Chandrika Bandarnaike Kumaratunga, is much more than a former president and prime minister. She is the architect of the political arrangement which showed strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa the door. She may not be a minister or hold a party position, but remains the glue which holds together this government of national unity, headed by SLFP President Maithripala Sirisena and run by UNP Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe.
Kumaratunga was in Delhi for the Raisina Dialogue, and took a few minutes off her busy schedule to speak to Firstpost. Kumaratunga revealed for the first time that the slain LTTE leader Prabhakaran regretted not accepting the political package she had given to the Tamils while she was president. She was told about this by a expatriate Tamil professional who worked out of London and often traveled back home to Jaffna.
Prabhakaran is said to told this man, ``I regret I didn’t take it.’’ Kumaratunga’s offer was the most that any Sinhalese leader could have extended to the Tamils. She admits that today, the government is not in a position to offer what she had done at that time. Nor are the Tamils asking for it as they know that Sinahala chauvinism fanned during the Rajapaksa regime would never give as much.
Chandrika was the main mover in getting the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party, (a party founded by her father) to join hands with the United National Party and to throw out President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the January 2015 presidential polls. Without her backing, Sirisena, a low key minister in Rajapaksa’s cabinet would never have been accepted by the majority of the SLFP. Her voice, not just as a former president but the daughter of two former prime ministers lent weight to the argument and led to the eventual defeat of the Rajapaksa.
The former president hates her as ``I am not a robber and murderer like him,’’she said.
President Sirisena had offered to change the Constituion if she wished to take a constitutional position now, but she refused. She is happy doing work for her foundation and working as the Chairperson for National Unity and Reconstruction, a semi autonomous body working under the President.
There is talk about a new Constitution in Sri Lanka. What is your view on this? Does the country need a new Constitution or amend some of the clauses in the existing to give Tamils and Muslim minorities their rights… A new Constitution will take years and years.Remember what happened in Nepal?
Chandrika Kumaratunga: We will have a new Constitution. But we don’t have to start from scratch, as we will incorporate many of things which are already there. The process is on, it will have to be approved by Parliament and there have to be widespread consultations.
Are police and control of land by the provincial councils still the stumbling blocks? Earlier these two issues held up the passing of the 13th amendment. Has Sri Lanka moved beyond these two sticking points? Do you think that we in India give too much importance to the 13th amendment?
CK: It has nothing to do with India. We want to do it. Our people want it. The Tamils and Muslims want it. Of course, our friends in the international community like India and the west encourage us as they believe this is a major way of bringing about durable peace in the country. Many of the aspects of the 13th amendment are already there. But more is needed. Yes, control of land and police remain major issues.
How will Sri Lanka now finally get around the tricky business of land and police?
CK : I certainly cannot talk about that now. It is still a work in progress.
Will the new Constitution give as much as the political package you offered to the LTTE? You as President had given the Tamils the best deal. But Prabhakaran refused, instead there was an attack in Trincomalee harbor and after that it was all round war.
CK : Yes, the Trincomalee attack took place in 2006. As you were mentioning the political package we offered, I must tell you this. I was out of power and Mahinda Rajapaksa became the president had fooled Prabhakaran into supporting him for elections. Of course he went after the LTTE relentlessly and finished him after that. Some members of the diaspora, people, professionals who were in touch with the LTTE and also knew me told me once, that after a meeting with Prabhakaran, at the end of the chat they asked him about my political package. He is reported to have said he regretted not accepting it.
Are the ordinary Tamils in the northern province involved in the move for bringing those responsible for war crimes to justice? Is this being led mainly by expatriate Tamils? What is the mood of the ordinary folks in the province.
CK : For the average Tamils in the northern province, the focus is looking for their loved ones who are missing, getting repatriation, going back to the homes and getting land back which was grabbed by the forces. The army under Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was allowed to take over land and do business, surreptitiously. The military runs boutique hotels, has huge farms and runs thriving businesses. The government is helping the people to slowly get back their land. The poor people want to get on with issues of livelihood, they want development. This year, work on reconstruction is beginning in the right earnest in the north and east : irrigation, roads, hospitals, schools and monuments destroyed during the civil war. The educated Tamils want those responsible for war crimes to be brought to book. But the move is fueled by the Tamil diaspora organisations who want it for their existence. Earlier it was war and injustice, now it is this . They need funding.
What is the reaction in Sri Lanka about Rajapaksa being tried before the International Criminal Court at The Hague? Do people want it?
CK: The Sinhala people want Rajapkasa and his cohorts to be tried for corruption and killings in the South of the island. The regime was responsible for murdering of journalists and some politicians. I have already said that in the north it is the educated who want this.
Considering that governments across the world now commit all sorts of atrocities in the name of fighting terror, do you think perhaps the world has been somewhat more prescriptive when it comes to Sri Lanka?
CK : When we think of what the US did in Iraq and other places, Sri Lanka fades in comparison. But we are a small country. We are dependent on the rest of the world for our development. But at a personal level as someone who has been a human rights activist all my life, it does not mean that just because the Americans do it, or did it, we should also do the same. That cannot be an excuse and not acceptable to me. Those responsible should be brought to book. We are having a domestic investigation, not an international probe, but considering that many in the judiciary, not all, are corrupt, we have to choose the right people to oversee. All this is being set up and I support it.
Have you been to Jaffna? I remember your husband traveled to Jaffna when no Sinhalese politician would do so. The Tamil people have much regard for him. What was their response to you?
CK : On several occasions, I went to Jaffna during the Rajapaksa regime, after the war. I went secretly, if he knew he would have got me killed. Rajapaksa is vindictive, after all I am not a robber and a murderer like him..I went to give solar power units to the people who had returned to their homes. I went during the day and there were mostly the women, the men had left for the fields. The people were disappointed that I had not given them notice as they would have arranged a reception and given me a meal. They were very happy to see me. I went also during the election campaign for our candidate, and I got an overwhelming reception. They were huge crowds.
Are the people bitter ?
CK : Not bitter, but frightened. But not with me.
How do you see the future of the UNP and the SLFP? Two opposing parties came together to save the country from the Rajapaksa’s rule, but afterwards what happens?
CK : We will finish the full five year term. Next elections we shall see. Possibly contest as two parties and form the government again together
And your political future ?
CK : I am not greedy for power. I have done my bit for my country. I don't want to be pinned down. Me and my family have never been in politics for power. We have given and not taken. My foundations are my passion and I also involved with the Chair for National Unity and Reconciliation.