TamilWeek, Nov 20 - 26, 2005
Farewell to a President

by Dr. Rajasingham Narendran

Chandrika  Bandaranayake Kumaratunge will cease
to be the executive president of the unitary state of  
Sri  Lanka within the next couple of weeks.  It is
opportune to review her performance with relation to
the ethnic politics in Sri Lanka over the past eleven
years and the legacy she leaves behind, while wishing
her Bon Adieu.
As the daughter of Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranayake and  Sirimavo
Ratwatte Bandaranayake- two former Prime Ministers, Chandrika  strode on to the
centre stage of Sri Lankan politics with an inherited political legacy one could be
equally proud and ashamed of.  Her marriage to popular film actor Vijaya
Kumaratunge and the yet un-trodden path of political rapprochement with the Tamils
she chose to take in association with him had provided glimpses of a different type of
person and politician than we were used to on the national political scene .  The
assassination of  S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike by a Buddhist monk (Somarama Thera) as a
result of a conspiracy hatched by leading Buddhist monk and head of the Kelaniya
Raja Maha Viharaya ,Buddharakita Thera , in their family home, inevitably would have
left an indelible mark on school girl Chandrika.  The murder of her husband- Vijaya
Kumaratunge, virtually in front of her eyes two and a half decades later by the JVP,
was a major tragedy in her life.  It was the common perception that these two murders
would have taught her to be compassionate, value human life and shun extremism.  I
had the occasion to see Chandrika Kumaratunge driving her children to tuition classes
and back, during the early years of the Premadasa presidency, as any ordinary
middle class mother would.  Considering her aristocratic (some would call this feudal)
origins and family connections (daughter of two Prime Ministers), it was refreshing to
see her simple attire and appearance, and ability to get personally involved in the
ordinary chores of life.  Her easy and winsome smile, direct speech and vigorous
personality combined to give her a charisma rarely seen among Sri Lankan
politicians.   The people in Sri Lanka- Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims, saw in her a
person with the background, education, attitudes, life experiences and personality,
they can admire and with whom they can identify with, trust and expect performance in
return. As a result she won her first term in office with a majority of over 60 % of the
national vote.

Were the people’s trust misplaced?  Yes, undoubtedly.   She had the right instincts
and a sense of what needed to be done. Unfortunately, she lacked the ability, wisdom
and focus to execute what she wanted to do and was mandated to do.   She had
promised to eliminate the executive presidency, as it was an instrument of unbridled
power.  She failed to do so.  She could have at least  constrained the powers  vested
in the Sri Lankan presidency, if she had belatedly realized as an incumbent president,
that J.R.Jayawardene was not a fool when he introduced the concept of executive
presidency and that it had  some redeeming features, in the context of a multi-ethnic,
multi-lingual, multi-religious Sri Lanka.  She never told the people the truth as to why
she had a change of heart. She instead reveled in the unbridled powers vested in her
as president.  

She had obtained a mandate to introduce a federal constitution in Sri Lanka which
would eliminate the inherent failures in the current unitary constitution that led to the
alienation of the Tamils-the principal minority and a vicious civil war. As the illustrious
daughter of S.W.R.D. Bandaranayake, who introduced Sinhala only and permitted the
1958 anti-Tamil riots, and of Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who introduced the university
admission standardization scheme, implemented the Sinhala only law rigorously,
nationalized schools and  eliminated merit as a criterion for selection to the public
services (plus the Buddhisization of Kathirkamam/Katharagama and other
discriminatory acts), which measures laid the foundations for  a permanent ethnic
conflict and a raging civil war, she was best equipped to make amends.   Although she
brought about a ceasefire with the LTTE, it lasted only four months due to the
machinations of vested interests on both the Sinhala and Tamil sides.  She was
unable to overcome these vested interests and the smokescreen of fear and
impending violence they created, to stabilize the ceasefire and lead the people away
from a civil war. Instead she waged a’ War for peace’ under the leadership of her
cousin-Anurudha Ratwatte, which was the most brutal the Tamils had hitherto faced
and suffered from.   The Tamils who had vested so-much hope in her were led down
very badly.  She had played in to the hands of both the Sinhala extremists and the
Tamil extremists (the LTTE), in a manner unexpected of her.   The ‘war for peace’
effort spearheaded by her left the nation reeling from its consequences- death,
economic destruction, terror and a sense of hopelessness. She also lost one eye as a
consequence of the ensuing terror. She had missed the bus to become the daughter
of destiny for Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka too missed the bus to a better future as a result.

