Sri Lanka’s economic crisis is a consequence of the corruption over two Rajapaksa regimes, said former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, admitting she is “thrilled” by the aragalaya or people’s movement that overthrew them recently.
“When our systems have crashed and been destroyed consciously, how do you change things…the only way to change is through a socio-political upheaval, a revolution,” she told The Hindu, in an interview on the dramatic changes that Sri Lanka witnessed in recent months, amid a crippling economic crisis.
In her view, the island nation had reached the stage where, with two Rajapaksa regimes, “everything that was bad and hateful was stabilised in power…today we are bankrupt only because of the corruption of the [Rajapaksa] family and their acolytes,” said the two-term President and survivor of an attempted assassination by the LTTE.
Observing that she would “wait and watch” how President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who relies on the Rajapaksas’ party in parliament, fares, Ms. Kumaratunga contended that his government must opt for an economic model that combines a social welfarist model with a liberal economic logic.
While Colombo might have challenging foreign policy choices ahead, especially while negotiating external assistance, the government must opt for a “dynamic non-alignment” policy, she noted, accusing the Rajapaksa administrations of “veering too much towards one country”.
“I am personally very thankful that India has come in, giving us all this aid when they could have stood back and waited because they were not very happy with the Rajapaksa government’s policies,” she said.
‘I will wait and watch what Ranil Wickremesinghe does’
For over 15 years now, former two-term President of Sri Lanka Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga has stayed out of active politics. She re-emerged as a key player in the formation of the Yahapalanaya [good governance] coalition — of Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe — in 2015, only to witness the Sri Lanka Freedom Party of the Bandaranaike clan collapse after the Rajapaksas carved out their own party from it. Speaking to The Hindu at her Colombo residence recently, Ms. Kumaratunga reflects on the staggering developments in Sri Lanka over the last few months, and the way forward for the country’s political and economic progress.
- ‘I will wait and watch what Ranil Wickremesinghe does’
- As a senior political leader in Sri Lanka, what are your thoughts on the developments over the last few months – the Janatha Aragalaya (people’s struggle), the dramatic ousting of the Rajapaksas, the and the political changes since.
- What about the aragalaya did you find striking?
- By that you mean the retaliatory violence by sections on May 9?
- Sections within Sri Lanka see the election of President Wickremesinghe, a senior politician, through a parliamentary vote, heralding some stability for Sri Lanka. In your view, is Sri Lanka stable now?
- While the country is waiting to see how the government might set off economic recovery, there is also mounting concern from rights advocates who accuse this government of resorting to repression to stifle dissent, especially in the wake of the recent arrest of student leaders under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
- Your own proposal recommended forming an interim government under the Prime Minister with just 12 Ministers. Now the cabinet is being expanded and efforts to form an all-party government are yet to succeed, with the opposition appearing sceptical. Do you think the opposition is justified?
- On the one hand, the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna [SLPP or People’s Front which the Rajapaksas carved out of the SLFP] appears divided. On the other, the SLFPis grappling with divisions within. Now that the Rajapaksas are out of power, do you see the SLFP having a chance to regroup and revive itself?
- Did the President himself invite you to help him?
- You were heading the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation. Post-war reconciliation and a political solution to the Tamils are still pending, and some are demanding a new constitution now. The draft constitution of 2000, when you were in power, is often cited as the draft that went farthest in terms of devolution. Do you think it’s a good time to revisit that?
- The political tumult in the last few months was essentially triggered by an economic crisis. In your view what economic model must Sri Lanka choose now to set the country on a path of recovery?
- You earlier mentioned that IMF support will be crucial, but it looks like the process will take several months. There are foreign policy choices and geopolitical dynamics that come into play when it comes to debt restructuring and international assistance. How should Sri Lanka navigate this complex terrain?
- One of the responses of the government to this crisis, both when President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was in power and more recently under President Wickremesinghe, has been to restrict imports. This move, for many, invokes memories of the 1970s under Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, when shortages and long queues were common. How do view this comparison?
- The roots of the ethnic conflict also lie there, then?
- As you said, President Wickremesinghe is reliant on the SLPP in parliament. Do you see this dynamic changing with the attempted all-party or multiparty government?
- What about the Rajapaksas? Do you think the game is over for them, as some say, or can they make a comeback especially since the opposition is still weak?
