The last days of Horogolla’s ‘koombi haamu’
Several years ago, a television documentary to felicitate Sirimavo Bandaranaike featured an interview with an old and faithful family retainer at Horagolla Walawwa. The elderly gentleman fondly recalled how Chandrika Bandaranaike was known as ‘koombi haamu’ in the Horagolla household. This he said was because the young lady had a sense of urgency about everything she did and was as energetic as an ant!

As that lady now retires — like any other government servant, at the age of 60 — and a nation looks back at the legacy she leaves behind, sadly for Sri Lanka, the Horagolla household seems to have been mistaken. The last thing that the Kumaratunga presidency was about, was a sense of urgency.
We say it is the last thing, quite literally too. These past few weeks have been a flurry of activity for Her Excellency, not because she is criss-crossing the country drumming up support for her party nominee Mahinda Rajapakse, but because she is busy settling some outstanding issues such as the creation of the Ministry of Petroleum Resources and finalising the Norochcholai coal power deal.

This sudden sense of purpose in pursuing these projects has raised a few eyebrows. Why, for instance, did the President appoint herself as the Minister of Petroleum Resources when a new President will anyway reshuffle the portfolios and redistribute them? Surely, Kumaratunga is not hoping to become the Minister of Petroleum Resources under a President Rajapakse? Norochcholai is even more baffling, because both main presidential candidates have declared their opposition to the project, the local population is vociferously protesting, and the Bishop of the area is quite openly asking what a multi-millionaire albeit controversial business tycoon has to do with this project, and what the indecent presidential hurry is all about.

But then, this is the Kumaratunga presidency in a nutshell. Its consistent feature has been its inconsistency. The President promised to abolish the presidency in six months and retained it for eleven years, and even then let go only after attempting to stay in office for yet another year. She dismissed the United National Front government claiming the country’s security was compromised because of the Ceasefire Agreement and then maintained the status quo. The list of contradictions goes on.

But such inconsistencies were furthest from her mind when President Kumaratunga attended a felicitation ceremony for her organized by the Finance Ministry on Wednesday. In fact, she held her captive audience spellbound with her characteristic charm and off-the-cuff speech (she’s good at it when she talks about herself) where she said that she leaves office as a happy person having given of her best to the country.

Though, it was so ironic to be felicitated by the Ministry, and given a token award by the Ministry Secretary who together with the lady as Finance Minsiter broke a national record by producing a zero percent growth one year.
She had neither mud nor blood on her hands, Kumaratunga said claiming credit for ensuring media freedom, maintaining a steadfast stance for a negotiated settlement to the ethnic issue and for being free of corruption. Great credentials indeed, especially if you are on the lookout for a United Nations assignment, except for the fact that Kumaratunga’s critics would contest each of these contentions vigourously.

Kumaratunga’s claims of ensuring media freedom must be viewed in the context of the many ‘media events’ that marred her rule. The assault on journalists who covered a UNP demonstration outside Town Hall on the 15th of July, 1995, indictments on several editors of national newspapers on criminal defamation charges, giving special dispensation to a judge who heard such a case, the murder of Rohana Kumara, the editor of the tabloid ‘Satana’, and the assault on another editor critical of her and his journalist wife, are but a few of these events.

Kumaratunga herself is at least culpable of using the state media for endless interviews to insult her political and media opponents, most infamously when she referred to the physical disabilities of an outspoken media personality.
That President Kumaratunga, steadfastly stood for negotiations with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on the ethnic issue, there is no quarrel about. But it is also true that when she waged war with the LTTE, she won the north and lost the east, and then nearly lost the north again.

While she steadfastly stood for negotiations, in her eleven years as President 11,000 or more soldiers have been killed in action — over 1,000 per year, or an average of three every day of her presidency! From the 15th of October, 1981 when the first soldier was killed by the LTTE upto the time she took over in 1994 — a period of thirteen years, the official number of soldiers killed in action was some 4,800. In a lesser period of time, in the eleven years that Chandrika Kumaratunga was Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, the number of service personnel killed-in-action was 250% the number killed previously.

Major military garrisons like Mullaitivu, Kilinochchi and Elephant Pass were over-run, camps at Vavuniya-Omanthai, Achchuveli, Paranthan, Mandaitivu, Olumadu, Vavuniya-Mankulam were attacked and scores of unprepared soldiers were killed and heavy long-range artillery was captured. And if all this while President Kumaratunga ‘steadfastly stood for negotiations’, she appears to have forgotten Kennedy’s axiom of never fearing to negotiate but never negotiating out of fear.

Then, with regard to the ubiquitous spectre of corruption too, President Kumaratunga has many questions to answer, not least her direct intervention in the offer of state land near the Parliament complex to so-called “foreign investors” under the guise of inviting overseas investment to the country to build a golf course. Nothing of the sort happened. Instead, an arms dealer who made his money during the period President Kumaratunga ‘steadfastly stood for negotiations’ purchased the property from those “foreign investors” — and at least there is a golf course there now! Those “foreign investors” introduced by Kumaratunga laughed all the way to the bank with the loot obtained for doing nothing other than being recommended by the Head of State to her rubber-stamp cabinet.

