Hope on the horizon

Print edition : March 02, 2002

Despite delays and controversies, the draft agreement drawn up by the Norwegian mediators raises hopes of a durable ceasefire in Sri Lanka.

SRI LANKA made significant forward movement on the road to peace when Vidar Helgesen, the Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister of Norway, arrived in Colombo on February 7, leading a peace delegation consisting of Erik Solheim, Special Adviser to the Foreign Ministry, and Kjirste Tromsdal, a Ministry official. The Norwegians, who were engaged in hectic shuttle diplomacy between Europe and Asia, had a tangible document in their hands this time. It was the draft memorandum of understanding (MoU) outlining the conditions and rules for a permanent ceasefire between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).


The draft MoU, if and when ratified by both parties, would bring about a durable ceasefire, replacing the parallel ceasefires that are in place now. Both sides have been adhering to unilaterally declared cessations of hostility separately. These ceasefires, extended on a monthly basis, are applicable to land-based activities alone. The Norwegian delegation's focus is on harmonising the situation and evolving a stable, structured and comprehensive ceasefire covering all types of land-, sea- and air-based activities.

The seven-page draft was formulated after active consultation with both parties. Although its "form" was designed by Norway, the "content" was provided by the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. The Norwegians had dutifully incorporated in the document all suggestions, proposals and amendments put forward by the two sides after intense debate and discussion. They have relied on proposals that emanated during discussions with Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga and former Foreign Affairs Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar and have drawn extensively on inputs provided by officials and diplomats from countries that are committed to a lasting peace in Sri Lanka. India, in particular, had been regularly consulted and informed of the progress of the peace process.

Despite the absence of a rigid deadline or undue haste to force the pace of events accordingly, Norway reportedly wanted to give effect to an MoU-inspired ceasefire before February 24, when the month-long, self-imposed ceasefires lapse. However, by mid-February this seemed unlikely and both sides got ready to extend their unilateral ceasefires while cooperating with Oslo's efforts to evolve a final and formal ceasefire.

The arrival of the Norwegian delegation with a draft document was highlighted in the national and international media, which published details of the draft. In spite of the clear knowledge that the draft was subject to changes after discussions with both parties, sections of the domestic press presented it in a manner that suggested that it was the final version. They also conveyed the impression that certain contentious issues had been resolved.

Buddhist monks distribute sweets to children at a refugee camp for Tamils at Pesali, 200 km northwest of Colombo, recently. The monks were on a peace mission to the area, the first of its kind since the violent confrontation in Sri Lanka began in 1983.-GEMUNU AMARASINGHE/AP

This led to two types of reaction. The LTTE was annoyed at what it termed as "deliberate leaks" to the media, which it said was contrary to the confidentiality that Oslo had assured both parties. Anton Balasingham, the London-based political adviser to the LTTE and the chief negotiator in the peace process, complained to Norway that the "leaks" were at Colombo's end. The LTTE felt that sensationalising prickly issues would jeopardise the process of negotiation.

The second reaction was from hawkish elements among the Sinhala majority. Various organisations and political parties and sections of the Buddhist clergy protested jointly and separately against some of the draft provisions as outlined in the press. According to them, much had been conceded to the LTTE and the long-term security of the country had been compromised. They also frowned upon the fact that the draft MoU treated the government and the Tigers as equal partners in the agreement. Swelling protests from Sinhala hardliners forced the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Colombo to engage in some damage control exercises. It issued a press release saying that the process of working out a ceasefire agreement was incomplete and that the Norwegian government had not yet presented any formal proposal to the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE.

Oslo's position was further amplified and clarified by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe and Balasingham separately.

Speaking at a ceremony to felicitate him at Royal College, his alma mater, Wickremasinghe explained that the MoU was only a preliminary document and that it would be finalised after several amendments. Balasingham told a Tamil newspaper in Sri Lanka that reports of a final draft being ready were erroneous. "What's there now is just a draft. It still requires alterations," he said. He noted that substantial progress had been made in accommodating the concerns of both sides.

The furore has underscored the "impermanence" of the current document. However, no radical change is expected to be made in its essence as it encompasses features that are necessary to ensure a stable and structured ceasefire. It also provides the contours of a final ceasefire agreement. The factors that led to the collapse of ceasefires have been taken into account and the attitude of cautious optimism shown by both sides has helped greatly in this. The initial idea of a time-bound ceasefire for one year has been shelved. Instead, a ceasefire based on the MoU would have no time constraints and would be open-ended. It would not come into force automatically the moment an agreement is signed. It would take effect on a date specified by the Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Both sides are expected to set in motion certain measures from the day the ceasefire comes into operation. These are yet to be finalised but both sides are obliged to fulfil some conditions within a time-frame - within 30 days of the ceasefire coming into force in the case of the government and the LTTE, and 60 days in the case of others. This would be on a reciprocal, staggered basis, with one condition being predicated on the implementation of the other. These conditions and deadlines are not expected to be problematic as both sides have already taken unilateral efforts to implement some of them.

