Give and take

Even her harshest detractors must credit President Chandrika Kumaratunga of being a shrewd politician. Politics, after all, has long been the Bandaranaike family business and Kumaratunga was bred into it. The game today is rougher than it used to be in her father’s and mother’s time, no doubt, and Kumaratunga who has acquired street fighting (and talking) skills that were not part of either of her parents’ armoury has on many occasions shown her colours. All credit to her for her victories and sympathies for the tragedies that have been her lot along the political road. We cannot think of any other national leader who lost both a father and a husband to political assassins.

But Kumaratunga who is today forced by circumstances to constitutionally head a government of a party to which she is bitterly opposed must make accommodations to reality. Most importantly, she must at all times priorities the national interest rather than those of herself and her party. The J. R. Jayewardene constitution of 1978 which CBK once-upon-a-time loved to hate has served her in good stead at the last elections and thereafter. The country has not heard her talking of the "bizarre" proportional representation since last December when PR saved her from a rout as it had done the UNP earlier. Yet she lost the election, and some say even the presidential mandate. She has clearly not taken defeat with good grace.

The fact of life that the president must live with is that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNF government calls most of the shots today. The president remains the constitutional Head of State and Head of Government. She is also the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces but her wings have been considerably clipped and she is no more what she was post-1994 and 2000. As has been repeatedly pointed out, the arrangement today is one of "cohabitation," and the president and the government must live with each other however much they dislike the situation. This is as true for the UNF government as it is for President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and the sooner both sides adjusted themselves to the reality, the better it is for the country.

The president understands better than anybody else that Sri Lanka desperately needs peace and that the peace process must relegate all else to second and third place. Although Kumaratunga has given supportive lip service to the process that has won us a cease-fire on agreed terms, some of the remarks she has made and things she had done suggest that the politician in her too often subordinates the stateswoman. She has said that she did not make the previously planned visit to Australia for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) because her supporters were being harassed by the new government. This is the self-same president who not so long ago drove past the burning Kolonnawa oil terminal to the Katunayake airport to wing away on some jaunt or other. She could not have missed the flames that illuminated the Kelani river as her motorcade sped along the bridge.

Given that what her spokesman called a "full schedule" did not enable the president to meet Christina Rocca, the visiting US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, so soon after the cancelled CHOGM, may make at least some sceptics wonder whether the president is shutting her ears to what the world thinks of the cease-fire. CHOGM would certainly have given her the opportunity to hear what Commonwealth leaders were thinking and who better than Rocca, the highest ranking State Department official dealing with South Asian affairs, to tell her what the world’s only remaining superpower thought of the subject? Given what her habitual unpunctuality would have done to her schedules in any case, the signal is clear that what Rocca got was the cold shoulder. The Yanks would have read that right and there was no need for Harim Peiris’ gratuitous comments about deputy ministers and clearing schedules.

As far as the peace issue goes, while Sri Lanka is willing to — indeed must — pay a heavy price to end two decades of bloodshed and misery, it cannot by any price. Hopefully, the president and prime minister who both value and understand the crying need for peace can agree on what that price should be. Her probationary arrangements notwithstanding, Chandrika Kumaratunga must not go along with the extremism of the JVP she once accused of murdering her husband. Wickremesinghe himself has chosen not be abrasive in his relationship with the president and she in turn has treated the country to pictures of herself flashing that dazzling smile at him. There are sections of the UNF who play the game differently, no doubt, but the president can deal with them the same way she did with Minister S. B. Dissanayake when she handed him his letter of appointment. A cold look directed anywhere but at their faces would do very nicely, thank you.

The bottom line is that neither the UNF nor the PA should play politics with peace and opportunistically seek advantages for themselves at huge cost to the nation. At the same time the LTTE must understand the difficulties that Wickremesinghe and the UNF must necessarily contend with in the face of the deep distrust among a sizeable section of the southern constituency of the Tigers’ real intentions. It is essential that they on their side make the right noises and gestures to show sceptics both here and abroad that they will not approach the process that is now on stream on an all take and no give basis.

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