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CBK ready to meet Prabha
By Feizal Samath
President Chandrika Kumaratunga, embroiled in a bitter dispute with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's eight-month old government, says she is ready to meet LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran for face-to-face peace talks.

"I am prepared to talk to Mr. Prabhakaran of the LTTE on behalf of the country. After all I corresponded with him during our previous peace bid in 1995," the President, who lost an eye in a Tamil rebel assassination attempt two years ago, said when asked whether she was still prepared to sit at the same table with the rebel leader and discuss a political solution to end the 19-year long ethnic conflict.

Ms. Kumaratunga, despite a confrontation that is close to breaking up an acrimonious cohabitation with Mr. Wickrem-esinghe's ruling party and may see early parliamentary polls, also noted in an exclusive interview with The Sunday Times that she remained committed to working with the government on the peace track.

The 57-year old President, who is now fighting the biggest political battle of her career having to work with a hostile government, spoke on a range of issues like migrant women workers, violence against women and children, and peace.

Asked why the country's two main parties could not come together at least on a few national issues like the ethnic conflict, Ms. Kumaratunga said she strongly believed in cohabitation not only because "it is necessary but also has been mandated by the people through elections."

She said it was essential that "we lift the ethnic problem out of the realm of the local political divide and be a consensus policy rather like the PA-UNP consensus on a market economy."

"In this context I remain committed to working with the UNP government and in furthering the devolution of power proposals put forward by my party in 1997 as a starting point. My cards are on the table. Perhaps we can take the Thimpu principles as the LTTE cards on a separate state."

Ms. Kumaratunga's responses, according to political analysts, appeared to be more conciliatory and acceptance of working with the UNP government but was out of line with her recent public barrage against some government ministers.

Asked what saddens her most in Sri Lanka, the President said it was the nation's leaders letting down their people badly. "They (people) deserve so much more than being a poor struggling war torn country and our nation's leaders took a nation with much promise at independence and made a basket case of it."

"But I temper this sorrow with hope for the future because I believe our people are extremely resilient and will rise above these circumstances in time to come."

Ms. Kumaratunga also has a clear vision on the future of her children - they should not take to politics. "…I believe I have convinced and persuaded my children to pursue their careers and serve their communities through private rather than public life," she said. If her children - both studying in the UK - follow the advice of their mother, it would bring the curtain down on the Bandaranaike dynasty in politics, one of the most prominent political families in South Asia. Her brother and sister are both in their mid to late 50s and are either unmarried or divorced.

The Bandaranaike family along with the Gandhis in India and the Bhuttos in Pakistan has been among the dominant political families that straddled the political spectrum in South Asia for close to half a century. This is believed to be the first time Kumaratunga has expressed a wish that her children should give a wide berth to politics.

On her latest effort to convene a national consultation on peace, the President said she hoped this would complement the government's dealings with the LTTE.

On migrant women workers, the President said what was worrying was that they left behind a trail of social problems which have a few solutions. "The case of the migrant worker is a complex issue and the victims - often for life - are innocent children," she said, adding, "there are few remedies for this through politics and public policies. Perhaps the answers are of a moral and spiritual nature."

But Ms. Kumaratunga noted that the increasing number of women in the expatriate workforce and their new earning power made them a social segment with a lot of clout.

"There are no easy solutions. We have tried to educate the women about investing and saving. Many do invest in a home and education for their children. We should perhaps encourage the young and single to go as migrant workers rather than mothers," she said.

On violence against women and children, the President said her PA government tightened laws making spousal rape a crime, and easier for battered women to get a divorce and penalties for abuse stiffer. "But weak implementation is an overall malaise in our institutions of governance and we must eliminate the social stigma of rape and sexual abuse as well as to ensure justice and healing for the victims," she noted.

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