Sri Lanka, The Untold Story, Chapter 37

Talking Peace

by K T Rajasingham, ‘Asian Times,’ Singapore, 2002

On December 20, 1988, the eighth parliament was dissolved and nominations for the ninth were fixed for between December 30 and January 6. The polling date was set for February 15, with the new parliament scheduled to be summoned on March 9, 1989. The number of electoral districts was 22 for a parliament of 196 members.

Ranasinghe Premadasa, meanwhile, took the oath as the new president on January 2. Premadasa, even with his humble origin from Sri Lanka’s lower classes, had had a successful political career, culminating in his elevation to the highest office in the country, where national power had traditionally been the preserve of dynastic elites. Premadasa had been leader of the wing of previous president J R Jayewardene’s government, that resisted granting concessions to settle the nation’s rebellion by Tamil militants. He actively opposed the July 29, 1987, Indo-Sri Lankan accord aimed at ending the insurrection by granting Tamil areas limited self-rule.

Ranasinghe Premadasa was born on June 23, 1924, into a working-class Sinhalese family, from the slums of Colombo, and his formal education ended with Grade 10. A devout Buddhist, a teetotaler and a vegetarian, in the 1940s he joined the temperance movement. Later, he joined the Labor Party and in 1950 he contested the Colombo municipal elections and won from the San Sebastian ward. In 1955, he was elected deputy mayor of Colombo.

In 1955, he crossed over to the United National Party and contested Dr N M Perrea, the LSSP leader, and lost his first parliamentary election. In the March 1960 general elections, he was elected as the third MP of Colombo Central, but he was beaten into fourth place in the July 1960 general elections, in the three-member Colombo Central electorate. In the 1965 general elections, Premadasa was elected as the second MP of the Colombo Central electorate. His first appointment to ministerial office was in September 1968, when he was promoted from his office of Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Local Government, at the time of Dudley Senanayake to that of the Minister of Local Government, in succession to M Thiruchelvam, after the breakaway of the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi from Srenanayke’s National Government.

Premadasa successfully projected himself as a member of the country’s impoverished majority and a friend of the working man. It was an image he nurtured, along with his ties to the powerful Buddhist clergy. He successfully launched a low-income housing program in 1977, that won him immense popularity among low-income people, and he continued to build hundreds of thousands of basic homes.

When Jayewardene became president in 1978, he selected Premadasa as prime minister in 1978, at the age of 54, making him one of the youngest premiers in the world. Premadasa rose to the top through his brilliance and hard work. His weaknesses included an inability to make snap, creative decisions, a lack of foreign-policy experience and distance from the hereditary elite that had governed the island since independence.

Addressing the nation from the precincts of Dalada Maligawa, Kandy on January 2, the new president appealed to the LTTE and JVP for talks. He said that the ethnic issue was an internal matter and had to be resolved without the intervention of external forces, which amounted to a swipe at India.

Meanwhile, in the parliamentary general elections, the United National Party put forward 262 candidates, the SLFP 248, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress 149, the TULF 46, the United Socialist Alliance 225, the MEP 140, the DPLF 23 and the All Ceylon Tamil Congress 14 candidates. The predominantly Tamil areas – the North and Eastern provinces – were demarcated into five electorate districts. As far as the Tamil parties were concerned, the Indian High Commissioner, J N Dixit, worked out an agreement with the TULF, EPRLF, ENDLF and TELO, that they would all contest on the TULF banner.

EROS had a love-hate relationship with the Indian government. India wanted EROS to contest the elections, but its leader, V Balakumar, was not interested. The Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF) took scores of EROS members into custody. Subsequently, Balakumar came forward to contest the elections and the EROS members were released. EROS attended the meeting convened by Dixit at the Indian High Commission, but refused to ally itself with the TULF and EPRLF. Subsequently, the IPKF insisted that EROS should make a statement expressing support for the Indo-Sri Lankan accord. Balakumar sent a letter to that effect to the IPKF, most of whose officers shared a soft spot for EROS.

The TULF election manifesto stated that the IPKF should not be withdrawn until full autonomy had been given to the North and Eastern provinces and a Tamil dominated security force set up there. “The IPKF is an imperative to the Tamils until law and order is established and the machinery starts functioning in the provinces. They should remain to give Tamils security and protection until we get everything in order.” The TULF thus made it clear that it was opposed to the indefinite stay of the Indian Army in Sri Lanka.

