"A lasting solution to the ethnic issues and terrorism in Sri Lanka or anywhere else, can only be found through negotiations and dialogue"
- President Kumaratunga
In 1994, Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict was at a critical juncture. Sri Lankans sought a change and a more able leadership to deal with the crisis. President Kumaratunga was steadfast in her view that the solution lay in negotiations and ceding greater autonomy to the regions. This view led her to secure the 1994 Presidential vote with an overwhelming majority, defeating the United National Party (UNP).
As President, CBK publicly acknowledged that the Tamil community faced discrimination and that their grievances were just. President Kumaratunga was the only leader to offer a public apology, on behalf of the Nation, to the Tamil people for the discrimination and harassment they had faced since Independence.
A key priority of her government was to formulate a comprehensive Constitutional proposal for sharing power with minorities. A large number of programmes were initiated by the CBK Government to advocate the message of a negotiated peace. Numerous seminars, workshops, and cultural programmes were initiated across the island to promote this message.
In August 1994, when President Kumaratunga took office, only 23.2% of Sinhalese believed in a negotiated settlement. Two years after the implementation of her peace initiatives, however, a new opinion survey showed that this number had increased to 68%. Of Tamils, a vast majority supported devolution of power, while a majority of the Muslims also agreed.
Immediately after assuming office, the Government of President Kumaratunga invited the late LTTE leader Velupillai Pirabahakaran for negotiations.
A mutual ceasefire was in effect from January to April 1995. Throughout the course of negotiations, the government relaxed the embargo on the transportation of previously banned goods and fishing. The Tamil community in the North was also permitted to travel to the South. Furthermore, for the first time in many years, locals and foreigners were permitted to visit the North.
In April 1995, however, the LTTE unilaterally ended the ceasefire and all attempts by the Government to bring the LTTE back to the negotiation table ended in failure. In 1999, President Kumaratunga sought the assistance of Norway, as an independent third-party, to mediate a resolution.
In December 1999, the LTTE attempted to assassinate President CBK at an election rally. The President was blinded in one eye and sustained several serious injuries. The blast killed 26 people and injured hundreds.
Despite the assassination attempt, President Kumaratunga continued to pursue a negotiated settlement. In October 2000, she got the LTTE back to the negotiation table. A Ceasefire Agreement [CFA] was drafted and was due to be signed in April 2001. It was called off by the LTTE, however, two days prior to the signing with no reason given.
December 2001, the opposition party UNP returned to power, while President Kumaratunga remained in office. The UNP government signed a new Ceasefire Agreement in February 2002, halting all military engagement. During the course of the talks that followed between the State and the LTTE, the UNP government began work on an Interim Self-Governing Authority (ISGA) agreement. However, the ISGA was abandoned as many legal and political experts felt there were serious shortcomings that could have helped the LTTE achieve a separate State. Nevertheless,the CFA remained in place until the end of President Kumaratunga's second term in office in 2005.
Since independence, all Sri Lankan governments had been guilty of neglecting the North and East, lending credence to the LTTE's claim that the government did not care about the people of the North and East and that the only solution was a separate State.
The CBK government, however, challenged this argument by offering to develop the North and East soon after it took office in 1994, even with the LTTE in near control of the Northern peninsular.
Velupillai Pirabhakaran initially turned down the offer saying he would develop it himself after securing Eelam, but in 1997 work on the accelerated North and East development began. All infrastructure damaged by the war and years of neglect was restored, including schools, hospitals, roads, irrigation tanks, fishing harbours, and the university. These projects were funded by the Ministry of Relief, Rehabilitation and Reconciliation as well as foreign donor agencies.
In August 2000, President Kumaratunga presented a Bill in Parliament to repeal the 1978 constitution and replace it with a new constitution despite opposition from hard-line Buddhist clergy and Sinhala nationalists.
Titled ‘Constitution of the Republic of Sri Lanka Bill 2000’ the Bill provided a solution to Sri Lanka’s ethnic crisis, a return to the parliamentary form from the existing ‘Executive Presidency and a modern Bill of Rights with peace, ethnic harmony and good governance as its principal goals.
Drafted by a team led by; President Kumaratunga, Cabinet Ministers, Parliamentarians and Legal Experts, it declared Sri Lanka as a multi-ethnic multi-lingual and multi-religious plural society where political power was to be shared with the periphery.
It accepted Sinhala and Tamil as official languages and Sinhala, Tamil and English as National languages, and clearly laid down how these provisions should be implemented in respect of administration, legislation, courts and education.
Powers and functions of the centre and the regions were clearly defined and demarcated remedying considerably the deficiencies in the Thirteenth Amendment.
Other notable features relate to the inclusion of representation of minorities in the higher levels of government, and an end to statelessness.
While the proposed constitution aimed to give the discontented minority Tamils autonomy, it was first presented to the country by president Kumaratunga in 1995 and was referred to as the 'Peace Package'.
This bill presented to Parliament on 3rd August, 2000 marked a watershed in the efforts to formulate, a basis for a durable solution to the national crisis.
After crafting a final draft ready for Parliamentary approval, the main opposition reneged on its promise to support the bill, causing it to be abandoned.
Nevertheless, no other leader had presented a comprehensive proposal at least to create a basis for national consensus to resolve the ethnic conflict as she had done in 1995, 1997 and in August 2000.
