A Norwegian initiative

Print edition : March 04, 2000

Norway's offer to use its good offices to find an amicable solution to the Sri Lankan crisis has the approval of almost all groups concerned.

D.B.S. JEYARAJ

ON February 16, a delegation from Norway comprising Foreign Minister Knut Vollebaek, executive officer of the Foreign Ministry Kiersti Tromsdal and press secretary Ingvard Havnen arrived in Colombo. The primary purpose of the one-day visit, according to a Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry press release, was to explore "the possibility of Norway assisting discussions to take place between the Sri Lanka Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) aimed at resolving the ethnic problem". The Norweg ian Foreign Minister packed three rounds of talks with Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga, Opposition leader Ranil Wickremasinghe and Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. The visit ended on a positive note with the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry st ating that Vollebaek had informed President Kumaratunga that "Norway was willing to accept the task of initiating a dialogue between the Sri Lanka government and the LTTE aimed at resolving the ethnic problem".

Norwegian Foreign Minister Knut Vollebaek with Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in Colombo on February 16.-GEMUNU AMARASINGHE/AP

Political and media circles were excited over the announcement. It was quite apparent that Sri Lanka's ethnic crisis had entered a new phase with Norway declaring its willingness to facilitate direct negotiations between the People's Alliance Government of Chandrika Kumaratunga and the LTTE led by Velupillai Prabakaran. The announcement, however, was hardly unexpected.

Official confirmation was reinforced by a communique that quoted Vollebaek: "The conflict in Sri Lanka can only be solved by political means. A basis for a dialogue must be established between the parties... Upon a request from the President and followin g a wish from the LTTE, I have today informed the President that Norway is willing to accept the challenging task of trying to bring the parties together in such a dialogue. We have also discussed modalities for commencing direct talks... This places a h eavy responsibility on the parties themselves. I am encouraged by the expressed willingness to seek a political solution. However, this will take time. It will be difficult. It will require courage and sacrifices and it will require the necessary politic al will from the parties. "

Vollebaek's visit was in response to an invitation by Sri Lanka. The final decision was taken after carefully considering the positions and attitudes of all parties concerned. A great deal of preliminary effort was made to probe the Tamil viewpoint as ex pressed by the LTTE and the non-LTTE parties. The crucial decision was taken at a four-hour meeting with Kumaratunga and Kadirgamar. The modalities of the talks were discussed in detail but would be finalised after a follow up meeting with the LTTE. This may be a mere formality as the LTTE is expected to cooperate in the exercise after perhaps suggesting modifications to the tentatively discussed modalities concerning the primary phase.

It is understood that initially only a tentative agenda would be fixed and the permanent agenda is to be evolved by the participants themselves. The government position on third-party intervention had been that it required only a facilitator and not a me diator. Given Colombo's sensitivity over the question of an intermediary assuming a facilitatory and not a mere mediatory role, Norway would strictly confine its role to that of providing its good offices alone at the present juncture.

The modalities evolved envisage the start of the first round of talks within three months. The entire exercise is not expected to go beyond a time-frame of one year. The first round of talks would be held in either Oslo or in London. If the LTTE wants to fly out delegates from the northern mainland of the Wanni in Sri Lanka for these discussions, then Colombo is required to provide assistance and security for the purpose. No ceasefire would be declared prior to the first round which is described as "tal ks about talks". If tangible results are achieved at the preliminary talks about a permanent agenda, the ground conditions, the time-frame and so on, then a mutually acceptable cessation of hostilities would come into force. Certain measures that would h elp build mutual confidence and also create a conducive climate for peace talks are envisaged. Although not mandatory, a gradual de-escalation of war before a ceasefire is on the cards.

