, who also tried to eliminate Chandrika Dharisha Bastians, courtesy of Daily FT, 4 December 2014 where the title is “Momentum gainst Executive Presidency is unstoppable –CBK”
Love her or hate her, ex-President Chandrika Kumaratunga is a force to reckon with. Coming out of a nine-year retirement last month, the former Head of State has joined forces with a broad opposition movement attempting to abolish and reform the presidential office that she once held for 11 years. The declaration of SLFP frontliner Maithripala Sirisena as a common opposition challenger to President Mahinda Rajapaksa has cemented Kumaratunga’s position in the public psyche as polls fever hits the nation. As she struggles alongside Sirisena, the UNP and the civil society movement coalescing around the abolition platform, Kumaratunga is perceived as the leader of the SLFP rebellion that is threatening to crack open the ruling coalition ahead of the 8 January 2015 poll. She remains one of the fiercest critics of the Rajapaksa administration, but the fears of her children held her back from contesting as the opposition candidate in this election. As she lingered over a late lunch at her Independence Avenue residence, before the elections were declared, President Kumaratunga engaged in a frank and laidback discussion with Daily FT about constitutional revolution, SLFP politics and when the hostility with President Rajapaksa began. The former President laughed about how she sketched the original design of the Nelum Pokuna, her essay-writing skills that she is using towards penning her memoirs and how much she loves being a grandmother. She also shared what aspects she would try to do-over if she could turn the clock back on her two-term presidency.
Q: What have you been up to in the nine years since you gave up presidential office?
A: I don’t know why but I’m very busy since retirement. I have been part of two or three foundations that work on common issues affecting all communities. The first of course is SAPRI, which has recently been doing some work on religious freedom. The Anura Bandaranaike Foundation which provides scholarships to children in need in the north and the south. We are also working on poverty alleviation projects, we just finished one in Jaffna for 100 recently resettled families, to provide electricity through solar power. In Embilipitiya we have done a water supply project using harvested rain water. Internationally I am part of the Club de Madrid organisation, which comprises former heads of state, former presidents or prime ministers. This functions like a group of elders that advises Governments about peace, democracy and administration.
Q: Haven’t you been invited by the Sri Lankan Government to engage in such initiatives? A: When I called President Mahinda Rajapaksa after he won, to wish him on the telephone, he blasted me unceasingly. I was still at President’s House packing up to leave. There were two other people there – one of them is today a senior minister in the Government, the other is a Governor. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I hung up the phone. Both these individuals came running to me, asking me not to tell the newspapers what happened because it would be bad for the SLFP. I told them I was not raised that way. I went overseas after that. I came back after two months. It was SLFP General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena who called me up and urged me to come with him to meet President Rajapaksa. He said, “Don’t you know how he is, when he gets angry he shouts.” To satisfy him I went to meet him. Before I sat down I told him, if you start shouting I will get up and leave. We spoke for a while and finally I told him I sensed a lot of hostility. I told him I was not sure why this was the case. I clearly told him I was not interested in active politics anymore, so there was no problem and there was nothing to be afraid of. But I did say I can’t do nothing. You and I are both only 60 years old. I need to stay active. I have plans to create some foundations. I would like to serve the people that way. I said I would be happy to help his Government in any way I could if they should require consultations but I did not want to hold any positions in his Government. “No madam, you stay abroad,” he told me. I said, “What?” He repeated himself. Then I said, “Why Mahinda?” “No I mean you have a great international image. Why don’t you use that and stay overseas and do some work,” he told me.
Q: In 2005, there is speculation that you gave Mahinda Rajapaksa the presidential nomination in the hope he would lose. Is there any truth to that?
A: There were 61 in the party politburo. If you take away me and Mahinda, that left 59. With the exception of three of them, begged me not to give him the nomination. They said the SLFP would be finished and the country would be destroyed. This is why Mahinda is still scared of these SLFPers. This is why he has forbidden them to speak with me. But I asked them, who were we to nominate in that case? I told them maybe we could reform him. When Mahinda suggested Anura become his running mate in the 2005 election, I begged my brother to reconsider. I told him under a Rajapaksa presidency he would also be ruined. But he summoned me and my mother and our sister to breakfast one morning and told us about Mahinda’s proposal. He assured me that since I would also be around in the party we could control him. I could see Anura had a great yearning to do this. So I gave in.
