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Interview With Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga

Aired October 30, 2001 - 12:30:00   ET




CHANDRIKA KUMARATUNGA, PRESIDENT OF SRI LANKA: Terror will not be the solution to anything that is great, noble, or good.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Chandrika Kumaratunga, Sri Lanka's president grapples with the brutal ethnic conflict that has lasted almost 20 years. The president herself has been a victim of the Tamil Tiger rebels.

KUMARATUNGA: They are an organization, you mustn't forget, that is born and bred and fed and live on violence.

VERJEE: She promised peace when she came to power. Why hasn't that happened, and has the war destroyed the country?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The whole system seems to be breaking down, and the war is taking its toll on this country.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Even if Sri Lanka wants to change...

VERJEE: On Q&A, Sri Lanka's President Chandrika Kumaratunga.


VERJEE: Hi, and welcome to Q&A and to our continuing coverage of the "Strike Against Terror." President Kumaratunga joins us now from our studios in London. Madam President, thank you for appearing on the program. It's so, so good to have you with us.

Let me start by asking you how do you think the United States is handling its war on terror?

KUMARATUNGA: Well, it's not for me to comment, but what I would like to say is that after the horrendous strikes that occurred in the United States on the 11th of September, the sovereign of America had to react with military force at the outset. But what I would like to underline as the head of state of a country which has suffered from terrorism for nearly two decades is that with terrorism or insurrections, one cannot find the final solution to it with the force of the state alone.

VERJEE: So, what are the other elements?

KUMARATUNGA: We have to seek out -- we have to seek out the basic causes, the root causes, as we say, which would have given rise to these terrorist movements and find solutions for those. In each case, the causes may be different. They may be very complex, but we have to seek out those causes and find solutions to them. If not, you may kill one bin Laden, but there may be many other bin Ladens that may come up, fighting for the same so-called cause.

VERJEE: You have been quoted as saying the attacks on America have given "a wake-up call to end its double standards on terrorism." What did you mean by that?

KUMARATUNGA: I think you have put two sentences I said in two different contexts together. It wasn't quite that I said but I...

VERJEE: It was -- it was quoted that way in the "LA Times."

KUMARATUNGA: I did certainly say that it was -- yes, well, they've taken out long speech I made and put it together. But I did say it was a wake-up call. The bit about double standards was not part of that. Wake- up call to the West, especially the rich nations of the Western world, to take heed of what we in the Third World countries had been suffering for several decades, in my country too, and in others, a little bit more, through the actions of terrorist movements.

And most of these terrorist movements feed themselves financially, if not in any other way, on the rich nations. They have their people collecting funds in the rich nations, and they buy their arms and everything else to carry on their activities in our countries. And for a long time, we have been requesting the developed nations to take effective action to prevent these illegal fund collections.

And we felt that not enough was done. We were told that as long as those organizations do not engage in criminal activities in your nations, that nothing can be done. But I am happy to note that in the last one year, that the United States of America -- really two to three years ago -- Britain, several months ago have prescribed our own brand of terrorists, the LTTE. And they are now beginning to investigate the illegal methods of fund collection that are going on in these countries that...

VERJEE: And so Madam President, if you'd excuse me for interrupting, would you want the global War on Terrorism to be expanded to the Tamil Tiger rebels, in Sri Lanka?

KUMARATUNGA: Well, certainly not the global war. We wouldn't want the areas held by the Tamil Tigers bombarded from wherever, but we would certainly expect and like the Western countries, where the Tamil Tigers are forcing innocent Tamil civilians who are living and working to pay them $10 per month, and if they don't, they attack them physically; they kill some of them. In Paris, they killed a mother, the child of a lady who refused to give money -- we would expect these countries to help us prevent that kind of thing, which is the fount of the terrorist movements in Sri Lanka. And...

VERJEE: Madam President, when you came to power, you promised that you would deliver peace with the Tamil Tigers. Why didn't you deliver?

KUMARATUNGA: We have tried very hard to deliver that peace. We lifted the economic embargoes which were placed by the previous government. We stopped attacks on innocent Tamil people by government-organized mafia, which happened every year under the last government during their 17-year rule. We have brought in all kinds of institutions and arrangements to guarantee safety of person and property to the Tamil people. We have brought in various laws, practices, committees, commissions, which ensure this. We have prevented...

