By: D.B.S. Jeyaraj

The recent meeting between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the visiting Norwegian peace delegation at Mallavi in the Northern mainland of the Wanni on Thursday May 17 has ended in a virtual stalemate after five hours of protracted discussions from 3 pm to 8 pm. Although issues were discussed intensively no conclusions were arrived at. The discussions however would continue and the peace process is certainly not over despite the indecisive nature of the confabulations at Mallavi.

The greatest disappointment however was to the Peoples Alliance Government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga that had placed its political hopes on the ability of the Norwegian facilitators to extract an agreement from the Tigers regarding specific dates and modalities for direct talks. By doing so, the Government sought to project an image of talks being on, so as to extricate itself from the economic, military and political crisis it was facing.

Breathing Space Needed
The government that was rejecting and rebuffing LTTE overtures for peace with lofty disdain had its Ambersonian “come uppance”, when its “Fire Beam” military operation was snuffed out after four days. As a result it needs at least 4 to 6 months before it can commence one of a similar nature again. The military top brass has submitted a shopping-list of the arsenal required to pursue the dream of destroying the Tigers. At least three months are necessary to make procurements. Meanwhile the security forces would find it difficult to contain intensified LTTE attacks. More importantly top government figures themselves would be vulnerable to attacks in the South. As such the declaration of a bilateral ceasefire as early as possible would be highly desirable to survive the military situation.

Economically the donor nations that withheld financial aid packages at the Paris Parleys are showing signs of reviewing the situation because of the perceived progress of the peace process. Therefore if a breakthrough on designating talks and a ceasefire could be brought about there was every chance that a bountiful supply of aid could be obtained. Thereafter it was only financial wizardry that was required to re-channel the funds and refuel the military machinery.

Politically the chief opposition United National Party was planning a no-confidence motion against the regime. Central to this effort was the support of Tamil parties within and outside government ranks. At present, these parties entertained several grievances against the regime. Therefore their voting pattern over the no confidence motion could be hostile to the PA. If the peace process was expedited, and a definite timetable and agenda for direct talks formulated, then the Tamil parties would think twice before toppling the government it was hoped.

This government that unleashed the most terrible war on the Tamil people for six years, and enlisted the support of Tamil parties on the pretext that a laudable Devolution package was going to be introduced, now hoped to entice them into propping up the tottering regime because of the proposed peace talks.

Eric to Wanni
Under these circumstances, the Government eagerly awaited the outcome of the Norwegian peace delegation to the Wanni. Erik Solheim the special peace envoy, Jon Westborg Oslo’s Ambassador to Colombo and a senior foreign ministry official Ms. Kjersti Tromsdal formed the Norwegian team. It was this trio that went to the Wanni in November last year and met with LTTE leader Velupillai Prabakharan. It was that historic meeting, which propelled the Norway facilitated peace process on the fast track. Later Ambassador Westborg with second secretary Tomas Strangland had undertaken a second trip to Wanni and met Tiger political chief SP Thamilchelvan. Meanwhile Erik Solheim had shuttled between Europe and Asia in a bid to narrow the position between both sides. The latest trip was expected to achieve a breakthrough speculated sections of the press, relying on interested plants and inspired leaks.

In spite of rosy expectations that the Norwegians could get a firm date for talks and thereby indirectly help the Kumaratunga regime, astute observers of the political scenario ruled that out as an impossibility at this juncture. This was because of the subterranean divergence of positions between LTTE aspirations and government expectations. The government-churned tidal wave of contrived-optimism engulfed this contrary view from sight, before the Viking trek to the Wanni. The results of the visit are now visible. The optimistic tide has ebbed and the harsh reality of an inconclusive meeting stands out like a Gibralterian Rock.

The visit began with an unexpected problem. LTTE political chief SP Thamilchelvan was on his way to Mallavi in the Wanni in a Pajero jeep. A claymore mine attached to a tree exploded and hit his back up vehicle with body guards resulting in the death of one and injury to four of whom two were serious. This was on the eve of Solheim’s arrival in the Wanni. It was expected that the provocative act would abort the peace process. The LTTE however did not abandon the peace process. The talks scheduled for Wednesday May 16 were delayed by a day. Also the possibility of LTTE supremo Prabakharan participating at the talks was ruled out. Earlier the Norwegians had hoped for such participation. But after the attack at Kokkaavil that was ruled out.

The Norwegians themselves reached Mallavi some hours late. Therefore the talks scheduled for the morning began only in the afternoon. There are conflicting reports about how the Norwegians reached their destination. One report says that they flew by plane to Anuradhapura, helicoptered to Chettykulam and then motored along the Medawachiya - Murunkan road to the Parayaanalankulam junction and from there entered Tiger territory through Piraamanalankulam. Another report says that they flew to Vavuniya by plane and then motored along the Mannar-Vavuniya road and entered LTTE land via the Piramanaalankulam entry point. A significant feature of this trip was that for the first time two bodyguards accompanied the Norwegians. They also went in two vehicles with different chauffeurs.