Q: Did you not support his campaign for the presidency? A: That is completely untrue. When he asked Mangala Samaraweera to become his campaign manager, Mangala came and asked me what he should do. I urged him to go ahead. I told Mangala I didn’t nominate him to have him lose. Maithripala Sirisena, Nimal Siripala, Anura Yapa – they all asked me if they should work for him. To all of them I said please go. I went for four rallies of candidate Mahinda Rajapaksa but then he sent me a message through Maithripala Sirisena that I don’t need to come for any more events. He signed a MoU with the JVP without informing me. Then three days later he carried the signed agreement and came to see me, I told him to leave because he had not even had the decency to tell me about the deal as SLFP Chairman. Sarath Amunugama was also with me. Still I continued to support his campaign. After we nominated him we could not watch while he was defeated. Karu Jayasuriya came to see me over and over again, about the Helping Hambantota scam, urging me not to give him the ticket. Then Lalith Weeratunga came to me crying and saying that it was all him, and not Mahinda. I can’t stand this kind of corruption, but by this time we had no choice. He had already got hold of Chief Justice Sarath Silva.
Q: There was talk then that even your vote in the 2005 presidential election went to Ranil Wickremesinghe… A: (Laughs) Nonsense. I have party discipline. Why have I never spoken against my party? This is the first interview I am giving in nine years. There are 30-40 requests every year for interviews – just ask my office – from the local and foreign press. I can speak out and destroy the party. But I will not do that. If I nominate someone I will not defeat him. I told Mahinda this myself.
Q: You lost the chairmanship of the SLFP in 2006. Where were you then? A: He told me as soon as he was elected that he wanted to be chairman of the party. I told him I wanted the position for just one year because I had a dream of founding a political academy and do a few more things. But he said he wanted it immediately. So I told him then let me know and I will come and hand it over. I have written three letters to the party asking them to give me one month’s notice to return from London and hand it over. In those letters I said I would like to stay one more year. It was customary to give three weeks’ notice before a party convention. Five days before the meeting they dropped the letter off at my gate and ousted me on my birthday. People had begged him not to do it on my birthday but he insisted. My mother, father and I held the party leadership with great dignity. I was ready to hand it over with that same dignity.
Q: Which ministers in this current Government, who served with you also still speak with you? A: At the first group meeting after Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected, he forbade everyone to speak to me. To this day, they are so scared, they don’t talk to me. Only Mangala Samaraweera, Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, D.M. Jayaratne before he was Prime Minister. The others say hello if they see me at a social gathering and run away in three minutes, saying, ‘You know how it is if we talk for too long.” But if we want to talk, there are ways to do it.
Q: There was intense speculation that you would come forward to contest President Rajapaksa as the common opposition candidate at one point. A: It was more than just a rumour. It came to a point where I could not go out in public. People would ask if I was going to come forward for the past two years. I decided I would not do that. But to put an end to this current rotten system, I will definitely contribute. I have already been invited to contest. I have already rejected. They told me if not you, let it be your son. But it will never happen. My son has no political ambition. And in this political culture, they will kill him.
Q: As a head of state, you were personally and tragically affected by LTTE terrorism. How do you feel about the fact that Mahinda Rajapaksa finished the war? A: I am very glad about that. I don’t agree with every aspect of how it was done. It has always been my opinion that this Government won the war and lost the peace.