Tripartite interaction among Sri Lanka, Norway and the LTTE was going on prior to Vollebaek's visit. Norway was approached by Kumaratunga early in 1999 as a potential intermediary. The LTTE had also sounded out Norway. Kumaratunga laid down certain condi tions such as a definite time-frame, laying down of weapons, public renouncement of the demand for a separate state, talks being conducted in secrecy, and the non-declaration of a ceasefire. The LTTE, while being amenable to the Norwegian mediation, had rejected some of the preconditions then outlined by Kumaratunga. Later, ahead of the presidential election on December 21, 1999, overtures were made to the LTTE again but the latter declined to discuss matters before the elections.

The election gave a fresh mandate to Kumaratunga to pursue a negotiated peace. This mandate was strengthened by the fact that her chief adversary, Ranil Wickremasinghe of the United National Party (UNP), had also contested on a platform of peace and had advocated direct talks with the LTTE. Between them, Kumaratunga and Wickremasinghe obtained 95 per cent of the votes cast. The election campaign saw Kumaratunga being somewhat lukewarm about the concept of talks with the LTTE while Wickremasinghe was not enthusiastic about the draft Constitution of the P.A. Government. But after the elections there was a dramatic reversal of positions. Wickremasinghe offered to support the constitutional amendment proposals while Kumaratunga began exploring avenues for reviving talks with the LTTE.

LTTE political adviser and ideologue Anton Balasingham as well as Chandrika Kumaratunga had referred to Norway as being a potential third party. Both sides seem to agree to a Norwegian role though there is a divergence in their respective perceptions on the role. The Government wants it to be a facilitatory role but the LTTE insists on it being a mediatory role.

Vollebaek was expected in Colombo early, but had to postpone his trip because Kadirgamar was indisposed. Speculation about Norwegian involvement grew following the visit of Norwegian State Secretary for Development Cooperation and Human Rights Leiv Lunde in the first week of February. Lunde was on a fact-finding mission and gathered different shades of political opinion in Sri Lanka including that of non-LTTE Tamil parties before returning to Norway on February 3.

The LTTE point man in Oslo who interacted with Norwegian officials was Tharmalingam Sarvendra, chief of the Norway-based Tamil Coordinating Committee that functions as a branch-cum-front of the LTTE. Sarvendra is a graduate of Jaffna University and a for mer journalist with Eelamurasu, a Jaffna-based Tamil daily. He was kept in the Jaffna Fort detention camp by the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) during the 1987-89 period. Thereafter, he left for Norway, obtained Norwegian citizenship and is now a top figure in the LTTE's overseas hierarchy. After Balasingham took over, Sarvendra has been playing second fiddle in the interaction with Norwegian officials.

VOLLEBAEK made a quick trip to Britain where he met Balasingham one to one on February 12. Balasingham was sent from the Wanni by Prabakaran to reorganise the LTTE's overseas structure and pave the way for peace negotiations. He was also given full autho rity by his leader to complete the spadework in this respect. Before Vollebaek met with Balasingham, the latter was in touch with Norwegian officials.

The LTTE not imposing any conditions, such as the withdrawal of the Sri Lankan armed forces from Jaffna, as a prerequisite for the Vollebaek-Balasingham talks, was a positive factor. Balasingham provided Vollebaek a historical insight into the crisis fro m an LTTE perspective and emphasised the reasons for the failure of talks earlier. A Sinhala consensus between the P.A. and the UNP was essential. He explained that at the appropriate juncture a conducive climate for meaningful negotiations should be cre ated. A ceasefire too was necessary at one stage. Furthermore, Balasingham said that if the talks were to progress beyond a certain level, then the third-party role in the talks too should transform itself from that of facilitator to mediator. He also su ggested that mutual confidence-biulding measures such as the release of prisoners, removal of restrictions and a de-escalation of the war be considered.

Balasingham stressed the importance of the unanimous proposals made by the LTTE and five other Tamil parties including the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) in the Bhutanese capital of Thimphu in 1985. This was during the Indian inspired talks between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil side. These proposals, generally referred to as the Thimphu Principles, speak of self-determination, the recognition of a Tamil nationhood, the acceptance of a Tamil homeland and so on. At this point, the LTTE gam e plan seemed to be one of cooperating to a great extent and helping talks materialise. Whether the LTTE would be flexible as talks progress is a matter of conjecture.