LTTE Team Upgraded
The LTTE delegation too was upgraded from the one that met Ambassador Westborg last April. Thamilchelvan, the political wing chief, led the Tiger team. Also present were Thangan in charge of administration. Pulithevan and George of the political wing who participated in the earlier talks were also included. George a retired government servant functioned as the main interpreter with some help from Pulithevan. The new additions were two Central Committee members namely Thamilendhi and Nadesan.

Thamilendhi is the head of the LTTE’s financial division. A former bank employee from Pallai with an accountancy background Thamilendhi is a fervent nationalist. Known earlier as Ranjith Appa the committed elderly bachelor is the driving force behind the LTTE’s “pure Tamilisation” of Sanskrit derived names and others of European language origin. This move by the LTTE was on the lines of the “Tanithamil Iyakkam” advocated by Maraimalai Adigal in Tamil Nadu and emulated to a limited extent by the DMK minister of Tamil affairs Thamilkudimagan. At the hey day of the LTTE every signboard in Jaffna had names of pure Tamil. LTTE cadres also revised their names. Ranjith Appa became Thamilendhi, which means a person who “upholds Tamil”.

Nadesan is the head of the LTTE’s Police Force. Nadesan whose real name is Mahendran was a former Police Official. A son of Valvettithurai soil, Nadesan was serving in Jaffna when the LTTE led by former Jaffna commander Sathasivampillai Krishnakumar alias Kittu overran the Jaffna Police headquarters. He was injured in the stomach during the fighting with the Indian Army and taken prisoner. After 1990 Prabakharan appointed Nadesan as his “Inspector General of Police”. Nadesan is married to a Sinhala woman hailing from a traditional Sama Samaajist family in Matara. Nadesan’s younger brother Lucas a first batch recruit was at one time the second in command to Mahathaya in the Wanni.

Three fundamentals
During the 300 minute long discussions the LTTE reiterated their position on the three fundamental issues again. One was the draft Memorandum of Understanding that incorporates the obligation on the part of the Kumaratunga regime to lift the economic embargo. The second was on the modalities governing an envisaged ceasefire. The third was on the question of de-proscribing the Tigers before commencement of talks.

Prior to the Norwegian visit there had been “stories “ in sections of the media that the LTTE would not press hard on the de -proscription issue as a prerequisite for entering talks. It was presumed that the LTTE would agree to the provisions of the draft MOU and the restricted relaxation of the economic embargo and consequently be amenable for a ceasefire and negotiations.

The “ Sunday Leader” however revealed last week through an exclusive telephone conversation with LTTE chief negotiator Anton Balasingham that the Tiger central committee had met in the Wanni and unanimously resolved to ratify the position regarding the three issues. It was pointed out that the LTTE could not therefore backtrack on its earlier position on these issues. If the Norwegian delegation had any illusions about a thaw in Tiger position on the basis of sunshine reports in sections of the media, all that was dispelled during the nitty-gritty of talks. The LTTE stuck to its guns on the peace talks and reasserted its stance once again. Thus no headway was achieved on expediting peace talks to the urgent requirement of the Government.

The talks in the Wanni also demonstrated certain salient aspects concerning the LTTE. Ambassador Westborg found Thamilchelvan to be rather mild in demeanour and not very stridently assertive in his position during the talks. The LTTE statement was however regarded as firm and somewhat harsh. Anton Balasingham in London was also very assertive in articulating the Tiger position on relevant issues. Velupillai Prabakharan the LTTE leader was also soft-spoken and readily flexible in the first meeting with the Norwegians. This contrasting behaviour between London and the Wanni led to speculation in diplomatic circles that there was a difference of opinion and approach between the LTTE leaders on ground and its political adviser in London. It was opined in government circles that Norway might be able to exploit this “subtle cleavage” and extract greater concessions from the amenable Wanni leaders as opposed to a seemingly rigid Balasingham.

A myth
In the non-participation of Prabakharan, the Norwegians discovered soon that Colombo’s prognosis of Wanni and London being on different wavelengths was a myth. Thamilchelvan in his customary meek approach upheld the LTTE position gently, yet firmly. 

There was no variance in the LTTE position as articulated in London or asserted in Mallavi. The difference was in the style of the different protagonists and not in the substance. The Tiger song was the same and the tune similar only the rendering differed as according to the different singers.

The LTTE had been very flexible and optimistic at the commencement of the peace process because it expected the government to cooperate fully. After the “ atrocious” conduct of the government over the peace process, and its displayed penchant for war, the Tigers were on their guard. While they had no qualms about the bona fides of Erik Solheim’s genuine intentions they felt Colombo has only mala fide motives. So the LTTE was constrained to be unrelenting at this juncture.