Q: There is great opposition criticism about Chinese dependency for mega development projects undertaken by this Government. It’s true however that even you signed agreements with China on development projects. A: My Government undertook massive infrastructure projects. The biggest Port Development since independence – the SAGT project – happened under my Government. The Colombo South Harbour project was designed and tenders had been called when I left office. This Government cancelled the tender for that project four times. The Southern Expressway was two-thirds finished when I left office. The Katunayake Expressway had also been started by the time I left. The Kandy Expressway was designed and conceptualised and we were about to call tenders when I left office. Before I left office, I signed six major projects. By then the economic slowdown had begun in the West. We brought China in and I went to Beijing to sign those deals. At the time China gave us the loans at 0.5% above LIBOR. Now we are paying between 6-9% above LIBOR. By the time I left, foundation stones had already been laid for those projects, including the Hambantota Port, the Colombo-Katunayake Highway, the Colombo-Katunayake electric rail, Norochcholai and the Cultural Centre in Colombo now known as Nelum Pokuna. The cultural centre was to be a really beautiful concept. I sketched the original design by my own hand and then the architects improved on it beautifully. Now it looks like a chamber pot. It was supposed to be a people’s cultural centre, with open air theatres and free spaces for artists and writers to inhabit and one big performance hall. That was going to be my special millennium project – we started it in 2000. Now they say my Government did nothing. But even today it is projects that my government designed which Mahinda Rajapaksa is still ceremonially opening. But he is signing these deals at a much greater cost than we did. The Norochchalai project we signed at $ 280 million. Mahinda Rajapaksa signed at $ 510 million.
Q: Today you stand on the common opposition platform to abolish the executive presidency. But a major accusation against you is that you failed to abolish the system in an 11-year term… A: You must read the 2000 draft constitution. The entire second section of that draft was about the abolition of the presidency. All we didn’t do was worship Ranil to get him to vote for the new constitution. But we didn’t have the two-thirds majority and when he didn’t vote, we were finally seven votes short. I should have used my presidential powers to force that constitution through. Today I regret that I didn’t. For the sake of the country, to pass that constitution that offered a devolution package and abolishing the executive presidency, I should have been a dictator for three months.
Q: Is it true that the first draft of that 2000 constitution included a clause that you would serve out your term? A: No, that is not true. The initial draft said two years before the presidency would lapse. When I realised that the UNP was sort of dilly-dallying and I thought it was over this, I told them I was willing to reduce it to one year. Only because the lawyers were saying that the authority of the executive president was required to set the constitution in motion – particularly the devolution clauses because otherwise the extremists would be marching on the streets and creating problems. But I asked them to tell me if they would vote for it if I reduced it. They refused to discuss this. Ranil discussed every word, every line of the constitutional draft but he just wouldn’t discuss the presidency. They completely sabotaged it. We have the tapes and the minutes – I am writing about it now in my memoirs. One year after I retired, Ranil told me something. He comes once in a way to see me because we have been childhood friends. He was complaining to me about the Government and how Mahinda was becoming a dictator. Just as he was leaving, I said to him, “Ranil, I am just asking for the record. What do you think would have happened if you accepted my suggestion and voted for my constitutional draft? There would have been no executive presidency and there would be no ethnic problem in this country.” He looked at me and said, “I should have listened to you.” I replied that it was a little late in the day. And in fact I had told them confidentially during the negotiations, that if they voted for the constitution, the very next day I would invite the UNP to form a national government. I couldn’t say it publicly because my party would protest – there was so much bad blood between the two parties. But if they voted, I could have justified it. I would have said in a national question the UNP has been generous and helped us and stood my ground.
Q: The opposition keeps talking about abolishing the executive presidency. But given your experiences in the past, do you believe people like Ranil Wickremesinghe are genuine in that effort? A: Good question. I can’t vouch for the individual convictions of people. But from what I can see, Ranil seems to want to abolish it. And on the other hand I think that whoever wants to or doesn’t want to do it, the momentum that is building against the executive presidency will sweep them up. And they will not be able to stop it.
Q: Given that the UNP managed a promising showing in Uva in September, couldn’t the party have gone it alone in this presidential election? A: Absolutely not. An alliance was absolutely essential. That was something the President is terrified about – an alliance of the opposition. And media institutions that are plugging the president’s line were trying to sabotage the creation of the alliance.
Q: Every president comes to power on a platform to abolish the presidency. You started it and Mahinda Rajapaksa did the same thing. Do you think the public will trust the next guy who campaigns on this issue? A: They probably won’t. The UNP spread a lot of mistruths after sabotaging the 2000 constitution, saying they refused to vote for it because Chandrika was not willing to abolish the presidency. Jayampathy Wickremaratne was one of the team who drafted the constitution. G.L. Peiris who helped to draft it – he is keeping mum. I was not allowed to do it. I wanted to very badly. But I think now the UNP realises the dangers of the system. As I always said, if there was a democrat like me holding that post, it would not be too dangerous. But if an undemocratic, dictatorial person comes to power, it becomes deadly. We saw that in Premadasa, we see that in the Rajapaksas. And I think people are now convinced about it.
