Aired May 8, 2002 - 12:30:00   ET

Welcome to Q&A. I’m Zain Verjee.

The A-9 highway that connects Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, to the Port of Jaffna in the north, is open again. It was closed for more than a decade, after thousands of Sri Lankan troops and Tamil Tiger rebels were killed. It’s reopening was seen as a small step toward peace in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka’s prime minister recently signed a cease fire agreement with the rebels and has taken a different approach to the Tamil Tigers, one that appears to be working.

Joining us now from New York to talk about the peace process is Sri Lanka’s President Chandrika Kumaratunga. Just a note here – we made every effort to get a representative from the Tamil Tigers to appear on this show, but they did not respond to our requests and declined to come on.

President Kumaratunga, thank you for being on Q&A; appreciate it.

My first question to you, do you support P.M. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s efforts towards peace?

KUMARATUNGA: Of course. It was I who started the peace negotiations seven years ago, nearly eight years ago, with the Tamil Tigers, when the previous government first came into power. And my policy has been to end the war, as fast as possible, through a negotiated political settlement of the Tamil question.

VERJEE: To end the war, as you say, has been your objective. But the strategy in which you tried to accomplish that was very different than the one that Ranil Wickremesinghe is pursuing. His strategy has been one of being a lot more relaxed and willing to make the concessions that you weren’t willing to give.

KUMARATUNGA: What are those concessions that you see that are different?

VERJEE: For example, he’s implicitly agreed for the LTTE to undertake political organizational activities. He’s given sweeping security concessions, political offices are being opened. You, on the other hand, put some pretty tough conditions to the Tamil Tigers. You said, look, you have to lay down your arms. You have to renounce your commitment to Elam. And you went on and tried to pursue a military solution. That is what I’m referring to.

KUMARATUNGA: No, that is not correct. When we first came into government in ‘94, within 10 days I wrote to Mr. Pirabaharan, the leader of the LTTE, throwing all protocol aside, inviting them to come to negotiations.

We signed the cease fire agreement. We did not put in any of the conditions that you said. We relaxed the passage of goods into the north, which was held by the Tigers, when it was completely held by them. 108 items, which were banned by Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s previous government, were allowed to go into the Tiger held areas, and we held talks with them for eight months.

There were no conditions put on them at all. We did not ask them to lay down arms. We discussed without any conditions.

VERJEE: Why is it, then, that your strategy failed and this one appears to be succeeding?

KUMARATUNGA: Well, why is it that the strategy like big powers like the United States of America and other big powers, to resolve the Israel- Palestinian conflict has failed for 54 years?

VERJEE: That’s not the issue here. The issue is, you lost parliamentary elections last year, and as soon as you lost and Ranil Wickremesinghe’s party came into power and became the head of government, a breakthrough happened.

KUMARATUNGA: Well, a similar breakthrough happened when Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government, when he was first prime minister in ‘93, when his government was defeated in ‘94 by my party and we came into power. There was a breakthrough, and we talked for eight months with them.

So, you know, it goes on like that. We had an excellent breakthrough. We had a lot of popularity and hope generated amongst the Tamil people all over the country. We received 82 percent of the vote of the Tamil people in ‘94, but did not succeed because this kind of process does not succeed in a day or two.

And the present protest has started out well, but the Tamil Tigers have not yet agreed to come to the negotiating table. And I believe that the most crucial thing is to get them to the negotiation table and negotiate a durable solution, political settlement, to the war that has gone on for two decades.
They haven’t still agreed to come.

VERJEE: What shape do you see that taking, building on the mistakes and failures of your administration, how do you think Ranil Wickremesinghe can move forward here and forget that meeting and a solution with the Tamil Tigers?

KUMARATUNGA: When you say my administration, I don’t know whether you realize that I am still president.

VERJEE: Excuse me, I meant you don’t have the parliamentary majority any longer, so you only have the executive power. You’re not head of government.

KUMARATUNGA: I am head of government.

VERJEE: Go on.

KUMARATUNGA: Head of state, head of government, and head of cabinet. Yes.

You see, the Tamil Tigers are an intractable organization. They have been named the world’s most ruthless, until al Qaeda came along, the world’s most ruthless terrorist organization, by American magazines such as “Time” magazine and others.

And they are. They are very organized, very efficient in their matters, and it is a long process, and it is not an easy one, to persuade a group that has been fighting for a separate state to give up their call for a separate state and a group which believes in violence and terror as their main strategy, to give up all that, and to come into the democratic stream and start negotiating.

