by Shamindra Ferdinando
Within weeks after the then President, Chandrika Kumaratunga, and LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, agreed to cease hostilities, on January 5, 1995, Kumaratunga called for secret external engagement to facilitate the process.
Kumaratunga was of the view that the involvement of an external power was nothing but a necessity to ensure the success of talks between her government and the LTTE. The President believed that the LTTE would accept her suggestion, meant to facilitate political negotiations, whereas the LTTE’s requirement at that time was purely military.
The previous article dealt with Prabhakaran’s bid to exploit cessation of hostilities, to advance his strategy, by forcing Kumaratunga, in her capacity as the Commander-in-Chief of armed forces, to quit Pooneryn.
Kumaratunga pushed for whom she called a neutral and uncommitted person who could function as an intermediary, between her government and the LTTE. In a letter, dated February 20th, 1995 Sent to Prabhakaran, through the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Kumaratunga proposed a retired French diplomat, Francois Michael, as the go-between. Kumaratunga had the backing of the French government. In fact, the French government had proposed Michael, one-time ambassador to Haiti and Ethiopia, as the intermediary, following Kumaratunga’s request for help.
For want of a clear understanding of Prabhakaran’s strategy, Kumaratunga seemed to have believed that the terrorists would accept her offer. The President was so naive she invited the Frenchman to Colombo, even before Prabhakaran’s consent could be secured. The President suggested that Prabhakaran could meet the Frenchman, in Jaffna or any other area, under his control. Kumaratunga suggested (as the Frenchman was in Colombo), Prabhakaran could meet him before February 27, 1995. Kumaratunga wrote: “In view of the paramount importance and confidentiality of this mission it would be appropriate that you receive him personally.”
In a letter, dated February 25, 1995, Prabhakaran rejected Kumaratunga’s suggestion. The terrorist called for an open dialogue between his organization and the government. Kumaratunga reacted angrily. She accused the LTTE of opposing mediation by a foreign country. The government attacked the LTTE’s position.
The LTTE counter-attacked. LTTE ideologue, Anton Balasingham briefed the media in Jaffna, while the, LTTE International Secretariat, in London, explained Prabhakaran’s position. The LTTE accused Kumaratunga of seeking undue advantage by having a Frenchman, whom the organization called a close friend of the President, as an intermediary. The LTTE refused to accept Kumaratunga’s nominee as a French government representative. Much to her discomfort, the LTTE tagged the Frenchman as a close associate whose selection was nothing but controversial. The LTTE alleged that Kumaratunga was seeking secret negotiations, whereas the group believed in an open dialogue.
Kumaratunga responded, on March 9, 1995, to the LTTE’s media statement issued from London. Recollecting her letter, dated February 20, 1995, Kumaratunga said: “That intermediary, suggested by the French government, is a private individual and that he was a close friend of mine is wholly unfounded. In fact, he was not known to me at all. He was selected by the French government and I met him for the first time when he arrived in Colombo. In these circumstances the government regrets that the LTTE appears to have misconstrued the facts, on the basis of a non-existent letter.”
The dispute, between Kumaratunga and Prabhakaran, over the former’s suggestion to involve France in the negotiating process, caused irreparable damage to the peace process. Although Kumaratunga still believed that differences with the LTTE could be ironed out, the military realized that the country was heading for a major war. Kumaratunga, and some of her close associates, believed that the government should go ahead with planned reconstruction and rehabilitation projects, regardless of the consequences. In fact, President Kumaratunga, on February 16, 1995 (four days before she suggested a former French diplomat as an intermediary), informed Prabhakaran of her readiness to launch some of the previously discussed projects, meant to improve living conditions in the Jaffna peninsula. Kumaratunga was of the opinion that there was no harm in launching rehabilitation and reconstruction projects, even though an agreement couldn’t be reached on the transformation of cessation of hostilities to a formal ceasefire.