Q: Do you think that when people assume that office of the presidency, it’s hard to give it up? A: I didn’t find it hard to give it up, but others might.
Q: But isn’t it a little strange to go from being the most powerful person in the country to being an ordinary person again? A: They say people find it very difficult. But – and I am telling you the gospel truth – I didn’t. I don’t look like someone who is suffering do I? Because I had made up my mind that after two terms I go home. I had promised my children, I had promised myself that. So I was ready for it. Secondly, I was never greedy for power. I was dragged kicking and screaming into active politics. I was always in politics helping the party but not for myself. So there was always one part of me that was always waiting to go home because I think I hated the fanfare and the cringing of acolytes and the people around you when you are in that position of power. I hate it, I really hate it. And I have an interesting life apart from politics. So I didn’t find it so difficult to go back to regular life. And as a family, we never really abused power. My children had only one car between them the whole time that I was President. I haven’t robbed five cents from the State. So I had no personal benefits but I did get the thrill and the happiness that some of my dreams and visions for this country were realised. And that was a huge thing. I loved making decisions and seeing them implemented successfully. But if the rest of the package is not there for you, you can give it up any time.
Q: So you felt no discomfort soon after retirement? A: There was in the first year, as with any active person who retires, a little difficulty because you suddenly stop and you’re wondering what the hell to do. And in my case, I did a foolish thing, I went and lived abroad. It was good and bad. I was completely away from my normal surroundings and my friends. My children were there but they were in university and they only had time for me about once a week. I had some English friends but you can’t see them all the time. I was alone and the Government had forbidden them to give me even a vehicle. So I had to get used to using the bus and the tube. And I remember always looking over my shoulder thinking there might be an LTTEer behind me. In the evenings I would take a taxi but I couldn’t afford that all the time. Sometimes friends would drop me, but that is not the done thing there. And I just could not understand why this Government was treating me like this after I gave Mahinda Rajapaksa the nomination and worked towards his victory. It was upsetting at first but after a while I explained things to myself and then soon I was on top of those feelings too.
Q: You say the President bears a terrible grudge against you? When you were President and he was your minister, did he feel penalised? A: No. I think it is a Rajapaksa massive complex against the Bandaranaikes. ‘They had it all, so we must punish them when we get there’. It’s a sociological phenomenon I think.
Q: They say that in 2004, when the UPFA won the general election, it was Lakshman Kadirgamar and not Mahinda Rajapaksa who was your choice for Prime Minister. Why were you persuaded to change this decision? A: I will have to reveal details about that another time. There was a big conspiracy at the time to topple the Government and I couldn’t allow the Government to fall soon after winning the elections. So I was compelled to make that choice.
Q: Had late Minister Kadirgamar been Prime Minister then, the Sri Lankan political story may have been very different, especially in terms of resolving the ethnic question. Do you feel you gave up too easily in that battle? A: Probably. Yes. I blame myself sometimes. History might have been very different.
Q: Between politics and being a grandmother, which is more rewarding? A: Three times now! I have three grandkids. The last one was just born – Tara Rosie. So now I have two granddaughters and one grandson. It is very rewarding. I think if people don’t harass me to do this and that politically, I will be quite happy. I read a lot and I have started writing my memoirs which is going nicely and I have all these projects going on internationally and locally. I have many friends and I think friendships are important. I would have been very frustrated if the knowledge and political acumen I had was wasted and I couldn’t utilise it in retirement. But with this involvement in Club de Madrid and elsewhere, I have an opportunity to impart what I have learned.
