While hectic activity is underway to restart the peace process with a host of international players due in the days to come, the government is finding itself circumscribed by its own past rhetoric on the issue of the interim administration and the status of the LTTE, with the Tigers driving home the advantage in a series of master strokes.
President Chandrika Kumaratunga threw caution to the winds and invited Norway to revive the peace process as a knee jerk reaction following the parliamentary defeat on the Speaker’s vote without formulating a proper strategy, a decision that could well haunt her in the weeks to come.
There was no question about inviting Norway to kick-start the process but it is the failure to do so after evolving a proper strategy that could well boomerang on the President in particular and the government in general going by initial reactions of the parties involved in the process.
JVP’s parliamentary group leader Wimal Weerawansa and Deputy Minister of Tourism, Arjuna Ranatunga have already called for the rejection of the LTTE’s interim administration proposals as a basis for talks while Environment Minister A.H.M. Fowzie has pooh-poohed calls for a separate Muslim delegation as pledged by the UPFA.
It is significant in this context the vituperative criticism levelled against the Norwegians, the LTTE, ceasefire agreement and the interim administration proposals not just by the JVP but also leading lights of the SLFP including President Kumaratunga during the UNF regime which will all have a bearing on the resumption of the process in a meaningful way.
In fact, the very takeover of three ministries, public agitation and the dissolution of parliament were based on the UPFA claim the UNF government and the “Salmon eating busybodies” were compromising the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Sri Lankan state at the altar of the LTTE and now the very same UPFA is called to tread the same route due to the parliamentary equation.
Mind you these developments are taking place in the backdrop of a new twist to the drama with taped conversations between the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), the LTTE and numerous other public personalities including the Norwegians and former Prime Minister’s Secretary, Bradman Weerakoon reaching the public domain, through channels close to the Indians.
Though these sensational taped revelations came in a website prior to the election to do maximum damage to the UNF campaign, it is reaching the public domain in an orchestrated manner only now, adding a new dimension to the crisis.
Given the content of the material, it is going to be doubly difficult for the new government which had earlier cast serious aspersions on the alleged partiality of the Norwegians and the SLMM to justify continuing with them as facilitators given the strong opposition by the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and other civic groups, not to mention the Indians, which no doubt will build up in the days to come.
And despite their public posturing on the Sri Lanka peace process, India has also being angling to play a more direct role with their notorious intelligence agency RAW doing its own bit of destabilisation in Sri Lanka to build the case for the ouster of the Norwegians.
And what better material to push the RAW agenda forward for the ouster of the Norwegians and SLMM than the revelations now hitting the media. Mind you, the revelations also come at a time there is a growing body of opinion from within the government as well as the JHU for a more direct role by India as well as Indian monitoring teams for the ceasefire.
Needless to say, Indian High Commissioner, Nirupam Sen too has spoken of a more direct role for India while Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar formally made the offer to India’s External Affairs Minister, Yashwant Sinha during his recent visit.
Interestingly, Sinha put the ball back into Kadirgamar’s court requesting the Sri Lankan government to come up with suggestions which no doubt RAW will now help Colombo formulate.
It is in this backdrop the Norwegian delegation comprising Deputy Minister Vidar Helgessen and Special Envoy Erik Solheim arrived in Sri Lanka to revive the peace process at the President’s invitation and met with Kumaratunga in Nuwara Eliya on Sunday, May 2, for which meeting, Ambassador Hans Brattskar was also present.
At this meeting the President told the Norwegians she was keen to resume talks with the LTTE unconditionally and continue with the ceasefire agreement without any amendments.
Kumaratunga also said she was sincere in her intentions and it was not a strategic decision to neutralise the 22 TNA MPs in parliament.
Continuing, the President said the role the TNA plays in parliament will have no bearing on her commitment to continue the peace process and requested the Norwegians to communicate it to the LTTE, knowing fully well, the TNA would in fact be neutralised if talks with the LTTE does resume.
JVP adopts wait-and-see policy
The President further indicated though the JVP had reservations about the process, it would adopt a wait-and-see policy for now without upsetting the apple cart.
This caveat giving the option for the JVP to oppose the process including Norwegian facilitation at some future date and Kumaratunga using it as an excuse to jettison the process even to bring in the Indians was obviously not lost on Norway.
For, what Kumaratunga did not say was notwithstanding opposition from her allies, she will see the process through.
Following the meeting with Kumaratunga, the Deputy Foreign Minister left Sri Lanka, leaving Eric Solheim the task of conveying to the LTTE the President’s thinking and this he set out to do the following day in the company of Brattskar and Second Secretary of the Norwegian Embassy, Kjersti Thomsdal.
And meeting with LTTE’s Political Wing Chief, S.P. Tamilselvan, Special Envoy Solheim recounted details of the President’s invitation and the subsequent meeting at which the Norwegians were requested to resume the peace process.
Solheim also told Tamilselvan, President Kumaratunga had expressed a willingness to talk unconditionally whilst also honouring the ceasefire agreement to the letter.
