In a conflict situation, courage is usually associated with war not the pursuit of peace. A soldier could be called upon at any moment on the battlefield to react to a situation in which he may perform an act of courage or an act of cowardice. I once asked the former US Secretary of State Colin Powell who had been under fire as a young officer in Vietnam in 1963 whether any soldier, or his superiors, could predict with certainty how he would react when the defining moment of his life confronted him. His answer was: "You can never tell. Bravery often comes from unexpected quarters". A typical citation in any award to a soldier for valour in battle refers to heroic conduct unmindful of his own life.
To a soldier, courage is a frozen moment in time. In the life of a political leader, courage is revealed not in a single act but in a course of conduct over a long period. The leader has a vision, an over-arching goal, to which he or she is committed with sincere conviction. The goal has to be defended against various assaults. Temptations in the form of tactical compromises in pursuit of the goal are always present. But the fatal compromise would be a decision, by a process of rationalisation, to abandon the goal in the name of prudence.
In the eighties Vijaya and Chandrika Kumaratunga spent time in India discussing the Sri Lankan conflict with Indian leaders and Tamil exiles. They came to the conclusion that the conflict could only be resolved by negotiation, not by war.
By the time of the general election of 1994, Chandrika Kumaratunga's view on bringing the armed conflict to an end was ready to be put to the test of acceptance by the people. There were two approaches to that election: one, urged upon her by party seniors, to campaign against the incumbent government on its seventeen year record of mismanagement and corruption; the other, for which there were fewer proponents, to put to the people directly, in addition to the record of the Government, the question whether they wanted the war to continue with all the terrible consequences that war had already brought to the south or to have a peaceful settlement of the conflict negotiated with justice for all. Her own clear preference was for using the impending electoral victory to secure a mandate for negotiating peace. There was never any question of her contemplating a division of the country as a means of bringing peace. In the early days of the campaign, the question was put to small pocket meetings, in the heartland of the South. She has said that she was pleasantly surprised at the vocal support of the people for the pursuit of peace rather than the pursuit of war. The rest is history.
She was elected to the Presidency following the general election with a record majority. The party leaders who were apprehensive that such a divisive question might even affect the party's chances of victory on other safer issues had to confess that the sheer boldness of her approach coupled with an accurate reading of the mood of the people had carried the day. One senior said: "She has given the party created by her parents a new direction, away from their policies. Who are we to say she is wrong"?
Soon after her election, she matched promises with deeds. Four rounds of talks were held with the LTTE. A large number of letters passed between her and the LTTE leader. On our part there was perhaps a degree of naivety about the format of the talks inspired by optimism and goodwill rather than a rigorous assessment of the LTTE's readiness to engage in talks seriously, leading paradoxically to LTTE allegations against her of duplicity when the talks broke down, whereas that label fitted exactly the conduct of the LTTE in breaking off the talks in April, 1995 and going back to war.
Suddenly, the unwelcome role of supervising the prosecution of the war was thrust upon President Kumaratunga, the dream of dealing rationally and fairly with the LTTE shattered again. It took courage to fight a war she did not want and had done noting to provoke. The war had its successes and reverses. Jaffna was regained, other important bases were lost. But the over-arching goal of pursuing peace remained constant. The Sudu Nelum Movement was launched to sensitise the people to the advantages of peace over war. Elaborate discussions were conducted both in Parliament and outside on drafting a comprehensive constitution which would contain federal features.
At the 50th anniversary celebrations of Sri Lanka's independence, she made a memorable speech widely acclaimed then but, alas, now not widely recalled tracing the history of errors made by the southern polity in managing the ethnic question over the years. This magnanimous admission by the Head of State on such an important occasion was an act of courage of rare quality. After the near fatal assassination attempt on her on the eve of her second Presidential election, she made another memorable speech extending the hand of friendship to the LTTE which only a few days earlier had sought to kill her.
A few days after her re-election as President, she made the momentous declaration from her hospital bed in London, where she was recovering from the grievous injury inflicted upon her by the LTTE, that the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE had agreed to engage the services of the Government of Norway as a facilitator. This was the first time in the tortuous history of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, and also the first time in the politics of South Asia, that an outside Government had been engaged for this kind of work. This courageous decision will for a long time remain controversial. In defence of it I would say that the stage had been reached in our faltering negotiations with the LTTE when the assistance of an outside party could be helpful. Initially, indeed, the assistance of Norway seemed helpful but with the passage of time it has become apparent that the degree of impartiality required of an acceptable facilitator has not always been evident in the role of Norway, leading to considerable suspicion in the South that the cause of Sri Lanka in the resolution of the conflict is not being well served.