- Do you see yourself returning to active politics?
- What keeps you busy these days?
- What are you reading currently?
- You are also trained in Kandyan dance, aren’t you?
As a senior political leader in Sri Lanka, what are your thoughts on the developments over the last few months – the Janatha Aragalaya (people’s struggle), the dramatic ousting of the Rajapaksas, the and the political changes since.
To start with, I can say I am thrilled by the Aragalaya. Not the violence that was perpetrated by the extremist minority there, but the whole concept of the Aragalaya, the way it started, and the vision of the good people leading it.
Because the country had reached the stage where, with two Rajapaksa regimes, everything that was badand hateful was stabilised in power. Like corruption.
Today we are bankrupt only because of the corruption of the [Rajapaksa] family and their acolytes. There was no proper governance, no vision for the countryexcept to enrich themselves. They consciously turned everybody into crooks, be it the ministers, MPs, provincial council members, those in local government, as well as public servants, so that they could carry on robbing with no objections. Corruption had seeped from the top, right to the bottom, Vertically, horizontally, it had spread everywhere, whether it was in the public sector or private sector.
When our systems have crashedand been destroyed consciously, how do you change things? Even if you go forelections, the same lot of crooks get elected like they have for over 20 years. Then, the only way to change is through a socio-political upheaval, a revolution.For instance, the French Republic and the USA came into being by effecting radical change through revolutions, so with many other countries.
What about the aragalaya did you find striking?
What was really exciting and positive about the Aragalayawas thatthey had a vision. They were not just saying we want to chase out the Rajapaksas. They said this is not enough, we want an honest government, transparent governance, and that the robbers be brought to book. They issued a 10-point programme, which was quite good even if it needed further work, but the general direction of that programme was excellent.
I met a group of Aragalaya youth at a time they were chasing other political leaders out, as they sent me a message saying they wished to meet me.I jumped at their request. I presented my proposals to them.
I told them that I fully agree that all 225 MPs must go and a new government with new faces and the right kind of vision must come to power. I said that I have been saying the same thing for more than four years, having failed to change much under the Yahapalanaya government. However, I explained to them that the present Constitution does not permit anyone other than members of parliament to be appointed to the cabinet. I suggested an interim arrangement where the few good MPs from all political parties be selected to form a cabinet whilst a Council of State comprised of representatives from major civil society organisations, private sectorprofessionals, academics, major NGOs as well as respected individuals,be created to review the work of the government.40% of the total number should from among the youth, with a further 40% being women. All major policies and laws of the government would first be reviewed by this Council before implementation. The proposed constitutional amendments would include this concept.
They had taken on board my proposal in their 10-point programme and even gave it a much better name, calling it the ‘People’s Council’. They had a vision, they were brilliantly well organised, and they were honest about contributions coming in.
At least two surveys done at that time indicated that 90 % of our people supported them. I don’t know anybody who did not go to Galle Face [agitation site at Colombo’s sea front] except politicians like us who were scared to go. The entire political stage has been swept clean by the Aragalaya. Now it remainsfor the people to collectively unite and formulate the contours of the new regime with new systems and procedures. I don’t believe for a moment that representatives of the old system, strongly entrenched in the destructive vision, attitudes, and practices of the regime that has been rejected by the vast majority of Sri Lankans, will ever wish or be able to effect any change in the system; the system that brought them to power and gave them unlimited possibilities of robbing the country dry, while employing state terror against anyone who challenged them.
I would say that the 225 MPs are hanging on by force. They do not have the people’s mandate anymore.
Some people are idiotically arguing that they were elected for five years and that they should not be sent home early. They were elected by the people, and because those people were not given the opportunity to express their views at an election,they have expressed it in a democratic, peaceful manner. If there is no election, how are they supposed to voice their viewsif they don’t want to suffer the ignominy of a bad government? So, they expressed their views at Galle Face. I don’t agree with the violence, I am talking about the rest of it.
By that you mean the retaliatory violence by sections on May 9?
