9th November, 2003 Volume 10, Issue 17

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POLITICS

Bandaranaikes: the bane of Lanka

By The Insider

Every nation has its cross to bear and Sri Lanka's has been the Bandaranaikes. Learning from the British whose cultural sons they were, no family has been as hungry or as immoral in its quest for power as they have.

It was S.W.R.D. Banadaranaike, whose Progressive National Party -not the LTTE- in the 1920s first began agitation for a federal constitution for Sri Lanka. It was SWRD's father, Solomon Dias, who initiated a public fund collection to celebrate the KCMG he received for services to the British. In fact, old Solomon revelled in the joke that KCMG stood for "Kindly Call Me God." (The next highest ranks in this ancient order are the CMG and GCMG, which, it was said, stood for "Call me God" and "God calls me God".)

Anura bandaranaike

It was SWRD who, in 1956-the Buddha Jayanthi Year- was elected on the 'Sinhala Only' ticket, seeding the strife that has engulfed Sri Lanka over the past quarter century. Alienating the Tamils, he left them little choice but to seek autonomy. Indeed, it was in the wake of Bandaranaike's doctrine of hate that the Tamil Federal Party, that same year in Trincomalee, claimed autonomy for the Northern and Eastern Provinces under a federal constitution. A Tamil federal state is not the brainchild of Ranil Wickremesinghe or Velupillai Pirapaharan: it was the single-handed doing of the Lion of Horagolla.

Folly

Realising his folly, Bandaranaike sought to draw back: it was then the extreme right of his party, and indeed an influential section of the Buddhist clergy, that prevented reason from prevailing, performed satyagraha on the lawn of Temple Trees. By making glib promises, just as his wife would promise to bring rice from the moon and his daughter would offer bread at Rs 3.50, to Oxford educated Bandaranaike, the natives were just wogs who would swallow anything you threw to them.

Just three years in power, Bandaranaike was truly father of the child: through spectacular economic mismanagement he succeeded in running down Sri Lanka's foreign reserves from Rs 1.3 billion to Rs 540 million- and he didn't even claim to have a PhD in economics. By 1960, the country was bankrupt. And what did his successor, soon to be known to one and all as "Mrs B" do? She nationalised almost everything there was to: schools, transport, companies, everything. In the meantime, SWRD's Sinhala Only policy effectively disenfranchised an entire generation of youth, leaving the plum jobs to the English-speaking middle class. By the mid-1960s, the Bandaranaikes jointly and severally had ground Sri Lanka into the mud.

Acts of vindictiveness

Mrs B's regime of the 1970s is still fresh in everyone's minds for her numerous acts of cheap vindictiveness (which included the nationalisation of the Buhari Hotel, in addition to the businesses and even residences of numerous perceived enemies). She was elected for five years and stayed on, by force, for seven. Bandaranaikes do not like quitting office even when they get marching orders from the voters: it was Mrs B who, greedy for power and incredulous that the proletariat had shown her the pink slip, squatted in Temple Trees and refused to budge until she was gently elbowed out by relatives, in a state of bewilderment.

And now we have the daughter to contend with, heaven help us. Elected in 1994, nine years ago, Chandrika Kumaratunga has been shown to be, to everyone's satisfaction, a barefaced liar and a fraud. A trail of blood from numerous murders, including that of dissident Kumar Ponnambalam, leads to her very official residence. From 1994 to 2001, hers came to be known as one of the most corrupt governments in the world. Between 1994 and 2001, the rupee halved in value against the dollar (in the past two years, for the first time in history, it has actually appreciated against the dollar). Tenders were brazenly fixed by her summoning tender boards to her residence and telling them how to decide. Her puerile attempts at constitutional reform had only one thing in common: that she would retain her powers as president even as all else changed.

Bunch of serfs

To the Bandaranaikes, the Sri Lankans have always been serfs. Born to the manor, they are born to rule - at least in their own convoluted minds. That is why they treat the people like servants. Kumaratunga lies through her teeth one falsehood after another, and thinks no one could possibly be clever enough to know. Her actions last week were entirely in character. After all, her party was roundly trounced in the December 2001 election. She has no moral authority of any kind, though the constitution she claims to despise allows her to remain as executive president until 2005. And here she was, staging a coup, trying desperately to grab power.