But I think the government has started off all right. Many concessions have been given to the Tigers. They say they are coming for talks, but that is still not yet definite and the dates and the rules have still not yet been agreed to.

VERJEE: Do you support lifting of the ban on the Tamil Tigers?

KUMARATUNGA: Yes, but under very specific conditions.

VERJEE: Like what?

KUMARATUNGA: The Tamil Tigers, before – well, they were banned because they have killed thousands and thousands of innocent Sri Lankans. They have killed the prime minister of India. They have killed many presidents of India and nearly killed me. They have killed many religious leaders. They have killed more Tamil leaders, more democratic Tamil leaders, than any of the governments of Sri Lanka.

So that is why they were banned, and before the ban is lifted.

VERJEE: Do you support having them lifted? Because your position has been no, not right now, not before talks.

KUMARATUNGA: Our position is that the ban has to be lifted only once they have agreed to come for positive talks, and the talks progress positively. And secondly, that they have to publicly accept and agree that they will give up terror as a means of politics and come into the democratic stream.

The laying down of arms can be decided after a negotiated settlement is arrived at. We are not insisting on the laying down of arms at this stage.

VERJEE: See, two points: they don’t see it as terror. They see it as a freedom struggle for themselves. And if they did, or if the government did what you’re suggesting, to lift the ban off the talks, or if there was a commitment to actually have serious talks, the process then wouldn’t work.

KUMARATUNGA: I didn’t understand your question.

VERJEE: Your position is, you don’t want the ban lifted on the Tamil Tigers before any talks or before they agree to serious talks. The Tigers insist on it.

So if the government were to do what you suggest, the talks wouldn’t happen.

KUMARATUNGA: Well, you know, one has to understand what one wants.

VERJEE: And what does one want?

KUMARATUNGA: Well, you see, you have to learn from past experience. The Tigers have discussed, not only with my government but with Mr. Ranil Wickremesignhe’s party, before when they were in government, many times, on two occasions with them, on two occasions with us, and they have never shown readiness to come for talks which would resolve the problem politically and find a final solution to the Tamil people’s problem.

So the main issue I think here is to persuade them to come for positive talks, which will find a final negotiated settlement to the problem.

Until they show willingness to come for that, just giving more and more of what the Tigers want would be the best way of having a separate state in Sri Lanka.

Why is it that the government of Britain has refused to talk with IRA for decades simply because they refuse to lay down arms?

VERJEE: You know what’s different here, though, is.

KUMARATUNGA: A government has to be positive and has to be professional about doing this kind of thing.

VERJEE: What’s different here though is that the leaders of the Tamil Tigers is putting his own weight and his personal time and investment into this as well. That’s something that’s not been done when you were in power, so there does seem to be some degree of commitment, which is why the reception to this peace process has been much more positive.

KUMARATUNGA: That is not correct. Probably you are not informed about the history of this thing.
For the first time, the leader of the Tamil Tigers wrote to any Singhalese leaders, that was to me, Mr. Pirabaharan and I exchanged 44 letters, signed by Mr. Pirabaharan himself and signed by me.

VERJEE: But he’s come out for the first time in 15 years in front of television cameras, giving access like the people haven’t had.

KUMARATUNGA: Yes, it’s excellent.

VERJEE: It is excellent, but it certainly gives some sort of more positive signal then there was before.
KUMARATUNGA: Well, I don’t know if it is more positive or not, because the fact that he wrote to the president of Sri Lanka, accepting the president of Sri Lanka as such, and had a very serious dialogue in writing with me, is also very positive.

Well, he has gone one step further now and come before the world, which is very good. It was I and my government, my previous government, that invited the Norwegians to come as a third party facilitator for the first time, and they have persuaded them.

VERJEE: You seem to be quite skeptical then of the position of the Tamil Tigers here, but yet you said earlier that you’re absolutely committed and you support the peace process here, which involves them, obviously, playing a crucial role here. How do you marry that, then?

KUMARATUNGA: Madame, being supportive of something and knowing exactly what your adversary is are not contradictory things.

You cannot be foolish -- just because you support something -- I am supporting a peace process which will be positive and which would have a satisfactory end, not something where the government of Sri Lanka will get fooled once more by the Tamil Tigers.

You have to know who they are and you have to negotiate with them and deal with them knowing what they are. The Tamil Tigers have studied the Sri Lankan government and it’s strengths and weaknesses very well, and they do that all the time. All I’m saying is that we have to also know what we are dealing with, who we are dealing with, and where we want to go.

That is the only way to success in this peace process.

