In 1994, Sri Lankan voters elected Chandrika Kumaratunga (born 1945) as their first female president, partly with the hope that this daughter of two political veterans might be able to end an interminable and bloody ethnic conflict in the Tamil–dominated northern part of the country.
Kumaratunga, whose mother and father both had served as prime ministers of Sri Lanka, has faced seemingly insurmountable difficulties in bringing both sides to the table. Her critics claim that her increasingly autocratic rule has served to only worsen the political quagmire. A New York Times Magazine profile by Celia W. Dugger repeated a common aphorism in modern–day Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital city, which theorizes "that Kumaratunga's father planted the seeds of Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict, that her mother nurtured them and that she has been left to reap the bitter harvest."
Politically Aware at Early Age
Kumaratunga was born in Colombo on June 29, 1945, when the Indian Ocean island nation was still known as Ceylon. Her father was Solomon W.R.D. Bandaranaike, an Oxford–educated scion of an elite Sri Lankan family, and he was serving as a government minister at the time of her birth. The country became independent of its longtime colonial ruler, Great Britain, but the new beginning only intensified a centuries–old conflict between the island's two main ethnic groups, the Sinhalese and the Tamil. Sri Lanka's first inhabitants were aboriginal Veddah, but around the sixth century B.C.E. the island began to be settled by Sinhalese, who came from northern India. Tamils, from another coastal part of India, came later, and on the northern part of the island the Tamils managed to maintain their own distinct culture. Clashes between the two groups, with India taking sides and lending military aid, occurred periodically over the centuries.
Sri Lanka's contemporary problems are, like many of the world's most intractable ethnic disputes, a legacy of the decisions and policies of colonial rule. After Ceylon became a crown colony of the British empire in 1802, Tamils were given a disproportionate number of well–paying civil–service and professional jobs, though they made up just 20 percent of the island's population. After independence from Britain was won in 1948, the majority Sinhalese sought to rectify that imbalance. When Kumaratunga's father campaigned for the post of prime minister, for example, he gained political support by calling for an official Sinhalese–only language law. Just after he was elected in 1956, the first genuine street clashes between Sinhalese and Tamil occurred.
Tamils are largely Hindu, while Sri Lanka's Sinhalese have been practicing Buddhism since the third century B.C.E. In a twist that illustrates the complexity of the alliances and rivalries that make up the Sri Lankan conflict, Kumaratunga's father was assassinated by a Buddhist monk in 1959. She was 14 years old at the time, and in her convent–school classroom when it occurred. Her newly widowed mother, Sirimavo, emerged as the surprising new leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which had been founded by Solomon Bandaranaike. In 1960, a year after the tragedy, Sirimavo Bandaranaike became prime minister and entered the annals of women's history forever: she was the world's first female prime minister. Yet the loss of Kumaratunga's father was also the first of several notorious political murders over the next few decades in Sri Lanka, and it would not be the last to touch her immediate family.
Wrote for Le Monde
Kumaratunga's mother served until 1965, and returned to power again in 1970 for another seven years as prime minister. Kumaratunga, meanwhile, spent several years abroad, earning a degree in political science from the University of Paris, studying toward a doctorate in development economics, and working for the United Nations. She also worked for the esteemed Le Monde, France's leading political newspaper. Returning to Sri Lanka, she served as chair and managing editor of Dinakara Sinhala, a Sri Lankan daily newspaper, from 1977 to 1985.
The first political post that Kumaratunga held came during her mother's second term as prime minister, when she was named to the Land Reforms Commission. In 1977, the Bandaranaike family lost political power when her mother was ousted by the rival party that year, and they would remain on the sidelines for the next 17 years. What took place during the interim, noted Dugger in the New York Times Magazine, was a "ghastly maturation of a political culture of violence that found ready recruits in the alienated ranks of its educated, unemployed youth, both Tamil and Sinhalese. The country had done a remarkable job of building a literate society, but its state–dominated Socialist economy had failed to produce enough jobs."
The Tamil insurrection in Sri Lanka's north began in earnest in 1983, led mainly by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, commonly called the Tamil Tigers), whose initial aim was to create a separate Tamil homeland in the northeast section of the country. The LTTE went on to wage a particularly ferocious war over the next two decades, and came to enjoy both popular support and some degree of political success despite their tactics. But the intensified political violence returned once again to Kumaratunga's own home: in 1978, she married film star Vijaya Kumaratunga, with whom she had a son and daughter. In 1984, the couple formed a political party, the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party (SLMP), that took a more conciliatory attitude toward the Tamil separatist movement in its bid to work for some sort of power–sharing arrangement. In February of 1988, Vijaya Kumaratunga was slain by Sinhalese extremists—those drastically opposed to any accord with the Tamils—in front of their home. Kumaratunga witnessed the murder from the doorstep, and ran to her husband, but by the time she reached him, "he had no more head," she told Dugger in the New York Times Magazine article.