In the aftermath of the devastating tsunami in December 2004, President Kumaratunga proposed a joint mechanism that the government and LTTE could utilize to coordinate decision-making and the implementation of reconstruction in the North and East. The hope was that the establishment of these Post Tsunami Operational Structure or ‘The PTOMS’ would lead to greater interaction with the militants.
The PTOMS, however, were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court at the end of 2005 causing the delay of many donor funded projects in the North and East.
Due to protracted ethnic conflict, the social structure and economy of the North and East were severely disrupted. Furthermore, nearly a million people in these areas of the island were displaced and forced to live in welfare camps or with friends and relatives. The CBK Government recognized the hardships of these citizens and formulated and implemented programmes to alleviate their sufferings.
These programmes focused largely on serving the needs of the internally displaced people, disabled, orphans, youth, and women affected by the war. Assisting the state sector organisations and NGOs, the government worked to restore a sense of a normal civilian life to these affected people. Their main focus was to provide emergency relief, food, and shelter.
The government, in collaboration with donor, NGO, and private sector funds provided humanitarian relief to those persons affected by conflict—including both those living within and outside welfare centers. Through various compensation schemes, those affected by the war were paid for property damages, death of next of kin, injuries, etc.
Various projects were undertaken by the ministry including the rehabilitation of bridges in order to improve the road network, housing reconstruction, food security projects to support people from food crises, rehabilitation of the Jaffna Teaching Hospital, child's rights training, demining, irrigation schemes, community development projects, nutritional programmes, and vocational training programmes.
In 2004, the total number of internally displaced persons (IDP) assisted by the essential services division of the Ministry of Relief, Rehabilitation, and Reconciliation totaled approximately 878,531.
Sudu Nelum Movement
Begun in July 1995, the 'Sudu Nelum' was an optimistic project of the newly elected People's Alliance government, towards reconciliatory efforts between the Sinhala and Tamil communities in a country that was grappling with a prolonged and costly war.
The objective of Sudu Nelum was to bridge the gap between the Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim communities, ideologically seeking to remove the deep rooted hurt which had in reality, made peace more elusive and unattainable. The White Lotus, the chosen emblem of the Movement signified purity of thought and action to blossom from the muddy depths of communalism, as a Lotus does in reality.
Sudu Nelum Movement was a brainchild of President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and was spearheaded by the Minister Mangala Samaraweera. The Movement undertook among other initiatives to create awareness amongst the public of the necessity for power sharing and building inclusive and shared societies.
The Sudu Nelum Headquarters, staffed by mainly volunteers, witnessed many contributing their time and energy for the promotion of peace. Various projects and programmes organized by the different serving committees comprising professionals, politicians and volunteers undertook proceedings.
The Movement also held youth camps in all parts of the country, starting with a massive three day camp at Embilipitiya.
With 146 branches islandwide including Jaffna and two international branches operated in Japan, the Movement launched the second phase of its awareness campaign in mid-1998. One of the main projects undertaken by the Sudu Nelum in this regard was the Caravan concept, popularly known as Thawalama.
Thawalama, moved from village to village traversing the entire country presenting theatre, photographic and book exhibitions and video presentations.
An opinion survey undertaken in November 2004 showed that 23.2% of the Sinhala community supported a negotiated settlement to the ethnic question whilst 76.8% believed that war was the answer. The Sudu Nelun Movement was designed by CBK to respond to this situation. At the end of two years, by December 2006, another poll showed that the number of people opting for peace, and even stating that they would vote YES at a Referendum, for a new Constitution proposed by the CBK government containing proposals for a wide devolution of powers to the minority regions. The 23.2% had increased to 68% of people willing to vote YES for power sharing.
Rebuilding the Jaffna Library
Under the Sudu Nelum Movement CBK began the task of rebuilding the Jaffna Public Library which was torched by goons of a previous Government. The total cost required for the restoration of the library was an estimated Rs.700 million. Through the Movement, a fund raising campaign titled 'A Book and a Brick' was started and a National Coordinating Committee was appointed to oversee the project.
Subsequently the Foreign Affairs Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar was handed the task of reconstructing the Jaffna Public Library. The restoration of the damaged Library buildings which began in January 2000 was completed two years later in 2002.
Welfare of disabled soldiers
The Sudu Nelum Movement also wanted to place more emphasis on the welfare of the disabled soldiers.
CBK established the Rana Viru Seva Authority (RVSA) in 1999 by a Parliamentary Act to function directly under her purview to facilitate welfare and psychosocial requirements of the combatant Service and Police personnel, their families, those disabled in action, and the families of those missing and killed in action.
Further, CBK appointed a Special Presidential Committee to monitor the RVSA Housing Project to provide housing to homeless service and police personnel posted for duty in the North and East, their widows and the disabled.
An education programme for the children of disabled soldiers was instituted. 12.5% of all admission to schools was apportioned to them. Security personnel were provided special identity cards enabling them to gain priority over others and transport passes in specified areas.
The RVSA Otherwise Abled Heroes Project sought to empower them by self-employment training or provision of machinery for small scale enterprises or completion of partly constructed houses.
Through the ‘Personal Family Help Project’ obtaining relief in personal requests was carried out. As a result of the CBK Government’s policy decisions, the continuity of pay without delay to families of Service and Police personnel who were killed or missing in action was carried out.