'I can confirm that the peace process is moving'

Print edition : April 14, 2001

Interview with Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar.

With the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) seemingly at the threshold of talks on substantive issues with an agreed agenda and a reasonable time frame, the socio-political situation in Sri Lanka is at a sensitive stage. President Chandrika Kumaratunga came to India on a productive three day working visit in the last week of February. She got a firm reiteration of India's support for her Government's efforts to find a peaceful solution to the ethnic conflict, which is Sri Lanka's principal national question. Some concrete progress was made in moving the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) process, frozen on account of India-Pakistan discord, back towards normalcy. A few 'procedural problems' relating to the implementation of the Free Trade Agreement between India and Sri Lanka were also taken up at the highest level, and an understanding was reached to iron out these problems. (See Cover Story, "Interview: Guarded Optimism: President Kumaratunga on Peace Prospects in Sri Lanka," in Frontline, March 16, 2001.)

Recently, the Sri Lankan Government has taken "positive steps" to further the peace process. These have included the lifting of embargoes on 24 items for LTTE-held areas. The "unilateral" ceasefire announced by the LTTE is into its third extension. The extremist organisation has also released four captives, including a Sri Lankan soldier, "in recognition of" the Norwegian facilitation efforts and to "reciprocate" the Government's "positive steps."

Sixty-nine-year-old Lakshman Kadirgamar is Sri Lanka's highly accomplished and articulate Foreign Minister. A Sri Lankan Tamil, he had a brilliant academic career in Kandy, Colombo, and Oxford, where he was, among other things, President of the Oxford Union; and a distinguished professional career as a lawyer. Over the past four decades, Kadirgamar has accumulated considerable experience at the international level on a range of legal, human rights and socio-political matters. He is regarded as one of the most effective Foreign Ministers in the developing world. He has struck a fine rapport with India and especially with his Indian counterpart, Jaswant Singh.

On April 3, Foreign Minister Kadirgamar made an important statement in Sri Lanka's Parliament. He announced that the Government remained "totally committed to ushering in... the peace process which will lead to a durable and just settlement," and also that "very considerable progress has been made with the facilitation of the Norwegian Government towards achieving that objective of the LTTE coming to the negotiating table." Indicating that at this point it would be premature to "give a great amount of detail in regard to what exactly the situation is," he assured the House that "before this month is out," the Government would be in a position to make a "definitive statement" giving "the precise factual situation in relation to the commencement of negotiations with details including dates."

Since that official statement was made, the LTTE has introduced a new complication by stating that it will not participate in peace talks unless the Sri Lankan Government lifts the ban on it, reciprocates a truce, and allows in fuel and cement to areas controlled by it. Norway has responded to this fresh situation by saying that more discussions are needed on certain "concerns" raised by the LTTE.

Frontline's Editor, N. Ram, interviewed Foreign Minister Kadirgamar at his Colombo residence on April 6, shortly before the LTTE announced its new demand. The interview covers three areas: the significance of the United Kingdom's decision to proscribe the LTTE under the Terrorism Act, 2000; Sri Lanka-India relations and the Indian Government's attitude towards the peace process and SAARC; and the state of the peace process itself.

N. Ram: Foreign Minister, soon after your visit to India which appears to have been very productive, the United Kingdom's decision came on the list of organisations to be proscribed. I read your statement made in Colombo at the press conference of March 2 and it clearly explains your reading of the decision. What is the overall significance of this act by the U.K. Government?

Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar: Well, first and foremost, I think it's only fair to say that its main significance is the fact that here is a Government which has enacted a law in full compliance with the two United Nations Conventions - the 1997 International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings and the 1999 International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism. The United Kingdom is a signatory to both Conventions and the very fact that a country has enacted domestic legislation, as indeed it is obliged to do under international law, is very heartening.

Why heartening? Because it shows here is a country which is committed to what it says it is committed to. In the fight against global terrorism, the British have taken a step which they have to take under international law. Why I think this is so salutary is because not all countries, having signed the Convention, then proceed with speed to enact the relevant domestic legislation. Some countries take their time because the Convention doesn't actually come into force until a certain number of ratifications are effected. And that number of ratifications is not yet in place to bring the Convention into force. The U.K. has not waited for the Convention to come into force, which is also a very significant thing.

Therefore, I applaud the Government of the United Kingdom - for behaving in that highly disciplined and responsible manner. I would like to say that that is really the big significance of this legislation.

