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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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?
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.
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…”!
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.