Both the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE look at peace broker Norway with growing suspicion.
B. MURALIDHAR REDDY in Colombo and Trincomalee
A RECONSTRUCTED school building on the outskirts of the Trincomalee town was holding its inaugural function on that sunny day, April 24. The tsunami-hit school had been rebuilt at a cost of 46 million rupees (one U.S. dollar is 106 Sri Lankan rupees now) by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), with the assistance of the Government of Norway, the facilitator of the `peace process' between the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The Trincomalee school is one of 22 such projects executed by the NRC in the past two years.
Belying the undercurrents of tension in the area, which began with the violence in the town in January 2006 and reached its peak in September following pitched battles between the Sri Lanka military and the Tigers for control of Sampur, teachers and students had turned up in their best and were visibly excited at the prospect of resuming studies at the swanky building with every conceivable facility.
The joy, however, did not last long. The NRC Country Director in Sri Lanka, Joern Kristensen, in the course of his speech, broke the news that the Ambassador of Norway to Sri Lanka Hans Brattskar was eager to witness the ceremony but was "prevented in the last minute". Though Kristensen did not mention what or who stopped the envoy, it spoke volumes about the state of relations between the Sri Lankan government and Norway.
Two days before the Trincomalee school function, the Sri Lanka Foreign Office conveyed to the Norwegian envoy that he should not proceed with his scheduled travel to Kilinochchi, the administrative headquarters of the Tigers. The prevailing security environment was cited as the reason for the advisory.
Brattskar had planned to go to Kilinochchi in his capacity as the representative of a country tasked with the facilitation of the `peace process'. It was a routine planned visit for an understanding of the mind of the Tiger leadership after the LTTE had demonstrated air capabilities. Obviously, in the assessment of the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime, the proposed trip would not have served any purpose at a juncture when the two sides were engaged in an undeclared war.
On paper, both the Lankan government and the Tigers continue to acknowledge Norway as the official facilitator and profess their adherence to the Norwegian-brokered 2002 Cease Fire Agreement (CFA). But the ground realities are exactly the opposite. The whole world sees Norway as the best bet to carry on with the difficult job of bringing the peace process back on track. However, the principal actors in Sri Lanka seem to think otherwise. In fact, in recent months, there have suggestions from the highest quarters in both camps that Norway has lost its credibility as an honest peace broker and it is time for it to quit.
At the bottom of the tussle is serious distrust. There have been questions galore in the Sri Lankan media, raised by responsible functionaries, on the motives and impartiality of Norway in the peace process. The Rajapaksa government seems to believe that Oslo has a `soft corner' for the Tigers. The LTTE, on its part, has treated Norway shabbily as was evident in its insistence on the withdrawal of European Union (E.U.) monitors from the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM). The monitors were forced to part ways with the SLMM after E.U. countries designated the LTTE a terrorist outfit in 2006.
It should be said to the credit of Rajapaksa that he has been open about his antipathy towards Norway. Replacement of Norway as the official facilitator and abrogation of the CFA were the two main planks on which he fought the November 2005 presidential election with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Jathika Hela Urumana (JHU) as his electoral partners. Rajapaksa did not go ahead with his agenda vis--vis Norway and the CFA only on account of international pressure.
However, it has not prevented the managers of the President from making jibes at Norway at regular intervals. One of the main charges against Norway made by the ruling combine as well as several others in Sri Lanka is that it is biased in favour of the Tigers and that it has directly or indirectly strengthened the LTTE politically and militarily since the CFA came into force.
Since the escalation of hostilities between the government and the Tigers in the middle of 2006, the role of Norway has been mostly confined to countering charges levelled against it from various quarters rather than looking at possibilities of putting the peace process back on track. Of course, Norway continues to be engaged in development-related work and the relief and rehabilitation of those internally displaced on account of the conflict or the December 2004 tsunami. But this has not proved sufficient to win back the trust and hearts of those quarters suspicious of its role.
An open letter from the Norwegian Ambassador to the Chief Editor of the Colombo newspaper Sunday Times in the third week of April best illustrates the odds Norway faces in dealing with the situation in the island nation.It reads:
"Please find enclosed an open letter to the Chief Editor of Sunday Times from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs dated 18 April 2007.
"The letter relates to an article in the Sunday Times newspaper 15 April 2007. It categorically refutes allegations made by a Norwegian national and his organisation Norwegians Against Terrorism (NAT) to the effect that Norway has funded terrorism. These allegations try to damage the relations between Sri Lanka and Norway. Unfortunately, similar allegations based on the very same source, have lately also been published and broadcasted by other parts of the Sri Lankan media.
"Let me present to you the following brief facts about Sri Lankan-Norwegian relations:
* Sri Lanka and Norway have entertained excellent bilateral relations since these were established in August 1950. This year, the countries can celebrate thirty years of bilateral development cooperation.
* Over the years, Norway has been a committed partner in development. The annual development assistance is normally in the range of LKR 3.9 billion (approx. USD 35.4 million). In the year 2005, the tsunami assistance brought the total up to LKR 7.8 billion (approx. USD 71.5 million). Norwegian development assistance has financed projects in all parts of Sri Lanka, with approximately two-thirds of the assistance being allocated to the South.