Of the three issues, the question of de-proscription was of paramount importance to the LTTE. The Tigers indicated that direct talks with the Sri Lankan government would be possible only after the Kumaratunga regime lifted the proscription imposed on the Tigers by it in January 1998. The Tiger position on the issue was made unequivocally clear to the Norwegians by SP Thamilchelvan.

The Tigers first made it known to Norway that they would seek a lifting of the ban before entering talks as a prerequisite last December in the context of Sri Lanka’s foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar actively lobbying the British Government to proscribe the LTTE in Britain. This position was publicised by LTTE political adviser and chief negotiator Anton Balasingham both in a public address at the London Docklands Arena in December 2000 as well as in an interview to the London Weekly “Tamil Guardian” in February 2001. It was further communicated to Norwegian ambassador to Sri Lanka Jon Westborg by SP Thamilchelvan at Mallavi on April 6 this year. Subsequently Anton Balasingham emphasised this point again and again to Erik Solheim at bilateral meetings held in London.

Ban on Tigers
Nevertheless there had been expectations in Colombo that the LTTE would be flexible on this issue, and that it could be persuaded by the Norwegian facilitators to drop this demand as a prerequisite for talks. The meeting last week has made the LTTE position crystal clear on this issue. The LTTE refused to compromise on this. Thamilchelvan stated to the delegation, “it was essential for the ban on the Tigers to be lifted by the government before talks so that the LTTE could participate as a legitimate organization, as representatives of the Tamil people and as equals in discussions with the government”.

He further explained according to the release that “it was the unanimous aspiration of the Tamil people that the LTTE be de-proscribed” and that “ if the Chandrika government genuinely desired to negotiate and find a permanent solution to the ethnic crisis it must accede to the aspirations of our people and remove the terrorist label affixed to our organization”.

At one stage it was pointed out that the PLO and the IRA’s political front had entered talks with Israel and Britain while their proscription was in force. The Tigers could emulate them too it was said. Thamilchelvan responded by pinpointing the mess in which both peace initiatives were in. “This was a result of hasty moves by the movements concerned. They should not have negotiated until the correct framework and conditions were created. We cannot make the same mistake. The conducive climate has to be created and de-proscription is essential”, Thamilchelvan said.

On the question of the economic embargo reservations were also expressed about the restrictions imposed on some essential items. A full and free flow of goods as envisaged in Oslo’s original draft was urged. It was also pointed out that apart from the Wanni several areas in the Eastern province and in the Jaffna Peninsula under LTTE control were also deprived of essential items and that the economic embargo should be removed there too.

Norway’s draft
It was also urged that the unilateral alterations made to the title, preamble and vital provisions of the memorandum of understanding revert back to the original position as enshrined in Norway’s draft. Stern criticism was also evinced at Kadirgamar’s controversial attempt to get his Norwegian counterpart Jagland to finalise an embodying document incorporating provisions of a non-existent agreement.

On the question of ceasefire the Norwegians informed the LTTE that President Kumaratunga was agreeable to one and explored the possible modalities. The Tiger delegation reiterated its position as articulated earlier to Solheim by Balasingham in London. These include a formal ceasefire without a specific time frame, a monitoring mechanism and codes of conduct etc. The Tigers were amenable to an informal de-escalation of hostilities before a formal ceasefire delegation.

The Government also wanted the MOU to be signed with the provision that talks begin within one month of the embargo being lifted. It also wanted the dates and modalities concerning talks to be announced simultaneous to the declaration of a ceasefire. The Tigers however explicitly declined to set any date, venue, agenda or delegate composition for talks until and unless a congenial atmosphere is created through the lifting of the economic embargo and declaring a ceasefire. The LTTE wants time for a conducive climate to be created before talks begin.

The Tigers said that dates and modalities for talks could be finalised and announced after a conducive climate is created first. Even then a de-proscription is an essential priority. This then seems to crystallise the LTTE approach on this issue. The Talks in Mallavi concluded without any firm or positive agreement about scheduling talks as looked forward to by the Sri Lankan Government. The Norwegians left for Colombo on Friday 18 morning. The talks however will continue.

In a press release issued from the Wanni, the LTTE stated again that three factors were essential for a stable cessation of hostilities. Removing the economic blockade, declaring an indefinite ceasefire and lifting of the ban on the LTTE are the essential elements, Thamilchelvan told the Norwegian facilitators. According to the release he said “it is wrong to assume that the LTTE is deliberately procrastinating the peace talks”. “The proscription of the LTTE in Sri Lanka has become the major hurdle for the initiation of peace talks and the LTTE would never participate in the talks as a banned, illegal, terrorist organization” Mr. Thamilchelvan declared.

[Captions edited; Emphasis ours]

Courtesy: Sunday Leader [May 20th, 2001]