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Now to Bangkok

Print edition : Apr 13, 2002 T+T-

The return to Sri Lanka of the LTTE's chief negotiator Anton Balasingham sets the stage for the proposed peace talks with the government in Bangkok, mediated by Norway.

ON January 4, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) conveyed through the intermediary, Norway, two requests to New Delhi. The first was that its chief negotiator and strategist Anton Stanislaus Balasingham and his Australian-born wife Adele Anne be allowed to relocate in Chennai. The second was that direct talks between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE, if and when they were held, should be hosted by India in a south Indian city - Chennai, Thiruvananthapuram or Bangalore.

The LTTE's rationale for these requests was that Balasingham was vitally important to take the peace process forward and that it was necessary for him to consult LTTE leader Velupillai Prabakaran personally to do so. Balasingham, as the chief negotiator, was also necessary to lead the LTTE delegation at proposed discussions with representatives of Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe's government.

Balasingham, who has undergone a kidney transplant, was in a delicate state of health and required sophisticated medical attention, which was available in Chennai. Also, he could not travel the long distance from Britain, where he was staying, to Sri Lanka frequently. Travelling through or staying in Colombo was also ruled out by the LTTE on grounds of security.

The LTTE wanted permission from New Delhi for the talks to be held in south India and for Balasingham to stay in Chennai on grounds of "health, security and proximity". It was willing to let Indian observers to be present during the talks. Whatever the reasons for the LTTE's requests, they evoked vehement protests in India, particularly in Tamil Nadu (Frontline, March 15, 2002). This negative reaction was officially strengthened when the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government in Tamil Nadu vetoed the idea. With New Delhi maintaining silence on the question, Balasingham told a Colombo newspaper that India did not reply because it was unable to say yes or no.

Realising, belatedly perhaps, that the hostile political climate in India would not allow it to gain even a toehold there for any purpose, the LTTE was compelled to find alternatives for its twin requests. Although it argued that Indian accommodation of its requests was imperative for the peace process to progress, recent events demonstrated that other options were available. This resulted in Balasingham and his wife using a rather unconventional mode of travel to return to the Northern mainland of the Wanni. Also, Thailand was selected as the venue for preliminary talks.

AT 10-38 a.m. on March 25 a Canadian-made De Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otter seaplane landed at an unusual "aerodrome": the irrigation reservoir at Iranaimadhu in Kilinochchi district. Situated to the south of Kilinochchi town and north of Kokkavil, and stretching across 7 sq km, it is the second largest tank in the Northern Province. The seaplane, carrying the Balasingham couple, two Canadian pilots and the First Secretary of the Norwegian embassy in Colombo, Tomas Strangland, landed on a deep stretch of the reservoir near the 'perunkaalvaai' or greater canal side. Belonging to a Danish firm and in use commercially as a Maldivian air taxi, the seaplane had started from the Maldivian capital Male that morning.

Even as the plane taxied to a halt, a Sea Tiger inland craft moved towards it. The Sea Tigers' special commander, Soosai, was at the helm. On January 23, 1999, Soosai had piloted a Sea Tiger boat carrying the Balasinghams across the choppy seas off Mullaitheevu to an LTTE vessel waiting on the high seas.

The boat returned swiftly to the shores of the Iranaimadhu, where Prabakaran, his wife Mathivathany and senior LTTE leaders were waiting to receive "Bala Annai" and "Aunty" as they are called by LTTE cadres. As it reached the shore, Prabakaran went up and extended his hand to Balasingham and helped him climb out. Then followed an emotional reunion between the LTTE leader and his senior adviser.

The importance of Balasingham's role in the peace process and the necessity for him to hold discussions with Prabakaran were fully appreciated by Norway, brokering peace as facilitator, and hence its unorthodox efforts to ensure Balasingham's arrival in Sri Lanka. The cooperation of Ranil Wickremasinghe's United National Front government made things easier for Oslo.

The Norwegians, to whom Balasingham had entrusted the responsibility of getting him back to the Wanni, devised a careful plan taking several factors into account. The Balasinghams left London on Friday, March 22, for Dubai, accompanied by three Norwegian officials including special peace envoy Erik Solheim. While the Balasingham couple broke journey in Dubai to rest, Erik Solheim left for Colombo. The Balasingham couple and the Norwegian officials later travelled to the Maldives, reaching the archipelago in the early hours of March 24. They stayed overnight at the Airport Hotel on Hululle Island and were provided security by the Maldivian national security service. Norwegian Ambassador Jon Westborg and First Secretary Strangland went to Male on March 24 to meet Balasingham. Solheim, who reached Colombo on March 24, also accompanied them. Prior to their departure, Westborg and Solheim met Prime Minister Wickremasinghe, who celebrated his 54th birthday that day, and senior Ministers.

The Prime Minister was receptive to and flexible about the Norwegian efforts to get Balasingham back. The diplomats were empowered officially to attend to certain immigration requirements as Balasingham was not scheduled to arrive at an accredited port of entry in Sri Lanka. They took, with official approval, an immigration seal of Talaimannar port, the closest entry point to Iranaimadhu. It is the official port of entry for travellers coming by ferry from India, but has not been utilised for the purpose in recent times.