At the same time there are doubts on the Tamil side about the government's objectives too. Even though the UNP has promised support, the P.A. has embarked upon reviving the consensus-seeking process instead of trying to pass the original constitutional d raft in Parliament. A new draft seems to be in the making. Also, there is no relaxing of defence measures, and fresh recruitment as well as purchase of weaponry is going on. Given the record of government-LTTE talks, it looks as if both sides are extreme ly paranoid of each other's intentions. The government seems to be going through the motions of talking peace only to demonstrate to the International community that it desires peace while the LTTE does not desire it. There is suspicion in Tamil circles that the Norway-fostered talks represent an elaborate trap aimed at nailing down the LTTE to a settlement short of separation. It is suspected that if the LTTE breaks off talks without reason, an all-out international campaign against it may be launched.

LIKEWISE the LTTE, which is committed to the goal of Tamil Eelam, has its own reasons for entering talks. The recent victories in the Wanni have also given it a new sense of optimism. Interestingly enough, Balasingham, who made an impression on the Norwe gian Foerign Minister, had explicitly stated last November in London the LTTE strategy for entering talks. Addressing a Heroes Day meeting in London (Frontline, December 24, 1999) Balasingham said that there were two reasons for engaging in talks although from an LTTE viewpoint the only durable solution would be a separate state. First, to prove to the world through talks that a Sinhala government would not grant Tamil rights and to expose its ulterior motives. Second, to avoid destruction and bl oodshed. According to Balasingham, the LTTE possesses the ability to drive out the Sri Lankan Army from Tamil areas but would prefer peaceful means as an alternative.

Whatever the hidden intentions of the government and the LTTE, it is obvious that Norway has taken the plunge because of the confidence engendered by the parties concerned. The role of the UNP in promoting talks with the government cannot be underestima ted in this regard. Although Kumaratunga is quite sceptical about the UNP, and there are doubts about Wickremasinghe's hidden agenda, it cannot be denied that it is a rare occurrence in the politics of the country when the Opposition urges talks with the Tamil side instead of following the traditional course of opposing such a move.

Given Norway's commendable experience in peace-making enterprises in conflicts ranging from those in West Asia to Latin America and Vollebaek's personal reputation, hopes have risen in Sri Lanka. It is also realised that Norway is not acting unilaterally but has the tacit support of most Western nations connected with Sri Lanka as those that provide aid to and accept refugees from the country. Indeed, the locus standi for Norway here is as a nation that faces an increasing flow of Sri Lankan Tamil refug ees. Most of these countries are worried about the socio-economic problems created by the refugee influx and are also not very enthusiastic about keeping the flow of aid going when it is only helping to bankroll the war that is generating the refugee out flow. So there is an emerging consensus backed also by the United States to push intensively for peace in Sri Lanka. Also, Norway has been involved in several development and and social service projects in Sri Lanka through agencies such as Cey-Nor, Worl dview, Redd Barna and Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD) and is very knowledgeable about the situation.

SRI LANKA is also extra-sensitive to the Indian reaction about the exercise. The choice of Norway as intermediary was greatly influenced by the pronounced distaste in South Block towards "big alien" powers involving themselves in the South Asian region. Recently former U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Teresita Schaffer, said in a radio discussion that the U.S. was not trying to promote peace in Sri Lanka directly because India may resent it.

In that sense the Norwegian role is perceived as having the positive sanction of the U.S. From the Sri Lankan perspective, Norway is seen as being acceptable to India at this point as a facilitator. The question of a mediatory role does not arise at this time. But Colombo is certainly not unmindful of New Delhi's distaste for third-party intervention in the South Asian hemisphere.