Kumaratunga’s proposal to involve a Frenchman, in negotiations, should be examined in the backdrop of Prabhakaran’s demand that a formal ceasefire was a prerequisite for political negotiations. Kumaratunga could never have met Prabhakaran’s demand without jeopardizing the military strategy meant to suppress the LTTE in Jaffna. Prabhakaran demanded the withdrawal of the army base, at Pooneryn, to facilitate a formal ceasefire.
Faced with the collapsed of her much – touted peace project, launched at the expense of UNP presidential candidate, Gamini Dissanayake, President Kumaratunga, in her capacity as the Commander-in-Chief, authorized a major re-adjustment to the forward defence line of the Pooneryn base. The army declared its readiness to pull back its positions by 500 meters. The announcement was made on February 24, 1995. The unexpected move was made amidst the simmering controversy over Kumaratunga’s bid to involve a Frenchman in the negotiating process. The government also reiterated its willingness to allow civilians to use the Elephant Pass causeway. The government move was meant to intensify pressure on the LTTE. The government felt that the LTTE’s per-conditions could be circumvent by unilaterally giving access to civilians, to and from the Jaffna peninsula. The negotiating process was at grave risk. The government desired to go ahead with the opening of the overland route, as well as the one across the Jaffna lagoon, though it realized that the LTTE would never allow civilians to use either routes. The LTTE couldn’t have shown any weakness, on its part, as it struggled to prevent Kumaratunga from consolidating her position. Resumption of large scale hostilities seemed inevitable, though some still believed that the negotiating process could be saved. Those who still felt that the government should address Prabhakaran’s concern, even at the risk of jeopardizing military strategy, never comprehended the overall thinking of Prabhakaran and his top aides.
Strongly opposing Kumaratunga’s efforts to facilitate civilian movements, between the Jaffna peninsula and the Vanni mainland, Prabhakaran, in a letter dated February 25, 1995, accused the President of giving priority to what he called strategic interests of the occupational army, over and above the urgent needs of the Tamil civilian masses.
Kumaratunga struggled to cope up with Prabhakaran’s new demands/conditions. Prabhakaran warned of catastrophe unless Kumaratunga gave into his demands: (A) Lift the embargo on goods transported to the Northern Province (B) transformation of cessation of hostilities into a permanent ceasefire (C) setting up of a joint authority to implement reconstruction projects (D) total removal of restrictions on fishing and free movement in the north-eastern seas (E) Freedom to those deployed in the Eastern Province to carry weapons.
Rev. Dr. S. J. Emmanuel, leader of the UK headquartered Global Tamil Forum (GTF), reacted to recent articles which dealt with the assassination of UNP presidential candidate, Gamini Dissanayake, on the night of October 23, 1994 and subsequent events, with the focus on negotiations between Kumaratunga and Prabhakaran. Rev. Dr. Emmanuel, who had occasionally provided to the writer valuable perception, as regards significant conflict-related events, made available to The Island his presentation at a conference organized by the International Alert, way back in July, 1997. Rev. Dr. Emmanuel dealt extensively with the Kumaratunga-Prabhakaran talks during 1994-1995 period. (GTF came into being at the conclusion of the war in May 2009. The LTTE would never have allowed the formation of the grouping, with branches in major countries if it survived the military onslaught and managed to work out an arrangement with the government of Sri Lanka on its own). Conference papers
Jaffna – born Rev. Dr. Emmanuel had been a visiting scholar, at the University of London, at the time he got involved in the International Alert project, held in Lucerne, Switzerland. Among those who had participated in the event, on the invitation of NGO guru, Dr. Kumar Rupesinghe, the then Secretary General of the International Alert, were one-time Indian High Commissioner in Colombo J.N.Dixit, top public servant, Bradman Weerakoon, the then Editor of the Lanka Guardian and TLUF veteran, R. Sampanthan, among others.
Rev. Dr. Emmanuel’s piece, titled ‘Why Chandrika-Prabha Talks Failed? was meant to place the blame squarely on Kumaratunga for the collapse of talks, in April, 1995, leading, to what the priest called, the most destructive war in Sri Lanka’s history. Having decried the international players for promoting their interests at the expense of those at the receiving end of the state military aggression, the priest also blamed the southern electorate for turning a blind eye to the suffering of the Tamil speaking people.
