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Last Updated: Saturday, 19 November 2005, 15:40 GMT
What is the Kumaratunga legacy?
By MJR David
BBC Sinhala service

Chandrika Kumaratunga
Mrs Kumaratunga - was she sincere in peace talks with Tamil Tigers?
Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga has now stepped down after 11 years as president of Sri Lanka, leaving opinion divided as to her legacy.

When in 1994 Mrs Kumaratunga first campaigned for the powerful executive presidency she made it clear that she was all for a negotiated political solution with the Tamil Tiger rebels fighting for a independent home land in the north and east of the island.

She was elected with a majority of 63%. Many interpreted that as a mandate for peace.

When she took power, clashes between the government forces and the Tamil rebels had dragged on over a decade, with already some 30,000 people killed.

Her election offered hope of an end to war.

When a government delegation arrived in the Tamil-dominated north, there was great enthusiasm.

"Thousands of people flocked to cheer the delegates and there was optimism all over," recalls Swaminathan Wimal, a lecturer at Jaffna University.

"The Chandrika government had lifted the embargo on certain goods banned by the previous regime. Vendors in the local fair sold them as Chandrika merchandise. We had Chandrika sarees and bangles."

Island of blood

But the enthusiasm did not last long.

As Kumaratunga leaves she has only an apology to offer the nation for not being able bring peace
Rajitha Senaratna
former Kumaratunga ally

The talks initiated by the Kumaratunga government were short lived. Less than six months after her election, hostilities resumed.

Sri Lanka came to be known as the island of blood.

It was an era marked by aerial bombings, the killing of innocent civilians, both Sinhala and Tamil, suicide attacks, attacks on the international airport and economic targets, as well as face to face battles between government and rebel forces.

Another 30,000 people are estimated to have been killed during Mrs Kumaratunga's presidency.

DEW Gunasekara, a minister in the Kumaratunga government, says that, despite the fighting, her commitment towards peace never diminished.

And he argues that the Mrs Kumaratunga put in to motion an irreversible process that will one day lead Sri Lanka to peace.

"Kumaratunga not only boldly said that the ethnic problem needs a political solution but over the years she has been able to convince the majority of this country that the ethnic question warrants a political solution" Mr Gunasekara says.

That, he says, is now accepted by most political parties in Sri Lanka.

International mediation

In 2000, after narrowly escaping an assassination attempt blamed on the Tigers, Mrs Kumaratunga told the BBC that she was still willing to negotiate with Tamil Tiger leader Prabhakaran if he was "willing to give up his devilish ways".

Tamil Tiger rebels
Tamil Tigers saw talks as 'cosmetic exercise'

She then tried putting a devolution proposal to parliament, but eventually abandoned it, fearing it would not get the majority it needed.

Mrs Kumaratunga later invited Norway to play the role of mediator.

But Navaratna Bandara, a professor of political science, says Mrs Kumaratunga never regained credibility with the Tigers after the first talks broke down.

"The initial attempt was very amateurish. None in the delegation that went to meet the Tigers had political authority. They were a team hand picked by the president," he says.

"Once the Tamil tigers perceived it as a cosmetic exercise they moved away."

The Kumaratunga devolution proposals were never seen by the Tamil as a genuine attempt to grant greater autonomy to the Tamils, Professor Bandara says.

"Devolution proposals were made in between fighting a bitter war and the Tigers perceived it as a propaganda stunt aimed at the international community."

However, Professor Bandara says the devolution proposals gave a clear message that Mrs Kumaratunga was willing to change the structure of the Sri Lankan state and make room for a federal arrangement that would have provided the Tamils of the north and east a fair degree of autonomy.

'Opportunism'

The opposition United National Party (UNP) won a parliamentary majority in 2002. That led to a period of 'cohabitation', with President Kumaratunga having to deal with Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe.

Rajitha Senaratna is former associate of Mrs Kumaratunga who later crossed over to the UNP.

He says Mrs Kumaratunga's political opportunism overshadowed her commitment to peace.

"She never had a plan for peace. When she wanted to grab power from the United National Party she conveniently undermined her own convictions for peace," Mr Senaratna says.

Matters came to a head when Mr Wickramasinghe was in the United States, meeting President George Bush.

Mrs Kumaratunga, using the powers of her executive presidency, declared a state of emergency and suspended parliament.

She accused Mr Wickramasinghe of giving too many concessions to the Tamil Tigers.

By then dissolving parliament in early 2004, Mrs Kumaratunga effectively scuttled Mr Wickramasinghe's peace process with the Tigers, argues Mr Senaratna.

"As Kumaratunga leaves she has only an apology to offer the nation for not being able bring peace."

But DEW Gunasekara disagrees.

"Peace is not something the ruler alone can bring. In a conflict both parties have to reach a compromise and at the moment the Tamil Tigers have not reached that phase," he says.

"That doesn't mean that her policy is wrong."

There is little dispute that Mrs Kumaratunga leaves office with a country still largely divided on ethnic lines.

But how much that is down to her will remain a hotly debated issue.


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