A Review: Sri Lanka's Iron Lady

First Broadcast on 12th July on ABC TV’s Foreign Correspondent Program

By Ana Pararajasingham

"With both her parents former Prime Ministers of Sri Lanka, and her brother currently a parliamentarian with leadership ambitions of his own, Chandrika Kumaratunga was born into politics. But President Chandrika claims not to be at all interested in the power that comes with the job"

It was with these words that the 'Foreign Correspondent'  - ABC (Australian Broadcasting Commission) TV’s flagship program - began its portrayal of the Sri Lankan President.

Michael Maher, the interviewer, had little trouble drawing the Sri Lankan President into revealing her personality.  Maher’s intention was to enlighten rather than sensationalize.  His approach was friendly, polite to the point of being deferent, but probing.  The Sri Lankan President obliged by speaking her mind out.

When Maher drew attention to the widely-held view that she was enthralled by power, the President dismissed it by saying that she found the whole idea of her love of power to be a joke.  She simply did not like power except, of course, fo the good that she could achieve through the use of that power.  This bold assertion made with all the conviction that she could muster was blown away minutes later when the President’s sister, Sunethra Bandaranaike, assured Maher in a separate interview that not only did Chandrika love power, but that she thrives on it.  This was in answer to a question by Maher addressed to Sunethera in the presence of brother Anura, who sat quietly throughout this interview.

Then there was the matter of war resuming.  Kumaratunge’s response was again a resounding denial, only to be countered by a Jesuit American resident of Batticaloa, Fr Miller, that war was the only way forward given the absolute lack of progress on the peace front.  The priest pointed to the army rebuilding its bunkers in the East and the LTTE recruiting among the Tamil people.  The priest’s interpretation was backed up by the LTTE’s spokesperson who told Maher that, whilst the LTTE was not interested in resuming the war, it was ready to fight a war thrust upon it.

Maher was also able to get Kumaratunge to admit that the Tamils had been oppressed by successive Sinhala regimes.  This came about when Kumaratunge referred to the LTTE as ‘terrorists’ and was told by Maher that others (meaning the Tamils) look upon the LTTE as freedom fighters.  Kumartunge immediately changed tack by agreeing that the Tamils had indeed been oppressed.  She then made the point that she was the first Sinhala politician to publicly acknowledge this ‘discrimination.’  This candor, she went on to claim, had placed her life in great danger.  In her words, her candor is ‘fatal.'  She drew attention in the process to the collective mindset of the Sinhala public when it comes to acknowledging wrongs done to Tamils.

Also in the course of her interview, Kumartunge attributed the island’s woes to its ruling Sinhala elite. Under Maher’s gentle probing; she was soon forced to acknowledge that her own family, the Bandaranaike-Kumaratunge dynasty had played a part in this process, but ‘by default.'  Maher did not pursue the point any further.  Instead, Maher went on to to show that the violence endemic amongst the Sinhalese was that which claimed the lives of Kumartunge’s father and husband.

The Government’s role in the delivery of aid to the survivors of the tsunami was another area where Kumaratunga found herself making preposterous claims only to retract them or simply being exposed as someone who had no grasp of reality.

According to Fr Miller, like the French monarch, Louis X1V, President Kumaratunge regarded herself and the state to be the same.  "L’État, c’est moi" . (I am the State or’ " what is good for me is good for the people".)

Michael Maher’s assessment was that Kumaratunge was a Sri Lankan version of Eva Peron, ‘very interested in power.’

The Sri Lankan President’s response to this was an enigmatic "History will tell.’


Posted July 19, 2005