It does seem as if someone really has a fascination for golf courses, because the Bank of Ceylon when it was directly under President Kumaratunga approved a soft-loan for a Sri Lankan living close to Shenley in the outskirts of London to build a mini-golf course there. And it is perhaps just a co-incidence that President Kumaratunga would frequent this Sri Lankan's Shenley home during her many visits private, official, and semi-official to the United Kingdom!
But the pertinent query underlying this critique is what, if any, did President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga achieve in her eleven year presidency that would generate a higher standard of life for the average Sri Lankan in the long run, even if she could not win the war, win over the media or wean corruption away?

The J.R. Jayewardene presidency threw open the doors of the economy even if the robber barons came rushing in. The Mahaveli scheme, the Mahapola concept and the free trade zones have stood the test of time in providing socio-economic support for a generation of Sri Lankans. President Premadasa, despite his many faults, revolutionised the garment industry which is the lifeblood of our economy even today. He is credited for setting in motion the machinery for a good road net-work system by the time he was assassinated.
What then did President Kumaratunga achieve?

Not so long ago, a joke doing the rounds said that the greatest achievement of the Kumaratunga regime was the fly-over built at the Ragama level crossing. They say this is no longer true; now her greatest achievement is the reconstructed Baseline Road! A joke this would indeed be if not for the fact that it is quite close to the truth.

That Kumaratunga’s has been a presidency of procrastination became self-evident in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami disaster. There she was, arguing about a 100-metre rule with the United National Party and about the Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure (or P-TOMS) with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna while tsunami victims languished in their makeshift camps, so much so that posters sprang up saying “If only Premadasa was alive today…”!

Is it fair to say then that Chandrika Kumaratunga wasted her eleven year presidency battling terrorists in the North and political and media opponents in the South while the country went from bad to worse?

Chandrika Kumaratunga’s greatest achievements are probably less tangible but nevertheless no less important. Firstly, it was her regime that succeeded in listing the LTTE as a banned terrorist organization in several key countries in the west. Although most of the credit for this must go to the much lamented Lakshman Kadiragamar, we must acknowledge Kumaratunga’s knack for picking the right man for the right job, at least in Kadirgamar’s case.

Kadiragamar himself was a novice to politics eleven years ago and to choose him for the plum job of Foreign Minister which would have otherwise gone to a senior party faithful requires both courage and foresight. Probably she has little to choose from, and fortunately her brother was then in the UNP. President Kumaratunga chose wisely and Kadirgamar did the rest, for which the country is still reaping the rewards of that decision.

Closer home, President Kumaratunga’s claims that her other signal contribution has been in moulding the collective psyche of the majority Sinhala community into one of tolerance and accommodation vis-à-vis the ethnic question. This probably stemmed from her early leftist leanings, and later her association with husband Vijaya which convinced her that the Tamil community had genuine grievances which needed sincere redress, not instant solutions that could be used on political platforms to win the next election.

As President, Chandrika Kumaratunge used her power, position and persuasiveness to good use to transform the mindset of the Sinhalese who are now debating the pros and cons of federalism — a scenario unimaginable eleven years ago. She also triggered in motion a hardcore nationalist element that believes she really has no ‘kakkuma’ or feelings for the majority Sinhalese.

And that her miserable failure to prosecute the war with the LTTE, has resulted in the loss of confidence among the majority that they can defeat the LTTE militarily. As for her own political party, President Kumaratunga must also be accorded due acclaim for revitalising the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) mostly with the assistance of S.B. Dissanayake, now her bete-noire languishing in jail. Some may say this was all in the course of a day’s work for someone who was entrusted with leading the party, but by the early nineties the SLFP had all but crumbled under the machinations of J.R. Jayewardene.

Although new to national politics, Kumaratunga provided the inspiration for the collective opposition and was the focal point in their rallying call. From there on and in governance, the SLFP has shed its archaic vestiges and evolved into a modern political unit, thanks to Kumaratunga. It is an attribute a democratic country needs, but her successor for her job as the President of the Republic from her own party seems a captive of the forces wanting to take the party back to its roots – for better or for worse.

Obviously, this is not the time to write Chandrika Kumaratunga’s political epitaph. With a dozen days of her presidency still to go, President Kumaratunga cannot be consigned to history just yet. And, when she does walk away from the spotlight of the presidency after eleven long years at the helm we are sure there will be many biographers — other than the not so accurate Scotsman, Graeme Wilson — at her door, sharpening their pencils.

And who knows, history might even be kinder to Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, and forgive her for her sins in time to come just as it was to J.R. Jayewardene, but that is something that would depend on the performances of her successor, whoever that may be.

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