VERJEE: Are you unhappy with this process, Madame President? I mean, you’ve not really been consulted in all of this. You’ve really been marginalized in the process, and some suggest that you really actually are quite unhappy about it because you can’t take the credit for something that you’ve been trying to achieve for years, and this government is potentially going to take that credit.

KUMARATUNGA: Well, Madame, all that I want to take the credit for is to see an end to the war in my country. I don’t care who takes the credit for it. I happen to be the head of state.

VERJEE: Do you feel marginalized? Do you feel left out?

KUMARATUNGA: No, not at all.

VERJEE: No one consulted you.

KUMARATUNGA: I feel, as a people’s politician, the only time I would be marginalized is if my people told me to go home. And the prime minister does have discussions with me, regularly. He keeps me briefed.

There was one occasion where he did not tell me the details of what was going to happen, which was when the cease fire agreement was signed. And legally and constitutionally he is bound to do that.
Before any other further legal steps are taken, he has assured me that he will do this in close consultation with me.

I have not been unhappy that I have been marginalized. There has been no such thing.

VERJEE: You’ve been speaking recently in recent days about the recruitment of child soldiers by the Tamil Tiger rebels. Why are you bringing that issue up now?

KUMARATUNGA: I spoke about it even today at the U.N. special sessions on the child, because they are doing it even at this moment. They have been found breaking the cease fire agreement, and forcibly conscripting children in the north and east.

VERJEE: But my point is, is that the peace process is moving forward. It’s moving ahead. Why make a speech then focusing on something to discredit the Tamil Tigers and not instead talk about supporting the peace process? Why are you doing it now?

KUMARATUNGA: Which speech are you talking about?

VERJEE: I’m referring to the speech about the recruitment of child soldiers.

KUMARATUNGA: Which speech?

VERJEE: The one that you just mentioned, you spoke about today.

KUMARATUNGA: I didn’t make a speech about the recruitment of child soldiers. I spoke about children’s problems. Children of the world, children of Sri Lanka, and there was a small paragraph or a few sentences, one sentence about -- I was talking about the problems that the governments of Sri Lanka face vis a vis our children, and one of the problems I mentioned was the recruitment of child soldiers.

If you say that we are treating a dying patient, and we’re trying to bring the patient back to life, and the main struggle, of course, is to give life and bring that person back to normal health, that in the process, if the wounds that the person has is beginning to bleed, that we should forget that the wound is bleeding and go on talking about curing the patient.

The patient may die of septicemia from the wound.


KUMARATUNGA: So we have to talk of all the associated problems. But.

VERJEE: I only have a few.

KUMARATUNGA: We will talk in a positive way, in such a manner that the peace process is not hampered.

VERJEE: I only have a few seconds left.

KUMARATUNGA: And I believe that that is how I am doing it.

VERJEE: I only have a few seconds left. I’d like you to tell me what your hopes are for the talks to be held in June in Thailand.

KUMARATUNGA: Well, my hopes and aspirations, which reflect the hopes and aspirations of all our people, especially the Tamil people of Sri Lanka, is that the Tigers will come to talks, but not talk of irrelevant or marginal problems as they have done on two occasions with my government and on two or three occasions with the UNP government before, and that they will talk of the core issue of what the solution should be in order to resolve the Tamil people’s problems, in order that the minorities, the Tamil and Muslim minorities of Sri Lanka, could live with dignity, with equal opportunities, without -- within the framework of one nation state, without dismembering the country.
That they would agree to talk of that core issue and nothing else, and everything else should be only associated to the final solution.

VERJEE: President Chandrika Kumaratunga of Sri Lanka, thank you so much, as always, for being with us on Q&A.


VERJEE: You’re welcome.

Coming up, we’re going to have some reaction to President Kumaratunga’s comments, and also we’re going to talk about next month’s peace talks in Thailand.

You’re watching Q&A. Stay with us.


VERJEE: Welcome back to Q&A.

Sri Lanka’s peace process: can it succeed?

Joining us from London, Sumantra Bose, a lecturer in comparative politics at the London School of Economics. He’s also authored a book, “States, Nations, Sovereignties: Sri Lanka, India and the Tamil Elam Movement.”

And joining us also, on the phone from Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, is Jehan Perera. He’s the media director and researcher for the National Peace Council. It’s a nongovernmental organization that promotes negotiated settlement to the conflict.

Jehan Perera, you first. Judging from the interview just moments ago with President Kumaratunga, what did you make of it? Did you get the sense that she is completely committed to the peace process and the way it is proceeding?

