Swept into political office in 1994, thereby ending 17 years of rule by the rightwing United National Party, a year later Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was occupying the highest political post in Sri Lanka. Thirteen years later, despite having been out of the limelight for much of that time, she is still a force to reckon with, referred to by many in Sri Lanka as the Queen. In recent months, Kumaratunga’s name suddenly gained significant prominence in the media – particularly during a high-profile trip to New Delhi during the second week of September – as speculation mounted regarding a stepped-up alignment with the opposition in Colombo.
Regardless of criticism over her governance style, there is no disputing Kumaratunga’s charisma and political dexterity. It is these traits, combined with an indomitable spirit, that propelled her from the political margins to provincial chief minister, then prime minister, and finally to become Sri Lanka’s first female president – all of this achieved within just two years. It was also this drive that finally gave the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), led by Kumaratunga, the energy it needed to end a decade and a half in the opposition. While there are divergent opinions about Kumaratunga’s 11 years at the helm, today she baldly quotes Frank Sinatra: “I did it my way.”
Born to one of Sri Lanka’s most prominent political families, as second daughter to two prime ministers, her father, S W R D Bandaranaike, called her his “political child”. Upon her father’s assassination in 1959, her mother, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, became the world’s first female prime minister. Politics clearly ran through the veins of the children. Kumaratunga’s brother, Anura Bandaranaike, is a former Speaker of the Parliament, and the current Minister of National Heritage in the cabinet of President Mahinda Rajapakse. Not that the family spoke in one political voice. Educated at the Sorbonne, the French-speaking, well-heeled, socialist-souled Chandrika eventually joined protest marches against her own mother, during the latter’s early years as prime minister.
Chandrika later married a popular film star, Vijaya Kumaratunga, and quickly became the force behind him when he formed the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party (SLMP), originally a breakaway faction of the SLFP. Vijaya Kumaratunga’s 1989 assassination, during the height of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) insurgency, drove Kumaratunga to seek refuge in England, where she remained until she became the SLFP’s unanimous choice to run for office. In 1994, Kumaratunga returned, reluctantly, fearing for her young children’s safety. The rest is history. Or it was: today, Chandrika Kumaratunga might be ready to step back into active politics.
During her time in power, Kumaratunga’s popularity, especially among the ethnic minorities, was such that entrepreneurs in northern Jaffna manufactured bangles that came to be known as Chandrika Bangles. Indeed, Kumaratunga’s ability to swing public opinion and create awareness about the merits of power-sharing is considered one of her biggest achievements, even by her most severe critics. At a time when devolution was anathema to her own party – reputed for its reluctance to share power with the Tamil political forces of the north and east, the SLFP opposed the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord and the establishment of provincial councils – it was Kumaratunga who eventually was able to transform the SLFP into a moderate political party.
This turnaround also encompassed a movement away from the policies of her mother, under whose rule the SLFP’s aversion to power-sharing had solidified. “Chandrika Kumaratunga revolutionised the party thinking, and within two years brought in a draft constitution encompassing extensive devolution,” notes Minister of Justice Dilan Perera, who has been closely associated with Kumaratunga for decades. “Chandrika Kumaratunga may have had many flaws. But her strength always lay in her approach to the ethnic question. It is she who educated the masses and her own party, transforming the SLFP from a nationalistic one to one of all nationalities.”
According to the SLFP’s general-secretary, Agriculture Minister Maithripala Sirisena, Kumaratunga was able to market ‘unviable’ policies and stances largely due to her sincerity and unique public-speaking abilities. “She took power-sharing concepts to the very grassroots,” he recalls. “She was most comfortable with the people. I think people remember her for her genuine warmth, which contributed immensely towards her political success.”
Kumaratunga’s hopes for power-sharing were viewed by some as at odds with her eventual turn towards militarisation. “Just like the Chandrika Bangles, the temporary hope she generated about lasting peace through negotiations evaporated with her commitment at a latter stage to a military agenda,” says Alavi Maulana, currently governor of the Western Province. Indeed, her war strategy certainly did not endear her to the LTTE. On the eve of presidential elections, she was subjected to an assassination attempt. She lost sight in one eye, but emerged victorious – and president for the second time – four days later.
Eleven years after being first elected, Kumaratunga left office, discredited by some, vilified by others. She had little to show for her decade-long reign, beyond her attempts at creating ethnic harmony, a federal constitution that never went beyond the draft stage, and a last-ditch attempt to share relief aid with the LTTE following the 2004 tsunami – this last of which was bitterly opposed by members of her own government. Her tenure ended on a negative note, with her regime tainted by charges of corruption and abuse of power. And just as suddenly as she had entered politics a decade earlier, Kumaratunga virtually disappeared from the news.
The immediate public reaction was harsh. Soon afterwards her departure, a book was published by the Sri Lankan journalist Victor Ivan called Chaura Rajine (Queen of Deceit), which prominently documented several of her alleged misdeeds. Ivan’s work was just the latest in a general turning-away by the media, which had initially been one of Kumaratunga’s most significant allies. During the course of her presidency, Kumaratunga shut down Ravaya and The Sunday Leader, two newspapers that regularly criticised her governance. She also initiated a string of criminal prosecutions again editors of national papers, while seeking to stifle the media through the introduction of regulatory legislation.
Ultimately, Kumaratunga’s policies are a mixed bag. “The many allegations apart, we feel that President Kumaratunga lacked political prudence at times, and took ill-considered decisions,” says the UNP’s general-secretary, Tissa Attanayake. Yet her loyalists continue to insist that, until her last day as president, Kumaratunga did not waver from her stance with regard to the ethnic question. They also emphasise that Kumaratunga was the most liberal and minority-friendly political leader the SLFP has ever produced. “Our failure to introduce a mechanism to share humanitarian assistance with the LTTE greatly diminished our chances of entering into a dialogue process with the Tigers,” notes Dilan Perera. Concurs Mangala Samaraweera, a politician who recently defected to the opposition: “Until she came along, there were leaders who paid lip service to conflict resolution. But nobody ever had the courage to give a jolt to public thinking. She was visionary in that area.”
Kumaratunga now seems eager to showcase her achievements. “I sincerely tried to reach a political consensus to solve the ethnic question, and tried to introduce a pluralistic constitution that would cater to the political aspirations of the Tamil people without dividing the country,” she noted recently. The former president is also busily attempting to explain away failures. “That [pluralistic constitution] was maliciously aborted by the opposition. Perhaps my main achievement was in bringing about an attitudinal change in the southern minds about power-sharing as a solution that does not amount to separatism. And also winning the confidence of the northern people that all Sinhalese leaders are not there to hoodwink them and to ignore their political aspirations.”
Kumaratunga is technically in retirement at the moment. Even as the rumour mill spins about a potential return to politics, however, Kumaratunga has been reticent to go public with her political plans. “I would like to still serve my country, and will find an outlet soon enough,” she says, adding that she is “particularly interested in education and conflict resolution” – something that critics and supporters alike will read as an indication of a desire to get back into the hurly burly of politics.