Kumaraunga's coup attempt was so ham fisted that it could have been masterminded only by her. She made a fool of herself by declaring a futile emergency (her entire rule was under emergency: she knows nothing else), grabbing key ministries. The state media were relegated once more to the Goebelsian propaganda that only Sarath Amunugama can churn out: two years of media freedom passed away like a breath of fresh air. And we're back to a regime of lies, lies and more lies.

Incredibly, while Sirasa TV showed the thousands of people who thronged the Katunayake-Colombo highway to receive Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, mobbing his motorcade (it took him eight hours to reach Temple Trees), the state media were ordered to black out the event. They had Hindi songs instead: that is Kumaratunga's idea of media freedom. Kumaratunga had better wake up to the fact that while the people of Sri Lanka might not claim (falsely, as she does) to have been educated at Sorbonne, they are not the gullible idiots she thinks them to be.

Today Sri Lanka finds itself in a crisis. While there can be no doubt that Kumaratunga is determined to wreck any truce with the Tigers and any prospect of prosperity, much of the blame for the predicament we find ourselves in must go to Wickremesinghe. Even after seven years of her rule from 1994 to 2001-after Wayamba, countless military debacles, economic collapse and billions of rupees on personal extravagance, when he resoundingly won the December 2001 elections he continued to scrape and grovel before her. Why? Is he also another one of those Horagolla serfs?

Thirst for power

There is one thing and one thing only that motivates Kumaratunga: an unquenchable thirst for power, and power for life. It is her birthright. Wickremesinghe does not understand that. One smile from her twisted lips, and he thinks she wants to cohabit with him. Kumaratunga's and Sarath Silva's impeachments should have been the first items on the UNF government's agenda in 2002. Instead, Wickremesinghe hoped they would reform: that they would be born again. The bitter lesson he has learned now is no consolation to the nation, which, after all, pays the price. With the budget derailed on a whim of Kumaratunga's, the whole economy has been thrown into a spin, and the stock market suffered till the Prime Minister's triumphant return. Is this what we elected Wickremesinghe to deliver?

Cowering before a brazen bully is no solution. Pandering to Lakshman Kadirgamar with Benzes, houses and men carrying arms is no solution. The country expects leadership of Wickremesinghe, and it is part of his job to keep Kumaratunga in check. The manner in which Wickremesinghe handled the recent crisis was, of course, masterly.

Miscalculated

Calm under pressure, he did everything just right, taking care not even to sully his lips by mentioning Kumaratunga's name when he addressed the media on arrival at Katunayake last Friday. His clear demonstration of his parliamentary majority, and the fact that not one member of the UNF deserted under pressure, must have given Kumaratunga pause for thought. If that was so, the spontaneous reaction of the thousands of people who mobbed Wickremesinghe's triumphal entry into Colombo, causing Kumaratunga to postpone by eight hours her scheduled address to the nation, would have shown her she miscalculated, and badly at that.

Now, Kumaratunga, having slipped on a banana skin of her own making, is in serious trouble, not knowing where to turn. She acted at the behest of her cronies, rather than relying on the mature judgement of the likes of Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapakse. She has made a right ass of herself. The people's fear is that like a knight in shining armour, Wickremesinghe will come riding in on his white charger and bail her out. Given his sense of chivalry, there is every danger that this is what he will do, as he has done so often before, for example by making Anura Bandaranaike Speaker just because he wept and threatened to drink himself to death if he didn't get the job.

Warned repeatedly

Wickremesinghe has repeatedly been warned by his party stalwarts to put Kumaratunga in her place. He has been told that like a scorpion, it is in Kumaratunga's nature to sting: she cannot overcome herself. Yet he has chosen to sup with the devil, talking of cohabitation. Wickremesinghe must realise that his is an unrequited love. This time, his party stood solidly by him, but next time-if there is one- they may not.

Sri Lanka has been through a spasm like no other since Wickremesinghe took office. Kumaratunga has painted herself into a corner and is cowering, tail curled and quivering between her legs. It is now time to force her to go to the people, and to hound her out by all democratic means.

This nation has had enough of the second generation of Bandaranaikes too, and no doubt even as we write the third is girding their loins in the wings. Enough is enough. The time has come to show Kumaratunga the door and rid the nation of her malign influence before she is able to inflict even more damage.

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