Q: How far have you progressed on your memoirs? When do you think they will be out? Are you writing them yourself? A: I gave some money to an Australian writer once to write this biography. He wrote very well. But he interviewed a lot of people and ran away with the money and that was it. I used to win essay competitions in school all the time, in Sinhala and English. It was so rare for one person to win in Sinhala and English that the nuns in school who were very careful with money invented a thing called a bilingual prize – and the only ones who ever got the bilingual prize at St. Bridget’s were my sister and I. All three of us were good at languages like my father. So I thought I will not depend on others, I’ll write it myself. I am writing, I have started with my governance period, since the time I became Chief Minister. At one point I had only written four pages in two years. (Laughs). But now I think I am more relaxed and better organised, so I am writing much more – but not enough yet. I walk around with this chapter now, every weekend I am at Horogolla, because I love it there. I know I need only about two hours to finish. But the last two weeks I have only finished one page! I would like to finish it by my 70th birthday next year – in June. But let’s see.
Q: How do you feel about the fact that Mangala Samaraweera, a confidant and stalwart of the SLFP is now a member of the UNP? A: Well I am no longer in the SLFP after the President threw me out. I am supposed to be Patron of the party with a lot of powers. According to the SLFP constitution I must be present at every politburo meeting, and participate in all important decision-making, etc. So I can go to court. If he threw me out he can throw Mangala out. I am not only sad about Mangala but those in the party – party seniors who have sacrificed so much for the SLFP – have been marginalised and treated like vermin while new people are getting more recognition.
Q: Other than for President Rajapaksa you are the only living person who can benefit from the 18th Amendment which removes presidential term limits. How do you feel about that amendment?
A: I think it is horrible. You know that my party tried to persuade me to do this? When it was time to for me to go home, they even prepared through party lawyers amendments to help me stay another term. I refused to do it. I said I am a democrat, I cannot do that. It was a hideous, ugly thing to do and I don’t think any president should stay for more than two terms.
Q: How does your family feel about your involvement in politics, even now? A: They have always been against it. I have brought my children up in such a manner that there was never anything in it for them, personally. Both my children never wanted me involved. They were dead against my coming into politics even in the beginning.
Q: What about all the speculation that Vimukthi will be the continuation of the Bandaranaike political legacy? A: I don’t think it will ever happen. I don’t know what will happen if the political culture changes. If it does, maybe even I will encourage him. But not in this filthy situation.
Q; Have either of them ever expressed an interest in Sri Lankan politics? A: They were never interested. They read websites and they know what is going on here. Sometimes Vimukthi calls me and says, “Ammi what on earth is going on here?” so they are interested in political developments but not in active politics.
Q: If you had a chance at a do-over of your presidency, which aspects would you change? A: I think first and foremost, I would be less of a humanist. I would punish corruption much more. I used to punish people by sacking them but I would never have them jailed or arrested. It is because I was too kind that President Rajapaksa is president today. I was probably being too understanding – and I should not have been. Quite definitely on the question of minority rights and devolution, I would not be so much of a democrat about it, I would get it done. So on minority rights, corruption, I would take a harder line. I would have used more authority to achieve these policies.
Q: From your perspective, what would you say is positive about the current Government? A: They finally finished the war. The development of Colombo had to be done and is being done well. Sometimes that involves the eviction of people; that is not correct. But a lot of it was possible without that. It is great that buildings have been opened up. I thank the Defence Secretary for the lovely park he has given me in front of my house. But other than that, all values and ethics have flown out the window. Rule of law doesn’t exist. Corruption is rampant. The system must change.
SOME STRIKING AND POIGNANT MOMENTS IN CHANDRIKA’S JOURNEYS
Vijaya & Chandrika Kumaratunga and Osie Abeygunasekera visiting EPRLF leaders Padmanabha and Ketheesh Logannathan in Chennai – Pic from http://www.sangam.com. Tragically and ironically both Abeygunasekera and Kumaratunga were assassinated by the JVP in the late 19080s and the EPRLF were killed by the LTTE
Gamini Dissanayake of the UNP and Chandrika in conversation. Dissanayake was the UNP candidate for the Presidential election in 1994 contesting Kumaratunga when the LTTE suicide bomber decimated him and others at an election rally –thereby aiding The SLFP leader’s victory at the December 1995 election. She escaped a similar fate before the 1999 elections –but lost an eye as result of a suicide attack that killed many around her.
Ranil Wickremasinghe and Chandrika in earnest conversation –perhaps in lead up to the present coalition – Pic from malindawords.blogspot.com