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Bloody Decade

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Whilst outgoing President Chandrika Kumaratunga has, throughout her decade in power, been frequently economical with the truth, some of her statements have been extraordinarily fallacious. A case in point is her musings this week about her term in office. “It gives me pride to say,” she declared, “that I have not stained my hands with mud or blood.” Most Sri Lankans would agree she is wrong on both counts. Her invectives against her political opponents, her own party members and even international figures have startled friend and foe alike – to say nothing of supplying this newspaper with some excellent copy. And rather than having clean hands, Kumaratunga’s term as President is stained with an extraordinary amount of blood, most, though not all, of it Tamil. And that is not to include the thousands of Sinhala soldiers she sent to their deaths.

To begin with, Kumaratunga has presided over the bloodiest phase of Sri Lanka’s protracted ethnic conflict. Several thousand civilians and combatants from both sides perished in her self-styled ‘war for peace’ - a military adventure fuelled by Sinhala nationalism that laid waste to large, predominantly Tamil, parts of the island and brought the country to its knees economically. At the outset of her term she assaulted and occupied the Tamil cultural heartland of Jaffna, displacing its entire population (indeed as she leaves office, 1 in 4 Tamils is a refugee or internally displaced). She crowed with an archaic Sinhala victory ceremony in Colombo, even as the ‘disappearances’ began in the northern peninsula.

Whilst she ingeniously engaged the international community in a discourse on human rights, her military cloaked in impunity, engaged in torture, extrajudicial killings and rape. Navaly, Nagerkoil, Chemmani, Binderenuwa - these are some of the iconic names of her term. Her human rights record made even her international allies blanch. Once, confronted by the BBC with a US State Department report on her rights record, she dismissed it as ‘lies, all lies.’ And she starved the Tamil north with a vengeance her predecessors could not match. The embargo - which remained in place, despite her promises, throughout her charade of negotiations with the LTTE - was tightened to excruciating levels during the war, ending only in 2001 when her government was toppled.

Ultimately she failed in her objective - to crush the Tamil liberation struggle. Paradoxically, she instead gave it a test of fire which hardened both its steel and its resolve. As she exits, the LTTE stands dominant over much of the Northeast, with a standing army and an administration that can no longer be described as fledgling. She has made internal self-determination – co-existence of any form - a compromise, rather than an aspiration for the Tamil people. In doing so, she wrecked Sri Lanka’s much-vaunted sovereignty, however one may understand it, beyond repair and shredded the fabric of its society. Fractured, impoverished and crime ridden, even southern Sri Lanka, is no achievement. One wonders whether even the Sinhalese will laud her period of rule.

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