Of course, so far as Sri Lanka is concerned, we are very pleased that one of the 21 proscribed organisations under the British law is the LTTE, for whose proscription we have been pressing for a long time. And we made a formal demarche with the U.K. Government for the proscription of the LTTE after the U.K. law came into force. So it is a matter of satisfaction for us that our own interest in this matter has been advanced.

And particularly for you as Foreign Minister because you presented the issues very clearly in advance, I think.

Well, I don't know to what extent, Ram, one can personalise these matters. There are factors way outside our control. I don't think it is wise or correct - even necessarily right - to put too much personal emphasis on that. All I can say is that it was very much a matter of our policy to press for this. Because we hurt a great deal as a result of the fund-raising activities of the LTTE abroad. And to us, therefore, this was a very vital concern.

I saw the message you sent out on March 2. (A), to the Sinhala people: don't exult, don't be triumphalist. (B), to the Tamil people: don't think the U.K. decision is a blow at the Tamil people. (C), there is also an appeal to the LTTE: you still have a chance, although you deserve proscription, so to speak. I'm particularly interested in this last point - the link between this [U.K. decision to proscribe the LTTE] and the peace process. You said the U.K. Government is not concerned with the peace process in the sense it's not party to it. But this doesn't in any way harm the peace process. Would you like to elaborate on that last idea?

That's correct because, at one stage, the LTTE in an effort, I think, to stave off proscription, was saying publicly (through various pronouncements from London, which were on the Internet and in interviews to newspapers) that if they were proscribed, that would derail the peace process. And this, in my view, was an attempt to put pressure on the British Government in the hope that this would appeal to the vanity of the British Government perhaps, and it would offer to the British Government a chance to get involved in the negotiation process, and so on. Well, needless to say, the British Government was not taken in by any of that and it went on to apply its own law correctly, as it has to do. So right from the beginning, we didn't see any really substantial connection between the two, namely proscription and the peace process. They are entirely different things. And the LTTE's ploy on that aspect didn't work at all! The proof is that the peace process is going on perfectly satisfactorily.

Before I ask you about that, may I ask about relations with India? I interviewed President Chandrika Kumaratunga in New Delhi (when you were there), and she basically expressed great satisfaction over the outcome of the [recent] India visit. That was a little before the visit was over. Would you like to give me an evaluation of your visit to India, your talks with the top people in India and so on?

It was a very brief visit, as you know, but nonetheless very significant. It is always good for the leaders of these two friendly countries to meet from time to time and discuss matters of common interest. These discussions over the last few years, particularly in President Kumaratunga's term in office, have been characterised by great warmth, cordiality, friendship, and frankness. I'm tempted to believe that this is something of a sea-change in relations between our two countries. It's a very, very open relationship that gives me great pleasure to see. The talks were in that context: no agenda, no structure. We discussed a number of matters that interest both of us. Some, unfortunately, I'm not able to mention publicly.

Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar being interviewed by Frontline Editor N. Ram.-

Frontline

But let me say that in regard to the peace process, for instance, the Government of India is very supportive indeed. And any suggestion that the Government of India is not in favour of the peace process proceeding satisfactorily, or that the Government of India does not want Norway to be a facilitator - I can tell you those theories are utterly and totally unfounded! The Government of India has, to our satisfaction, made it absolutely clear that they are fully with us in seeking to bring to an end this awful problem that has bedevilled our country for so long. I detect nothing but goodwill on the part of India and a kind of urging us on, willing us on, hoping and praying almost that we would succeed in these efforts to bring peace back to our country. So from that point of view, I would say the visit was very significant. It was a reaffirmation of something that we have known all the time, namely that the Indian Government is solidly and fully behind us in the effort that we are making. But every reaffirmation that one gets is very valuable. It's very valuable. This kind of reaffirmation, even if it is made every day of the year, remains very valuable indeed...

Of course, one must never forget that India has an equal interest in the proscription of the LTTE as we have. India has already, like we have, proscribed the LTTE.

And on the other outstanding issue, how to get the SAARC process going again...

Yes, there was a very important decision arrived at during our talks in Delhi in February. Namely what had been foreshadowed when I spoke to the Foreign Minister of India in December - that the meeting of the Foreign Secretaries of SAARC will now take place. And this was confirmed when the President met Prime Minister Vajpayee in February.

So in the latter half of May, give or take a day or two here or there, depending on which dates are suitable to all the member states, there will be a meeting of the Foreign Secretaries of SAARC in Colombo. The Foreign Secretaries' meeting is a Charter body meeting; the Foreign Secretaries are a body mentioned in the SAARC Charter. The other two bodies are the Council of Foreign Ministers and the summit itself.

