Former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, in a wide-ranging interview, talks about her rise and decline in Sri Lanka’s turbulent politics, 20 years after her ascendance to political power, which turned tables for the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) that was reeling under a spell of defeats.
Q: Exactly 20 years ago, in 1993, you were riding the crest of a massive wave of popularity. You brought victory to the SLFP, which was lost in the political wilderness for 16 long years. Can you recall those days?
A: I became a marked person after Vijaya was assassinated. But, I had already made up my mind to face come what may, and carry on with my work. However, it was not to be. My mother, sister, relatives and well-wishers all wanted me to go abroad with my two children. They more or less forced me to leave. I returned only after three years with the firm resolve not to enter politics again. I had had enough; by that time the Mahajana Party had betrayed me by removing me as chairperson of the party. It was Mahinda Rajapaksa who orchestrated my removal as chairperson of the SLFP. Those who wallow in corruption do not like me. I did not want anything to do with politics, then. Then a group of young activists, including Mangala Samaraweera, S.B. Dissanayake, Nimal Siripala de Silva and Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, with tacit approval of my mother, encouraged me to rejoin the party. There was another group that wanted to prevent my re-entry to politics. Anura was among them. Mahinda went around saying he would not allow me to rejoin the party even over his dead body. However, I consented to rejoin the party despite opposition by a few. But, they did not allow me to get the membership. My mother then proposed to take me to the political committee and then get me the party membership by that means. Most in the party were delighted with my mother’s proposal, except a few led by Anura and Mahinda. I was determined to fight their opposition. I went to one of the poorest villages in Attanagalla and got my party membership from there. They loved to have me, but not just as a member but as the party’s chair, in spite of my protests. They filled the forms and sent them to the party office immediately. At the party office, my papers were taken into the party register in double quick time not allowing any space for interference. Next, my mother convened the Attanagalla Party Central Committee and appointed me Secretary. Those who didn’t want me to enter politics kept on blocking my mother’s moves. While this was happening, I went ahead with my usual work. Around this time, Provincial Council elections were announced. My mother wanted me to contest, which I refused. Then she sent Lakshman Jayakody to persuade me, followed by Mangala, SB, and Nimal to convince me that it was I who could defeat the then politically strong UNP. Finally I gave my consent. Before handing over nominations I went round Attanagalla, meeting all my supporters and well-wishers. I then realized there was an immense groundswell of electoral support for me. All were then of the opinion that I could romp home by at least a majority of 300,000 votes.
Q: If Lalith Athulathmudali was alive in 1993, he would have become the Chief Minister of the Western Province. Did you have any understanding with him to work together?
A: Lalith, as an intelligent politician, would have realized that I could easily win that election. Before the election date, he sent me a message to meet him privately. He took great care to keep the meeting a secret as he was wary of President Premadasa’s reaction. He told me that both of us could easily win the election and he wanted to know whether I had any thought about the Chief Minister’s post. I told him I entered the election fray quite reluctantly and that I had never considered being in that post. Then he said neither the People’s Alliance that I represented nor his Democratic United National Front (DUNF), would to be able to form an administration as individual parties and proposed to form a coalition. When he raised the question of Chief Minister, I told him, he being the senior politician he was welcome to take it.
He then suggested splitting the term of office between the two of us in two-year segments. But I refused and asked him to take it for a full four-year term, and that I would be satisfied with a ministerial post to work for the people. He may not have believed or trusted me and was adamant that we share it.
To appease him I finally agreed.
Q: Lalith was assassinated most unexpectedly. How did you receive the news?
A: Somebody phoned me up and told me.
Q: Did you feel any fear under the circumstances?
A: I didn’t, as I normally don’t give into fear, then or now. I heard the news around 12:30 p.m. I had finished a meeting in Mahara and was going to another meeting at Ganemulla. While I was on the way, I received the message from a friend. My supporters tried to dissuade me from going to the meeting. When I went there, all our people pleaded with me to go back. Therefore, I left for Colombo and visited Lalith’s home to find out whether there was anything I could do. Then I went home.