Alleging that Kumaratunga’s much touted promise of no more war but peace was nothing but a lie, the priest asserted that the Tamil speaking people would think a thousand times before they allowed another southern leader to deceive them with the promise of peace.
Today, the GTF is at the forefront of a high profile international campaign demanding accountability for atrocities committed during Eelam War IV. The GTF insists that Sri Lanka’s political leadership, too, should be held responsible for excesses committed by the military.
Rev. Dr. Emmanuel condemned Kumaratunga’s government for turning a blind eye to the suffering of the Tamil speaking people, particularly those trapped in the northern province. The priest alleged that Kumaratunga’s motive was political and ignored the Tamils’ thirst for peace.
Unfortunately, Rev. Dr. Emmanuel conveniently ignored Prabhakaran’s mindset. Having got rid of the Indian army, with the help of President Ranasinghe Premadasa, in March, 1990, before blowing him up in Colombo, on May Day, 1993, Prabhakaran felt that he had the wherewithal to achieve Eelam. Although Prabhakaran had experienced battle field difficulties, during the 1994/1995 period, due to a relentless siege on the Jaffna peninsula, he remained confident of ultimate victory. Obviously, Prabhakaran felt that he could reverse the ground situation if the siege on the Jaffna peninsula was to end, courtesy Kumaratunga. Prabhakaran eliminated Gamini Dissanayake as the UNPer was considered a tough negotiator and not a person easy to fool with.
In fact, those who had considered Prabhakaran as a military genius, believed his capability to turnaround the battlefield situation even after the military liberated Kilinochchi on the first of January, 2009.
Rev. Dr. Emmanuel faulted Kumaratunga for not recognizing the LTTE as the de facto leadership of the Tamil speaking people. Let me reproduce verbatim what Rev. Dr. Emmanuel said on the relationship between the Tamil speaking civilians and the LTTE: “The talks were held between the government delegation and the LTTE. Forgetting the fact that the same LTTE was involved in the fighting, as well as in the talking, the government failed to recognize the political face of the LTTE and talked to them only as a militant, if not a ‘terrorist’ group. This is a misapprehension. The government will do well, even concurrent to their understanding of a militant leadership, to clearly recognize, not only the peace aspirations of the Tamil people, but also that of their de facto leadership-the LTTE Here arises the important question for the government: Were they having peace-talks with the LTTE, taking them only as a terrorist group, divorced from the people, and hell-bent on destroying the country? Or were they talking to a de facto militant leadership that carried forward the basic aspirations of a people for peace with justice? Does the government naively usurp the idea that only those outside the war zone, namely the South and the foreigners, are genuinely interested in peace while those dying, in war, want more war?
Rev. Dr. Emmanuel went on to suggest that meaningful talks wouldn’t be possible as long as the government didn’t recognize the LTTE’s capacity for political negotiations.
Evidently, Rev. Dr. Emmanuel had accepted the LTTE as the Tamils de facto leadership, way back in the mid 90s, though the TULF was very much active at that time. The Illankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi – led five-party Tamil National alliance (TNA), recognizing the LTTE as the sole representative of Tamil speaking people, in 2001, should be examined in the backdrop of Rev. Dr. Emmanuel’s assertion years ago. Had those demanding accountability, on the part of the government, for alleged atrocities committed during the last phase of the conflict, urged Prabhakaran to act sensibly, he wouldn’t have ended up a corpse on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon. In fact, none of those shedding crocodile tears, for the Tamil civilians today, didn’t even bother to voice their concern at Prabhakaran using the entire Tamil speaking community to achieve his military objectives.
It would be interesting to reproduce what Rev. Dr. Emmanuel said about the LTTE’s demands, which the writer had mentioned above. “The government did not understand the LTTE as representatives of an aggrieved and oppressed people. Nor did they recognize the LTTE’s demands as the demands of the people.” Could anything be further from the truth. The priest went onto say: “The government overlooked the fact that in talking to the LTTE, they were actually talking to the people they represent.”
To be continued on Nov. 12