President Kumaratunga’s Acceptance Speech : ‘Recognition of my life’s work comes from a country I consider my second home’ | Sunday Observer

President Kumaratunga’s Acceptance Speech : ‘Recognition of my life’s work comes from a country I consider my second home’

President Chandrika Kumaratunga, became the first Sri Lankan woman to receive France’s Highest National honour - Commander of the Legion of Honour last week. She was the first Sri Lankan in almost seven decades to be awarded the prestigious distinction. The Ambassador of France to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, Jean-Marin Schuh, presented the Medal of Commandeur de la Légion D’Honneur on behalf of the President of the French Republic, Emmanuel Macron, at a special function held at the residence of the Ambassador last Thursday.

I wish to first thank the President and the Government of the Republic of France for according to me this high Honour of Commanduer de la Legion d’Honneur. My special gratitude goes to His Excellency the Ambassador, Jean-Marie Schuh, for so kindly facilitating it all and arranging this most enjoyable event.

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 as from Peradeniya and Colombo Universities. I believe, 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 would 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 the possibility of learning the beauty and necessity of diversity.

The ethical values I learnt from my 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 of Sri Lanka did not permit exchange to be repatriated for undergraduate studies. At that time, I existed as many other students on subsidized meals from the university canteens, subsidized 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 morning. For me, “May ‘68” was a marvelous 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 into 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.

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Chandrika’s story exemplifies determination and faith in democracy - French Ambassador

Ambassador of France in Sri Lanka, Jean-Marie Schuh presented France’s highest distinction on former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, noting that Sri Lanka’s first woman President had forged a remarkable career path, and that her personal story was an example of determination and faith in democracy. Addressing the gathering during the presentation of L’Ordre National de la Légiond’Honneur or the “Legion of Honor”, the first and highest national order of the French Republic to former President Kumaratunga, Ambassador Schuh made note of the “terrible events” that had touched the former President during her personal and political life.

“You replied to this violence and extremism with courage and dignity and by being even more involved in politics to serve your country,” France’s Envoy to Colombo noted.

He said President Kumaratunga had inherited a nation affected by civil war. “You strove to bring peace back, by speaking out against extremism, and promoting diplomatic solutions,” the Ambassador added. Ambassador Schue remarked that Kumaratunga’s presidential mandates had been characterized by the will to reform the system, in order to build a peaceful, inclusive and healthy society. He hailed her Government’s efforts in 2000 to submit constitutional reform proposals, aimed at promoting cultural dialogue and reconciliation.

“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 organizations,” he noted.

“Madam, your dedication to Sri Lanka and your remarkable career made you a central figure in recent Sri Lankan history, recognized for your determination and openness. For more than four decades, you have been devoted to your country, even during the worst personal and collective difficulties. You also have a personal and particular relationship with France,” the Ambassador said. The French Ambassador remarked that former President Kumaratunga had made a surprising and remarkable choice when she decided to pursue her higher studies in France. “An excellent choice, still, because France’s expertise for law and politics is widely recognized,” he explained.

“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,” the Envoy said as he presented the former Sri Lankan head of state with the medal.

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