VERJEE: And Madam, all those laws and practices and commissions and all the institutions that you pointed out right now have all been working toward one of your strategies, where you have termed it as being "peace through war"; but you've not been able to defeat the Tamil Tigers militarily, and your constitutional efforts have failed. So, what can people expect from you?

KUMARATUNGA: No, we did not talk about peace through war. We called it a battle for peace. We wanted peace through peace. As we came in, I wrote as head of the Sri Lankan state to the leader of the terrorists, Mr. Prabhakaran, inviting the Tamil Tigers for talks. I threw all protocol out of the window, and as a head of a democratically elected government, I wrote to the self-appointed head of the terrorists.

They did accept my invitation at the beginning; that was part of the beginning of our peace process. We talked to them for eight months, with a cease-fire which was proposed by us; but they refused, right through those eight months, to talk of any constructive solution to the Tamil people's problems, that the Tigers are saying they want to liberate.

We had propositions on the table. We said let's discuss this or anything else that you want to suggest. Anything short of a separate state, we said, we're willing to discuss -- wide devolution of political powers and administrative powers to the region where the Tamil and Muslim people live -- but they refused to discuss any of that, and they started...

VERJEE: But President Kumaratunga, you're painting a picture that the Tamil Tigers are completely to blame here, and you and your government really is not to blame at all. But some of your critics will say that really it was your government that was impeding the efforts by Norway, for instance, to broker some sort of peace, and you really put a stop on that process. Your response?

KUMARATUNGA: I don't know who has informed you of that, but I would have expected you to brief yourself slightly more factually correct. It is my government and I who invited the Norwegian government to come in...

VERJEE: But weren't you afraid that Norway as was being biased toward the Tamil Tigers?

KUMARATUNGA: Not at all. Not at all. Who told you that? We invited the Norwegian government in March 1999, nearly three years ago, to come in as third-party mediators with the concurrence of the invitation extended by us with the concurrence of the Tigers. The Norwegian government came in from March '99. Now, for nearly three years, they have been discussing with the Tigers to bring them to the negotiation table.

For 20 months, they refused, and finally, in the year 2000, last year -- four days after my government won the second parliamentary election, and also 10 months after we had won the second presidential election, they finally said, We'll see what we can do. And then the leader of the LTTE made public pronouncements that he will come for negotiations without any conditions.

The Norwegians were asked by both sides -- by the government and the LTTE -- to draw up a memorandum of understanding, the conditions under which we would start talking. The memorandum was drawn up. Both sides had agreed to it. In the process of agreement, the Tigers put in one condition: They wanted more food and more medicines and fuel sent to the LTTE-controlled areas. Lot of it is sent already under our government, because we have no economic embargo. We sent it at the cost of the government. We feed the Tigers. We give them medicines, and they say...

VERJEE: But hold on ...

KUMARATUNGA: ... then they put in...

VERJEE: If I can just interrupt here -- I am sorry -- for a moment. I just want to raise another point that while you were doing all these things, Human Rights Watch's report for 2001 has criticized your government for the way you treat Tamil civilians in the north and the east of the country. The reports are that they've been discriminated against, there are restrictions on the freedom of the movement, arbitrary arrests, abuse at the hands of government, and army and police imposing forced labor. Could you give me a brief response to that?

KUMARATUNGA: Lot of it is lies. What is that report? By whom is it written?

VERJEE: It's written by Human Rights Watch. It's the 2001 Country Report for Sri Lanka.

KUMARATUNGA: The Human Rights Watch, what is that? I don't know, because the Geneva Convention on Human Rights is the UN Convention, which looks after the human right situations in countries all over the world. And various complaints are made to it by the Tiger organizations, by various organizations that are working for the Tigers. And they have the widest possible supervision, monitoring of what goes on in our country, as in many others. And their reports do not say this. I don't know what this Human Rights Watch is.

VERJEE: It's a London-based organization...

KUMARATUNGA: I do not want...

VERJEE: ...Madam President, but we...

KUMARATUNGA: It could be a Tiger organization. I don't know what it is.

VERJEE: ...a short break...

KUMARATUNGA: I am telling you that...