* In the year 2000, President Kumaratunga requested Norwegian assistance in facilitating talks between the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE. This request has been renewed by all successive governments of Sri Lanka. Norway remains committed to assist in reaching a peaceful solution to the conflict - one that can meet the aspirations of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims and be acceptable to all groups in Sri Lanka.
* In addition to being a development and humanitarian donor to Sri Lanka, Norway has, since the inception of the peace process, financed peace process-related costs and projects. The funding has inter alia included costs for peace secretariats and peace talks. Moreover, all Norwegian support must comply with strict rules for supervision, auditing and reporting.Yours faithfully Hans Brattskar Ambassador."
It is true that there are others, outside Sri Lanka as well, who continue to raise questions about the `real motives' of Norway in staying put as a facilitator. But at the moment there is no one else, at least no one who would be acceptable to all concerned and relevant players in Sri Lankan affairs, to step into the shoes of Norway.
Undeterred by the flak, Norway is trying to make a difference in Sri Lanka at least in minimising the effects of the humanitarian crisis triggered by the conflict. Only the future will tell how useful and effective the Norwegian involvement on the humanitarian front is. In any case, the project for rebuilding tsunami- and conflict-affected schools can make a difference in the short as well as long term. The NRC has reconstructed 22 permanent schools out of the 30 it has agreed to build in Sri Lanka in a 450 million rupees project to replace those destroyed by the Indian Ocean tsunami.
Out of the 30 schools, six were taken out of the project owing to non-availability of land and lack of access as a result of renewed fighting. The two remaining schools are scheduled to be handed over in May. Over 10,000 children and teachers from 24 schools in the six districts of Matara, Hambantota, Ampara, Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Mullaitivu are expected to benefit from the project.
The recently inaugurated Sri Matumai Ambal School in Trincomalee not only was one of the 31 schools destroyed by the tsunami in the district, but also suffered badly during the 20-year conflict. Originally located in Kanniya, it was destroyed by the conflict in 1990. For more than 10 years since then, classes for about 370 children were held in three cramped temporary sheds.
As displaced people from Kanniya moved to a camp for internally displaced people (IDP) in Trincomalee town, the school too was shifted near the camp in 1995 so that displaced children could still attend school. It is a government-assisted co-ed school, with a staff strength of 19. The students would now have the benefit of airy classrooms, more play area and a host of other new facilities.
The school now boasts of a three-storey building that incorporates 16 spacious classrooms, an administrative office, a conference room and a staff room. In addition, a fully furnished assembly hall, an agricultural and technical unit, laboratories, outdoor play area, netball and volleyball courts, and a boundary wall have also been constructed.
Piped water has been provided for the first time and several toilets have been constructed.
"The master plans of all schools are well poised to create a child-friendly learning environment where interactive teaching and child participation help children fully develop their potential. The teachers at the affected schools have participated in psychosocial training to be better equipped to support traumatised children. A stable and secure environment for learning is a crucial step in the rebuilding process. Nothing will signal hope more clearly than rebuilding and reopening schools. Because education for all children is the foundation of a peaceful and stable society," said Joern Kristensen at the inaugural function.
There could be no quarrel with the noble intentions of the NRC chief. But the tragedy is that the school stands like a five-star hotel, facing a slum. A child would have the benefit of the best environment during school hours but has to return to the slum which is his/her home now.
When asked why they did not deem it necessary to invest a small portion of the money spent on the school to improve conditions in the slum or why the school could not have been conceived in a way that it blended with its surroundings, the Norwegian authorities gave answers like "it is beyond our mandate".
Norway has company in the SLMM in sharing the flak for the collapsed peace process. The SLMM, a by-product of the CFA, has been reduced to a mute spectator to ceasefire violations. Shrunk in size after the LTTE forced the withdrawal of E.U. members and shunned by both the government and the LTTE (which deny it access to sensitive zones), it has been reduced to a mute spectator while the CFA is observed more in the breach. According to the CFA, the head of the SLMM is the final authority on the interpretation of the agreement. This is what the SLMM head Retd. Maj.-Gen. Lars Johan Solvberg had to say on the occasion of the fifth `anniversary' of the CFA, which fell in the last week of February:
"Nearly 4,000 people have lost their lives in incidents connected to the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka during the past 15 months. A large number of persons have been seriously injured, and thousands of families have been fleeing from areas of fighting. In contrast, during the three previous years less than 130 deaths related to the conflict were recorded.
"Following the Agreement, a considerable reduction of violence was reached, particularly welcomed by the families in the North and the East who had lived for two decades in areas ravaged by war. At the time of the five-year milestone, however, abductions, harassments, killings, shelling and air strikes are taking place at a war-like level.
"In spite of the ongoing conflict, the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission remains committed to the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, as a neutral part, seeking continuously to develop a deep understanding of the conflict situation, with the sincere aim of finding ways to continue its contribution according to the mandate".