'The best window of opportunity since the war began'

Print edition : March 03, 2001
President Chandrika Kumaratunga's

three day visit to India in the last week of February 2001 came at a sensitive and challenging time for Sri Lanka as well as for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). The brutal and destruc tive war raging between the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan armed forces in the North and East of the island nation is a distorted expression of Sri Lanka's principal national question - the Tamil or ethnic questio n which has awaited resolution for over half a century. The SAARC process has been in a state of suspended animation since, in the wake of General Pervez Musharraf's coup in Pakistan, the Government of India vetoed a summit that should have been held in Kathmandu in November 1999. Sri Lanka, which has been SAARC chairman since 1998, is keen to see an early revival of the SAARC process, and as quickly as possible to make way for Nepal as regional grouping chairman.

There is no doubt about which is the top issue and concern for Sri Lanka's President, the charismatic 55-year-old leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the daughter of two Prime Ministers who has lost a father, a husband and an eye to the system' s failure to find a peaceful solution to the ethnic question, an anti-chauvinist visionary who is determined to go down in history as the architect of a just, peaceful and enduring solution to her country's principal national problem. President Kumaratun ga's determination to see through a negotiated constitutional settlement, military developments, international pressure, and Norwegian facilitation appear to have brought the LTTE to the threshold of talks with the Sri Lankan Government on substantive is sues - with an agreed agenda and time-frame.

But do the momentum gained by the Oslo initiative and the present positive indications presage a real willingness on the part of the extremist and Pol Potist LTTE to enter into serious negotiations with the Sri Lankan state to explore the contours of a p eaceful political settlement within the framework of a united, but federally re-structured, Sri Lanka? No one can answer this question with any confidence at this sensitive conjuncture of circumstances. The LTTE's track record presents a strong and unedi fying contra-indication. Not once over the past two decades has the organisation headed by Velupillai Prabakaran shown any inclination so much as to consider a negotiated political settlement within the framework of Sri Lanka remaining one. Not once has it entered a process of negotiations or substantive talks with such an end in view, even if it has, time and again and for its tactical politico-military ends, signalled a willingness to engage in 'talks about talks' and gone in for ceasefires.

Although she is fully aware of the LTTE's track record and character, President Kumaratunga projects cautious, or guarded, optimism about the prospects of peace in her country this time round. In this exclusive interview given to Frontline's Editor, N. Ram, in a suite on a presidential floor of New Delhi's Taj Palace hotel on February 23, 2001, President Kumaratunga speaks about the considerable progress made in getting the LTTE to agree to agenda- and time-bound talks on "substantive issu es" ("not dilly-dallying like they did thrice with the UNP and once with us before, but actual, positive negotiation, arriving at a definite solution or settlement") necessary for finding an enduring political settlement within the framework of a united Sri Lanka. She confirms, on the record, that working with Norwegian facilitation, her Government is "in the process of trying to agree on conditions that the LTTE calls 'conducive' (measures) before we begin to talk"; that 'talks about talks' have alread y begun and made progress; and that "yes, definitely" there has been forward movement in this peace process. And finally: "So what I can tell you is, Ram, that this seems to be the best window of opportunity that has been offered to any Government since the war began."

The interview also covers subjects such as relations between the People's Alliance Government and the main Opposition party, the United National Party; India-Sri Lanka relations ("at the political level... we have arrived at an excellent point in Indo-Sr i Lankan relations... they are fully supportive of the peace process that we have started.); how to revive the SAARC process; and the implementation of the Free Trade Agreement signed between the two countries in 1998.

Sri Lanka's articulate and highly regarded Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, and High Commissioner in India, Professor Senake Bandaranayake, were with the President during the interview. At one point the former offered a brief factual clarification in response to a question.

N. Ram: President, you have a comprehensive peace package in hand. Ranged against this are two well-known obstacles - LTTE extremism and intransigence, and a non-cooperative and what seems to be an obstructive stance by the main Opposition party, the UNP. Do you see any meeting ground between your P.A. Government and the LTTE? And also, separately, between the Government and the UNP?