VERJEE: Go ahead. Go ahead.


VERJEE: Please do.

KUMARATUNGA: Yes. These kind of mushroom organizations have all kinds of reports. I am not willing to reply to those, but I would like to refer you to the reports of the Geneva Human Rights Conference to the University Teachers on Human Rights, most of whom are Tamil teachers who had to flee Jaffna because the Tigers were trying to kill them. They're a totally independent nongovernmental organization.

They bring out reports every month or every two months, and they're very appreciative of the fact that my government has been able to completely control the human rights violations, which were massively done under the last government. But I must say there are the exceptions too, because we have in the forces and in the police, people who were trained under the last government where human rights violations were abundant during 17 years of that government's rule.

We have been able to take action against 950 policemen and army personnel who were known to have violated human rights of Sinhalese as well as Tamil people under the last government, but we still have a few people left in the forces who do...

VERJEE: Well, Madam President...

KUMARATUNGA: ... this kind of the exceptionally...

VERJEE: Well, thank you...

KUMARATUNGA: ...and we take action every time we know about it.

VERJEE: We're going to have more with President Chandrika Kumaratunga. We will continue our conversation. You're watching Q&A.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We were talking about a ceasefire just a couple of months ago, and again something delayed this. It puts everything back to square one.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We must see what we can do to safeguard our own country.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The government policy to isolate (INAUDIBLE) of people from the LTTE will never succeed.



VERJEE: Remember, we want to know what you think, while the show is going on. Just log on to and get into the chatroom.

We're taking with the president of Sri Lanka, Mrs. Chandrika Kumaratunga.

Madam president, in recent months, there have been a number of political developments in your country, and some of the criticism that's come out of that is that you have, in fact, taken some very autocratic steps in your country -- suspending parliament, when you knew you couldn't win a confidence motion -- that's been the criticism. Why did you do it?

KUMARATUNGA: We have dissolved parliament. My government won a parliamentary election one year ago with a very clear majority of 18 MPs more in parliament, 27 more, in fact -- more than the main opposition party -- and because of some defections -- a lot of it happened, because money changed hands. The government's majority became rather thin, and the prime minister requested me, and I thought he was right in requesting me. To go to the people again and ask the people for their opinion, being a democratic government, we thought it was the most democratic thing to do. I don't see what is autocratic in this.

VERJEE: When you came to power, you pledged to abolish...

KUMARATUNGA: And also...

VERJEE: ... I'd just like to finish my question, Madam President. You came to power and you said, I will abolish the office of the presidency. It gives too much power to one person, and that one person can abuse that power. You promised to give more power to parliament. Why didn't you fulfill that promise?

KUMARATUNGA: Well, I have been trying hard to fulfill that promise for the last seven years. We brought in a new constitution, a new draft of a constitution in less than one year after I came in, which also proposed the abolition of the executive presidency, while also proposing the widest possible devolution to the regions, including the regions where the Tamil and Muslim minorities live. But we did not have the two-thirds majority in parliament. We kept appealing to the opposition to give us that two-thirds majority; we only needed 16 votes more, but they consistently refused.

We discussed this draft constitution with all the parliamentary parties for nearly three years in parliament -- 32 months in parliament -- and then again last year after the people gave me a mandate at the presidential election, the second one, in '99, when I got nearly killed by the Tigers. Once again, for six long months, I discussed with the main opposition parties; 12 out of the 14 parties in parliament agreed to our constitutional draft, with the amendments included, of course. But the UNP refused to give us the support, and we have not been able to bring it. I am trying to bring the constitution in, which would also abolish my powers as a president. I would love to go and sit back in parliament. I am told it is being unusual that I would like do away with my own very wide powers that I was given under the last constitution by the last government.

But we are not being allowed to do this by the opposition, which thereafter keeps screaming their heads off that I am autocratic. Yes, I would like to say one little thing here please, that it is beginning to be very tiresome to hear people telling us that we're being autocratic, that we are violating human rights, when my government has stopped -- the last government killed 50,000 Sinhalese democratic youths simply because they did not agree with them. They killed over 20,000 Tamil youth. They burnt them alive; they poured petrol on them, and burnt them alive in pogroms against the Tamil people.

