by Serge Berthier

Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga has been elected President of Sri Lanka in October 1994, winning 62% of the vote. For the country, 1994 had been yet another year of failure and despair. On 19 January, ten civilians had been killed and fifty-one injured by a bus bomb at Rambewa in the Anuradhapura District. They were joining the long list of civilian casualties in a conflict that had broken into an open war on 27 July 1975.

On that day, Alfred Duraiappah, the Tamil Mayor of Jaffna was assassinated by four young men while he was going to temple. Three of the four men were caught. The legend asserts that the fourth who got away was Velupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the LTTE, the creator of the Tamil Tigers.

Alfred Duraiappah was a member of the SLFP. It was a party that had been established in 1951 by SWRD Bandaranaike, Chandrika’s father. She was six years old. During eight years, the length of her current Presidency, she was going to witness the success of her father, winner of the elections of 1956 followed by his tragic dispartition in the first high-profile assassination of a member of her family. SWRD Bandanaraike was assassinated on 26 September 1956 by a Budhhist monk named Somarama.

The Prime Minister’s assassination was not an isolated incident, nor was it to be the last assassination of a political figure in Sri Lanka. To rise to power, SWRD Bandaranaike had made some powerful enemies and the wounds his political tactics opened across the fabric of the society among the various ethnic and religious groups of the island have, it seems, never healed.

Born a Christian, with Tamil ancestors in the family line, but a Sinhala, SWRD Bandaranaike was a man of many cultures. Unfortunately, in order to establish his political credential among the largest constituency of the island, he became once in power an arch-nationalist exploiting the Sinhala Buddhist sentiment for political gain. If in the short term, it proved to be a successful strategy, he paid a terrible price for fanning the flame of social strife. Ever since, the country has lost its way and peace is now an illusion that every politician pursues with assiduity but with no result.

The current history of the country has some eerie parallel with the Greek legendary tragedies of the past. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga had little chance to escape her fate. Her mother who, according to many, had little interests in public affairs before the assassination of her husband and little education, felt a moral obligation to defend her husband’s legacy. She won the election of July 1960 on the strength of the family name and became in turn Prime Minister. Chandrika was sixteen years old.

Between 1960 and 1965, Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s government followed the fashion of the day. Today, analysts attribute the failure and the economic collapse of Sri Lanka to the lack of education of Chandrika’s mother. But it can be argued that she was in fact deeply influenced by Indira Gandhi’s socialist policies and the fashionable economic thinkers of Oxford.

It is against this background that Chandrika Kumaratunga came into politics. To escape the British influence, she went to study in France where she was during the 1968 students’ movement. But in the end, she could not escape her legacy. She returned to Sri Lanka where she inherited a poisoned chalice. Since then she has tried, without success, to shed it at the foot of the people of Sri Lanka. She has promised to rebuild the cohesion that her father shattered so carelessly. She had the courage to revolutionize the old SLFP doctrine, she says, but her efforts have so far failed to change the mindset of the society.

Why is that? In the interview that follows, we can see a reason that gives credence to Montesquieu arguing that democracy requires a number of attributes that are probably lacking in a very young country as diverse as Sri Lanka.

Currently, and we can see no end to it until both lead actors leave the stage, the political life of Sri Lanka can be compared to a feud between two families. One can think of Venetian politics considering that the current Prime Minister is the nephew of the political opponent of the father of Chandrika Kumaratunga and that they have known one another since childhood.

Before passing judgment on such a situation, we should probably admit, as Gustave Le Bon outlined in his study of the French Revolution, that there exist very different forms of logic: affective logic, collective logic and mystic logic, which usually overrule the reason and engender the generative impulses of our conduct.

Most of the time some historical events remain uncomprehended because we seek to interpret them in the light of a logic which in reality has very little influence upon their genesis. We shall see in the comments and explanations given by different actors of the political life of Sri Lanka how valid this observation is. And so in Sri Lanka, there is no absolute truth nor any certitude.

Was President Kumaratunga right when, after accusing the Prime Minister of incompetence in his handling of the Peace Process, she took control of the Ministry of Defence in autumn 2003? Was the Prime Minister, who refused an interview with Asian Affairs to refute her, right to accuse her of political posturing and opportunism?

Sri Lanka is in the middle of a great drama. This country had been at war with itself for the past thirty years. The North and North-East of the island are now under the control of a very radical movement, the LTTE, previously known as the Tigers, whose ferocity was well known and well documented.