Kumaratunga fled the turmoil of her country for a time, taking her two young children with her in fear of their safety. She returned in 1990 at her mother's request, and joined forces with the SLFP once more. The party attained some success, and for a time Kumaratunga served as chief minister of Sri Lanka's Western Province. By then, Sri Lanka's form of government had been constitutionally altered since her father and mother's era, and now had a president–prime minister arrangement similar to France's. In 1994, Kumaratunga's party won the August balloting, which made her the new prime minister. Three months later, she took the presidency as well in a separate election. Like her mother, she achieved a historic first, becoming the first woman president in her nation's history, but she did concede the prime minister post to her mother, as the constitution permitted.
Survived Attempt on Her Life
During her first six–year term in office, Kumaratunga tried to quell the Tamil insurgency through various negotiation tactics, but these were repeatedly thwarted, and the violence continued. Determined to continue her mission, she campaigned for a second term in 1999. Just days before the December balloting, she was the target of an assassination attempt. Much of it was captured on camera, with footage showing her walking toward her official car after speaking at a campaign rally; an orange flash obscured her, which turned out to be a young female suicide bomber of the LTTE. The blast sent hundreds of ball bearings into the air, and the next image showed Kumaratunga crouching on the pavement, covered in blood. She lost sight in one eye, and days later won 51 percent of the vote. Delivering her inaugural address with her face bandaged, with the murders of her father and husband still fresh in mind, Kumaratunga told Sri Lankans, "I have suffered our nation's sorrow in every way humanly possible," Dugger quoted her as saying.
Kumaratunga's second term in office proved an even tougher test of her mettle, and her office made little progress in curbing the violence during its first two years. In December of 2001, her People's Alliance party, a coalition formed with the SLFP, was trounced in elections by the longtime SLFP rival, the United National Party (UNP). An old childhood friend of hers, Ranil Wickremesinghe, suddenly became prime minister. Wickremesinghe had campaigned on a promise to work toward a peace agreement with the Tamil Tigers, and made progress on it once he took office. Kumaratunga claimed, however, that Wickremesinghe failed to share crucial information with her office, and even cut secret deals with the rebels that corrupted the peace process entirely. Meanwhile, journalists loyal to the UNP carried out press attacks on her character and fomented gossip about her personal life. Embattled on several sides, Kumaratunga began to take a far more hard line approach to the Tamil strife, and made statements construed by some as inflammatory. Yet Wickremesinghe's government managed to bring the LTTE leadership to the table and arrange a permanent ceasefire agreement between the Tigers and the Sri Lankan forces in 2002. Peace talks, moderated by Norway, were slated to start later that year. The LTTE agreed to give up its demand for a separate state, in return for a measure of autonomy in the predominantly Tamil area.
Gave Herself Additional Year
In November of 2003, Kumaratunga used her constitutional powers as president and fired three ministers in Wickremesinghe's cabinet. She stationed troops at several government buildings in Colombo and declared a state of emergency. The event was viewed by some as a clear power play, for Wickremesinghe was out of the country at the time, meeting in Washington with President George W. Bush. Two months later, it was announced that she had actually extended her term in office by one year, with it set to expire in 2006, not 2005. She claimed a second investiture had taken place in 2000, with the chief justice of Sri Lanka and the country's Foreign Minister present.
Later in 2004, in the spring, Kumaratunga made another bid to unseat Wickremesinghe, calling for early parliamentary elections, but his party prevailed. She explained why she did so in an interview with Time International's Alex Perry, claiming that new peace talks underway were a "farce" and had been seriously compromised by deals Wickremesinghe had struck in secret. "The Prime Minister was determined to harass me and chase me out," she told Perry. "He has only one obsession: he wants to be the President. And he does not seem to care what happens to the country in the process."
There was some hope that the December 2004 tsunami tragedy might unexpectedly serve to restore some peace to Sri Lanka. Nearly 30,000 in the country died, with scores more left homeless. In a nation of 19 million already permanently rent by ethnic and then political discord, such a natural disaster was a devastating blow to the country's economy, stability, and soul. Not uncharacteristically, both Kumaratunga's government and the LTTE claimed that the other was not distributing incoming international aid in the most efficient manner. Both sides suffered heavy losses to their military forces and equipment, but on the personal level many Tamils and Sinhalese put aside their differences to help one another. News stories reported that Sri Lankan soldiers lined up to donate blood for relief efforts underway in largely Tamil sections, for example.
Kumaratunga's own future remained unclear at the beginning of 2005: her term is set to expire in 2006, and she is ineligible to run for the presidency again. She claims to be eager to leave the cutthroat political arena behind. Her daughter is unlikely to follow in her footsteps and emerge as the third generation of Bandaranaike power; as Kumaratunga told Perry in the Time International article, her daughter cautions her, "I like your soul and your spirit, and all this is killing your soul. Please go out of politics fast."
Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations: World Leaders, Gale, 2003.
Economist, August 20, 1994.
Financial Times, December 31, 2004.
Guardian (London, England), November 5, 2003; January 15, 2004; January 5, 2005.
New York Times, August 15, 2000; October 8, 2000; December 5, 2001; December 13, 2001; November 9, 2003.
Time International, February 9, 1998; March 29, 2004.