Her efforts to forge a federal constitution for Sri Lanka, although visionary and
laudable, miserably failed because she was unable to build political consensus with
the principal opposition party, the UNP.   Her cantankerous nature, intemperate
language and perceived arrogance, provided the opportunity for the UNP to wriggle
out of a historic responsibility.  However, it stands to her credit that she stood
steadfast in her belief that only a federal constitutional arrangement will restore peace
to Sri Lanka and preserve her territorial integrity. She tried to convince the Sinhala-
Buddhist people that this was the right path to take and succeeded to a considerable
extent.   Acceptance of Norway as a facilitator in the peace process should also be
credited to Chandrika Kumaratunge and is proof that her basic political instincts were
correct, although she was singularly unable to capitalize on them. It is unfortunate that
her political successor, who has claimed victory in a rather flawed (the boycott of the
polls forcibly enforced by the LTTE in a large number of Tamil electorates)  
presidential election held on the 17th November has irreparably damaged this historic
achievement of Chandraika Kumaratunge and unnecessarily confused the Sinhala
people once again.  Mahinda Rajapakse’s political opportunism has rung the death
bell for one achievement that Chandrika Kumaratunge would be credited with by
history and set the clock back for Sri Lanka.

Her inability to co-habit with the UNP during Ranil Wickremasinghe’s primiership,will go
down in history as  Chandrika Kumaratunge’s greatest failure. Instead of using the
powers of the presidency vested in her to further the new ceasefire with the LTTE he
had brought about, and forge a national political consensus to settle the ethnic
problem in Sri Lanka for ever, she resorted to cheap dilatory tactics, lies and every
trick that could be pulled out of her presidential hand bag, to stymie the peace
process and topple the UNP government. In this process she mobilized the very forces
that were hell-bent on sabotaging any attempt to change the unitary nature of the Sri
Lankan constitution.  She had once again disfigured her nose to spite her enemy!  
This was vintage Chandrika Kumaratunge!  She obviously lacked the moral scruples
necessary for a leader, who can lead a nation to greatness and become a statesman/
woman in return.

The possibilities during her presidency were immense and she had a lot going for
her.  The people were with her at the beginning and during most of her term in office.
She was also fortuitously presented with many opportunities, including the unfortunate
Tsunami, to tackle the majority –minority problem in Sri Lanka through a national
consensus.  But she failed, because the forces she unleashed selfishly, impetuously,
intemperately and of course foolishly, in pursuit of short term political goals,
overwhelmed her, her presidency and the country.  The presidential election held
yesterday has demonstrated that she has failed to convince a majority of the Sinhala-
Buddhist people of the need to forge a federal constitution for Sri Lanka, despite her
strenuous efforts. (However, the results of this election should be challenged in the
Supreme courts if necessary, seeking re-polling in the electorates where the LTTE in
a high handed and violent manner enforced a boycott and subverted democracy. The
election of Mahinda Rajapakse to the presidency may yet not be a forgone
conclusion, if democratic norms are adhered to and terrorism is not rewarded)

I wish Chandrika Kumaratunge  the very best in her retirement and hope that she will
be able to  positively influence Sri Lankan politics as a wise elder stateswoman in the
future, without getting mired in day to day dirty politics.  I hope she will be able to see
her efforts to forge a federal constitution for Sri Lanka brought to fruition in her life
time and  live to see the Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims live in amity and peace in a
prosperous, federal and united country.  It is a pity that she failed us in our hour of
need.  She was more flawed than we thought it was possible.  Her failure was our
failure.  Her failure to transcend the ordinary and become extra-ordinary was Sri
Lanka’s tragedy.
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