Don’t blame it on Norwegians
By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan
?: You and Erik Solheim have been travelling around the world promoting your book To End a Civil War: Norway’s Peace Engagement in Sri Lanka, but Solheim is not going to be in Colombo for the book launch. Why has he decided not to visit Sri Lanka?
A. Originally, it was hoped Erik would take part in the Colombo launch. Not least because after so many years of absence from a country he loves, he was keen to return. In the end, however, it was felt that his presence might pull the focus away from the book and onto him personally.
?: Why did you take up the task now to write the book, as narrated by Solheim and the Norway Foreign Ministry, when the war was over six years ago?
A. First I should explain that while Erik and other Norwegian officials were important sources, they were by no means the only ones. I interviewed countless in Sri Lanka, India, the US, EU, UN – anybody who had played a significant role in Norwegian-facilitated peace efforts.
I was approached about doing the book in 2012. My impression is the Norwegians felt their side of the story had not been told either properly or objectively. And a particular issue was that in the latter stages of the war, as well as after it, Norway became a sort of whipping boy for just about anything in Sri Lanka. If something went wrong – simple, blame it on those ‘salmon eating busy-bodies’ in Oslo!
The Norwegians responded to all this with remarkable forbearance. But I think it rankled all the same. So from their perspective you can see the book as an effort to scratch that particular itch. Not that it presents them as saints – quite the opposite in fact. The picture of the Norwegian facilitation effort I paint is very much warts and all.
?: Solheim was criticized by the former regime in Sri Lanka for his peace efforts. He was called a ‘toothless white Tiger’, while Tamils in the North blamed him for ‘weakening’ the LTTE. Does the book explain these two views?
A: It certainly addresses them. At some point in most peace processes mediators or facilitators tend to be criticized for partiality, weakness and so on. It goes with the territory. What is particularly ironic about the GoSL criticism you mention is that the relatively weak mandate given to the Norwegians in Sri Lanka was precisely what the GoSL wanted them to have. Remember, facilitators don’t make up their own mandates – they are given to them by the parties to a conflict!
?: What is your judgment of Norway’s peace negotiation?
A. They displayed immense dedication and patience – just about anyone else would have given up long before Oslo’s official role ended in early 2008. And by and large they remained stubbornly focused on the main business at hand – trying to secure a lasting end to the conflict. They were also greatly assisted by the bipartisan political consensus that existed in Oslo by the early 2000s. This meant continuity of both engagement and key personnel involved, even when there was a change of government. So for example, in 2001 Erik was retained by the incoming Conservative-led government as a lead figure in the facilitation effort. And this, even though he was a former Socialist Left party leader.
?: What actions of the Norwegians suggest that they also failed terribly in the peace initiative?
A. The biggest test of peace-making is whether you are able to facilitate peace. And clearly by that standard the Norwegians can be said to have ‘failed’ in Sri Lanka. But that benchmark really misses the point because ultimately the success or failure of any peace process rests with the parties themselves.
And in Sri Lanka’s case, I am convinced that responsibility for the eventual unravelling of the process rests fairly and squarely with the GoSL and the LTTE. Remember, the mandate given to Norway by both sides was to facilitate discussions between the parties. Not mediate between them, and certainly not to bring overt pressure to bear in pursuit of peace. As Lakshman Kadirgamar reportedly told the Norwegians, the GoSL’s preference was for what he called a ‘lightweight negotiator’. So it’s important to realize that right from the start, Oslo’s room for manoeuvre as facilitator was very clearly circumscribed.
?: Solheim has claimed that it was the GoSL and LTTE that did not want to resolve the issue but in your opinion, could Norway have ever stopped the war in Sri Lanka?
A: I think there were some key moments when things could really have gone differently. The first was the GoSL’s decision to hold a donor conference in Washington DC in spring 2003. That really upset the LTTE, as their proscribed status in the USA meant they were not allowed to attend the conference. It’s true that the GoSL gave Balasingham the heads-up on their plans but even so, it was a decision that betrayed a lack of sensitivity to the LTTE’s desire for equal treatment. You can argue all you like that the government of a sovereign State and a rebel organization shouldn’t be treated the same. But that misses the point that for the purposes of a peace process, success depends critically on the extent to which all parties feel they are being treated with equal consideration and respect.
The next was the GoSL response to the LTTE’s Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA) proposal in late 2003. Lots of official ink has been spilled explaining that it was an outrageous document calling for a de facto Independent Tamil entity in the North, and thus fully deserved to be dismissed out of hand. Problems with this analysis of the ISGA contents aside, first, it needs be emphasized that it was the product of a real effort by the LTTE to respond to the GoSL’s long-standing calls for them to come up with a political proposal.