The current lull in the war should not be taken for what it is not. Peace has yet to be won, and war is unwinnable for both sides. What is striking in the discussions we had, which took place before the latest political move of the President to strip the Prime Minister of some of his power, is that each new phase of the feud reveals events engendered by psychological laws working with the regularity of clockwork. The actors in this great tragedy seem to move like the characters of a previously determined script. Each says what he must say and acts as he or she is bound to act, and this includes the LTTE’s leadership as well. It is as if their parts were dictated by invisible forces.


Although all of the people we met spoke in the name of reason, pretending or believing to be guided by reason alone, it soon became my belief that it was by no means reason that impelled the Sri Lanka society to justify a thirty years war with its countless and useless deaths. It appeared that their discourse was always subjected to the inevitable progression of various logics. The decisions for which the politicians are so greatly reproached were not intended or desired beforehand. Yet, one after the other, they were made in the name of reason. As a result, Sri Lanka blundered from one crisis to another with no end in sight. The question is why.

The easy answer is to argue, as Dr. Saravanamuttu remarked, that the country has not been blessed by the more foresighted politicians. In other words, he attributes to nothing else but fate the situation and consigns all politicians into the rank of the feeble minded and the stupid. With more luck, Sri Lanka would have been different, could be different. But in politics, if luck is sometimes at play in a given election, thirty years of good as well as bad one is just not a possibility.

In the coming interviews, any question gave rise to violent contradictory opinions among the people, as well as contradictory statements for some in the course of the discussions. We have here the sure sign that the replies we got belong to the province of beliefs more than that of knowledge. As the XIX century thinker Gustave Le Bon concluded of the study of the behaviours of the crowd, belief can never be influenced by reason.

History had shown us everywhere and at any time how irresistible was the might of a strong belief, no matter what its essence and its origin were. In Sri Lanka, the history of the LTTE is there to prove how violent were the believers that remain always ready to immolate themselves in the sole end of propagating their beliefs. In the South, the belief is still that, if the North has been lost, Sri Lanka can reinvent itself in the form of a federation. This reasonable assumption however is quickly overcome by other worries. A noble one is the strong feeling that might have been rewarded and the population of the North are now deprived of democracy as the LTTE made clear that it does not accept a challenge to its rule.

But this perception is overshadowed by a larger problem. Any change to the Sri Lanka institutions will change the rules of the game that has provided prominence and fame to two clans. Although they have in turn been in and out of power, they have never shared power with a third force, much less with the people actually. This elite can crossover from one party to another, it does not really matter. It is even admitted (see the interview of Kinsley Wickramaratne). They work as a caste in a society that is cast conscious. Both fully realize the implication of a change of the game.

With a new hand, can they still keep it in the family? Each of them, lined up either with President Chandrika Kumaratunga or with Prime Minister Ranil Wick has made a strategic assessment of the situation, coming up with a different list of requirements. Those requirements have not much to do with the LTTE, both have already consigned to the dust of history the Tamil people, they know that they are not going to rule or control them. They don’t even want to see them as a third force in the petty battle for power because the Tamils have proven unreliable and far too dangerous to handle.

Their requirements have everything to do with their political machinery, its financing, its influence and its clientele. That is why the peace process has never been really a negotiation between the warring parties. It was not a matter of devolution of power to the de facto ruler of the North, but without doubt a matter of devolution of power in the South as well.

None of the clans want to surrender whatever privileges it got from past practices. Both would rather keep the status quo, yet both realize that it is too late and impossible. Thus, it was never choice that impelled either of the clans to discuss peace and a new structure for Sri Lanka, but the imperatives of necessity forced upon them. It is therefore inevitable that the logic of fear remains central to their motives and actions, not fear of the LTTE, but fear of a future where they would surrender their hold on the political world of Sri Lanka.

President Kumaratunga made clear to us (see interview) that she did not trust the Prime Minister and that she would taske action if and when needed. That no so-veiled threat had at the time an hollowed ring. She had been complaining for months that nothing was going the way she wanted. She had the power to dissolve the Parliament, yet did nothing. When I left Sri-Lanka, I was left with two unanswered questions? Was she going to do it? And assuming she would, was it for any other reason than self-preservation?