Q: When Lalith and Premadasa were assassinated, didn’t you get the feeling the way had been cleared for you to ascend the Presidency?
A: No I didn’t, because I had no such ambitions. I like to serve the people. Do something for my country. I like to do politics. I like to do things well. That is my ambition. I realized that I had to play a historic role to defeat the UNP. I had to assume the mantle of leadership to defeat the UNP. I was overwhelmed with sorrow for the death of Lalith, a useful citizen who could do much for the country.
Q: Is it true that after 1994 General Election victory and the establishment of your government, you obtained advice from former President J.R. Jayewardene?
A: My opponents in the party, including Anura and a few of my disgruntled relatives, were carrying out a campaign to deprive me of the chance to form a government; some even promoted my mother over me. Some people had then asked JR to inform then President D.B. Wijetunga to allow me to form the government. When JR invited me to meet him I couldn’t refuse. So I went and told him it wouldn’t matter who was given the opportunity. But not invitation came from Wijetunga. He wanted to invite my mother to form the government knowing that it would weaken the party’s momentum as she was not in good health. Gamini Dissanayaka also tried hard to get my mother to form the government. He knew full well he could easily defeat her at the next Presidential elections. By that time, I had made up my mind to keep silent as there was nothing else I could do. In the meantime, JR had called Wijetunga and had advised him as to what to do. He did not tell me.
Q: At one time, you had to go to JR to get Vijaya released from prison. When JR came to meet you how did you feel?
A: I did not feel anything special. It is the way of life. One day you are up on top. Another day you are down in the dumps.
Q: Can you remember the first time you met Mahinda?
A: I knew him as Anura’s friend. He was first elected to Parliament when he was in his early 20s. He was very shy, especially before girls. As a young parliamentarian he made friends with Anura. He, Basil and Chamal all of them stayed at Anura’s house. Chamal was Anura’s bodyguard. My mother took him as such because he did not have sufficient qualifications for anything more than that. Basil became Anura’s Secretary.
Q: You had problems with Mahinda all along. Yet you gave him a ministerial portfolio. Can you explain why?
A: I will tell you about a certain incident exactly as it happened. One day my office informed me that Mahinda was seeking an appointment to see me. I was very busy at that time, as I had just started attending to the duties of the President without having any time to spare. However, I gave him an appointment to see me. When I entered the sitting room, he got up from his seat and greeted me, bending very low, in a posture of worshipping me. When I protested he said he came to thank me for offering him a minister post, especially since he was not in the good books of Lokki (we used to call mother as such) or myself. I said it was he who created problems for the party. I told him, as party leader, my duty was to heal the wounds of the party and bring it back to its former glory. I also reminded him how ungrateful he was to my mother who had done so much for him, and also how he worked to get me defeated in his district. I told him Rajapaksas have a certain position in the SLFP. His father joined the party later not at its inception.
Q: But you pruned down his powers by changing his ministry while he was aboard?
A: I meant it as a promotion for him. What I gave him was a more important ministry than Labour. When I did the Cabinet reshuffle he was in Geneva. I gave him a call to inform him that he was given a better ministry where he could do more work for the Southern Province.
Q: You narrowly escaped a suicide attack in 1999. Can you recall that day?
A: It all happened in a very short time. I had no time to be afraid of anything. I felt severe pain and was unconscious for about two minutes. Then I felt I was being put into a vehicle. That was my security detail. Unlike in other countries, such as the US, our security personnel do not have first-aid training. They put me on the backseat and kept my body in a wrong position. My head was severely injured. I could have died. By that time I was conscious. If I was kept in that position any longer I would have died of injuries to the lungs. I asked them where they were taking me and they said, the General Hospital. I asked them whether they were out of their mind, because at that time the hospital staff was on strike. Then I remembered what happened to my father. After he was shot, he was taken to the General Hospital. He was getting better. So my mother, who was near him the whole day, had gone home to change. When no one was in the room, a nurse had rushed in and given him an injection. After that he had died. I had it in my mind. With the hospital staff on a strike against me, I did not want to go to the General Hospital. I asked them to take me to Nawaloka, which had the best Intensive Care Unit at that time. While being taken there I mentioned the names of a few doctors who were known to me. When I reached Nawaloka they were all there. I heard them talking in low tones. No one was sure how much damage had been caused to my head. It was uncertain whether I would live or die. I was not afraid. But I was extremely worried who would take care of my children. There were many friends, relatives and well-wishers. I heard then our supporters were running riot on the streets attacking Tamils. I immediately sent a message to Balapatabendi to come and see me. When he came I told him to go to Rupavahini immediately and read a statement that I am well and not under any serious danger to my life. And also appeal to the people not to harm any person on account of this matter. I also told him to specifically mention that it was my personal request for the people to remain calm and conduct bodhi poojas for my quick recovery. Sarath Amunugama, who was outside my room, had written the statement and given his blue shirt to Bala to wear when he addressed people on Rupavahini.
