End of Peace Process ‘Four’!

 By D. B. S. Jeyaraj


THE military conflict in the Island of Sri Lanka has been described as South Asia’s longest war in contemporary times. The war itself has been punctuated by periods of uneasy tranquility brought about through various phases of short-lived peace processes. Commentators have segmented the long drawn out conflict in stages on the basis of these peace intervals.

By this yardstick the conflict period prior to the Indo-Lanka accord of July 29, 1987 was Eelam war One; the fighting between the Indian army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was the Indo-Eelam War. The war that broke out on June 11, 1990 during the time of Ranasinghe Premadasa and continued till Chandrika Kumaratunga became President was Eelam War Two.

The round of fighting that commenced on April 19, 1995 after the 100-day cease-fire between the Kumaratunga regime and the LTTE collapsed is Eelam War Three. Some however would say that Eelam war four has started after April 24, 2001 because the LTTE called off its 121-day cease-fire from that day. Others would differ pointing out that the unilateral cease-fire of the Tigers was neither accepted nor reciprocated by the government and therefore had no basis either in fact or in law.

If the criterion of differentiating various phases of conflict according to interspersed interludes of peace is acceptable then those lulls in fighting too could be enumerated and defined as different stages of an intermittent peace process. Thus the period between July 29 to October 10, 1987 can be peace process - one; The September 20, 1989 to June 11, 1990 phase can be peace process - Two. The 100 days from January 8, to April 18, 1995 could become peace process - Three.

The Norway facilitated peace process would be a difficult proposition to classify definitely in qualitative or quantitative terms. Norwegian involvement began long before the role of Oslo was formally announced on February 16 last year when former Norwegian Foreign Minister Knut Vollebaek visited Colombo. Thereafter, the peace process continued and accelerated after Erik Solheim became special peace envoy.

The war never formally ceased but its intensity lowered very greatly after Erik Solheim met LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabakharan on November 1, 200 at Mallavi. Thereafter on December 24, 2000 the LTTE declared a unilateral cease-fire that was rejected by the government. The LTTE maintained it under great provocation for four months thereby keeping the level of conflict very low. Fighting on a major scale erupted after the government launched ‘Operation Agni Kheela’ on April 24.

It is therefore difficult to specify clearly the exact time frame of the Norway facilitated peace process - Four. It could be stated broadly that it commenced officially on February 16 last year and achieved progressive stages on November 1 and December 24 of the same year. April 24 of this year could be termed as the date heralding a regressive stage. The ‘unofficial’ date of its end was the June 7, 2001. Although the peace process has not been officially terminated it could be argued that it ‘concluded inconclusively’ on that date.

Describing that date as the end of peace process - four is somewhat paradoxical in an unorthodox sense. June 7 was the day or rather night on which Norwegian Foreign Minister Jagland met President Kumaratunga and Lankan Foreign Minister Kadirgamar for a lengthy dinner meeting. An important consequence of that meeting was the downgrading and sidelining of Erik Solheim. But Colombo and Oslo did not perceive that development as a setback. It was portrayed as a progressive advance.

The Royal Norwegian Embassy in Colombo over which Oslo’s Ambassador Jon Westborg presides issued a crisp statement on Friday 8, outlining the outcome of Thorbjorns short trip and meeting. It was followed a few hours later by a statement identical in text from the Sri Lankan Ministry of Foreign Affairs over whose fortunes Lakshman Kadirgamar presides.

It read “Mr. Thorbjorn Jagland, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Norway who is also Chairman of the ruling labour party in Norway visited Colombo for a few hours on Thursday for a discussion with President Kumaratunga at her invitation. Those present at the discussion were the president, Foreign Minister Jagland and Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. It was decided that the government of Norway will henceforth participate at a high level to advance the peace process involving the LTTE”

So the press release identical in text indicated that in the joint perception of Colombo and Oslo the peace process was both elevated and advanced as a result of the new changes agreed upon by both sides. Jagland contributed to this positive mindset further when he told the press in Norway that he would be taking up the facilitator role personally. This feel good factor was blown away when the LTTE pointed out publicly that contrary to the illusion that the ‘emperor was wearing fine clothes’ the reality was that ‘he had no clothes on.’

In a statement about the situation issued on June 10, the LTTE said “The hasty manner in which the Norwegian Foreign Minister Jagland was summoned to Colombo for a closed door secret meeting with President Kumaratunga and the Foreign Minister Kadirgamar, where a critical decision was made to up-grade the status of facilitation without the consultation of the LTTE, the other party in the conflict, is, in our view, improper. The facilitatory process in peace making is not an exercise in inter-governmental relations: it involves tripartite relations between the facilitator and the parties in conflict. As a facilitator, the government of Norway is under obligation to consult both protagonists before making crucial decisions with regards to its level of involvement or engagement. Making a bilateral decision with the government of Sri lanka, circumventing the other party in conflict entails a breach of protocol and neutral.”

Although Jagland returned to Oslo nearly 17 days ago there has been no forward movement thereafter on the peace process front despite the announcement about “participation at a high level to advance the peace process.” In fact the peace process has in actual terms experienced a permanent setback. Even the routine move of Solheim visiting London to brief LTTE chief negotiator Anton Balasingham of developments in Colombo has not been followed as Solheim himself has been effectively sidelined. So all the euphoria about advancing an upgraded peace process has simply evaporated.

