(Reproduced from The Hindu, March 1, 2004)
AS SRI Lanka heads towards its third parliamentary elections in four years, the President, Chandrika Kumaratunga, says her party has "learnt lessons from our own experience" and that it has a "clear strategy" for talks. In an exclusive interview with V.S. Sambandan, the Sri Lankan President accepted that the latest peace process by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had "some good things," spelt out the areas of continuity and change in possible talks with the Tigers if her alliance returned to power and said her party "all along" had channels with the LTTE, but declined to elaborate. Excerpts from the interview held at her official residence on Friday:
Question: Could you elaborate on your oft-reiterated statement on resuming talks with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) if your alliance were to return to power? How will it differ from your 1994 attempt?
Chandrika Kumaratunga: Beginning from the last part of your question. We have also learnt lessons from our own experience — the 1994 and 2000-01 attempts — and we know what we could use from those experiences and what we shouldn't. Essentially the difference between Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe's approach and our next one — the third one — would be that quite definitely we would have a clear strategy for talks.
It appears that Mr. Wickremesinghe did not have one, that he has given all kinds of promises to the LTTE. That has been borne out to be true because the LTTE has now three or four times called upon the Prime Minister to keep to his promises he gave them before the elections. We don't know what these are, obviously some secret ones. We won't do that kind of thing.
We will tell the LTTE quite openly and frankly what we can offer them — at least a framework. The rest have to be left for discussions. We can't expect the LTTE to accept everything we say. As we did the two times before, we would at least keep a flexible time frame. We cannot say we are going to stop this day and get up and go. But we certainly try to agree on a generally broad time frame — targeted dates. We would definitely have a more transparent and inclusive process and we will quite definitely insist on respecting human rights. Obviously we will and we will insist that the LTTE also does that.
Well, democracy, we will not talk about too much at this moment because they are not a democratic organisation. But our hope is that at the end of the discussions if we come to a negotiated settlement hopefully, that they will come into the democratic stream.
How do you see the LTTE's transition to the democratic path?
You mentioned inclusiveness in the talks. Would you consider taking along other parties on both sides as well?
Well quite definitely, the Muslims. The other parties — we will try to persuade the LTTE to have at least one representative from some of the major parties concerned. Parties meaning not political parties, parties in the wider sense. If they don't agree, we will separately have a group where, while we are discussing with the LTTE, we would discuss with these people, tell them what is going on and take them to the discussions.
On the whole, you had said that there was something in the Wickremesinghe peace process, which is now stalled. Would you see continuity?
Of those good things?
So there would be continuity; there would be change. Where would we see change, where would we see continuity?
Continuity would be the continuation of the ceasefire. Quite definitely, continuation of the stalled talks, continuation of the foreign facilitation and monitors, we will also continue — well that was not initiated by Mr. Wickremesinghe, but by us, but he continued it — the process of constant consultation with the Indian Government or other foreign governments that we consider our friends. India very specially because India is very deeply concerned and relevant to our problem for obvious reasons.
The change would be in the manner in which the peace process is conducted. We will not conduct it in the exclusive, jealously guarded unprofessional manner in which it was done. It would include the major players if not directly in the talks, in the manner that I said a little while ago. We will consult with large sections of the population also.
In fact I had suggested to Mr. Wickremesinghe lastly three-four months ago nearly, when I discussed with him in great detail whether we could form a government of national consensus, he refused it and kicked it out of sight.
Then they said `would you help us in the peace process' — two years late, in fact. But even then, because he did not want my support earlier or that of my party, I said yes only because of my total commitment to peace. ... Finally after two years, when Mr. Wickremesinghe got stuck with the peace process and said `okay we don't want to work with you in the national government but help us with the peace process,' I said ok. The main idea was having a high-level committee consisting of the President and the Prime Minister and one or two people from both sides to consult. The Prime Minister carries on the peace process as before with whomever he wants — we did not want to get involved in that at this late stage — and the Prime Minister consults with the President and that small committee regularly. And we were going to have another committee with all the major players who would be consulted by this main committee. It is the main committee that would brief the negotiators. But even that was not possible because the Prime Minister said even to work together like that he must have the whole Defence Ministry back.
So do you think that was an issue that came as a stumbling block, the Defence Ministry?
I don't think that was the issue. The Prime Minister did not want to work with us. It was the excuse.
Given the acknowledged differences between the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna how do you see the Alliance working together in government?
Well, I was also very anxious, but what has happened up to now gives me hope that we could work with them. We have agreed on almost all the major issues. They are very committed to a negotiated settlement of the ethnic problem. They are committed to not going back to war — the JVP.
What are your comments on the possibility of holding elections in uncleared areas?
No. We can't hold elections in the uncleared areas. No elections commissioner has permitted that. That wouldn't be free and fair at all.
The east, with a mix of the three main ethnicities, has always been a volatile point. How do you see present eastern politics?
Our assessment is that the Muslims and the Sinhalese of the east, who constitute 70 per cent of the total eastern population, have confidence in the People's Alliance and its leadership and they are quite openly saying they were safest under us.
This election also sees the entry of the clergy in a big way. Do you see it changing Sri Lankan politics?
This business of [the clergy] going into Parliament, I am completely against. In fact, the one Buddhist priest who contested and won from the PA list two years ago I had given a definite ruling that no Buddhist priest should be given nominations and against my ruling, at the last minute, in that district our leader had quietly introduced this name against our decision. It was too late.
The UNF has a prime ministerial candidate. Would the UPFA put up a prime ministerial candidate before the elections or wait for later. Who would be your prime ministerial candidate?
We may announce it towards the end of elections.
You had assured that the ceasefire would continue. The JVP has indicated that it should be re-negotiated.
No apparently they never said that. They have given a correction of that.
Would you say that once you... ?
But we will talk to the LTTE. Even the LTTE is wanting, I understand, to re-discuss some of the conditions so we will want to look at some of the weaker points in the MoU.
Have you opened channels — formal or informal — in recent months with the LTTE to resume talks after the UPFA comes to power?
We have had channels with the LTTE all along.
Could you elaborate?
(Smiles) No I can't. Not for the moment.
Finally on a personal note, 10 years ago you came to power with a promise of an entirely new Sri Lanka. Personally and as head of state, what has been the big change from 1994 to 2004 in Sri Lanka and what more would you like to change?
The biggest change is that we have brought in democracy, respect for human rights into Sri Lankan politics. We are still trying hard to consolidate that. At the end of my term I would like to see decency back again in Sri Lankan politics and educated enlightened people leading the government and in Parliament.
Are you optimistic?
Well, if political leaders have the backbone to do so, we can, but with most of the present leaders I don't know whether they would do it. I have begun in my party, as you may have noticed. (Smiles).
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