Lakshman Gunasekara in Sunday Observer, 28 June 2015: “I am now an activist for my country …[and] I’m ready to take to the streets [if the need arises]” says CBK
Celebrating her 70th birthday, former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga reminisces about the past, and looks ahead to the future with a promise she will take to the streets to push through reforms: At 70 years age, she is still chubby-cheeked and grins mischievously or, scowls expressively as she recalls some politico’s annoying action. Press photographers loved her for her animated face that rendered her photogenic, like her equally famous mother.And it was by no means just photographers. Millions loved her while some either were disillusioned or even hated her – often because she did not live up to their expectations or ambitions or desires. After all, who wouldn’t glamorize her for her meteoric rise to political power and fame? ‘Meteoric’ because, after years in exile during the ‘terror’ of the second JVP insurgency and equally ferocious counter-insurgency, with her husband assassinated, she returned to re-build her mother’s party and successively defeat the government at provincial, parliamentary and, presidential levels. At her husband’s funeral
In seventeen months, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who had never before contested electorally, rose from rookie politician to Provincial Chief Minister, to Prime Minister and, then President. Like her mother, in the context of a typically patriarchal political establishment, Chandrika also achieved her own ‘firsts’ as a woman. She was the first female Provincial Chief Minister and then, the world’s first elected executive President. Some called her “Vihara Maha Devi” and others called her “Chaura Rajina”.
Such epithets are unsurprising for a controversial and powerful political figure. Her charismatic leadership and her triumphant overthrow of a repressive regime while, at the same time, her boldness in being the first major Sinhala leader to meet the Tamil separatist militants in peace initiatives gave her the stature of a national heroine reminiscent perhaps of the mythical Vihara Maha Devi.
But ‘Chaura Rajina”? While that epithet was bestowed on her by a single writer, history is yet to give the final verdict on the degree of Chandrika’s straying from propriety and good governance. After all, if deceit is the criteria for that epithet, surely there have been other male leaders who deserve it more for their grander scale of deceit and prolific duplicity – duplicity to which even Foreign Ministers of neighbouring powers were victim?
Q. What were things in your childhood that guided you to your historic role in politics? I was rebellious from my childhood and known as a naughty girl. I remember that even in my dancing class I was considered mischievous. Ranil (Wickremesinghe) was in the same dancing class, by the way. But in school I was also studious and was given a double promotion in my primary school. My subsequent life experiences surely helped in developing my understanding of politics and power.
My father was assassinated while I was quite young. In fact you could say that I lost both my parents because my mother was compelled to give up much of her parenting role to devote her time to government and running the party. Of course, she made sure that we had all our needs, but from an early age we lost that intimate mothering that other children enjoyed due to her commitment to government and serving the country.
Q. Your higher education in France also led you towards radical politics .. ? Definitely. I won a scholarship to one of France’s most prestigious colleges – the Institute of Political Science at the University of Paris – just at the start of the radical Left student movement in Europe. I was in the middle of the 1968 student revolution in Paris. It was a time of romancing the revolution.
We were keen about our studies and also about our role in society and in social change. My own studies focused on social transformation in the Third World which where I came from. Our student life also conditioned us to a very practical life style. I did volunteer work house cleaning in the student hostel. I also earned pocket money with part time work as a bar maid, receptionist. I was later elected vice president of the house student committee.
Q. So you were well equipped for politics on your return home? I did not take up formal politics on my return. I am not that focused on political office and formal political power. Rather, given my Leftist leanings, I wanted to be involved with people, with mass politics. Being a political animal, I plunged into organizing the party and building mass organizations.
My stay in Paris also made me interested in journalism and the media. I helped start up and managed the SLFP’s ‘Dinakara’ newspaper which was very successful at the time. My mother gave me Rs 200,000 for that and we managed with it. Despite not getting advertising, the ‘Dinakara’ survived for some time because we managed it well.
With my sense of mass politics, I enjoyed helping my mother build the party. When we came to power in 1970, I did not take up any political office. I preferred to do organizational work and got involved in development programs. My mother and other party leaders had persuaded me to give up my half-finished doctoral studies and work in politics here.