President Chandrika Kumaratunga: Well, we have tried our best to persuade both these groups that you just mentioned to give us the necessary support to carry through the constitutional process - which we believe is the final and durable solution t o the Tamil people's problem. They have both been intransigent, to use your word. In fact, we could have carried it through despite the opposition of these two groups, which were about the only ones opposing it. Now the JVP, but at that time the JVP was not so strong; it had only one MP in Parliament.

Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar with Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee. - V. SUDERSHAN

If it were not for the very odd Constitution that we have - you know that over these years - even if the UNP opposed it (the constitutional package), we could have carried it through. Because in the last Parliament, we had 80 per cent of electorates. In other words, we had 80 per cent of the voices in Parliament. In this Parliament, we have about 68 to 70 per cent. We have more than two-thirds. In other words, the people have given us this time a two-thirds majority, and last time a four-fifths majority . But given the manner in which it is counted and presented, finally we have only one vote more, or three votes more, in Parliament! So this is the problem, it's a bizarre problem.

This is why we were planning all kinds of ways of circumventing this situation. We think the obstacles that we are faced with have created an undemocratic situation. So that we have all the right in some way to circumvent some of the clauses in this Cons titution - it won't be undemocratic.

We have to now re-open the process. The main reason we could not use the other - alternative - methods of bringing in the (new) Constitution is: Number one, I got bombed. When I had very definitely told the people, "If you give me the mandate, I'm going to do it." - and that's why the LTTE wanted to kill me! Then, after that, the UNP showed some kind of flexibility and kept asking me when we were going to invite them to talks. Because soon after I got bombed, at the oath-taking ceremony, you know I made that speech...

Yes.

... inviting the UNP, the LTTE to come into the process. They (the UNP) seem to have taken it up and kept asking me, "When are you inviting us? We want to come." Not Ranil Wickremasinghe himself, but other leaders of the UNP. So I thought there was some chance of getting them on board. It is much better to get them on board rather than doing it against their will. They pretended they were coming on board for about seven-eight months. The Government and the UNP discussed for five months the draft that I had agreed to with the eight parties in the P.A. Government and supporter parties. The UNP wasted our time for five months and at the end of it, they didn't even say they were not going to vote with it in Parliament. They knew the whole objective was for me to bring it to Parliament. And then on the day I took it to Parliament, there was a huge furore and hooting and insults. It was terrible. They burnt the draft Constitution inside Parliament, in the Chamber. They tore it into bits and threw it all ove r the place!

President Chandrika Kumaratunga being interviewed by Frontline Editor N. Ram. - V.V. KRISHNAN

Anyway, I carried on nevertheless and tabled the bill. But we didn't go for a vote because we needed six or seven more (votes). Ten people had crossed over to us from the UNP because they were not in support of the UNP leader's decision to do all this. B ut we needed six or seven more votes. In this Parliament, it's going to be more difficult because we have fewer seats. The SLFP itself has won one MP more. But the Tamil parties have lost out a lot. Therefore, the majority we had with their support is no w much less.

So we have to now think of new processes of re-starting the whole dialogue. Even while we go into negotiations with the LTTE - which may happen - I believe that we have to have the entire population talking about this, dialoguing about it. The LTTE is ju st one force, they are not the be-all and end-all of the whole thing! So we are considering various ways and means of re-starting the constitutional process and a dialogue with the entire country on it.

You have also answered my next question, which was going to be: how do you see the end game of putting in place this process? The constitutional process is going to re-start. It's more things than settling the ethnic or Tamil question... Yes. ... but this is your principal national question, you've said that before.

Quite definitely, yes.

Given the military situation about which we don't have enough information, could you give us an assessment of where the LTTE is in relation to the achievement of its proclaimed goals?

That being 'Eelam'?

Yes, but that is ruled out of court. But where are they on the ground? How strong are they?