Yes, and later too. There is some idea of who burnt the MPs houses [on May 9], but there is much doubt about who burnt Ranil’s house [on July 9]. We don’t condone any of that in anyway. Honest politicians, if there are any left in the country, and there are a few, cannot ignore the entire essence of what happened in the Aragalaya. It swept through the whole country like a tsunami. We must take that into account, and factor that into our political vision and political programmes. I don’t know whether those in power right now are capable of doing it.
Sections within Sri Lanka see the election of President Wickremesinghe, a senior politician, through a parliamentary vote, heralding some stability for Sri Lanka. In your view, is Sri Lanka stable now?
It has definitely brought in a certain amount of stability. Fuel is being distributed in a logical and betterfashion. The way the Rajapaksas did it was totally anarchic. Ranil seems to have understood, because he understands the economy and is an intelligent man, that the IMF programme is an absolute must. Even before that I have been saying we have to invite PPPs [Public Private Partnerships] into loss-making institutions. My government initiated PPPs with Sri Lanka Telecom, Airlines, part of the port, part of power generation. We had a lot of objections, but I was able to handle it. Having worked with Ranil in two governments, I am waiting and watching. I wish him well, for the sake of the country.I really wish he can do it. But I don’t know whether he can translate his thoughts into action.
While the country is waiting to see how the government might set off economic recovery, there is also mounting concern from rights advocates who accuse this government of resorting to repression to stifle dissent, especially in the wake of the recent arrest of student leaders under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
Totally unnecessary. Leaders have to possess communication skills to engage with those young people. They said they would leave Galle Face one morning and that morning before they left,they were attacked. What they should have done was conversed with them. Ranil himself. But I don’t know whether he has the communication skills. He has not proved such a thing for a long time.
In crisis situations like this, leaders must have a very generous heart. When I congratulated him, I said that. They must be able to open their arms, hearts, and minds, and talk to the people, look at the problem from the people’s point of view. They are starving today. They have been standing in queues for 48 hours, with some people dropping down dead. We have to feel with them, suffer with them, and then talk to them. I think they willnot refuse if leaders communicate properly with them. Now he has already muddied the waters.
Your own proposal recommended forming an interim government under the Prime Minister with just 12 Ministers. Now the cabinet is being expanded and efforts to form an all-party government are yet to succeed, with the opposition appearing sceptical. Do you think the opposition is justified?
He [Mr. Wickremesinghe] has convicted criminals and well-known thugs and robbers in his cabinet. Only a few are convicted, the others managed to persuade a subservient judiciaryto let them offduring the Rajapaksa regime. If the many cases against the Rajapaksas had been handled properly, there would have been numerable convictions.The Yahapalanaya government went to courts with cases, but they were thrown out for reasons unknown to us.
In such a situation, the younger politicians don’t want to sully their names. And what some of them say is that they would like the President to prove that he can keep his word and bring in the 21st Amendment or at least restore the 19th Amendment [aimed at clipping the President’s executive powers and in turn empowering parliament], and then bring inhonest people into the cabinet and implement laws, systems and procedures to prevent corruption. Then they will join the government.
On the one hand, the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna [SLPP or People’s Front which the Rajapaksas carved out of the SLFP] appears divided. On the other, the SLFPis grappling with divisions within. Now that the Rajapaksas are out of power, do you see the SLFP having a chance to regroup and revive itself?
Sri Lanka, like India, had two major parties. A left of centre party [SLFP], and a right of centre party [United National Party or UNP]. Both those forces have now been decimated. The SLFP is in pieces, a major part of it went to the SLPP. A considerable number has left the SLPP again and are calling themselves independent. Others who would lie on the ground for the Rajapaksas to walk over them are now with Ranil, as his greatest supporters. I suppose Ranil cannot help it, if they vote against him in an impeachment motion, he is finished. I have been asked if I would help the government. I will wait and watch. I have not been hooted at, stoned, nor spat upon [by protesters]. My good name is all I have earned in politics I don’t want to lose that.
Did the President himself invite you to help him?
I have had messages sent. I wish him well, but I will wait and watch because the situation is so horrendous and those in power must prove they can change it. I have had several disappointing experiences working with them.
The UNP may not be as decimated as the SLFP, but it is split.Ranil was the party’s only MP, but he is now building up [support] because he has power. And then there are different groups within the SJB as well [main parliamentary Opposition that broke away from UNP]. So, it’s a bit of a mess.
