutlery and made her husband pocket a spoon. The move was noticed by Jayewardene’s wife, Elina, who urged the president to save the situation and prevent a possible diplomatic incident. Jayewardene rose and offered to do some magic tricks. Picking up a spoon, he placed it in his pocket, then reached over and pulled out the one from Premadasa’s pocket, to the applause of all present. The point of the joke: that Jayewardene was capable of out-manoeuvring Premadasa at every turn.
In recent years, however, Premadasa’s image among his countrymen has improved considerably: he is recognized now as a politician who has come into his own. Since Independence in 1948, Sri Lanka’s politics have been dominated by a few elite families: three former prime ministers and current president Jayewardene are all related through Don Attygalle, who founded the country’s first graphite mines in 1837. Unlike his predecessors, Premadasa, 64, has had to fight his way up. ‘Despite his lack of connections to the ruling families, he has made it to the top,’ observes a political analyst in Colombo. ‘That speaks volumes for his organizing abilities.’
A devout Buddhist, Colombo-born Premadasa studied at the capital’s St. Joseph’s College, a leading Catholic boys’ school. He dabbled in journalism and as a short story writer before joining the now defunct Ceylon Labour Party. Meanwhile, he had launched a community development movement and at 26 became one of Colombo’s youngest municipal councilors. His association with Dudley Senanayake, who later became the country’s second PM, led him to the United National Party (UNP) in 1956. After serving as a backbencher in parliament for three years, he was appointed to the cabinet as minister of local government in 1968.
When the UNP was ousted by Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s United Front in 1970, Premadasa was among the few partymen who retained their seats. As Senanayake began losing grip on the UNP, Premadasa distanced himself from the PM. He competed with Jayewardene for the party’s leadership, but later joined him. When Jayewardene became Sri Lanka’s first executive president in 1978, Premadasa took over as PM. He also holds the local government & housing portfolio and is deputy leader of the UNP.
Premadasa built up his image as a man of the people through his prolific writings in Sinhala and his socioeconomic reform programs. He is said to rise early and sleep late, and has worked hard at a massive gam udawa (village reawakening) effort directed at the rural poor. His housing scheme, which has provided shelter for more than 150,000 families, recently won him an international award. What is Premadasa’s formula for success? ‘There are no short cuts,’ he told his alma mater in a speech shortly after he became PM. ‘There is no substitute for hard work.’
Sirimavo Bandaranaike: A Will to Run
The matronly woman sat at the head of the table, sipping a cup of black coffee while her hosts finished lunch. A moment later, their eighteen month-old son crawled into the room, crying fitfully. Cradling the baby in her arms, the concerned mother explained that the child was suffering from a stomach disorder and the drugs prescribed by the doctor were having no effect. ‘Why are you giving antibiotics to this little child?’ exclaimed her guest. ‘Don’t you have some aralu (an indigenous medicinal root) in the house? Grind some and give it to him with honey. He should be all right by tomorrow.’
It has been decades since she helped her mother, a well known traditional medicine practitioner, treat the villagers who used to stream into their house in Balangoda, a town some 160 km southeast of Colombo. But Sirimavo Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike still retains the healing skills she acquired during those years. Born into an aristocratic Sinhalese family, Bandaranaike is Sri Lanka’s most powerful opposition figure and has the added distinction of having been the world’s first woman prime minister.
To senior politicians who work closely with her, the leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) is a forceful, no-nonsense personality. ‘At first sight she appears disorganized and weak-willed,’ notes close confidant Dr. Neville Fernando, ‘but when it comes to the crux, when you are playing the game with your back to the wall, then you know what she really is.’ To party workers, she is something of a mother figure. SLFP aide Lasantha Wickramatunga says that when she’s on the campaign trail ‘she won’t sleep until she makes sure that each of us are comfortably bedded.’
Millions of Sri Lankans, though, know Bandaranaike best as the tough-willed woman who brought them untold economic hardship during her 1970-77 premiership. They remember her for the mile-long queues for bread, the controls on free enterprise and the locally-produced textiles that smelt of paraffin. Yet many Sri Lankans now want her to return to power. At the ripe age of 72, Bandaranaike remains the enigma she was in July 1960, when she first took over the reins of government after the assassination of her husband, prime minister Solomon Bandaranaike. Although not a member of the Lower House at the time, the young woman functioned as premier from the Senate, the Upper House. ‘Many people the world over wondered how this charming yet uneducated, pretty yet unsophisticated, widow would survive in the political jungle,’ recalls political analyst Sarath Gunawardene. ‘She proved that education is a relative merit and that sophistication is within oneself. She made an indelible mark on world politics.’
Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s first term as PM ended in December 1964. The following year, she won her first seat in Parliament by a convincing majority of 16,500 votes. But despite a strong showing at the polls, she had to be content with leading the opposition in Parliament. The new prime minister: Dudley Senanayake of the United National Party. But in May 1970 Bandaranaike was back at the nation’s helm, heading a United Front government comprising the SLFP and two powerful communist allies.
Eight months later, the country was clamped under emergency regulations following an insurrection by a Sinhalese extremist group, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna. Bandaranaike crushed the insurgency and jailed the rebel leaders. In November that year, she unveiled a five-year development plan based on her party’s socialist ideology. The new measures proved disastrous for the economy and the government fell in May 1977. For years after that, Bandaranaike was in the political wilderness. But she has now bounced back, becoming for many a symbol of Sinhalese unity in the country’s ongoing ethnic imbroglio. What motivates her? Will power, she says, ‘and the determination to go on.’