By Kelum Bandara and R. Sethuraman
Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, after a long period of silence, expressed herself in an exclusive interview with Daily Mirror at her residence in Horagolla. She discussed about her currents activities and future plans in retirement, and also lashed out at the government. Here are excerpts of her interview.
Q: What are your present activities in retirement?
After I retired, I decided that I would never be involved in politics directly because I did not like the manner in which the governance is done. There is lack of democracy and future vision. I did politics for 33 years though I was the executive president only for two terms. I retired at 60. when I was in the active politics, I could not spend enough time with my children. In fact, when I contested the election in 1994, they were quite against it. There is a reason for that. Bandaranaikes have lost what they had due to politics. My father was killed, and again my husband. Later, I was nearly killed. I determined not re-enter politics though I was physically and mentally fit for it. We have not earned even a single cent out of politics.
Anyway, after that, I was harassed. They made various allegations against me in the media. Later, I sent corrections. Yet, poor journalists were harassed and influenced not to put them. However, I thought I could give enough and more things for the country at large using my experience and knowledge. With that intention in mind, I formed the organization called ‘Foundation for Democratic Studies’. It is a non-profit charity registered in the UK and Sri Lanka. The institution is run on the contributions of the foreign donors.
Q: What is the focus of this organization?
It mainly focuses on the South Asia. It is the region with the largest number of poor people and unresolved political conflicts. We work on areas such as economic development, poverty alleviation and empowering women. Having come out of their lot into the political arena I cannot forget the challenges I had to face as a woman. This organization also give priority to issues such as Climate change, regional co-operation, peace building, conflict resolution, and post conflict peace building in Sri Lanka.
Here, we have projects. We gave water facilities for 31 poor households for domestic purposes in Embilipitiya. That is through the collection of rainwater and filtering it. In Jaffna, we constructed 30 houses for the Internally Displaced Persons with solar power electricity. In Jaffna, we want to construct around 100 houses. Yet, the government has not given us the names of the IDPs who are in need of houses. They insisted that they should identify the deserving people. We want to give the benefit solely for the displaced persons.
Besides, we have put up the institute called Sirimavo Bandaranaike Academy for Leadership Training. We started it with the 50th anniversary of my mother becoming the world’s first woman prime minister. Education is my passion. We cannot develop a country without a sound education system. Today, adults in our country behave badly.
They are different. There is extreme thinking. I never allowed it under my government. They do not respect democracy and equal rights. We need a total attitudinal change. Today, scientific education which I introduced has deteriorated.
After I went home, I see education has gone down again. Officials were crying and complaining to me that all those good programmes implemented by me had now been stopped. There is nothing I can do anymore.
The country today needs good leaders. There are only a few good leaders in the country. Not only political leaders, I mean there are only a few in the public service. Of course, the private sector has some good leaders. But, they can do with a few more. We want to build some good leaders who do not lie, rob and sell Kassippu and drugs. Today, politicians are doing that also.
Q: Who are the South Asian leaders involved in your programme?
We have a team called international advisory council. We have I.K. Gujral, another person called Mr. Megnad, a UK based Indian, who is the head of the London School of Economics. Ours is a research institute that does a lot of policy studies and recommends policies for the South Asian countries. We cover various aspects such as good governance, and the role of South Asia in the global perspective.
South Asia is the only region which does not have any regional think tanks. There are country based ones, but not a regional one. Even poor Africa has one under various names. We have a larger number of highly educated people. This may be the first properly functioning regional think tank. We have taken research fellows from all over the world, who will do research under ten selected themes, and do publications. We have another academic council that will review the research work. It comprises academics from different parts India, Bangladesh, Pakistan , the Maldives, Harvard University, Europe and France. Other activity is to hold seminars.
We encourage government and private sectors to implement what we recommend. We will also have an annual conference in South Asian countries. There will be one in Sri Lanka. I cannot reveal it because I fear sabotage from the government. They are so jealous and vicious against me personally. This is a very independent and intellectual exercise. Anyway, when the time comes, I will talk to them. So far, reaction from some of this government is very petty-minded.
Q: What is the kind of role you expect to play in Sri Lanka under the theme ‘Post Conflict Peace Building?
Post conflict peace building is absolutely important. I do not know whether you saw the message of congratulation I sent to President Mahinda Rajapaksa after the war was over. I did not say he won the war. I said the government won the war. I carefully drafted it with my wordings.