Norwegian peace envoy Erik Solheim (left) with LTTE leader V. Prabakaran in the Wanni in October 2000. - REUTERS/NORWEGIAN EMBASSY HQ

They are weaker than they have been for a long time. Last year, they had several successes. At the end of 1999 and the beginning of 2000, they were able to gain quite a bit of the Wanni and, as you know, the entrance into Jaffna Peninsula, the Elephant P ass, which was a big victory for them. But since then we decided to arm the forces much more heavily than we have done ever before. We've spent a lot of money and purchased military hardware, which has caused a lot of damage to the LTTE. They have lost m ore than half the number of active fighting cadres in the last six months of last year. According to their own declared information, broadcasts and so on, 2,700-odd cadres they have lost - and they don't have more than five to six thousand in the entire Northern Province.

This is one of the reasons why they are seemingly more flexible. And, of course, the international community's coming down on them a little bit, and the possible ban in the U.K., is worrying them a lot. So we have to keep the international pressure on if we want peace in Sri Lanka.

The LTTE's Political Adviser, A. Balasingham, made a statement to the effect that if the LTTE got banned under the Terrorism Act, 2000 in the United Kingdom, the whole peace process might be jeopardised. Do you see that as a real threat or something e lse?

In fact, it is the opposite that is true. If the international community takes the pressure off the LTTE, they will not be interested in peace at all. Because the LTTE does not believe in peace. The LTTE believes in bloodletting, violence and terror and I don't think they know anything else! They will never be comfortable with any other situation. They don't believe there is such a thing as democracy, or there should be!

The only reason why they would agree to a negotiated settlement in a positive manner - not just dilly-dallying like they did three times with the UNP and once with us before, but actual, positive negotiation, arriving at a definite solution or settlement . The only reason why they would come to it is if they are fighting with their backs against the wall. For that purpose, we need the support of the international community and we need to keep the military pressure going. '

When the U.K. Terrorism Act came into effect on February 19, there was an expectation that the U.K. Government would issue a list of proscribed organisations. Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar has been focussing very strongly on what he expects the Government of the U.K. to do. But it hasn't come up with any list yet. How do you read this and what is your expectation of the U.K. right now?

We clearly expect them to ban the LTTE because it is the most terroristic organisation operating from British soil at the moment. Their new law very clearly gives them the possibility of doing that. We are only surprised they haven't done it yet.

(Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar: They haven't banned anybody yet. Under their law, they are not obliged to put out a list by a particular date. But from now on they are empowered to do so...)

President Kumaratunga: But we are hoping they will do it.

N. Ram: There has been media speculation about a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the LTTE and the Government of Sri Lanka, worked out by Norwegian facilitation, as part of the preparatory business. Does such an MoU exist and, if so, could yo u give us an idea of its content and purpose?

No, there is no such MoU. But we are in the process of trying to agree on conditions that the LTTE calls "conducive" (measures) before we begin to talk. So once those conditions are worked out - they won't be any MoUs - we will put it down for both sides to see.

There has been some forward movement in this respect?

Yes, definitely.

Would you like to re-state, for the information of our readers, the framework or mind-set in which you are approaching these talks. I suppose there will be, first, talks about talks?

That has already begun. We have said very clearly - because we have gone through this process once before, it's not new to us, we know all the pitfalls and the procedures that need to be followed - we have made our position very clear. Because we noted t hat with us for eight months, with the UNP Government several times, they just kept talking about marginal matters, without ever engaging in the substantive issues - even in Thimphu. They were told what the substantive issues should be, but they never di scussed those. And then they just play for time and prepare themselves for a further attack and come and attack. And that is the end of the round of talks.

Therefore, we have told them that from Day One of the talks, there has to be a clear agenda. The agenda will include... one, two, three, four, all the substantive issues. Such as nature of the state, that kind of thing. 'Eelam' is out of the question, we are willing to discuss on anything else. So, in short, from Day One we start on the substantive issues. If they want to talk on marginal issues on how much more food is going to be sent and all that, thereafter we will talk. We said that on the same day , every day, two-thirds or something like that, 75 per cent of the time should be spent on substantive issues, but one-fourth, one-third of the time we can discuss whatever else they want... you know, practical matters. They have agreed to that.