The ceasefire would be applicable to land-, sea- and air-based activities. "Neither party shall engage in any offensive military activity," the document says. The draft agreement forbids assault operations, aerial or naval bombardment, shelling, cordon-and-search operations, arbitrary arrests, firing of weapons into civilian areas, and so on by the armed forces. The LTTE cannot conduct operations such as frontal assaults, abductions, ambushes, armed raids, suicide strikes or attacks with explosives on the entire island. It is debarred from acts such as political assassinations too. Likewise, the government cannot allow its deep penetration units known as "long range reconnaissance patrols" to target LTTE leaders.

A ceasefire in the air and on the sea would help the Tamil fisherfolk greatly. Fishing is banned for the stated reason of protecting naval installations, vessels and aircraft from sea-based Tiger attacks. Effective observance of a ceasefire would invalidate the rationale for the ban. The LTTE is specifically forbidden to conduct on- or under-sea strikes at marine or airborne targets. There is some opposition from naval circles to any move to lift the ban entirely. The Tigers, however, demand a total removal of the ban. This remains a matter of dispute.

A VITAL aspect of the draft MoU is the provision for a mechanism to monitor the ceasefire and, more important, prevent its collapse. It would be known as the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM). A crucial feature of the SLMM is that it would also function as a dispute-solving, reconciliatory mechanism. In fact, its emphasis would be more on resolving conflicts than on detecting violations, accepting complaints regarding violation and reprimanding offenders. If and when it receives a complaint or detects a violation, the Mission will strive for an amicable settlement. It is vested with the authority to take prompt and "immediate action on complaints made by either party, to inquire into and assist in the settlement of any dispute". The idea is to resolve sensitive issues at the lowest possible level without allowing them to escalate.

It would not be possible for either side to break off from the ceasefire easily and quickly. Any side intending to do so would have to give to the Mission a minimum of 14 days' notice and the reasons for its decision. The monitors will inquire into the stated causes and attempt as far as possible to address grievances, thereby preventing a collapse of the ceasefire.

The SLMM would be an international body, with representatives from Sri Lanka and Scandinavian and Nordic countries. It would be headed by a nominee of the Norwegian government, subject to the approval of both parties. The "Head of Mission" would be responsible for the overall monitoring of the truce and would have a support staff. A Norwegian national with extensive knowledge of and experience in Sri Lanka is tipped to occupy the post.

The Mission will have offices in Colombo and in Mallavi, a small town in Tiger-controlled territory. Both sides are required to give the Mission full access to and facilities in areas under their respective control. The Mission would liaise with both sides but report directly to the Norwegian government. The head of the Mission would decide the date on which to begin its functions. The Mission would have a local committee to assist in its monitoring functions. This committee would be divided into six separate decentralised units for functional purposes. The operations of the units, "advisory" in nature, would be coordinated by the head of the SLMM. The eight administrative districts in the North-Eastern Province, the main theatre of conflict - Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Vavuniya and Mullaitivu in the North and Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Amparai in the East - would be redemarcated into six units for monitoring purposes. Batticalao and Amparai would be treated as one composite unit. Geographical considerations have influenced this decision. Likewise, Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi would be regarded as one unit. The LTTE has near-total control over both the districts, a fact that reduces the scope for much friction.

Each district panel would have two representatives each from the government and the LTTE. They are expected to be eminent persons capable of discharging their duties without fear or favour. To be appointed by the government directly and on the recommendation of the LTTE, the members are expected to be drawn from among "ex-judges, public servants, religious leaders or similar leading citizens". In addition, there would be international representatives and they would head the committees.

The foreign representatives are likely to be from countries such as Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland and the autonomous territory of Greenland. They would be an integral component of the SLMM. In any dispute over the interpretation of the provisions of the ceasefire agreement, the final authority would be the head of the Mission. The draft has taken into account the concerns of all parties concerned over the politically sensitive aspect of having international representatives on monitoring committees. The decision to choose representatives from the "neutral" Scandinavian and Nordic nations seems acceptable to all, including India.

The ceasefire MoU envisages clearly demarcated zones of control by both parties. This would, in effect, freeze the status quo in respect of territorial control. The respective lines of control would be clearly demarcated and areas segregated. There would be a "buffer zone" between the respective forward defence lines with a gap of at least 600 metres. Troops and LTTE cadre would be allowed to move up to a maximum of 100 metres into the buffer zone. While this "right is reserved", it is mandatory that a minimum distance of 400 metres is strictly maintained between both sides at all times. Both sides, however, are expected to exercise restraint even if this dividing line is crossed excessively.