Today, as we wrote this editorial, she has proven that she would it. She took her time. In November 2003, she first disabled the government of the Prime Minister by taking over three key ministers, the Defence, the Interior and the Media and Telecommunication ministers. As Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu and A. Javid Yusuf (see both interviews in this issue) point out, insecurity had been on the increase in particular for the Muslims in the Eastern province. That a part of the population felt abandonned by the government was obvious. Therefore to strike at the Interior Minister was a way to tell this part of the population that she was with them.

The move had long been planned, probably as long as eighteen month ago when she started to negotiate a new coalition with an old foe and partner, the JVP (People's Liberation Front). Ironically, but quite interesting is Wajira Abeywardena, an influential Minister of the Ranil Wickremesinghe's government telling us that she would not win an election in his constituency "unless she has the support of the JVP" (see interview). He was then confident that it could not happen. But it did.

The JVP is the third largest party of the country. It emerged in the early 1970s. It was originally a Marxist party. It launched the first mass-protest that led to the land reform (see interview with Kingsley T. Wickramaratne). Pailiasothy Saravanamuttu does not like this party. "It is a reactionary party opposed to the free market, autonomy of the minorities or power sharing", he says. But he also add that they have dropped Marx in favour of Mahathir, referring to the former Prime Minister of Malaysia known for its outspoken criticism of Western ideas while creating a multi-ethnic society that otherwise would have been wrecked by violence.

The JVP of today disagrees with P. Saravanamuttu. It claims to be the champion of Sinhala and of Buhhist nationalism. Its leaders say they are pro-market and for an open economy but not at the expense of domestic business.

Others say that memories of the JVP's violence in the 1970s are still alive, especially in the rural areas. "I doubt that such an alliance (with the President's party) will attract large numbers of voters not committed to either party", says K.M. de Silva, an respected political analyst.

But we have an answer to that remark. As P. Saravanmuttu said, the President carries 30to 40% of the votes on her name. The Prime Minister's name and legacy carries the same weight. Where then is the swing vote?

On the one hand, there is the JVP vote, a stable vote (members are loyal to the party, which is an exception in Sri-Lankan politics), large enough on a good day to bring its partner victory. On the other, there is the Muslim votes. In the past, it was diluted accross the two mainstream parties and as Yusuf says, generally more in favor of the Prime Minister's family that the Bandanaraike's clan. But he also had that for years now, the President has provided them with more support than any other politician. Sooner or later, there will be a pay-off and a change of attitude. In view of the situation of the Muslim in the East (see interviews of Saravanamuttu and Yusuf), President Kumaratunga is now certainly thinking that to the JVP vote, she can count on a Muslim vote to forge a sort of an UMNO type coalition (UMNO is the umbrella coalition that has governent Malaysia for the past 23 years. UMNO groups the Malays, the Chinese and the Indians).

Indeed, the way the peace process has been handled for the past eighteen months has turned many Mulsim against the current government. As A. Javid Yusuf explains (see interview), the Muslim Congress, traditionally the largest Muslim party, who was suppporting the Ranil Wickremesinghe's government no longer carries the votes of the community. It is on the defensive, with many grassroot organizations considering it is selling out the Muslims of the Eastern province to the LTTE.

The Muslim Congress to keep its political capital intact has already announced that it is no longer bound by it alliance with the Ranil Wickremesinghe's government and will campaign independently. It is already a sign that the political landscape is shifting, once again towards Chandrika Kumaratunga's clan.

Whether she will emerge the winner or the loser of this third election in four years will be known once this issue has been released.

Would a clear majority in her favor, or a victory for Ranil Wickremesignhe be the solution to the problems this issue is outlining? It is doubtful for three reasons. The first one is that elections have never ever solved any problem in Sri-Lanka. The second one is that the current election is only a rehearsal for the Presidential one that is to take place in 2005. The third one is that we do not see in this issue a common ground that would allow a political process to succeed. This is in fact the main challenge of Sri-Lanka.

President Kumaratunga claims that she successfully changed the mindset of her people in the 1990s so that they would accept the idea of negotiating with the LTTE. It is now done. She and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe probably have now one more task to do: to create the political architecture that would get rid of the current set-up. So far it was not done for the reasons we explained above.

To move beyond the current stalemate requires a change of the mindset of the political elite. That is indeed what Mahathir did succesfully in Malaysia in the early 1980s, before starting to build up a modern and prosperous nation. Maybe the merger of JVP with the SLFP was a first step in the right direction, but many more are going to be required to succeed.

Serge Berthier