You were heading the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation. Post-war reconciliation and a political solution to the Tamils are still pending, and some are demanding a new constitution now. The draft constitution of 2000, when you were in power, is often cited as the draft that went farthest in terms of devolution. Do you think it’s a good time to revisit that?
Definitely. I worked on reconciliation for a long time, even before I came into positions in politics. Neverbefore have I seen the people, of their own will, people of different ethnic, religious communities, working like brothers and sisters together, like they did in the Aragalaya. That is another reason I am thrilled by it.
While we did all kinds of programmes to encourage reconciliation, and they were successful, here it happened spontaneously. So, this is the moment to go forward. However, I don’t see any thinking about it.
The political tumult in the last few months was essentially triggered by an economic crisis. In your view what economic model must Sri Lanka choose now to set the country on a path of recovery?
I would say something like what I brought in between 1994 and 2005. Retain the sort of “socialist” aspects such as free education, free health while reducing the excessive subsidies, and slim down and rationalise government because we are dead broke. A lot of people who are well to do receive subsidies through patronage networks of MPs. Introduce Voluntary Retirement Schemesin government institutions where the workforce is excessiveand encourage them to start enterprises by making cheap credit available.
On the other hand, we need to adopt liberal economic policies, in some sectors.The state cannot insist on managing enterprises especially in countries like Sri Lanka, where the public service is incapable of managing state owned enterprises profitably. They are not trained for it.A different set of skills are required to profitably manage enterprises. In addition, corruption reigns supreme in the public enterprises. Isee no alternative to bringing in private sector management to state owned enterprises.The ownership remains with the state, while the management is done by the private sector investor. We need a social welfarist approachwith the liberal economic logic.
You earlier mentioned that IMF support will be crucial, but it looks like the process will take several months. There are foreign policy choices and geopolitical dynamics that come into play when it comes to debt restructuring and international assistance. How should Sri Lanka navigate this complex terrain?
Sri Lanka, I would say has no other choice than a policy of non-alignment. Dynamic non-alignment, as was followed by all the Bandaranaike governments. I am not saying it because it is my family, but it was very successful. And when once or twice, my mother’s government went against some of our major friends, they suffered.The Rajapaksa government veered too much towards one country, which tried to eliminate every other country from the Sri Lankan scene, and we are suffering the consequences.
I am personally very thankful that India has come in, giving us all this aid when they could have stood back and waited because they were not very happy with the Rajapaksa government’s policies. Whether we like it or not, we are a small country. Our major assets are our strategic location and human resources. We can be a major services hub in the whole region, not only South Asia, but all of Asia.
I think we should welcome all the major players in the region into this country for investment. We don’t have to sell our country to them as some say. It is more important than ever before because the country is insolvent. We need their financial participation, we need their skills. We are losing our skilled people. Some 140,000 young people have left the country this year. It is very tragic. A lot of people will thencome back because the quality of life in Sri Lanka, until this crisis,is usually better than in many other places in the world. We have one of the mildest climates the whole year, most beautiful natural surroundings, water, soil.
One of the responses of the government to this crisis, both when President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was in power and more recently under President Wickremesinghe, has been to restrict imports. This move, for many, invokes memories of the 1970s under Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, when shortages and long queues were common. How do view this comparison?
Of course, we must be self-sufficient in major products, major food products at least, and maybe small industrial products. But to say we must stop all imports and produce everything in Sri Lanka is not realistic. We are not big enough to do that.
You know, we Sinhala Buddhists, who comprise 70% of the population, are a majority with a terrific minoritycomplex. Right through history, we have had this. One must analyse why. I suppose one reason is that we have a massive neighbour,and we have had a conflictual relationshipwith that country since ancient times, we were invaded 52 times by Indian kings. When a majority has a minority complex, you try to put down everybody around you to feel that you are important. That is a collective weakness of our nation.
The roots of the ethnic conflict also lie there, then?
It is certainly one of the major roots.
And there is also another reason, which is not related, is that somehow, since the 1970s and 1980s, the type of persons who came into parliament were rascals, I wouldn’t let through my gate under normal circumstances.
Those who got their houses burnt, excepta few of them, were the known crooks. I don’t say that was the solution, that should have never been done. But they are so shameless. When people don’t have one square meal a day, they shamelessly demand they be given compensation immediately. Every one of them has made enough money illegally to build themselves two, three houses, and a large number of them already have many other houses, I can vouch for that.