Normally, all three of these meetings are held back to back when a summit is scheduled. But here our position was, with India and Pakistan and all the countries of SAARC, that we should move at least one step at a time instead of waiting for a summit to be held. There are difficulties in the way of holding a summit. Why don't we get on with whatever we can get on with? This argument found acceptance and that is how this meeting is going to be held.

It is a good signal for SAARC and it is certainly the forerunner of a summit. I do not intend to say that a summit is going to follow hard on the heels of the Foreign Secretaries' meeting. That doesn't follow at all. But I am reasonably optimistic, as I've always been, that the SAARC process will sooner or later -I think sooner rather than later - be resumed in its fullest form, which means the holding of a summit.

On another matter where I think you registered some expectations, the Free Trade Agreement [between India and Sri Lanka] and the need perhaps to implement it better, was the discussion in India useful?

Yes, we expressed our general satisfaction with the way the Free Trade Agreement is being implemented. There are some procedural problems, I would say nothing more than that. Not conceptual problems. There are always procedural problems when you're implementing a new agreement, which [in this case] is barely a year old in its final form. So it was agreed that we would bring to the notice of the Indian Government whatever points we felt ought to be ironed out. And the response was fully cooperative. So we are preparing a paper which mentions some of these difficulties. I do not have the slightest doubt they will be ironed out.

And, finally, on the peace process itself. You have already said that it's on. [In the recent interview in New Delhi], I requested the President to restate the framework or mindset in which you're approaching this. She indicated that the Government [of Sri Lanka] has made it clear [to the LTTE] that there must be an agenda; there must be a time frame; 'you must give an indication of when you're willing to start, so that then we can make the atmosphere "conducive"'. And also the emphasis on the need to discuss substantive issues early on, from the start, while discussing practical issues. Has that gone well?

All that is perfectly correct. On the time frame question, I don't think we're going to insist that there be a starting date and an ending date fixed in a rigid form like that. What we mean is that the talks cannot go on endlessly. It's not open-ended in the sense of taking two or three years. We will be pressing for expeditious disposal or addressing of the issues concerned. That's what we meant by a time frame.

So all that is perfectly correct. And yesterday in Parliament, I made a statement during the course of the votes on my Ministry. What I said was that I can confirm that the peace process is moving. And I said that before the month of April is completed, we the Government will be in a position to announce definitively the dates on which the actual negotiations will begin. I told the House that I was not able to say more than that in any particular detail because it [the time] is not yet ripe for a public announcement of details. But this, I think, was sufficient to give the House a feeling that things are moving, that they're not static - they're certainly not going backwards! - and that there is a reasonable expectation that the process is going to start and then proceed.

Would it be correct to say that thus far things have been going a little better than might have been expected, or apprehended, or whatever?

I think so. Because we didn't rush into this peace process. This has been under discussion for almost two years. Not in the public eye. But from the time that the Norwegians were brought in on this - by both the Government [of Sri Lanka] and the LTTE, and that goes back to almost two years, or a little more than two years - there was a period, I think, of probably one-and-a-half years when we were having discussions with the Norwegians, I was having discussions with the Norwegians completely privately. In the course of a long preparation for the day when we could commence these talks.

There were periods of silence. There were periods when the LTTE was not indicating a particular willingness to start any peace process. Then that situation changed. That situation was influenced by the situation on the ground. I would say that from about the middle of last year, the LTTE began to show a definite interest in peace talks. And that interest became heightened after the Parliament election of October last year. You will recall that shortly after that parliamentary election, the LTTE leader Prabakaran actually met the Norwegian facilitators in the jungles of the Vanni.

So I think a number of events have come together to produce this state of affairs, this change of heart or mind, if you like. We were watching all this carefully.

We were ourselves showing interest to the Norwegian facilitators, who were conveying this to the LTTE right throughout. That we were prepared to enter into peace talks when everybody was ready to do so. We never slipped back from that position at all. It was more a question of waiting for the LTTE to show what its mind was.

In that sense, to the question you asked me, "Is it going satisfactorily in the sense of unexpectedly so?" I would say: well, something is not unexpected when you have been working on it for two years. It's not a sudden thing at all. If it had been sudden, then it would have been unexpected. But we'd been working on it.

Now, how precisely would you characterise the Norwegian role? Because in U.N. parlance, you have mediators, you have a good offices role, which perhaps is close to what you call facilitation. How do you look at it, the role of the Norwegians?

