Chandrika Kumaratunga - Biographical Information

President, Sri Lanka 1994-2005

Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was the fifth President of Sri Lanka, serving from 1994 to 2005. The daughter of two former Prime Ministers, she was also the leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party until the end of 2005. She is Sri Lanka's only female president to date.

During her Presidency, Chandrika Kumaratunga led the successful privatization of state enterprises in a range of industries and her government enacted new laws and institutions to tackle rampant state corruption. President Chandrika Kumaratunga also helped Sri Lanka move away from its pro-war, confrontational mind-set to one of negotiations and peace.

Having inherited a nation plagued by violent politics - a civil war between the government and a separatist terror group as well as a state accused of massive human rights violations - Chandrika Kumaratunga made conciliatory moves towards the separatist Tamil Tigers to attempt to end the ongoing civil war and help steer the country to a plural, multicultural society. These moves towards peace involved two cease fire agreements and negotiations with the rebels even after the LTTE attempted in 1999 to assassinate her and badly wounded her.

Chandrika Kumaratunga’s stated economic policy was “free market economy with a human face” and was designed to give access to the benefits of development to all sections of the population. During her Presidency, in the midst of an ongoing civil war, Sri Lanka experienced annual economic growth rates of 5 and 6 %, both GDP and per capita income doubled, the supply of electricity and safe drinking water to households increased and there was a seven fold increase in fixed and mobile telephones. Under her Presidency, the Sri Lankan government tripled budgetary provisions for education and health to modernize and render these services to be more responsive to the needs of the people, and completed the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) for Education and Health.

Public career

Having been greatly influenced as a student in Paris by the radical student movement in the 1960s, Chandrika Kumaratunga remained deeply committed, throughout her career, to the imperatives of a plural society and to the welfare of the deprived, the underprivileged and the disadvantaged. Upon her return to Sri Lanka after her studies in Paris, Chandrika Kumaratunga became heavily involved in politics through the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and in 1974 became an Executive Committee member of the Party’s Women's League. Between 1972-1976 she served as Principal Director of the Land Reforms Commission and in 1976 became Chairman of the Janawasa Commission, which established cooperative farms for rural youth. From 1976–1979, she acted as a consultant to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. (In 2003 she was awarded the FAO Ceres Medal for efforts to foster rural development and peace in Sri Lanka).

Following the assassination in February 1988 of her husband, Vijaya Kumaratunga, a popular Sri Lankan film actor and politician, Chandrika Kumaratunga left Sri Lanka for the United Kingdom, working for World Institute for Development Economics Research. When she returned in 1991, Chandrika Kumaratunga entered politics and in May 1993 was elected to the Western Provincial Council with an unprecedented majority. She was appointed the Chief Minister of the Western Province, the country's largest.

In August 1994, she contested the Parliamentary General Elections as the People’s Alliance candidate for Prime Minister and was elected by an overwhelming majority. In the Presidential Elections held shortly thereafter in November 1994, she was elected President obtaining a record 62% of the votes cast, thereby ending 17 years of rule by the right-leaning United National Party.

Following the December 1999 Presidential elections, Chandrika Kumaratunga defeated the UNDP candidate, Ranil Wickremasinghe, and was sworn in for a second term. (This followed an assassination attempt on her days before the voting, by the separatist Tamil Tigers, as a result of which she lost vision in her right eye through permanent optic nerve damage). Two years later, however, Chandrika Kumaratunga’s People's Alliance lost to the UNP in the parliamentary elections and her political opponent Ranil Wickremasinghe took office as Sri Lanka's new Prime Minister. Kumaratunga continued as President of Sri Lanka although her relationship with the Wickremasinghe government was a strained one.

In February 2002 Wickremasinghe's government and the LTTE signed a permanent ceasefire agreement, paving the way for talks to end the long-running conflict. In December, the government and the rebels agreed to share power during peace talks in Norway. President Kumaratunga believed Wickremasinghe was being too lenient towards the LTTE and in May 2003 indicated her willingness to sack the prime minister and government if she felt they were making too many concessions to the rebels. On 4 November 2003, while Prime Minister Wickremasinghe was on an official visit to the United States, Kumaratunga prorogued Parliament and assigned Defense Interior and Media ministries on her. In January 2004 President Kumaratunga's People's Alliance and the leftist People's Liberation Front formed the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and dissolved Parliament. The UPFA went on to win the election on 2 April 2004 and formed a government with Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister.

