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Chandrika becomes first Sri Lankan to be awarded France’s highest national order


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Former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga became the first Sri Lankan in almost seven decades and the first ever Sri Lankan womanto be awarded the prestigious medal of Commander of the Legion of Honour, the highest rank of the national order of France.

Ambassador of France to Sri Lanka and the MaldivesJean-Marin Schuhpresented the Medal of “Commandeur de la LégionD’Honneur” on behalf of President of the French RepublicEmmanuel Macron at a special function held at the Residence of the Ambassador.

President Kumaratunga served as the fourth Executive President of Sri Lanka from 1994 to 2005. Prior to that, she has held the elected positions of Western Province Chief Minister and Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. 

At present President Kumaratunga holds numerous honorary positions including being a Member of Club de Madrid (the premier global forum of former democratic Presidents and Prime Ministers), a Member of the Global Leadership Foundation (led by former President of South Africa F.W. de Klerk), was an Advisor and Member of the Clinton Global Initiative, and is the Chairperson of the South Asia Policy and Research Institute and the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation in Sri Lanka.

She holds a Degree in Political Science from the prestigious Political Science Institute (Science Po) of the University of Paris and undertook a Ph.D. Program in Development Economics at the ÉcolePratique des HautesÉtudes, University of Paris, where she studied from 1970-1973

The event was attended by diplomats, ministers, friends and colleagues. 

Following are excerpts of the speech by Ambassador of France Jean-Marin Schuh at the event: 

It is a great pleasure and anhonourto welcome you tonight at this ceremony to bestow the highest French distinction to Madam Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, former President of Sri Lanka.

Madam, yourdedication to Sri Lanka and your remarkable career made you a central figure inrecent Sri Lankan history, recognised for your determination and openness.For more than four decades, you have beendevoted to your country, even during the worst personal and collective difficulties. Youalsohave a personal and particular relationship with France.

Allow me, Madam, to remind some steps of your remarkable career and dedication to your country.

You were born in a family deeply dedicated to public service and involved in politics. Your father, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was elected Prime Minister of Sri Lanka in 1956. Your mother, Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike, became the world’s first female Prime Minister in 1960, opening the path for women in politics.

You were educated at St. Bridget Convent in Colombo, and completed a Bachelor of Law at the Aquinas University College of Colombo. 

And then, you made, Madam, a rather surprising but remarkablechoice: Youchose France for your higher studies! Surprising choice, because, even if France was already a popular destination, I assume that it wasn’t the first choice of Sri Lankan students at that time. An excellent choice, still, because France’s expertise for law and politics is widely recognised. 

You started your studies at the Institute of Political Studiesof Aix-en-Provence, in the beautiful south of France, hometown of the French painter Paul Cezanne, and of Emile Zola who is a French writer. There, you learned French language for one year, in 1967. Then,you joined the prestigious Institute of Political Studies of Paris, better known as “Science Po”, one of the most renowned institutes in France,in 1968. Paris at that time was the centre of a student’s and social movement that changed political and social dynamics in France for decades. In 1970, you graduated with a degree in Political Science and entered a Ph.D. in Development Economics, at the ÉcolePratique des HautesÉtudes, one of our highest academic institutions.

Upon returning to Sri Lanka in 1974, you joined politics, through the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, founded by your father, and integrated the women’s league of the party. You alsoworked as an expert consultant for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations from 1976 to 1979.

You pursued a political career, and, in 1993, you were elected Chief Minister of the Western Province. In August 1994, you were elected Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, following the steps of your mother.

Then, few months later, in November 1994, you made history becoming Sri Lanka’s first and only female President. You were re-elected in 1999 and served until 2005.Madam President, you inherited a nation affected by civil war. You strove to bring peace back, by speaking out against extremism, and promoting diplomatic solutions. 

Shortly after your election, in 1995, you opened a dialogue between the two parties, obtaining a ceasefire. This diplomatic effort was coupled from 1997 with reforms and development investments in the North and East.

Your mandates were also characterised by the will to reform the system, in order to build a peaceful, inclusiveand healthy society. 

In 2000, you and your government submitted a project of Constitutional Reform, aiming at promoting cultural dialogue and reconciliation. 

Madam, during your personal and political life, terrible events touched you and your family on several occasions. You replied to this violence and extremism with courage and dignity, and by being even more involved in politics to serve your country. 

In December 1999, during your presidential campaign for running a second mandate, you survived a terroristattack. Once again, you chose to stay strong and keptmoving forward. You were re-elected President three days after the attack. 

War was not the only challenge Sri Lanka had to face. In December 2004, the country was struck by the tsunami.Once again, Madam, you promoted unity and solidarity in a terrible moment for the country. The Post Tsunami Operational Structure was createdto coordinatedecision making and implementation of reconstruction in North and East.

Then you constitutionally retired, after serving two terms as President, in November 2005. 

However, you are still working for a more inclusive and democratic Sri Lanka through the CBK Foundation for Democracy and Justice, and the South Asian Policy and Research Institute, two non-profit organisations. 

Since 2015, you chair the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR), in charge of building and implementing national policies for reconciliation. 