President Kumratunga's goal of peace remained intact although the war continued with renewed ferocity on the part of the LTTE into the middle of 2000.
The loss of Jaffna was averted. The efforts at constitution making proceeded, and had gone very far until that fateful day in October 2000 when she personally presented the draft constitution to Parliament. That was the most infamous day in the history of our legislature. It was a day I will never forget for many reasons.
She need not have undertaken the burden and the risks of presenting the bill personally. As she rose to speak, she was met by the most disgraceful scene of hooliganism that our Parliament has ever witnessed on any occasion, let alone on one of such historical significance. The hooting, jeering, thumping of tables and burning of the draft constitution by the opposition went on without pause for over an hour while she gamely continued with her speech. As an act of sheer political, indeed almost physical, courage her performance that day is unlikely ever to be surpassed in Parliament.
After the second Parliamentary election of her term, attempts to resume discussions with the LTTE were made leading to cautious efforts to conclude an agreement for the provision of humanitarian relief to the LTTE dominated areas. But by July 2001 with the LTTE's attack on the international airport, peace making efforts ground to a halt, also because the Government had lost its majority and another Parliamentary election was scheduled for the end of the year.
With the loss of the general election of December 2001 and the installation of the then opposition as the new government, the role of the Executive President under the present constitution was subjected to severe strain.
Co-habitation, which the constitution theoretically provides for, had come about, decreed by the people. The way the President handled the savage attacks continuously launched against her by the Government of the day, especially in the Cabinet of which the President is the constitutionally designated head, is another chapter in the saga of courage that President Kumaratunga has displayed over the entirety of her Presidential tenure.
The signing of the ceasefire agreement between the Prime Minister of the day and the leader of the LTTE without even cursory consultation with the President prior to signature was a dramatic illustration of the impossible situation that could arise in the circumstances of co-habitation. But, again, the President's focus on the pursuit of a peaceful resolution of the conflict remained unaffected.
With the restoration of her own party to office after the general election in April, 2004, a renewed attempt was made to reopen the peace talks that had been stalled a year earlier.
The same commitment to the relentless pursuit of a peaceful resolution of the conflict was in evidence once more. Although the efforts to have the talks renewed were unsuccessful due largely to the intransigence of the LTTE, who insisted that the agenda should be limited solely to a discussion of their proposal for an interim self-governing authority, efforts continued until the tsunami struck in December 2004.
The conclusion of an agreement with the LTTE for the conduct of tsunami relief operations in a limited administrative context is the hard fought culmination of her efforts to engage the LTTE in the process of working together with the government at least on a limited venture.
The conclusion of the agreement has proved to be highly controversial, but as an act of commitment to the over-arching goal the President set herself many years ago, of bringing the conflict to an end consensually, notwithstanding even the break up of her own government, it must stand as a unique example of political courage in pursuit of a strongly held belief.
The conclusion of the agreement may be the end of one chapter, but it is the beginning of another in which the President still has a vital role to play. That chapter involves addressing as vigorously as she has addressed the cause of promoting engagement with the LTTE, the task of making it clear to the LTTE, and to the Government of Norway, that the restoration of democracy, including the creation of space for dissent and the promotion of human rights in areas presently controlled by the LTTE, is a priority of the highest order.
The more than 50 signatories to the Tokyo Declaration should not be allowed any longer to mollycoddle the LTTE which was required, inter alia, by paragraph 18 of the Declaration to comply with benchmarks relating to adequate Muslim representation, respect for human rights and phased disarmament.
It is axiomatic that the conflict in Sri Lanka cannot finally be resolved until the LTTE becomes a fully civilian organisation with no army, navy and air capability. These issues could provide an opportunity for building a new platform on which even those parties which have rejected a tsunami mechanism could stand. Internationally, it could not possibly be argued that the promotion of democracy in the affected areas of the North and East of Sri Lanka does not deserve the fullest support of all countries who practise democratic governance.
The movement for democracy in certain districts of the North and East must begin to roll. If the Government of Norway is unable to plead this cause with the conviction and determination that it deserves it should stand aside and yield to other parties who could carry the flag of democracy into areas where darkness presently prevails.
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