On polling day, India’s stance on the elections became apparent. “The message was loud and clear. On the election day, if anyone had any doubts what the Indians wanted, it was made clear by the IPKF. At one polling station, with barely an hour left for voting to close, an IPKF major appeared and asked the officer-in-charge, how many voters had not cast their ballot as yet. Five hundred came the reply. ‘All right, put them into the EROS account,’ the major ordered.” Tigers of Lanka from Boys to Guerillas by M R Narayan Swamy, page 298

Of the 31 parliamentary seats at stake, EROS, which contested as an Independent Group in Jaffna, Batticaloa and Trincomalee, emerged as the surprising winner with 12 seats plus a bonus seat. The TULF-EPRLF coalition group, which contested under the TULF banner, won nine seats plus one bonus seats. For the first time, the United National Party won one seat in Vanni, and in all won three seats in Digamadulla and one in Trincomalee, totaling five seats. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party won two seats and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress three seats in the predominantly Tamil areas. The United National Party obtained 110 seats with a bonus of 15 seats, bagging 125 parliamentary seats out of a total of 225, thus emerging with an overall majority. This was short of the two-thirds majority it had won in the 1977 parliamentary elections.

The report of the international observer group for the elections commented, “5.7: Voter turnout overall was 63.96 percent, which is 8 percent above the presidential election. This turnout was still substantially below the earlier levels ranging from 77 to 87 percent in earlier national elections since 1960. The low turnout was clearly attributable to the overall atmosphere of fear generated by violence, threats and intimidation – the level of violence and intimidation in certain localities had seriously restricted the freedom of voters to exercise their right to vote. This was apparent in areas where in a number of polling stations no voter appeared whatsoever or where in some electoral districts the total turnout was not more than 20 percent.” – (pages 50-51) The total number of voters was 5,962,031.

Amirthalingham, the TULF leader, was defeated in Batticaloa. Later, he was nominated to parliament for the national seat that the four-party combine of TULF, EPRLF ENDLF and TELO had garnered. His name was proposed by the ENDLF and supported by TELO, and both parties believed that Amirthalingham’s parliamentary experience and skill should be used for the benefit of the Tamils.

On February 18, 1989, Premadasa appointed a 22-member cabinet and 49 ministers of state. The cabinet included the surprise announcement of Dingri Banda Wijetunga as prime minister and Ranil Wickramasinghe, the nephew of J R Jayewardene, as the Leader of the House. Wijetunge was a compromise choice as Gamini Disanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali were the front-ranking aspirants. The president avoided a crisis by not choosing either of the two.

Wijetunga was born in February 1922 and studied Inter arts (First year, University Examination). From 1942-47, he served as an Officer of the Cooperative Department, and organized the first union of cooperative inspectors, and became its first president. In 1946, he joined the United National Party. In July 1960, he contested the Udunuwara seat and lost by 213 votes. In 1965, he contested the same seat and won comfortably. But in the 1970 general elections, he lost the seat, but retained it in the 1977 elections with a majority of 11,000 votes. This victory threw Wijetunge into political focus and he was nominated as Minister of Post and Telecommunication by J R Jayewardene. Later he was Minister of Power and Highways, Minister of Food and Agricultural Development and Research, Minister of Finance and governor of the Western Province, during Jayewardene’s tenure of office.

Wijetunge, who had been governor of the Western Provincial Council, resigned this position to take up the appointment of Premier and Minister of Finance. Other important ministers were: Ranil Wickremasinghe – Leader of the House and Minister of Industries; Lalith Athulathmudali – Minister of Agriculture, Food and Cooperatives; Gamini Dissanayake – Minister of Plantation Industries; Ranjan Wijeratne – Foreign Affairs; A C S Hameed – Higher Education, Science and Technology; S Thondaman – Textiles and Rural Industrial Development, Abdul Razak Munsoor – Minister of Trade and Shipping; Premadasa was the Minister of Defense, Buddha Sasana, Policy Planning and Implementation, while his former Ministry of Housing and Construction was given to his man Friday, Srisena Coorey.