JEHAN PERERA, NTL. PEACE CONFERENCE: You know, on the one hand, President Kumaratunga is a person who led the foundation for today’s peace process. But she’s also a person who has dealt with the LTTE in the past and she has also suffered very grievously as a result of the LTTE.

Therefore, I think she has certain psychological barriers, and a past to deal with.

In addition, there is the fact that Sri Lankan politics over the last 50 years has seen governments trying to promote solutions to the ethnic conflict and the opposition parties always trying to undermine it for narrow partisan reasons.

I think these are the constraints that President Kumaratunga is dealing with, and in a sense has to try and transcend.

VERJEE: Sumantra Bose, then, judging from what Jehan Perera was saying, is it personal?

SUMANTRA BOSE, LONDON SCHOOL OF ECONOMICS: There could be a personal element to it, which is unfortunate.

But as Mr. Perera rightly said, President Kumaratunga can’t be entirely blamed for being personal in a negative way.

What her interview does show is that her attitudes to the peace process is ambiguous, at best, and I certainly hope, like Mr. Perera, that history does not repeat itself in Sri Lanka with one of the two major Singhalese parties, of which President Kumaratunga is still the leader, sabotaging the efforts of the other party and its leader, which controls the parliamentary majority and the cabinet.

VERJEE: So with both of you having said that, and judging from Ms. Kumaratunga’s comments as well, Jehan Perera, should we put a lot of faith in the Tamil Tigers in this peace process?

PERERA: Well, the Tamil Tigers have been cooperating very well with the present government. In fact, what is happening today is unimaginable six months ago, it is going so well.

For the past about six months, hardly any people have lost their lives, and this is a conflict where, on average, 10 were dying a day. So we have saved 1,500 lives.

There seems to be a lot of cooperation between the government and the LTTE at the highest level, so that when there are clashes -- there have been some clashes at sea, for instance, both the leaderships of the two sides have been playing them down.

So I think that is very positive.

VERJEE: And Sumantra Bose, if these are all positive indications here, what could scuttle this?
BOSE: What could scuttle it are the divisions which are latent rather than overt at the moment, in the Singhalese political establishment. So far, it’s been fringe elements, such as the ultra-nationalist JVP on the Singhalese side, as well as hard-line elements of the Singhalese Buddhist clergy, who have been openly opposing the peace process.

However, if that opposition becomes overt, in the case of the Sri Lanka Freedom party and other major constituents of the people’s alliance as well, that could pose problems.

This is in sharp contrast to the hegemonic position of the LTTE, not just among the Sri Lankan Tamils. Other non LTTE Sir Lankan Tamil parties have acknowledge the leadership of the LTTE as the sole spokesman, virtually, of the Sri Lankan Tamil people, and so have the major political parties representing the plantation Tamil community and indeed, so have the major political leaders of the Muslim community in Eastern Sri Lanka.

So, the LTTE is a very difficult player in all of this, and there is no alternative to the LTTE being the sole player, if you will, on the Tamil side.

This is a tremendous window of opportunity for Sri Lanka, and it would be regrettable if Sinhalese divisions were to scuttle this opportunity, as in the past.

VERJEE: Another player here, a crucial player, the Norwegians. Jehan Perera, what do the Norwegians playing peace broker here, or facilitator at least, what do they have to consider to make this process work?

PERERA: I think the Norwegians have been doing a very good job so far, and one of the main differences between the ‘94 peace process, which President Kumaratunga was leading, and the present one, is in fact the presence of the Norwegians, who I believe are trusted by the two sides.

I think, in terms of what more they could do, I think they need to strengthen the international monitoring mission. It’s a double-edge sword, because the Singhalese opposition to the peace process says that the international monitoring mission is taking away from the sovereignty of the country.

So you can’t -- it’s difficult to give them too much power, because then the issue of sovereignty comes up.

VERJEE: So that’s the key, the question here, then, really, how to devolve enough power to the Tamil provinces to tempt the LTTE into settlement, without compromising the unitary status of the constitution and the country of Sri Lanka.

PERERA: Yes. I mean, that’s going to be a major issue, because the LTTE have fought for so long for a separate state. So it’s a major come down for them when they have to operate within the confines of a united Sri Lanka.

I think the main change that this government has made in the peace process is to acknowledge that the LTTE have a lot of control over the northeast.

VERJEE: We’ll have to leave it there. Jehan Perera, Sumantra Bose, thank you for speaking to us on Q&A. We’re out of time.

Courtesy CNN [8 May 2002]