The seaplane took off at 7-20 a.m. on March 25 from Male and after a three-hour and 20 minute journey arrived at Iranaimadhu. During this period the air space in the northeastern region was closed to all other air traffic by prior arrangement. The seaplane was also off radio communications for security reasons.

On arrival at Iranaimadhu, the British passport of Anton Balasingham and the Australian passport of Adele Balasingham were stamped formally by Strangland. The inscription Talaimannar was crossed out and substituted with Iranaimadhu, with due endorsing signature. Thus the inland tank of Iranaimadhu became the first accredited interior 'port of entry' in the island's history.

THE return of Balasingham was a joyful event for the LTTE for more than one reason. When the Tigers bade farewell to him on January 23, 1999, the thought uppermost in the minds of most of them was that they were bidding him "adieu" and not "au revoir". Such was the deteriorating state of his health. Yet, the man pulled through and, thanks to a kidney transplant carried out in Oslo, was now back. The LTTE supremo and senior leaders who saw him off at Mullaitheevu were now able to welcome him back at Iranaimadhu.

The Balasinghams are scheduled to stay at a specially constructed house in Kilinochchi, where the headquarters of the International Monitoring Commission headed by Norway will also be located. Doctors from the local hospital will be in attendance, checking regularly on Balasingham's health. The government has also agreed to send a helicopter to transport him to Batticaloa Hospital in the East whenever required. Thus the question of Balasingham's health seems to have been resolved, albeit temporarily.

The second issue, that of finding a suitable place for preliminary discussions, has also been dealt with. Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, is set to be the venue. Norwegian Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Vidar Helgeson arrived in Bangkok on March 29 to hold discussions on this and other matters with Thai Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai. Thereafter it was formally announced that Thailand would host the talks.

The LTTE's requirement was a venue that is easily accessible, relatively proximate to its headquarters in the Wanni, secure and with adequate medical facilities to attend to Balasingham's needs. With a major South India centre ruled out as the venue of the talks, Thailand was regarded as the next best option.

The LTTE had a permanent but clandestine presence in Phukhet in Thailand; its ships reportedly used Phukhet as a base to procure supplies and armaments. The LTTE's head of procurement, Kumaran Pathmanaban alias "KP", was suspected to have used Thailand as a base of operations at one time. There were also reports of an LTTE boat-building plant, allegedly building "mini submarines", in Thailand. In fact, when Balasingham and his wife left Sri Lanka in 1999 it was to Thailand they went first. Balasingham's preliminary medical examination and treatment were done in Bangkok. Thereafter the couple left for London via Singapore. The LTTE's presence in Phukhet, however, ended when Sri Lanka lodged a formal complaint with Thailand against the LTTE using that country as a base and the Thai authorities promptly mounted a crackdown.

Although the LTTE ceased to operate from Thailand, it finds the place comfortable to participate in talks. For one thing, Balasingham has obtained medical assistance in Bangkok and knows that he can get it again if the need arises. The LTTE cadres will also find it easy to move to and from Thailand by ship if proper air transport is not available from Sri Lanka.

As far as the Sri Lankan state is concerned, it welcomes Bangkok's prompt response to its charges against the LTTE. And given the level of cooperation between intelligence organisations, the choice of Thailand does not pose any perceived threat. Another plus point for Thailand as a venue is the fact that it is a Buddhist country with the majority of the people following Theravadha Buddhism as in Sri Lanka. History is replete with instances of contact and cooperation between both countries through the Buddhist legacy. The premier Buddhist Nikaya or sect in Sri Lanka is popularly known as the Siam Nikaya. (Siam was the former name of Thailand.) Sri Lankan monks have, in the past, gained their "Upa Sampathas" in Thailand.

WHILE Thailand may be acceptable to both sides as a venue, that nation itself is reportedly keen to play host to talks in order to boost its image as a peacemaker. If Norway has established itself as an honest broker in mediating conflicts round the world, Thailand too has contributed to the pursuit of peace. Once regarded as a safe haven for militants and political dissidents planning to topple governments or wage war against them, Thailand has in recent times shown marked disdain towards all such activity. Instead, it has been promoting peace in the region by facilitating peace processes.

In the 1980s, Thailand was the venue of several rounds of talks aimed at ending the Cambodian conflict. Thailand also hosted talks between the Indian government and rebels from Nagaland. Unofficial talks between New Delhi and the United Liberation Front of Asom have also been held in Thailand. At one point, the Thai government offered Bangkok as the venue for reconciliation talks between North Korea and South Korea.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra stated not very long ago in Parliament that he wanted to make Thailand a more visible player in international affairs. The chance to host Sri Lanka-LTTE peace talks provides him with such an opportunity. If everything goes as planned, the preliminary round of talks may be held either in late May or in early June. The LTTE delegation will be led by Balasingham and the government delegation by Cabinet Minister G.L. Peiris.

There have been three occasions when representatives of the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE have been involved in direct talks aimed at a negotiated peace. The first was in the Bhutanese capital of Thimphu in 1985; the second was during former President Ranasinghe Premadasa's tenure in 1989-1990; the third was under President Chandrika Kumaratunga in 1994-1995. The talks envisaged in Bangkok will be the fourth round. Only the future will reveal its outcome.