Tamilselvan for his part outlined the bitter experience the LTTE had with Kumaratunga in their earlier dealings but said the organisation was committed to a negotiated settlement and was prepared to resume the process on the same principles and in the same environment the talks were carried out under Ranil Wickremesinghe’s regime.
The LTTE’s Political Wing Leader went on to say the talks should resume on the basis of the interim administration proposals submitted by the organisation since it is a continuation of the earlier process which was only stalled due to the President’s actions of taking over three ministries in November last year.
Tamilselvan also said conditions of normalcy must prevail for the talks to progress and given Kumaratunga’s stated commitment to the MoU, she should now move to withdraw the high security zones. By doing so, the LTTE was also testing Kumaratunga’s bona fides.
With those masterful strokes the LTTE was committing the government to all decisions taken during the earlier rounds of talks and continuing in the same vein to negotiate on the strength of the Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA) proposals whilst also recognising the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamils.
Furthermore, it necessarily follows, the government will be committed to the Oslo Declaration for a federal solution recognising the right for internal self determination of the Tamils. And the adoption of the process by Kumaratunga was the LTTE’s way of also getting the President, Kadirgamar SLFP and the JVP to eat their words of criticism on issues relating to the involvement of Norway as an impartial facilitator, the ceasefire agreement, interim administration proposals recognising the LTTE as sole representatives, a federal solution and the insistence on first discussing core issues.
Norway’s role “vital”
Sensing that Kumaratunga was desperate to get the process started, Tamilselvan also indirectly pooh-poohed calls for direct Indian involvement by Kadirgamar and the JVP, stating the LTTE considered Norway’s role as facilitator “vital” and insisted they continue their role if the process is to start.
Masterfully thus placing sufficient land mines for Kumaratunga to negotiate within her own alliance and the Indian’s to get the process started, Tamilselvan said the organisation suspects the involvement of the government and the Sri Lanka Army with the ‘Karuna group.’ He warned if such information proved right, it would seriously jeopardise the peace process.
By this time, the LTTE was also well aware India had offered to develop the Palaly air strip for the government at their cost provided no other foreign government is allowed to use it.
India had also indicated a willingness to put up an Indian private sector driven coal-fired power plant in Trincomalee, thus giving it a vested interest in the region in addition to the existing investments on the Trincomalee oil tank farms, all factors not lost on the LTTE leading to the organisation’s insistence Norway continues as facilitator. The brains behind the LTTE strategy was of course, Chief Negotiator Anton Balasingham.
Given this situation, Kumaratunga had to decide between the JVP’s opposition to the Norwegians and the LTTE’s insistence on it with odds stacked against the JVP. But no doubt the hand of the JVP and the JHU will be considerably strengthened for the ouster of the Norwegians and SLMM following the RAW inspired leaks on the Nordics dealings with the LTTE.
Be that as it may following the meeting with Tamilselvan, the Norwegians met with Foreign Minister Kadirgamar and communicated the LTTE’s thinking and the basis on which the Tigers want the talks resumed.
The problem faced by the government on refusing this approach of course is the full international backing for this process as was evident during the UNF regime and it is only if this same process is continued that the government will get the desperately needed money pledged at the Tokyo donor conference.
Thus, for the government to decline the recommencement of talks on the basis of the proposals put forward by the LTTE could also tantamount to a rejection of the international community, which it is just not in a position to do.
And acceptance of the process meant endorsing all actions of the UNF with regard to the peace process thereby making a mockery of all campaigns launched and statements made for the UNF’s ouster during the last two years.
International visitors expected
It would at the same time run counter to the mandate received on the strength of the UPFA’s ‘Rata Perata’ manifesto making it doubly difficult for the President to proceed with the constituent assembly formula as well. For, she cannot interpret the mandate for a change in the constitution on the strength of the manifesto when doing the opposite with regard to the pledges on the peace process.
In fact a host of international visitors will be arriving in Sri Lanka commencing this week to show solidarity for continuing with the process the very personalities involved during the UNF regime as well.
The visitors expected from this week to May 20 are Norway’s Foreign Minister, Jan Petersen, US Assistant Secretary, Christina Rocca, Japan’s Special Envoy, Yasushi Akashi and human rights activists Ian Martin and given this input, the Indian factor will to no doubt be effectively counter balanced, though the Norwegians are keeping both Delhi and India House briefed of all developments.
Solheim for his part left for Norway via Delhi and also briefed High Commissioner Nirupam Sen separately as opposed to the other diplomats who were given a collective briefing on Tuesday at the Gregory’s Road ‘residence’ of Ambassador Brattskar.
Briefing the diplomats, Solheim recounted the people the Norwegians met and said getting the process started was going to be a difficult task, especially establishing mutual trust between the parties. He said personal chemistry between the government and the LTTE was not there and that it would take time to build up.
Solheim went on to say the ISGA was not a pre condition as far as the LTTE was concerned but a matter of taking off from where the process had stopped.
The Norwegian Special Envoy went on to say theirs was only an exploratory mission and expectations should not be raised for immediate progress.