Q: Before 2000 election, you removed your mother from the Prime Minister post. Why was that?
A: Actually, it was my mother who wanted to step down; she was telling it for over two years. She was less mobile then and could not attend to her work adequately. She wanted to give it up, and not hang on like D.M. Jayaratne. I asked mother to wait till I discuss it with other two seniors in the party, DM and Ratnasiri, but not with Mahinda, who was not the most senior member in the party. I said I would first give it to Ratnasiri and then to DM.
Q: Do you think your decision to form a probationary government with the JVP, the organization that assassinated your husband, a prudent decision?
A: Actually, it was not my decision. When the government was about to fall, Lakshman Kadirgamar, Anura, Mangala and others held discussions with the JVP and pressured me to take them in. I was against it. Even my children were against it as they killed their father. But I’m a democratic person, so I agreed to take them in after much persuasion.
Q: After losing the 2001 election you had to preside over a UNP Cabinet. Was that a challenge to you?
A: They treated me very badly. I was called names, a thief among them. In such situations I got extra courage to face them head on. I challenged them to appoint a Presidential Commission and prove their charges. They did not do that. They thought when they try to humiliate me I would pack up and go. During that period I had cried much when I was by myself.
Q: You appointed Mahinda as Leader of the Opposition. Why?
A: It was all because of a conspiracy. I was thinking of appointing Ratnasiri as Leader of the Opposition. Ranil and Mahinda had hatched a plan between them to get rid of Ratnasiri. He was pressurized to resign.
Q: Do you think, if you did not dissolve Parliament then, you would still be the leader of the SLFP?
A: They forced me to do it. After several days of deep thought I agreed. But I emphatically told them they will have to resolve many problems which could arise from that decision.
Q: Why did you appoint Mahinda as Prime Minister of the 2004 government?
A: I have appointed several Cabinets, but I never took any advice from others. In this case, I should emphatically state that I had decided to step down after my second term. Meanwhile, I had told four persons to mend their ways and act in a manner befitting leadership. I asked Anura to stop his drinking. He failed to do so. There were Maithripala Sirisena and Mangala Samaraweera, but I did not have enough confidence in them. Then there was Mahinda, who stood out among others to some extent.
Q: Do you remember the day you asked Mahinda to take over Premiership?
A: Lakshman Kadirgamar too had a strong claim to it. But he never asked. I too liked to appoint him as Prime Minister. But I was not fully convinced the Sinhala Buddhists in the country were ready for it. At that time we were short of eight votes for a parliamentary majority. I had the CID and NIB intelligence reports that Mahinda was planning to topple the government with the UNP’s help. Therefore, I decided to call Mahinda and asked his opinion about giving Premiership to Lakshman for two years as he was more senior. He disagreed and wanted it for himself.
Q: The Chief Justice you appointed gave a decision that your second term ended in 2005. How did you feel about that decision?
A: I was surprised and totally dejected. It was Sarath N. Silva who advised me to take oath in 1999 and again 2000. Actually, I had to take oaths in 2000. But I took oaths in 1999 due to his advice. I was to go to London for a medical examination. He insisted that I take oath before I go as Ranil and the UNP could cause trouble. He said I could take oaths any number of times, but it was essential that I take oath on the actual date. Then he gave that contrary decision. By that time Mahinda was thoroughly upset; if I continued for another one year his chances would diminish. Sarath Silva was under the impression after winning the first term, Mahinda would give the second term to him. They had earlier fallen out with each other. Now they are friends again.