The reasons are not hard to seek. There is belated recognition in Oslo that an ill informed Jagland has committed a grave blunder in accepting Colombo’s ploy of downgrading Solheim under the guise of upgrading the peace process. Erik Solheim was Oslo’s selected appointee and casting aspersions on his integrity is tantamount to a slap on the Norwegian face. What Jagland should have done was to ask for more time to examine the case against Solheim as presented by Colombo. Instead of that he had meekly adhered to Colombo’s point of view. In the process he has damaged Solheim’s reputation unfairly and also sullied Norway’s role.

The other and perhaps more serious blunder committed by Jagland was to agree to changes in the Norwegian facilitatory role without consulting the LTTE. Taking a bilateral decision in a tripartite exercise is as the LTTE says ‘a breach of protocol and neutrality.’ What Oslo should have done was to consult the LTTE before agreeing to changes. It would have been prudent to have remained non committal until the meeting with the Tigers. The press release could have stated that while a suggestion had been made in Colombo a decision would be finalised after meeting with the LTTE. At the very least it could have refrained from announcing the so called ‘upgrading.’

Instead, what Norway has done is to be suckered by the Kumaratunga-Kadirgamar duo into endangering the peace process under the mistaken impression that it was actually helping it further.

It is a moot point as to why proper advice on this account was not proffered by his Ambassador Jon Westborg. Solheim cannot be faulted as he had been ‘downgraded.’ But what about Westborg who has a mind of his own and exercises it like the occasion where he undertook a trip to the Wanni and met LTTE Political Wing Chief S. P. Thamilchelvan. It was then that Westborg asked for dates to commence talks though fully aware that the preliminary spadework was not over yet.

So it does seem obvious that Jagland through his blunder has practically ended Norway’s role. One reason for Jagland falling prey to Colombo’s deceptive exercise may be due to his own ‘vanity.’ The Kumaratunga-Kadirgamar duo may have exploited it subtly by stating that only a man of Jagland’s calibre could take forward the peace process. If so the Tamils can only refresh their memory of the time the D. S. Senanayake-Oliver Goonetilleke appealed to Lord Soulbury’s ego by offering him the post of first governor-general under dominion status. A recent parallel would be the manner in which the giant sized ego of a pint sized J. N. Dixit was ‘massaged’ by J. R. Jayewardene.

Whatever the causes for Norway’s tragic blunder the reality today is that the peace process route has reached a point of ‘No Entry.’ Oslo is deliberately not approaching the LTTE as it has no clue about how to get about it. It really has no leg to stand upon when trying to explain the circumstances of its costly blunder to a patently embittered LTTE. Without something tangible in hand a person of ministerial rank like Jagland or his deputy cannot meet with the Tigers. Utilising a downgraded but unjaded Solheim to ‘cool’ the Tigers is another option. But Colombo would be incensed over Oslo relying on Solheim again when it has objected to his role.

A breakthrough in this respect would be possible if Kumaratunga agrees to the contentious issues like de-proscription, total relaxation of economic embargo, signing of a memorandum of understanding and declaration of a cease-fire etc. If Colombo displays flexibility then Jagland could take the initiative again and interact positively with the LTTE. But then the Kumaratunga-Kadirgamar duo took Jagland for a ride exactly because it wanted to stymie the peace process without seeming to have done so. If Solheim was the bath water then the peace process baby too has been thrown out. So Colombo is unlikely to play ball unless it resorts to a desperate manoeuvre to get over the internal political crisis.

If these are reasons for Oslo’s inability to initiate forward movement two further complications have arisen also. One is that general elections are due in Norway in September. Jagland is the leader of the ruling labour party. In fact the man could have been the Norwegian premier but voluntarily stepped down to let a more charismatic figure become Prime Minister in the long-term interests of the party. Opinion polls indicate that the party is sliding in popularity. So Jagland would have to focus his energy and attention on the election campaign. After the summer holiday he is very likely to begin campaigning. Therefore it would be pointless to devote time to the peace exercise in Sri Lanka that is not likely to supply any political advantage by way of a quick breakthrough. So the issue is now on the backburner until a new dispensation takes over in Oslo.

The other reason is of course the political crisis in Sri Lanka. With the Kumaratunga government including Kadirgamar seemingly heading for a collapse the practical approach would be to wait until the crisis in Colombo is over. Resuming the peace process can be possible only after the power struggle in Colombo is resolved firmly. So Norway would prefer to wait for a while. Likewise the Tigers may also like to wait until the tussle for power in Colombo is over and negotiate with the victors. So the peace process would be on hold until the power configuration in Colombo gets determined clearly.

This too may take a long time because of the obvious contradictions likely to occur between a Parliament with a hostile majority and a President elected through a fraudulent electoral process. Whatever the outcome of the no confidence motion it does seem apparent that a fresh election to Parliament would be very much on the cards after October this year. The peace process could be revived after that. The chances of such resurrection if and when the PA wins is a remote possibility.

If Kumaratunga does call for elections she would not be campaigning on a peace process mandate. Instead it would be an amplified echo of her Prime Minister who enjoyed world wide publicity last week when he advocated more ‘Sinhala’ babies to fight the war against the LTTE. “Lankan PM wants to make love for war” screamed the international headlines. It is therefore very likely that Kumaratunga would orchestrate her campaign on a war platform seeking a ‘Sinhala’ majority that would aid her to govern without depending on minority support. Talks with the Tigers would be ruled out in that event.

Under these circumstances the only reasonable prospect for peace is the election or formation of a new political configuration speaking the language of democracy and national reconciliation to gain effective power in Colombo. That process too would take time. As such for all practical purposes the Norwegian facilitatory role is over. Peace process - Four has ended inconclusively. One can only hope that future fighting does not escalate to unacceptable levels that would irretrievably damage prospects for peace.

Courtesy: Sunday Leader 01 July 2001