I mentioned, “Your government undoubtedly won the war. Yet, you face the daunting and much more difficult task of winning peace. In that exercise, I wish you luck, magnanimity and wisdom.” That is what I said. It is absolutely important. You can win a war. When one part of our nation which is about ten percent of the population, is angry and hurt, you cannot build a stable society.
There was a marvellous opportunity after the LTTE was destroyed to bring about harmony. The LTTE never allowed it. Also, the opposition blocked my efforts to bring peace. Had they given me eight more votes in Parliament, there would have been almost a federal state. Then, the Tamil civilians would not have supported the LTTE. Tamil people insisted me to give what I had. Even the Diaspora insisted me. I needed only eight votes. All the Tamil and Muslim parties voted for it. Today, one does not give so much because the war is over and the LTTE is no more. Anyway, something Tamils can accept with dignity and self-respect should be given. Not ‘Thuttu Deke Pradeshiya Sabhas.’ Now too much of water has passed under the bridge.
Nineteen months after the war, only 8000 houses have been built for the displaced. After the tsunami, we had to build 70,000 house. By the time, I retired from office 11 months after the tsunami, the construction work of all the houses was finished or nearly finished. I do not know why they took 19 months to build only 8000 houses after the end of the war. There seems to be lack of political will.
I never changed my stand that the final solution should be a negotiated political solution. I still believe it the case. You may need to engage in battles if the LTTE asked for it. They finished the LTTE. It is good. Nobody is sad about the LTTE except its cadres. But, sovereign government of Sri Lanka must be capable of proving that they are the government of all the people of Sri Lanka, all the citizens of Sri Lanka.
To prove that, they have to treat all in the same manner. If this government can organize the war and win it in a short time, they obviously have the ability to organize themselves in the same manner to win peace. If they do not have money, they can put money from the south. The south has a lot of money. If they stop corruption, they can find a lot of money. Today, 40 percent of the National Budget is wasted on it.
Q:How have you calculated this figure?
That is a rough figure. There are no figures on how much top people are robbing. From talking to tenders, from my own knowledge about the mega projects, foundations were laid during my time for these mega projects. I know how much they cost at that time, and the amount now involved. The extra amount is corruption. Materials have not gone up to the last two years. If they stop corruption, they will be a substantial amount of money to go around.
Q: What is your comment on the APRC?
I laughed at it. There was no need to waste four years in deliberating because we had enough examples in the past. We did a lot of work on the 2000 constitution. We held talks with the UNP for years. They did not give their support. They were just dilly dallying. With them alone, I had 34 discussions. I talked to Tamil and Muslim parties. We did not include all what they asked for. It was my passion. Had the UNP supported, I could have passed it.
In fact, I could have become a dictator. Several people suggested it. I could have become a dictator and brought the constitution. I considered that, not for myself, for me to remain in power for consecutive terms, but to bring that constitution which had extensive package of devolution of power. It also had a section to do away with the executive presidency.
Yet, I did not have it in me anyway because I have been a democrat. I have never ever indulged anything undemocratic during my time. I could not bring me as a dictator even for this purpose. I may regret it now. Temporally, I should have become a dictator for six months and bring in the constitution, and gone back to democratic system again. If I had known that dictatorship would come after me, I would have done it for the betterment of the country, not for me to remain in power.
After two years for the war victory, I am still worried about my country. Nothing tangible is being done to bring about durable peace. There is nothing for us to assure that there will no more Prabharakans in future.
Q: Do you think that former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka would have been better leader for the country?
I do not know actually. I have not associated with him. I only know him as the commander in chief. I cannot say anything.I know president Mahinda Rajapaksha very well. A change of leader is always good in a democratic system.
Q: What is your pinion about the present opposition?
The strength of the government is the weakness of the opposition. The main reason is why the government is strong is the war victory. There are a lot of problems, salaries not being raised. During my time, I raised salaries by 500 percent by five times. The strongest point for their success is the war victory. The opposition’s weakens is second point.
Q: What are feelings about the manner in which some of the government members treat you now?
The government members, except a few, have not done or said anything wrong against me. Our party was in the opposition for 17 years. They lost every single election. In 1994, I gave the leadership for them to win. What they are today is partly due to me. Of course, their efforts also contributed to their success.
Q:How do you spend your leisure time in retirement now?
I hardly have free time. I am busy with my international assignments. Whenever I am free, I do gardening and housekeeping. I renovated Horagolla Walawwa. I personally selected the curtains needed. I love gardening and painting. I would love to have free time to read. I am now writing a book on my political life.