The Rajpal Abeynayake Column                     By Rajpal Abeynayake  

Chandrika - return of the prodigal Western liberal
In the space of two weeks, Chandrika Kumaratunga apologised to the Tamils for the 1983 pogrom, and said Buddhists should work for the people's welfare rather than agitate for an anti-conversion Bill. So now it is clear - - she remains a liberal populist at heart.

She also brushed the JVP off of her sari pota, by dropping the leadership of the UPFA Alliance. It was a clear move to pursue the peace agenda without being encumbered by the JVP's own brand of tub-thumping patriotic populism.

Chandrika Kumaratunga has been known before as one of the social scientist's circle of Colombo based liberal bleeding-hearts. In her pre-political incarnation, she was effectively Vijeya Kumaratunga's sidekick, gadding about in a double-cab, and being comforted in the embrace of moderate Tamils who had Tamil self-determination uppermost in their minds. She exuded Sorbonne chic to her fingertips, and being cast in that mould she had almost disowned her father's Sinhala only policies with a self-conscious embarrassment.

But, as President she had to discard that baggage when the LTTE tried to assassinate her, in the process upsetting her rather presumptuous notion that no Tamil group will walk out on her brand of 'refined' Western liberalism on the national question.

Here she was, fresh as a Daisy from Sorbonne, a Francophone to beat Sarath Amunugama, and the LTTE dared walk out on her Western liberal formula for equity emancipation and justice??

It wouldn't do. She was shocked, she told a nation with patch on her left eye, and tearing profusely from the other. She then declared a war-for-peace.

But you cannot expect a Sorbonne Liberal to jump so fully out of her skin. So, intermittently, while the war-for-peace rumbled on, she asked the Norwegians to sort things out for her with the LTTE, while she had bouts of troubled-conscience (and probably sleepless nights) in her hostility towards the Tigers.

Now she is fully back to her old mode. It took Ranil Wickremesinghe to exorcise the last Sinhala nationalist demon within her, and she is in quick succession making all the moves she hopes would stamp her credentials as a true Western Liberal.

Those who are still more cynical will however argue that her father was a nationalist through political expediency, while the daughter is a Western liberal owing to the same quantity. In other words, they would say she needs the Western block for aid to bail her out, and peace to keep the moribund economy from completely dying out on her, therefore explaining her current political turn….

But to talk to the Tigers on the only written political proposal they have presented since the crisis began -- is that expedient? On the other hand, it may be the only smart thing to do. She is discarding the political slogans of the election, saying to the UNP "you stew in your own juice - because anything you do I can do better." She has the JVP eating out of her hand in the bargain.

In one way it is a class political act - - the problem is that she still doesn't seem able to bring it off. The LTTE seems prepared to talk only to a totally supine and weakling Sinhala leader, which she is not. The LTTE wants a Sinhala leader spreadeagled and on the floor to have their way with him/her. Ranil Wickremesinghe was spreadeagled. She won't be.

But there is still some time left, and many other considerations. It does not necessarily mean that Prabhakaran will walk out on Chandrika's brand of Western liberal populism. But yet, he also might see it as a veneer. The Tigers might also see her as a conjurer - - a person who holds out various tricks to bamboozle the Tamils, while not engaging sincerely ("sincerely'' in their frame of reference) in addressing their cause.

She is being almost embarrassingly cloying towards the Western liberal donors, and in veering that way she may have even overreached. Why an apology now, for instance, for the 1983 pogrom, which was anyway certainly not an act by the Sinhalese against the Tamils? Everybody who knows the ABCs of Sri Lankan politics will understand that 1983 was organised by a jingoistic rump group of the then UNP, and carried out by paid thugs. This was not something done by the Sinhala-Buddhists to the Hindu Tamils, the way the Western news agencies like to put it across in their over-eagerness to please local minorities.

About the anti-conversion Bill, she is probably right in calculating that it is not what the nation wants, definitely not at the moment. One hardly needs an axe to be wedged between two ends of a very polarised community.

Pro anti-conversion arguments and anti anti-conversion arguments can flood the discourse, and the people can have an orgy debating this issue to its bare-bones. In Christian eyes the Bill is seen as a push towards persecution, and in Buddhist eyes, it's seen as the last stand against being swamped by a rabid alien contagion. As in most community issues however, the truth is never considered to be lying perhaps somewhere in-between.

There may be a modicum of truth in both Christian and Buddhist perspectives in this matter of the Conversion Bill. But, whatever the truth, to spring the Bill on the community at this time, when there is an albeit exaggerated idea that there is a war brewing around the corner, seems to be foolish even to those who swear by the need for the Bill.

So the President ratiocinated properly. She read the signals and adjusted her positions with the single-mindedness of one who knows what she wants and knows how to get there. It wasn't so difficult either, because all she had to do was to crawl back into her discarded Western liberal skin. But then one has to wish for her that peace would be as easy as taking up positions, discarding slogans and issuing apologies -- however cloying or artificial they may sound.

But at least she has succeeded in nudging the JVP aside on the issue of the national question, and rather rudely at that -- something which most sane political watchers would not have imagined possible some months ago. So who won't give this President half a chance of pulling it all off in the end? She has pulled things off before, albeit easier ones, but with luck on her side she could pull this one off also despite the Western liberal lobby which has written her off for not being Western liberal enough!

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