Q. Is that how you came into the Land Reform initiative? Yes. Hector Kobbekaduwa was leading the land reform program and he told me to help him. He said that with my knowledge derived from rural development studies and third world studies – especially my thesis focus on land reform in socialist Tanzania – I could play a big role in the country’s land reform program. That’s how I came to take up a role in the Land Reform program.
I was first an Assistant Manager in the Janavasama Commission (collective farms programme) and later became the Director. I was selected on merit and not because of any connections. I enjoyed that work. We helped settle ex-JVP youth in these farms which were part of our agricultural development strategy at the time. Some of those farms were very successful.
Q. As a Marxist yourself, how did you see the JVP uprising of 1971? The JVP of that period were not that convincing to me given their very limited vision. Some friends invited me to join the JVP and I had some discussions. I found that their class analysis was limited to what they called the Five Classes. You cannot understand society and the strategy for social change with such limited concepts. I thought that they were adventuristic, although their ideals were great.
Q. How did you meet up with Vijaya? We got close when he was nominated by the party to contest the 1977 elections. It was he who got interested in me and began to visit me in Horagolla using any excuse. We really saw eye to eye on many things. When he was killed I was devastated but not frightened. But the family pushed me to go abroad for the sake of the children.
Q. That was your period of exile in London? Yes. For some time, my friend Ronnie Peiris sub-let his flat in London to me. I wanted to have my independent life.
Q. Some in the party today accuse you of abandoning the SLFP at that time…? I did not abandon the SLFP at any time. I was consistent in my politics. It was a group inside the party – Maithripala (Senanayake) and Mahinda included – who connived to push me out of the party. My brother, Anura, was also taken in by them. Even at that time, Mahinda relied on astrology and believed that he was destined to lead the party. On my return, I formed the SLMP (Sri Lanka Mahajana Party). Rajitha actually joined later.
Q. How is it that a criminal personality like Baddegaana Sanjeeva got involved as your bodyguard? I did not know about him till much later. During the time of the JVP insurgency, my mother got the help of some retired military officials to organise security for me. It was they who recruited and trained various people including Sanjeeva. It was much later that I learnt about his criminal behaviour.
Q. During your presidency some journalists criticised you for authoritarian behaviour. One even wrote a book about your presidency titling it ‘Chaura Rajina’. That book was not taken seriously by anyone. It was written with the support from Mahinda. Did you read it? Did you see that it was full of contradictions?
Q. You have been a strong critic of the Rajapaksa regime. Yet, he was your successor to the party leadership. Why couldn’t you find someone more to your liking to succeed you? We had several possibilities – including Maithripala – but none were willing to take on the role at the time. So the party had to go with Mahinda. Mahinda lacks self-confidence and that is one reason for his authoritarian behaviour and his antagonism towards me.
Q. When did you first get involved in moving against the Mahinda regime? About three years ago. For some time, many people I met had been urging me to make a come-back to save the situation. I am not interested in political office or power. But I began to act to save the situation and save the party. So we began dialogues with various people and groups, including political parties. At a later stage we also began talking with the UNP. Everyone was very worried about the way the country was going. No one wanted this crisis and people began urging me to act before it was too late. In fact some wanted me to re-enter politics but I refused. I am now an activist for my country and society. I don’t need power. I want to empower others to come forward and do the right thing.
Q. When did you work out the strategy with Sirisena? I began to talk to Maithripala also about three years ago through proxies. We did not want to be seen together because Mahinda would react. About a year ago, we decided that the time was right to build a movement.
Q. You kept all this undercover until the final weeks. How did you manage it? That story will be told later, in safer times. We worked through various proxies. Only very few people knew what was happening although others suspected. Cannot reveal names because, unlike me who has security protection, ordinary citizens are vulnerable today. Still those former dictators and their cronies have influence .
Q. There is a likelihood that Parliament will be dissolved before the 20th Amendment is passed. Do you have faith that the new Parliament will proceed with this reform? Yes. I have faith that the current coalition and leadership are committed to reform. Ranil is my friend and I trust him to take things forward in collaboration with my party and the other progressive parties and groups. There is also a social movement in support.
Q. But if the new Parliament fails ..? Then I will join in the struggle to take the reform forward. I will take to the streets.