Earlier, we had decent people in parliament, with principles and commitment irrespective of their background or education. But little by little that changed, especially with J.R. Jayawardene opening up the economy indiscriminately. Unlike in the West where capitalism took centuries to evolve, allowing systems and structures to adjust, the change in Sri Lanka came so abruptly, all our social structures burst asunder.
So all kinds of rascals came into Parliament, uneducated, not skilled.Everybody doesn’t have to be educated. There are lots of top businesspeoplein Sri Lanka and all over the world, who don’t have much education but possess the skills and commitment to engage in honest business. Our present politicians come into parliament thinking that parliament is going to be the best business to earn the largest amount of money with the least effort.
As you said, President Wickremesinghe is reliant on the SLPP in parliament. Do you see this dynamic changing with the attempted all-party or multiparty government?
He is very keen to have all the political parties in government, but even if he gets all of them, SLPP still has the majority. Some in opposition are fearful that even if they join, the SLPP will dominate. So they don’t want to dirty their hands and be the target of public hate. It is a dilemma. The President must bring in the new Constitution, ask the well-known crooks to move out, bring in better politicians, and present a people-friendly development programme. Then the whole country will support him.
What about the Rajapaksas? Do you think the game is over for them, as some say, or can they make a comeback especially since the opposition is still weak?
All those possibilities are there. If a government, not a Ranil-SLPP government, but a government led by Ranil and all other parties, an honest government, solves the country’s problems, history will put the Rajapaksas in their due place.
That is also why I say the Aragalaya movement was brilliant and extraordinary. The Rajapaksas have harassed me. They did that in cheap, horrible ways. Mahinda [Rajapaksa] and Basil [Rajapaksa]. Anyway, those are details that do not influence my political priorities. I dislike them for what they did to the country and our party.
So I am delighted that the Aragalayawas able to chase them out in a peaceful manner I think it is a great thing that happened, otherwise they would never have gone. I am also surprised by their shamelessness, by the fact that they are still clinging on. I would have taken a straight dive into the Indian Ocean if the people had reacted one-tenth as badly against me.
Do you see yourself returning to active politics?
No. Definitely not.
I have done enough. Unlike most Sri Lankan politicians, I have a lot of other interests in life.
What keeps you busy these days?
I am enjoying writing vision statements for political groups who want help. Quite a few young politicians who don’t want to be part of the Rajapaksa cabal come and askme for advice. I still chair a few foundations.Then, I have started a leadership academy at the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies to train young people to be good leaders, not only in politics, but also for society at large. I take care of my personal finances. I have a lot more time for my friends. I love reading, cinema, and theatre. I was utterly frustrated when I was President that I couldn’t read enough.
What are you reading currently?
I read quite a few books in the last three years after I pulled out of active politics. Chimamanda Adichie, I love her. I actually met her once at the Galle literature festival. I like Kazuo Ishiguro; I have a lot of his books. I read some of the Indian authors. In the last few years, I have been fascinated with the Tudor period in England.
There are several female writers, all English, who are history scholars who have studied that period. They have written historical novels. Two of them won Booker prizes. Being a political person, I enjoy reading about political machinations, Henry VIII’s thinking, how they broke up the Catholic Church and started the Anglican Church,really fascinating!
Then there was a very good book on Marie Antoinette, also by one of those English authors. I read two, three books at a time and keep switching. Now I am into some books by Ben Macintyre. He is a good writer, who has studied documents about the Soviet spy system. One was called Agent Sonya. Another writer I enjoy is Sebastian Faulks, he writes fiction based on the two World Wars. Once in a way I read a nice funny book. Just nice things. I also paint, I used to. When I was living in England for a few years after retirement, I started painting again. But 2015 [efforts to form national unity government] sabotaged all that.
You are also trained in Kandyan dance, aren’t you?
Oh, I danced a lot. On stage too. When I was in Paris [as a university student] I went for modern ballet classes, Greek dance, and all that. I used to write poetry, but not anymore. For that you must have your mind at ease. And then when I get dragged back into politics, even if I am not actively engaged in it, I become too stressed to engage in nice activities.