We promised the country that we would stop this. We have stopped this; the reign of state terror has been definitely stopped under my government seven years ago, and you do not talk about the violation of human rights by the LTTE. The LTTE violates the human rights of thousands of people that are living under them, thousands of them who keep streaming out of the Tiger-controlled areas into the government-controlled areas, telling the newspaper the horrors they went through.

Yesterday, the LTTE tried to kill my prime minister. They have killed more innocent Tamil civilians. The LTTE has killed more Tamil civilians than all the Sri Lankan governments put together. They have killed all the democratic Tamil leaders. Why don't you talk about the human rights of those people that had been violated?

VERJEE: Madam president, I would like to focus here, though, on your actions in government.

KUMARATUNGA: ... on one side of the story.

VERJEE: No, no. I want to ask you this question. I mean you're blaming the opposition and saying they are screaming their heads off, but what about your actions? Have you alienated your supporters? As you mentioned earlier, some of your Cabinet members have quit, saying that they couldn't defend a corrupt and ineffective government such as the one you run. They say the corruption is the issue here, and not, as you're accusing, of money changing hands. What do you say to them?

KUMARATUNGA: Well, as far as I know, none of them have talked about corruption until now. Three ministers who left; all of them were beginning to be investigated by the authorities for corruption themselves. I sent for them. That is my style of governance. Personally, I told them to stop this kind of activity, but they did not. And the investigations were continuing from the beginning of this year, and they decided to cross over because of that. Up to now, I know of no public statements made by them.

I have been in England now for four days; I don't know whether they have done it since. The only accusation they have made -- and I'm proud to hear that -- is that they have not talked of corruption or any mismanagement of government affairs. They have only said that the president does not discuss sufficiently with them when I take decisions. I have not heard of their saying they left because of corruption. They left because they are being investigated for corruption, and it has to be reported to the people very soon. Rather, it will be reported very soon.

We are a responsible government. I cannot talk of these facts until they are legally established, and they will be indicted before the courts of law. That will happen very fast, from what I hear. And then we can talk about it.

VERJEE: My last question for you, Madam President: Is there anything at all that you would have done differently?

KUMARATUNGA: You mean in my term as president or in my life in general?

VERJEE: In your term as president, not in your life in general.

KUMARATUNGA: It is a so-complicated life, so we will talk about only my term as president. No, I don't think so, except perhaps take stricter action against some of my ministers who have been corrupt and inefficient. Perhaps, I should have sacked them as the people say I should have. Apart from that, we came into power on three major platforms: One was to end the reign of terror which was perpetrated by the state; we have done that and ensure that it will not happen again.

VERJEE: You also came in power saying you'd bring peace, and there would be...

KUMARATUNGA: I'm coming to that. I'm coming to that.


KUMARATUNGA: Can you give me half a minute?

The second was that we will rebuild an economy, which was in total shambles. We have done that. It's only the year 2000 that the economy has gotten into trouble, because of the world economic recession, because of a very bad drought we had this year in Sri Lanka. And we are too dependent on hydropower; we had to have power cuts. But until then...

VERJEE: And unemployment is up. Privatization has been slowed down. Tourism is down. Because of the war, people don't have jobs. The economy is in ruins.

KUMARATUNGA: No, that is not true. The economy is not in ruins. I don't know what you mean by the word "ruins," whether you have a new definition for that word. But we were able to reduce the budget deficit by half since we came in. We were able to reduce unemployment by more than 50 percent. We have increased the gross national production in the country by double, by 100 percent. We have been able to reduce bank interest rates by almost 100 percent: from 29 percent to 15 percent to 16 percent.

We have been able to reduce inflation by about 50 percent. We have been able to keep a steady economic growth rate every year, except the last one, at above 5 percent. In the last year, it is going down, but that happens even to your countries. You are suffering from an economic recession. The economists will turn out the papers very soon. But we have had six years of very good economic development. We brought up an economy which had no vision, no program of action; rather, fundamentals were all completely in shambles. We have built up a very strong base for the economy.

VERJEE: President Chandrika Kumaratunga, my apologies for interrupting you. We are out of time. Thank you so much for speaking to us on Q&A. We appreciate that.

Q&A continues now online. Make sure you stay with CNN for the latest on the "Strike Against Terror."




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