Continuing, Solheim told the diplomats President Kumaratunga indicated she wants to be accommodative of the LTTE and that the JVP for the moment will go along. Among the countries represented at the briefing were USA, UK, EU, Canada, Germany, France, Sweden, Switzerland, Italy and UNICEF.
Following this meeting, Solheim and Brattskar also met with a TNA delegation comprising, R. Sampanthan, Mavin Senathirajah, P. Joseph, Gajan Ponnambalam, S. Kishor, Suresh Premachandran, S. Jeyanantha-moorthy, M.K. Eelavanathan, K. Pathmanathan, S. Adaikalanathan, T. Kanagasabai and Padmini Sitha-mparanthan where the views of the Tamil parliamentarians were obtained and once again the Norwegians were given a full dose of the mistrust with which the MPs looked at Kumaratunga’s initiative.
Solheim for his part gave a positive spin at this meeting stating the meeting with President Kumaratunga was positive and that she clearly showed her intention of commencing talks as soon as possible.
“The President wanted us to inform the LTTE she was fully committed to the ceasefire agreement and that irrespective of the actions TNA takes in parliament, she would continue with the peace process.”
As for the LTTE, Solheim said the Tigers too were fully committed to the peace process and that they wanted the talks to commence from where it stopped.
“The LTTE wants the talks continued on the same basis as the previous government and the ISGA as the foundation on which the talks should recommence. They also mentioned about the government making use of Karuna and in his name doing things. The LTTE said they have information the army was sending para military groups under the guise of the Karuna group and that it would jeopardise the peace process,” Solheim said.
It was TNA parliamentary group leader, R. Sampanthan who articulated the position of his MPs after Solheim’s initial comments, stating the TNA contested the last parliamentary elections on a particular footing and received a clear mandate to treat the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamils.
Said he – “There is some talk of the government meeting only with the LTTE at the main table but elsewhere other parties will be consulted. That is totally unacceptable to us. That will be a clear violation of the mandate given by the Tamil people to treat the LTTE as the sole representative. “Talks must only be with the LTTE.”
He further said the Tamils are committed to a negotiated settlement and in that context President Kumaratunga’s initiative is welcome.
Split in the government
Added Sampanthan – “Despite Norway being invited, there is a split in the government with regards to taking the process forward. The JVP and some senior members of the SLFP are taking an anti peace process stand. That is they want Norway out, they are opposed to the ceasefire agreement, and the ISGA. The President ought to have consensus in her ranks. There is a split in her ranks. Without coming to a common position on resolving the internal dispute, she has invited Norway. We then take it she has full control of her party and government. It is on that basis the LTTE has agreed to start talks.”
Having said that, Sampanthan pointed out, the President is now estopped from citing splits in her own ranks at a later stage to stall any agreements reached at the talks.
“We will not allow her to use splits in her government as an excuse not to implement decisions reached at the table. We will assume, they come to the table with a common position and agreements reached will be between the LTTE and the government and not part of the government,” he said.
Continuing, Sampanthan said the UPFA government has no clear majority and therefore there is reason to suspect she invited Norway to neutralise the TNA.
“That could be one motive. The government also needs the donor money but the donors have said it is subject to the peace process If these are the reasons behind the invitation to Norway we can’t see the talks going far. The talks have to be on the basis of the ISGA, and decisions taken implemented immediately. We will carefully scrutinise every step and reconsider our position accordingly,” he added.
The Norwegians were further told whilst the ISGA should be the basis of resuming talks, all development work in the north east should be carried out through the LTTE.
At this point, Joseph Pararajasingham adverted to the killings in the east and said there is strong reason to believe the killings of seven LTTE members in Batticaloa were carried out with the full cooperation of the military.
“It could not have happened without the cooperation of the military. We view this in the backdrop of our experiences over the activities of the deep penetration units,” he said.
Chipped in Sampathan – “When you, Mr. Solheim was to meet Tamilselvan, his convoy was attacked and a vehicle blown up. Just because of the call to start a peace process, LTTE’s experience with Kumaratunga’s government is that nothing can be taken for granted. The government’s actions must be above board. It won’t help otherwise to build confidence.”
Note of caution
Given these reservations of the TNA members, Solheim made his own note of caution. Said he, “Although there is a clear message to start talks, real talks will take time. It will take longer than most people expect. During the UNF regime, the chemistry we saw between the two parties is not there this time. It is a much bigger gap on how one perceives the other. We hope in the course of the process, the working relationship between the parties can be built.”
It is the following day, Wednesday, May 5, Solheim met with Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and Colombo District MP Milinda Moragoda where once again a brief overview was given of the process with the UNP leader stating his party will fully support the continuation of the process his government started provided there is a clear commitment from the President for the Tokyo and Oslo Declarations.
Thus, given the initial indications, it is going to be a Himalayan task for Kumaratunga to even get the talks started without running into political land mines which she herself placed in the bid to oust the UNF regime.
It will be also interesting to see the team of negotiators that form Kumaratunga’s team which without a JVP member will be in want of credibility.
And given the return of the LTTE’s master strategist and Chief Negotiator, Anton Balasingham to the Wanni, the President and her UPFA government walk on a razor’s edge.