We have also said that we want dates. Before we start rendering the atmosphere "conducive," we want to know for how long they want that before we actually start proper talks. That also has been indicated to us. Now we are talking of what those conducive conditions should be.

So what I can tell you is, Ram, that this seems to be the best window of opportunity that has been offered to any Government since the war began.

Really? I really hope so...

With the LTTE, one doesn't hope for anything. But for practical reasons, maybe reasons of opportunism, the chances seem better than before. That's all I can say.

Your constitutional package, insofar as it addresses your principal national question, the ethnic conflict, seems to have gone - I think it's widely recognised - much further than any previous attempt to offer a just solution to the Tamil questions, a lthough there are sticking points on issues such as unit of devolution, merger and so on. Now, in principle, President, if things go well, are you willing to improve on this package, if you are convinced that would help?

Yes, certainly. If it is to stop this destructive war and bring about a durable peace, certainly we are willing to look at amendments to our proposals and such like. Of course, we will have to ask the majority of the people of the country. Quite apart fr om the chauvinists. You can't please everybody. But I think we can carry it through if there is a positive response from the LTTE.

By whatever name called, this is not just devolution but a structural change attempted in your Constitution, with particular reference to Tamil areas. Some people have asked for a federal framework and so on. The name is not important, but you are com mitted to that structural change?

Well, we have said so. In the constitutional draft we have tabled in Parliament, it's very clear.

As Chairman of SAARC, you are reported to be keen on holding an early summit of SAARC leaders. I read that in the press. The Government of India, however, appears to have been lukewarm about joining the summit in view of its problematical relationship with General Musharraf's regime in Pakistan. Is there any forward movement in sight?

V.V. KRISHNAN

Yes. Today, we discussed SAARC and there are those very strong unique issues. I had occasion to talk about this with the P.M. (Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee) today and the Foreign Minister (Jaswant Singh). Yes, I think there is a possibility of mov ing forward. Last year, after a sort of total halt of all SAARC processes for some time - since Kargil - we were able to have most of the technical committees sitting on the various subjects. Now the decisions of those committees cannot be implemented un til the Standing Committee of Foreign Secretaries meets and ratifies that. Then we can start that work: on the economic front, cultural, education, etc. Terrorism. The work has been done. Now the Foreign Secretaries have to meet. I think today we had a v ery positive response - and I'm very appreciative of that - from the Indian Government. They probably would agree that the Standing Committee meeting be held very soon in Colombo. That is the Foreign Secretaries, so we have to take it on from there.

There has been some media speculation, particularly in Sri Lanka, about Indian concerns, which you must have encountered. Are you satisfied that India is playing ball on your vital issue?

Yes, very much so. They have been playing ball very well with us. They are fully supportive of the peace process that we have started. They have always told us that. And they also believe, like us, that the final solution can only be found in a negotiate d settlement. They have told us that very clearly. And they are very supportive of our moves at the moment.

The LTTE issue will not pose any potential problem?

Doesn't look like it.

The Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between India and Sri Lanka has come into force. Sri Lanka's top exports are garments and tea. The exporters' lobbies have generally expressed the view that while the FTA has given them some room, its implementation is s till perhaps discriminatory in the sense of India allotting quotas and imposing other restrictions. For example, on the ports where tea can land in India. Do you propose to take this up at your level?

We have taken it up already. We have facilitated the entry of Indian goods under the FTA, but from the Indian side the obstacles have not yet been removed. And some new obstacles have been brought in after the signing of the agreement. The proportion of Sri Lankan goods to Indian goods exported has not changed - it's 1:13 in favour of India. I brought this up today with the Prime Minister and he has agreed to look at it at the highest level. I think it is just bureaucratic blocks.

And, finally, very briefly, how do you see Sri Lanka-India relations going at this stage?

Very well. Extremely well. We have no complaints at all (except the details of these [FTA-related] bureaucratic problems). At the political level, I think we have arrived at an excellent point in Indo-Sri Lankan relations.

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