Madam, you are a close friend of France and contributed to strengthen the links between our two countries. France has a long lasting presence and action in Sri Lanka. Official relationships were established in 1948. In 1954, the first Alliance française was created in Sri Lanka. It is today an influential foreign cultural centre and language school, present in five cities of Sri Lanka. I know that, for a time, you were very familiar with the Alliance Française in Colombo. Renowned Sri Lankan scholars and intellectuals have studied French there, and benefited scholarships. During your term, you helped maintaining and developing those links. For example you helped bringing French expertise for water treatment, opening the path for stronger cooperation with Sri Lanka in this critical field. You have also visited several times our country, and met with President François Mitterrand, during the mandate of your mother, then President Jacques Chirac in 1996, during one of your first official visits in abroad, and still in 2001.

France and Sri Lanka have a lot to share regarding education, sustainable development and economic exchanges. Those exchanges are now expanding rapidly, alongside with emerging Sri Lanka. But you paved this way for a long lasting, trustful and fruitful relationship between our two countries.

Madam President,your remarkable career path and personal story is an example of determination and faith in democracy. 

You overcame each obstacle with dignity and strength, and promoted dialogue. You have been and continue to be such an impressive and inspiring womanfor everyone.You made the relationship between France and Sri Lanka special, trustful and fruitful. Your example and personal story should inspire us for the next steps of our bilateral relation.

For all those reasons,Madam President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, on behalf of the President of the French Republic, I now pronounce you Commander of the French Legion of Honour.

Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s speech

In her acceptance speech President Kumaratunga thanked the President and the Government of the Republic of France for according to her the high Honour of Commanduer de la Legion d’Honneur. She also thanked the Ambassador, Jean-MarieSchuh, for facilitating it all and arranging the event. Following are excerpts. 

I was taken completely by surprise when I received an intimation from Ambassador Schuh that the French Government had decided to accord me this honour. I had not asked and did not know that I would be considered for it. I never seek honours and have even declined some that were offered to me during my presidency – Honorary Doctorates from the Sorbonne University, as well from Peradeniya and Colombo Universities. I believed I should actually earn a Doctorate in the normal way, by writing a thesis and so on. 

In this instance, I reflected long and hard and decided that I will accept the honour, because I believe I have earned it, through decades of dedicated service to my country and people, as well as the role I have played globally, for the promotion of democracy, human rights and good governance. 

I am especially delighted that this recognition of my life’s work comes from a country I consider my second home. 

The generosity of the Government of France in granting me a scholarship for the entirety of my university studies in France opened up new vistas for the unhindered development of my personality and my knowledge today, while giving me the opportunity for new experiences enriched with the eternal values of liberty and equality. It gave me possibility of learning of the beauty and necessity of diversity. 

The ethical values I learnt from parents – values of honesty at all costs, unswerving commitment to the causes I believe in, loyalty and friendship – were offered the opportunity to blossom fully, in the freedom of Parisian student life.

I learnt to manage financially entirely on the stipend given to me as a scholarship student, as the Government Sri Lanka did not, permit exchange to be repatriated for undergraduate studies. At that time, I existed as many other students on subsidised meals from the university canteens, subsidised public transport, and at times foregoing meals to save money for theatre and ballet. I also learnt to do jobs – teaching English or menial jobs such as baby sitting and sweeping floors, washing dishes in my university hostel.

Thus I learnt what it is to be poor – something I may never have done in my country! I also learnt to sharpen my inclination to militancy that I seemed to have harboured from a young age, when “May ‘68” exploded before us. I was on the barricades, in demonstrations, organising workers to protest, engaged in passionate dialogues and meetings till the wee hours of the mornings. For me, “May ‘68” was a marvellous explosion of free thought, of fraternity between youth belonging to every community – ethnic, religious, political.

I remember the day an Officer of the Sri Lanka Embassy in Paris called me to say that the French Police wished to see me. Our Diplomatic Officer kindly accompanied me to the Police. I was told firmly, that if I did not stop engaging in anti-Government activity, I’d be put on a plane and deported home! 

The seeds of free and liberal thought were sown in me by my father, and forged in to a strong force on the barricades and in the debates of “May ‘68” and thereafter. The ability to think logically in Cartesian style, peppered with dialectical materialistic thought in Marxian style, and to formulate a clear vision and action plans for the tasks I undertake were learnt in my training at Sciences Po and during my PH.D. studies.

All this, is to say that I owe much to the life I had the privilege to lead in France. I am what I am as a person, and whatever positive achievements I can, in all humility, claim credit for, were deeply influenced not only by my parents and my education at school, but also very much by my time in France, where I gained deep intellectual inspiration as much as activism for progressive policies.

I must emphasise that I would not have achieved all this, without the immense support I have received from friends and colleagues in my diverse responsibilities and the trust and the affection of my people. 

I wish to dedicate the Honour of Commanduer de la Legion d’Honneur I received today, to all those like me, who dedicated their lives to realise our dream of building a better world. 

I also dedicate this honour to all the precious young lives of Sri Lanka sacrificed on the altar of needless violence against fellow humans, in the name of whatever unattainable Utopia.

I thank all of you, my friends and colleagues, for your presence here today to share in the joy of this important moment in my life. 

My deep gratitude to Your Excellency Ambassador Schuh for all you have done to make this event a success.

I take this opportunity to wish Ambassador Schuh all the very best, as he is going to be leaving Sri Lanka in a few weeks, after completing his tenure here.


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