Q: You decided to give Presidential nomination to Mahinda?
A: Others who were asked to build up to qualify for it did not do so. There was no choice.
Q: Did anyone coerce you to take that decision?
A: No. None at all. Anura asked me to give it to Mahinda saying that he had been promised Premier post. But I advised Anura against taking as it could damage the good name of the Bandaranaikes.
Q: What happened when Mahinda was nominated as presidential candidate?
A: Kadirgamar made a speech and thanked me for saving the party. He requested Mahinda to desist from harassing me in the future.
Q: But you were working to defeat Mahinda?
A: It is a total lie. I asked him more than seven times what I could do to help him. Maithripala proposed to establish an election operation committee and asked me to become its Chairperson. But Mahinda was spreading rumours that I was working against him. I have not done such base things in my life, like he sent his brothers to the UNP to work against Hector Kobbekaduwa. He was doing campaign planning with his brother Basil. I asked for a copy of it but he never gave it to me. He had signed an agreement with the JVP, which I forbade him to do. He had asked Mangala to be his campaign manager. I told him to do that because I wanted our candidate to win. I never thought he would become a Hitler afterwards. One day I told Mahinda his campaign was not effective and asked him to call me if he needed help. When I was in America, CNN and BBC tried hard to get a statement against Mahinda from me. If I gave it he would have lost the election. During the last three weeks I decided to address 14 meetings, but after the third meeting in Kandy, which he avoided, he cancelled all other meetings. He was going around holding meetings and telling people that I would be retained as a Senior Advisor of the party. Meanwhile, Dullas, Basil, Gotabhaya and Bharata Lakshman started spreading rumours that I was not working for Mahinda.
Q: Your party leadership was taken away from you on your birthday?
A: Some ministers had advised Mahinda not to do it on my birthday. Not once, but thrice he had done me wrong.
Q: Today this country is facing an international crisis situation. You have Head-of-State level relationships with many of those countries. Were you invited to extend your help in resolving such problems?
A: I will certainly help if I am asked. I am in the director board of an exclusive organization comprising only former Presidents and Prime Ministers. However, there are some conditions for my help.
Q: What are they?
A: First, guarantee fundamental rights, and also the freedom of speech and media freedom. White van abductions should be stopped immediately. Corruption should be wiped out.
Q: What is your opinion about the UNHRC resolutions adopted against Sri Lanka?
A: Vey bad for the country.
Q: Your comments about India voting for the resolution against Sri Lanka?
A: From their point of view, it is correct. In any case, India has said they cannot believe anything our President says.
Q: If the war ended during your Presidency, what would you have done on a priority basis?
A: I would not celebrate defeating Tamils. I would celebrate defeating the LTTE with all other communities and also I would grant the Tamil people their rights.
Q: There is a talk going around that you will come forward as the common candidate at the next Presidential election?
A: It is not true.
Q: If a request is made as in 94?
A: Requests are quite common. Some big shots are scared. Even my life is threatened because of it. If the UNP or any other party comes up with a good programme I will give my support.
Q: Is it true that you are grooming Vimukthi to be introduced to politics?
A: Vijaya and I brought up our children as decent and well-mannered children. I am not power hungry and they too are not lusting for power or privileges. But if Vimukthi decides to enter politics I will help him. They do not cheat and steal from the people. Even when I was an all-powerful President, they did not misuse anything. They both had only one car. When one day my son addressed a minister by his name, I chastised him. They are unlike present day ministers’ progeny.
Q: Is there any connection between you and the present ministers?
A: Mahinda, as soon as he won the election, forbade them against talking to me. They are all spineless fellows. None of them talk to me for seven years. They would only speak a couple of words and vanish.
Q: Today you are denied of the respectful position you held in the party before. Will the same fate befall Mahinda when out of power?
A: If Mahinda remains leader it could happen. If I was there it would not.
COURTESY:CEYLON TODAY-interview with Upul Joseph Fernando