Incidentally, the LTTE has not demanded that security forces move back to pre-war positions or withdraw from Tamil areas. The troops, however, will be required to relocate themselves gradually within their sphere of control to facilitate the return of normalcy. Thus, security personnel stationed in places of worship, schools, community centres and halls, manufacturing plants, government offices and buildings, and so on would have to move out as civilian life flourishes gradually. They would be relocated to accredited military venues but would not be withdrawn from the area. Initially, schools, temples and churches would have to be vacated.

The controls exercised by the armed forces and the LTTE over civilians are expected to be reduced, if not removed, as normal life returns. "Both sides will agree to refrain from hostile acts against civilian population," the document says. Among the acts specified are torture, intimidation, abduction, extortion and harassment. Both sides will have to adhere to certain codes of conduct so that civilian safety and rights are maximised.

The security measures now in force would be reviewed with a view to easing the burden on civilians. The setting up and maintenance of checkpoints are to be reduced considerably. Searches and arrests under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act are to cease and such security-related operations would be carried out under the normal laws governing criminal conduct.

Fishing restrictions are to be eased. Also "unimpeded flow of non-militaristic goods is to be ensured to and from LTTE-controlled areas". The quantity of such goods would be determined by market demands.

There would be regulations guaranteeing the freedom of movement for cadre and troops from and to the areas controlled by the government and the LTTE. An important requirement is prior permission. "Individual combatants shall on the recommendation of their respective area commanders be permitted, unarmed and out of uniform, to visit friends and relatives residing in areas of control of the other party on a restricted basis. Such visits shall be limited to three days every second month. The parties reserve the right to deny entry to specified military areas. Individual combatants shall, notwithstanding the two-month restriction, be permitted to attend immediate family functions such as weddings, funerals, etc," the document says.

The LTTE would allow unarmed security personnel to move freely in its sphere of control. It is required to open the A-9 highway, or the Jaffna-Kandy road, within 30 days of the ceasefire coming into force and give unarmed troops the right of passage within 60 days. This is expected to be a boon for soldiers visiting their homes on leave. The restriction of movement is a major logistical problem for the armed forces, causing much heartburning among soldiers.

Another clause allows LTTE cadre to visit government-controlled areas for political work. "Unarmed LTTE members shall for the purpose of political work be permitted freedom of movement in the areas controlled by government troops. They shall carry identity papers," the draft says. This, apparently, is a contentious issue and there is pressure to delete the provision from the draft. The LTTE, however, has stated that it will not allow the opening of the A-9 highway if this concession is not granted. It has already allowed the opening of the road from Omanthai to Kilinochchi from February 15 but holds on to the stretch north of Kilinochchi up to Eluthumadduvaal in the Jaffna peninsula for this reason.

Another contentious issue is recruitment of personnel or cadre and acquisition of arms. The agreement allows both sides to recruit and train people "exclusively for the purposes of maintaining their strength and status as they were on December 24, 2001", when the parallel ceasefires came into force. The Tigers have stated that they will recruit volunteers over 17 years of age for administrative and political purposes. An interesting provision in the draft states that the "Sri Lankan government will integrate individuals from the LTTE into units of the Sri Lankan armed forces or services away from the war zone". These provisions have evoked controversy.

As far as arms acquisition is concerned, there are two viewpoints. One is that the navy be allowed to engage in defensive action and intercept vessels that could be suspected to be transporting arms to the LTTE. The general provision in the draft about the Sri Lankan armed forces having the right to "perform their legitimate task of safeguarding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka from external aggression" is invoked in this connection. Colombo emphasises this provision and the need to restrict fishing rights. The LTTE opposes it and wants unrestricted marine movement during the ceasefire.

This is a major issue that needs to be resolved. The crux of the matter is that both sides will seek to enhance their arsenals, with or without specific clauses. Dwelling too much on this aspect can reduce the chief objective of the ceasefire to coast patrolling exercises. The hope is that both sides will be realistic enough to accept the inevitable. A stable ceasefire could alter the climate so drastically that there would be no need for recourse to arms in the future. Besides, the emphasis on reconstruction and development will change priorities. It is not clear how both sides will reconcile their differences over these issues.

ONE crucial aspect that remains unclear at this juncture is, who the signatories to the ceasefire MoU will be. Will it be Kumaratunga or Ranil Wickremasinghe or both on the government side? Will it be LTTE chief Velupillai Prabakaran on the LTTE side? There has been speculation that Prabakaran will not sign the MOU if Kumaratunga does not.

The controversy over the "leak" of the provisions of the draft has increased pressure on the government. The armed forces have reportedly objected to some clauses. In any event, the political leadership too was not happy about some provisions. Kumaratunga also is concerned about some aspects. It is learnt that these viewpoints have been made known to Oslo. Likewise, the LTTE too has made adverse comments on certain draft provisions and suggested alterations.

The Norwegian delegation made two trips to London within seven days of its Colombo trip. This indicates that there are several issues to be ironed out. Despite delays and controversies, hopes of a permanent ceasefire materialising soon remain high.

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