Sri Lanka is also concerned about the Indian reaction to conducting direct talks with the LTTE. This is in the context of India having banned the LTTE and also having proclaimed its leader Prabakaran as a wanted man in connection with Rajiv Gandhi's assa ssination. Kadirgamar, who visited New Delhi during India's 50th Republic Day celebrations, used that opportunity to sound out India discreetly. Moreover, Sri Lankan envoy to India, Mangala Moonesinghe, was present during Kumaratunga's conclusive discuss ion with Vollebaek. This is seen as proof of Sri Lanka's intention to keep India informed of all developments in this sphere. Earlier, when Colombo was toying with the idea of entering into talks with the LTTE following a British initiative undertaken by former Conservative Deputy Foreign Secretary Liam Fox, New Delhi is said to have raised objections. That was more because Sri Lanka kept India in the dark about developments. This time Sri Lanka is wary of "offending" India and is keeping India in the p icture.

There is also speculation within Sri Lanka about how India views the Norwegian initiative. According to analysts, India, while being "desirous of a peaceful settlement in Sri Lanka", is also "watching related developments closely". On the one hand, it is felt that India would be averse to the Norwegian role as being a proxy of the U.S. and Western interests. Permitting third-party intervention within the South Asian region may set the wrong precedent, particularly in a sensitive area like Kashmir. On th e other hand, it is also felt that India already has its hands full with more pressing external and internal issues. So it may want the Sri Lankan crisis to be resolved in any which way so that a potential irritant is neutralised.

The only adverse reaction from India so far has been from Janata Party leader Dr. Subramanian Swamy who has issued a statement protesting Norwegian intervention. Swamy has said that it had always been the Centre's policy not to allow third-party "meddlin g in South Asian affairs". Allowing it was also a violation of the spirit of various of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) resolutions, he said. Swamy has opposed in particular the proposed negotiations with the LTTE and said th at Chandrika Kumaratunga should realise that the Indian people's sentiments would be deeply hurt and offended if her government negotiated with the "terrorist and murderous" criminal Prabakaran.

THE Norwegian initiative is not the first of its kind. There have been two internal attempts at peace talks and another two with external dimensions. India played an important and useful third-party role as a benign intermediary from 1983 to 1990. In spi te of the Indo-Sri Lanka accord and the deployment of the IPKF, the enterprise failed. Britain tried a limited function in the form of the Liam Fox initiative in 1996-97. The talks did not get off the ground. There were also the UNP-LTTE talks under Pres ident Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1989-90 and the P.A.-LTTE talks under Chandrika Kumaratunga in 1994-95. The war, however, rages on and now it is the turn of the Vikings to sail into the turbulent Sri Lankan seas. It is premature to predict the outcome of N orway's efforts, but recent history has clearly demonstrated that external intervention can succeed only if there are overwhelming internal compulsions among the protagonists themselves for a peaceful settlement in a united Sri Lanka. Apart from evolving mutually acceptable modalities and a common agenda, it is essential that the role of Norway be transformed into that of mediator from that of facilitator if the talks are to progress beyond a certain stage.

A positive factor in the current exercise is the highly visible personal initiative of the high-profile Vollebaek who instead of delegating functions to lesser officials is actively participating even in the preliminary level of talks. Another noteworthy aspect is that unlike other peace efforts, Norway is affording full publicity to its role right from the beginning. The norm has been to complete the spadework on a low key prior to talks but not here. One reason for this may be that Norway realises the peculiarity of the Sri Lankan situation and is keeping everything open so as to avoid unnecessary suspicion and negative reactions. It may also be that it is fully aware of the difficulties involved and is prepared to abandon the project if necessary. I f and when that happens, the ongoing publicity would be useful to absolve Norway from any blame. As Vollebaek himself has stated, the onus is on the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE to avail themselves of Norway's good offices and strive for a just pea ce and durable settlement through fruitful negotiations.

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