Kumaratunga's six-year term ended in 2005. She one of the few Asian leaders to retire at 60 years of age, after serving two terms as President

Activity after public politics

Chandrika Kumaratunga is currently engaged in social entrepreneurship and is Chairperson of the CBK Foundation for Democracy and Justice (FDJ) and the South Asia Policy and Research Institute (SAPRI). Both are non-profit, non-political bodies.

Chandrika Kumaratunga is a member of the Council of Women World Leaders, an International network of current and former women presidents and prime ministers whose mission is to mobilize the highest-level women leaders globally for collective action on issues of critical importance to women and equitable development.

Memberships and Associations

  • Chairperson of the CBK Foundation for Democracy
  • Chairman of the South Asia Policy and Research Institute
  • Member of the Council of Women World Leaders
  • Member of the Board of Directors of the Club of Madrid
  • Member of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI)
  • Member of Club de Madrid

Chandrika Kumaratunga has travelled extensively on speaking assignments, including the following:

  • Keynote address “State and Terrorism”, at Kings College, London, International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, 12th December 2012.
  • Lecture, “Unity in Diversity; Building Shared and Inclusive Societies for Peace and Prosperity”, Anyiam-Osigwe Foundation Lecture Series, in Lagos, Nigeria in November 2012.
  • Keynote address on “Delivering Inclusive and Sustainable Development” at the First Conference of the South Asia Policy and Research Institute (SAPRI) held in New Delhi, on 9th April 2012.
  • “The Absence of War is Not Peace” at the University of Virginia, November 2011.
  • “My Experiences in Negotiating Peace in Sri Lanka”, at the Harvard International Negotiations Program / Harvard University.
  • “The State and Religion in South Asia”, at CERI, Institute of Political Science (Sciences Po), University of Paris, June 2011.
  • Address at conference on “Renewing Dialogue for Peace, Freedom and Human Rights in Today’s World” – Kuwait, 2011. (Fahad Al Saleem Center / Club de Madrid)
  • Keynote speaker at the 6th Education Without Borders (EWB) International Student Conference under the patronage of the President of the United Arab Emirates – UAE, March 2011.
  • Address at Seminar on Global Economic Crisis and the Asia-Pacific Region, “Dynamism in a Post-Crisis World” hosted by UNESCAP and Club de Madrid in Bangkok, August 2010.
  • Panelist at Davos / World Economic Forum “Global Redesign Summit” in Doha, Qatar May 2010.
  • The Arab Democracy Foundation’s (ADF) Workshop on Conflict Resolution and Mediation in Doha in May 2010.
  • Keynote address on “Leadership” at Institute of Political Science, University of Paris, June 2010.
  • The Club de Madrid Mission to Yemen to promote ‘Leadership for Strengthening Women’s Political Participation through Dialogue’- 2009.
  • Conference on “Employment, Social Welfare, and Democratic Rights and Duties” in Madrid November - 2009.
  • Keynote address viz “Leadership for Dialogue, Diversity and Social Cohesion” at the East-West Dialogue [UNESCO, the Asia-Europe Foundation] in Barcelona-November - 2009.
  • Gandhi Memorial Oration in Colombo-‘Democracy in Action in India and Lessons which Sri Lanka can learn’ - 2009.
  • Led Leader–in- Residence programme at Chatham Hall, Virginia, United States - 2009
  • ‘Role of voluntary organizations as change agents’ address to Rotary governors of the Asian region- in Kerala, India - 2009.
  • Address at the launch of the book ‘A Time of Transition’ by Mani Shankar Iyer. ‘Has the 21stCentury Overtaken Rajiv Gandhi?’ – New Delhi, 2009
  • Led Missions to Sierra Leone on African Women Leaders Programme of EU/Club de Madrid – 2008.