And it should have been treated as such, not just as a scheming, manipulative move unworthy of serious consideration.Second, it seems clear that the LTTE intended the ISGA proposal to serve as a negotiation document. In other words the details – both minor and substantive – were up for discussion. For both these reasons, then, what was needed was a GoSL response that welcomed the ISGA as an opportunity to kick-start dialogue – and in the process, perhaps, revive peace talks that had been stalled since the LTTE suspended its participation in the wake of the Washington donor meeting.The third crucial (lost) moment of opportunity came following the tsunami.
Here, within several weeks of an enormous tragedy that engulfed the (mainly Tamil) population of the North-East as much as the Sinhala-dominated South, you had the LTTE leadership agreeing to participate in a national relief structure – the P-TOMS – in a way that implied recognition of official i.e. government-controlled structures: something they had never done before. For a brief period, there was hope that the P-TOMS might point the way forward: that as in Aceh, the tsunami tragedy might prove instrumental in heralding resolution of Sri-Lanka’s equally long-running conflict.
But as we know, this was not to be. And it was a huge, missed opportunity. Some argue that the P-TOMS’ failure was the point at which the LTTE effectively gave up on the peace process. If Colombo couldn’t even agree on a mechanism that would enable relief to get through to people living in LTTE-controlled areas, then what was the point of further talks?
? A contradicting statement was made by one of your critics that the Ceasefire Agreement of February 2002 came into being when the Tigers had the upper hand in the battlefield against the SL armed forces. The LTTE was defeating the Army battle after battle. The Western powers and Sonia’s India were keen to contain this trend. Hence, for them a CFA was necessary to ensnare the LTTE. Many Tamils suspect Solheim played a supportive role in this Western scheme. What is your view?
A: I think it’s basically nonsense. The CFA came into being because for their own differing reasons, both parties wanted it. Norway’s role was to facilitate negotiations and – in the case of the CFA itself – draft a document based on the parties’ wishes. Anything attempting to move things up into the realms of great power machinations is conspiracy theory, nothing else.
? According to your book “Rajapaksa wanted to do a backroom deal to make Prabhakaran the leader offering self-rule.” Can you elaborate?
A: The suggestion that Mahinda Rajapaksa wanted a ‘backroom’ deal with Prabhakaran is based on both Erik and Vidar Helgesen’s recollections of personal conversations with him prior to the 2005 presidential elections. I record these in detail in the book.
? Erik also says Norwegians proposed to send a ship with UN officials and international community representatives to the North and East. These officials would carry out a census in the war zone, including LTTE members and civilians, and register them with their photographs. All these people would be taken back to Colombo, and they were then to hand over their arms to the Sri Lankan Army. Except for Prabhakaran and Pottu Amman, all the others were to be released under a general pardon. But recently Gotabaya Rajapaksa told Ceylon Today that former US Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Robert O. Blake ‘only suggested’ that they could send a ship to remove the civilians, to which he responded “it’s not practical because the LTTE is using civilians as human shields and top LTTE people could get on to the ship in that process.”
A: When I asked Erik about it, his response was first, that Gotabaya is simply wrong here; and second that it’s in any case a theoretical question, since according to Erik, at the time Gotabaya was ‘not the slightest bit interested’ in exploring the details of the proposal.
? You state in the book that during your last visit to Sri Lanka you saw a booming ‘war tourism’ and hinted that Prabhakaran’s Vishwamadu bunker invited a contrast to Hitler’s Wolfsschanze—’Wolf’s Lair’. What made you say that?
A: Mainly because I’ve visited both when researching books! Like Hitler’s bunker, Prabhakaran’s has now been blown up, although I doubt the physical results are as spectacular. War tourism to the North is likely to be with us for some time to come, I suspect: the challenge is to transform it into a source of national healing and remembrance, not southern triumphalism.
? You also say in the book “the only place in which my Norwegian calling card failed to elicit a favourable response was in certain isolated corners of the Indian foreign affairs establishment and large sections of the Rajapaksa Government.” Can you elaborate?
A: I should first say that I encountered several key Indian ex-foreign service officials who both were immensely helpful and generous with their recollections. At the same time a number of officials – notably on the security side of things –simply never responded to requests for interviews. Doubtless, they had their reasons for not wishing to talk to me.
In Sri Lanka, remember I was doing interviews during the Rajapaksa era. And the simple fact was that, as one official told me “We prefer to look forward, not to the past”. So there was a pervasive official reluctance to talk about, for example, the peace process. In the post-2015 dispensation, however, things have changed significantly in that respect.