Reproduced from The Hindu of November 12, 2004
Ten years after Chandrika Kumaratunga was elected Sri Lanka's powerful Executive President on a massive mandate for devolution of powers to end the decades-long separatist conflict, her main goal _ constitutional reforms _ remains elusive. In an exclusive hour-long interview to V.S. Sambandan at her official residence in Colombo on November 10, Ms. Kumaratunga asserted that Sri Lanka was now "quite definitely" ready for federalism. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), she said, habitually "baulked at the point when Government negotiators want to sit down and talk about the final settlement." However, Ms. Kumaratunga is of the view that the LTTE "has changed a lot" and that she nurses "some hope" of a solution because of changed "circumstances and political conjectures." Excerpts:
Question: How much has the Sri Lankan political discourse on devolution changed over the decade?
President Kumaratunga: It was the first time that a Sri Lankan Government of its own free will, proposed devolution and the granting of full rights to all the minority communities. A few months after we came into government in 1994, less than 23.5 per cent of the Sinhala people agreed that the ongoing war should be resolved outside of a military conflict. After all the work we did, by 1996, the number of Sinhala people who said yes to devolution and negotiated settlement went up.
It was a decade of huge intentions. Translating them to constitutional reforms has been a challenge. Where does Sri Lanka go if it does not happen? Some political analysts see it as a failing or failed state. Do you envisage that scenario?
I hope not. I don't think it is even necessary to even adhere to that concept because the state of Sri Lanka and the state structure are too strongly embedded in the socio-cultural emotive psychological make-up of the people for it to crumble like that. If you take examples from all over the world, states have not crumbled because one separatist group is challenging it in the most ruthless and horrendous fashion.
What is your view of the current state of play on the political and military fronts?
Politically the [ruling] Alliance is having problems, but these are nowhere near breaking it up. We are resolving them. Even if there are personality problems, problems of style, that doesn't lead to a break-up.
Militarily ... the LTTE hardening ... I don't know how you can say that when for the first time in the history of the LTTE it has split into three. [The LTTE leader] Mr. Prabakaran has lost his army commander, and now he is having serious problems with his navy commander. So I don't know how anybody can say they are militarily getting stronger.
Do you have any insight on whether there is a serious difficulty within the LTTE?
I think there should be because they told us that he [Soosai] is very, very serious and that he has to be rushed out. And he went to Singapore and came back in three days. He did not see any doctor or go to any hospital. That we are sure of. I feel that some senior LTTEers came from other parts of the world and persuaded him to go back. Whether its true or not I don't know, but there seems to be [a] very serious problem.
What is your view of Norwegian facilitation? At times the JVP has been very vocal about it. Would you like to see a re-calibration of their role?
Well, on the whole I must say Norway has played their role quite well. There are certain things I have been very concerned about, not directly related to the peace process, but to the internal politics of Sri Lanka, which I cannot say now. When I write my life story someday that will be known.
Have you started on that?
Little bits and pieces. That will be when I retire, if Prabakaran still has not got me. He is still thinking of getting me, while holding talks with us. But we have to go on with the process, because one has to be knocking at the door. Even if you know that what is beyond the door could be not very pleasant, that is the only solution.
Would you like to summarise your recent visit to India and how do you see bilateral ties?
I think it was an excellent visit. We got a lot of work done on the economic front, the defence front and, of course, person-to-person contact even. It was very good.
Any elaboration on your talks with India on the current state of the conflict-resolution process?
Well. India does not participate in our conflict-resolution except that they want to keep briefed and they want to know what is going on since they are very closely related to us and also because of their geographic, strategic concerns. Beyond that. No.
There has been a lot of talk about your term of office. Is it 2005, or 2006? Would you seek a judicial interpretation?
I don't think I need to. If somebody has a problem they can seek a judicial interpretation. But all the legal opinion, at the topmost level, and I have studied the constitution myself. It is 2006. But whether I will stay till then, it is my own problem. I am talking about the constitutional situation.
How do you read the current 18-month stalemate in talks compared to 1995? Is there a sense of déjà vu?
Oh yes. Many. The LTTE has a habit. This is the seventh round of talks they are having [with various Sri Lankan Governments]. Out of the seven, the five times I know, the LTTE has baulked at the point when government negotiators want to sit down and talk about the final settlement.
How do you see retaining the LTTE at the talks? They have said the Interim Self-Governing Authority should be the basis.
That's the best way of halting a discussion on the final settlement.
So you don't see the deadlock being broken?
Nothing moves along unilateral lines. The LTTE also has changed a lot, as you know. They have opened up. LTTE cadres go out into the world and see that there is another world outside of their dark dingy den, where they are only thinking of who they are going to murder next. For the first time, they have gone on with a ceasefire agreement — with violations but at least I would say 70 per cent of it is adhered to — for a long period of time, nearly three years. They have at least said, whether they mean it or not, that they are willing to explore some solution other than Eelam.
A few years ago one could not have heard of a Karuna or a Soosai objecting to Prabakaran and still living. The LTTE has also become sensitive to its people's needs to some extent, though they were not up to now. So, things are changing. It is not because, I think, the personality of Mr. Prabakaran may change. Being a political scientist, I have studied the personalities of such individuals in the world and I do not expect much change from this particular leader. But movements change, other people change, circumstances and political conjecture change. I think there is some hope.
Do you think Sri Lanka is ready for federalism?
Yes. Quite definitely yes. One of our partners may not agree, but they are also looking at it seriously. Don't forget that the JVP has also come a long way. When they started talking with us, they were not even talking of a negotiated settlement. Now they are in agreement that there should be some form of power-sharing.
The Japanese special representative, Yasushi Akashi, had gone to Kilinochchi with a message from you recently. Would you like to share that message?
Come to talks. That is what I told them. I didn't tell them anything else.
There is talk about a possible constituent assembly, a non-binding referendum and you coming back as Executive Prime Minister. Would you like to comment?
If the people want the constitution changed and if it is to be changed, we will explore every possible legal possibility. It could be a quasi-constitutional possibility of changing constitution.
Could Sri Lanka expect something in the coming months?
If it is necessary, we will consider it very seriously.
By all indications, it appears necessary, President, so...
We should ask if a referendum is necessary. I would like to say one thing here. The UNP's spokesman on constitutional matters, Mr. G.L. Peiris, is going around saying all over the place that your constituent assembly is not possible, it is all illegal. Do you know that he gave me in writing the whole procedure for the constituent assembly, the referendum, how to do it.
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