We've made it very clear to the Norwegians - and they accept this fully - that they have been engaged by the parties as a facilitator and not as a mediator.

What is the essential difference?

It is this. As a facilitator, their task is to bring the parties together. To facilitate the parties coming together. Because these are two parties that have not been on talking terms, to put it colloquially, for a very long time indeed and between whom there is very deep mistrust and so on, because of all that has happened. What we felt was that it was not possible for the parties to generate this peace process by themselves; and, therefore, that it was timely to engage a third party.

Well, a third party's role is limited. It is limited to bringing the two parties together. Shuttling back and forth between the parties. Carrying messages. And laying the groundwork for them to meet. They are logistical things they will have to attend to, in due course. There will be venues and times and schedules and various things of that kind. But when it comes to substantive negotiation, the Norwegians will have no particular role at all.

They will have no mandate to propose solutions. They will certainly have no mandate to make any judgmental decisions. In that sense, they're not arbitrators, they're not judges, they're not mediators. Mediators tend to be people who, at a certain stage, are entitled to say to the parties, "Now, we think you're right and somebody else is wrong. And we say you must do this, that or the other." And they assume a kind of judgmental character. That character the Norwegians definitely will not have in this process.

Before you invited the Norwegians to come in, I suppose you had a lot of options.

Yes.

A number of possible facilitators and so on. But you have chosen advisedly and wisely, would you say?

Yes, I think so. We certainly had a large number of offers from friendly countries. Very large number. At one time, I counted 16 offers from friendly states to help. These were broadly put offers - to do whatever they could, if we so wished, the parties so wished, to help in the process of bringing peace. Naturally, we considered all that seriously. Finally, we and the LTTE, each for different reasons perhaps, decided that Norway was most suitable for this purpose.

We had in mind the fact that Norway is a small country and, therefore, a country which we thought has no agenda of its own, either in respect of Sri Lanka or in respect of the region, South Asia. Secondly, Norway is very far away and distance has an advantage in a situation of this kind. Thirdly, Norway has no colonial background at all and, therefore, there's no baggage that Norway brings to an exercise of this kind. Then, fourthly, that Norway already has some experience in this area - in other disputes of a somewhat similar nature, may not be identical. That's well known internationally: that they've had some experience.

We felt that nobody in the region, for instance, could have any serious objection to Norway. We are very sensitive at all times to what our neighbours, all our neighbours, in the region feel about a situation like this. We don't want to go out on a limb by adopting procedures and so on which are completely alien, or totally objected to by our neighbours.

So it was a complex decision. Taking all this into account, we picked on Norway. And we have no reason to regret that choice.

Finally, it appears to me as an objective observer that there's one remarkable thing involved here. Here, you have a leader of a country on whom a horrible assassination attempt was made, who actually lost an eye in this, and who has yet not become subjective. To a journalist, this appears to be a notable phenomenon. Would you like to give me an insight into this?

I fully agree with that. I too find it absolutely remarkable that here is this lady who escaped death by an absolute miracle, there's no other way of describing it! Because when the bomb went off, if for instance she had been standing a little more upright by the car than mercifully she was, I don't think she would have survived! Luckily, she was bending in order to get into the car. And, therefore, only a part of her head was exposed above the roof of the bullet-proof car.

So we were down to absolutely providential things of that kind. That she was not on the other side of the car, for instance, where five people were blown up. And so on and so forth. It is only a miracle that saved her. And even though her life was saved, it is a terrible thing, when you come to think of it, that she has lost an eye.

When you look at the speech she made a day or two later, upon being sworn in as President for the second time, it is a truly remarkable speech that! Truly remarkable speech. So many people all over the world have said that. That speech was written entirely by herself; she wrote every word of it. She was wounded at that time.

If you look at all these things and then you take the year that has passed, a year that has seen a very serious military debacle as far as the Government was concerned - up to about May last year - and all the tension that went into that, and then a reversal in our fortunes on the ground. And then this peace process starting in earnest. All this she has been able to cope with against the background of that terrible event.

At any stage, nobody could have blamed her if she said, "I can't take this any longer. I can't deal with these people. I'm not interested in peace" and so on - and if she became revengeful. But she has not! She's absolutely and totally committed to proceeding on the path of peace.

N. Ram: I really wish you very well, success in what you have taken on - this peace process which, if it succeeds, can make a huge qualitative difference in your country and the whole region.

Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar: Thank you very much indeed.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor