Peace process Landmined!

D.B.S. Jeyaraj

The fragile peace process facilitated by Norway appears to be on the verge of an inevitable breakdown with the Sri Lankan government demanding unilaterally that Oslo remove special peace envoy Erik Solheim as the mutually accredited facilitator and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam objecting vehemently to such action.

Norwegian foreign minister Thjborn Jagland was summoned urgently by President Chandrika Kumaratunga to Colombo on Thursday June 7 and informed that the government was dissatisfied with Solheim’s services and wanted him replaced with another facilitator of Norwegian deputy minister rank.

Erik Solheim who accompanied Jagland to Colombo was specifically excluded from the two-hour dinner meeting hosted by Kumaratunga for the Norwegian foreign minister. Sri Lankan foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar was the only other participant at the meeting where the government’s rejection of Solheim was conveyed.

LTTE chief negotiator and political adviser Anton Balasingham told The Sunday Leader by telephone yesterday that the LTTE would not accept Colombo’s high handed and improper act of asking the Norwegian government to remove Erik Solheim as the special envoy in charge of facilitation at this juncture.

“They cannot simply find a substitute for Mr. Solheim without consulting us. Both sides accepted him as the facilitator. They have to provide a satisfactory explanation for this. Unless this is done we will not accept or tolerate Mr. Solheim’s removal” said Balasingham.

Elaborating further Balasingham said, “ that as far as the LTTE and Tamil people were concerned Mr. Solheim had discharged his duties efficiently, sincerely and impartially”. The lack of progress in the peace process was due to the Government’s and not Mr. Solheim’s fault “ he said.

“One important reason for the Tigers continuing to participate and cooperate in the peace process was the trust and confidence we had in Mr. Solheim. He has met our leader Mr. Velupillai Prabakharan, Political Wing chief SP Thamilchelvan and other senior leaders in the Wanni. I have met him several times in Europe. We have faith in him.” said Balasingham.

Continuing further Balasingham said, “he was saddened by the shabby, unfair and insulting treatment meted out to Mr. Solheim in Colombo by the Sri Lankan President and her minister of foreign affairs”. The Tiger chief negotiator said that the Norwegian special envoy was being replaced because Colombo was unhappy over the independent and constructive role Mr. Solheim had been playing.

“The government discovered that they could not distort the situation and depict the Tigers as being responsible for retarding the peace process because of Mr. Solheim’s integrity,” said Balasingham. “ So they are trying to get him out of the scene just as JR Jayewardene forced Rajiv Gandhi to substitute Romesh Bhandari for G. Parthasarathy in 1985” he charged.

Tiger leader Velupillai Prabakharan was extremely concerned at this development and had contacted him revealed Balasingham. “The LTTE central committee will analyse the situation after more information is received about the situation and issue a statement outlining the organization’s stance on the issue shortly” he told The Sunday Leader.

The Sunday Leader reliably learns that the Government had ‘officially’ objected to Solheim continuing as facilitator for two reasons. One was that a ‘sequential analysis’ of his track record as facilitator demonstrated his lack of objectivity and partiality towards the LTTE. The other was that a ‘high level’ intermediary at least of deputy-ministerial rank was required to expedite the peace process.

The Kumaratunga - Kadirgamar duo had informed Jagland that the onus was on Norway and the International community to exert pressure on the Tigers and bring them to the negotiating table. Suspending the proscription on the LTTE could be considered only after the LTTE enters talks. If de-proscription was required prior to commencement of negotiations the Tigers should proclaim publicly that they were abandoning the Tamil Eelam demand and also declare a moratorium on violence for a reasonable period of time.

Informed sources outlined to The Sunday Leader the rationale behind government hostility towards Erik Solheim. “In the first place Solheim’s enthusiasm for ushering in peace led him to exceed his expected role of facilitator. The drafting of a memorandum of understanding and trying to persuade Colombo to accept its provisions for instance was particularly irritating,” said the sources.

Another problem from the government’s perspective was Solheim’s perceived closeness to the LTTE. “It is standard practice for a third party to establish trust and rapport with both disputants. Solheim maintained cordial relations with Balasingham while the ambassador in Colombo Jon Westborg was quite chummy with Kadirgamar. This was a sound and viable working arrangement but both sides naturally mistrusted the other side. The Tigers were also concerned about Westborg’s partiality towards Colombo but did not protest officially. The government however has taken the controversial step of calling for Solheim’s removal,” said the sources.

The government also found the accurate reports about the progress of the peace process published in The Sunday Leader annoying. This phenomenon was preventing the government from presenting a one sided version of events. Both Kumaratunga and Kadirgamar had ranted and railed against Solheim on some occasions suspecting perhaps that he was responsible for the “leaks” to The Sunday Leader.

While Colombo’s displeasure was increasing in recent times three particular incidents were instrumental in the immediate decision to dispense with Solheim’s services knowledgeable circles told The Sunday Leader.

The first was when Kadirgamar wrote to his Norwegian counterpart that agreement had been reached on commencement of talks and wanted Jagland to provide an embodying document of the same. The LTTE’s Anton Balasingham disputed Kadirgamar’s assertion and stated publicly that no agreement had been reached. It was a case of Kadirgamar’s word being against Balasingham’s. Erik Solheim however truthfully told the media that while progress had been made no agreement on beginning talks had been reached. This embarrassed Kadirgamar considerably.

The second was when Erik Solheim accompanied Jagland on a recent visit to Washington. Solheim met with US State department officials, Members of the Congress, Senators and other bureaucrats involved in Sri Lankan matters. Solheim’s presentation of the situation concerning the peace process was unfavourable to the Government.

The third was over Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremasinghe’s recent visit to Oslo. Both he and Erik Solheim interacted frequently and positively. The cooperation of the chief opposition party was absolutely essential to the success of the peace process and Solheim’s motives in establishing a working relationship with Wickremasinghe were not to the liking of the government.

Solheim who accompanied Jagland to Colombo was left out of the dinner meeting that decided the fate of his facilitatory role.” It was an invitation to the (Norwegian) foreign minister and not for Mr. Solheim” embassy spokesman Tomas Strangland told the AFP. Asked for the significance of Solheim being left out, Tomas said, “I can’t comment on that,” reported the AFP.

COURTESY: Sunday Leader [11June 2001]