Premadasa declared the first session of the newly-elected parliament open by telling MPs, “You are here because our people have convincingly and effectively defeated the bullet and enthroned the ballot.” He urged legislators to narrow their differences and informed them that he had invited the Sinhalese and Tamils to put down their weapons and help negotiate a settlement. The Sinhalese rebels responded to the appeal by hurling bombs at state-run busses in southern and central Sri Lanka. On the other hand, there was no response from the LTTE.

Varatharajah Perumal, the Chief Minister of the Tamil-dominated North-Eastern Provincial Council, responded with a public announcement that the attempts to end the civil war were being jeopardized by the government led by Premadasa. He alleged that it was not adhering to the principles of the 1987 peace accord aimed at ending the war.

The North-Eastern Provincial Government had been set up under the accord to give Tamils limited autonomy in exchange for their surrendering weapons. Perumal, however, said his government’s powers were being deprived by inadequacies in the constitution, faulty interpretations of the accord and administrative blocks. The chief minister went on to describe the state of his government, which he said had no control over education, administrative services, law and order and allotment and distribution of land. He concluded, “How far the Sri Lankan government will devolve power will determine the unity and integrity of Sri Lanka.”

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam made an announcement banning the functioning of the North-East Provincial Council on March 26, 1989, saying that it had failed to generate any interest among Tamils. It ordered a work stoppage, but allowed the departments of health, education, irrigation, cooperatives and state corporations in charge of electricity, transport and the statutory organizations, such as multipurpose cooperative societies, to function on a regular basis. Banks were ordered to open only on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Tamil government servants were warned of dire consequences if they ignored the warning.

Premadasa reiterated his peace package to end the ethnic violence that had claimed more than 25,000 lives since 1983. In a speech broadcast on state-run radio, Premadasa offered the militants a wide range of proposals, including unconditional amnesty and seats in parliament, if they would stop the killings and join the political process. “Come with arms or without arms and we will accept all unconditionally,” he said. The president also offered a unilateral ceasefire.

Premadasa also promised to scrap strict anti-terrorism laws, send nearly 100,000 Indian soldiers home and outlaw vigilante groups blamed for killing suspected Sinhalese extremists. “I personally guarantee your safety. Let us forget the past and start a new era. I don’t deny the wrong done to you in the past,” said Premadasa in an hour-long radio address.

Premadasa announced the peace offer shortly after efforts failed by the governing United National Party and the four major opposition parties to work out a ceasefire proposal. The Tamil and Sinhalese militant groups rejected the peace offer. “We are not interested in going to the parliament, we are interested in the rights of the Tamils,” was the response from one Tamil group. The Sinhalese extremist organization said that it wanted parliament be dissolved and fresh elections held.

The government announced that 116 Sinhalese rebels had surrendered under the government’s amnesty proposal. However, Indian troops trying to enforce the Indo-Sri Lankan agreement were not enthusiastic about the truce, because of the on-going violence in the North and Eastern Provinces. The government, however, in its bid to win over the militants, announced its intention to open 228 centers across the country, to receive Sinhalese and Tamil militants willing to give up their arms during a week-long ceasefire and amnesty. The centers were located in schools, Buddhist temples, government offices and army camps and manned by civilians. The Foreign Minister said that the amnesty also applied to 1,500 Sri Lankan army deserters who had joined with the Sinhalese rebels to fight the government.

The LTTE, in an open letter to the president, rejected the ceasefire, “The government is only interested in getting our weapons and has not put forward anything worthwhile,” said the LTTE. The Tamil militants insisted “we will not agree to any ceasefire so long as the Indian army remain in Sri Lanka”. The Tamil militants were a bunch of lads in their teens in 1975, when they came to be called the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and they were new to any form of political punditry and exposures. They believed in “might is always right”, which had led to the transformation of the entire democratic political institution in the country.

Meanwhile, J N Dixit, the Indian High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, read the thinking of Premadasa correctly. He wrote in his Assignment Colombo, “The first step Premadasa took to implement his plan was to send a message to the LTTE some time around the middle of March, that his government is willing to have direct negotiations with the LTTE, to end military confrontation with the IPKF. He informed the LTTE that, the Sri Lankan security forces will pull back from the operations against them. He also indicated a willingness to have political discussions on matters of concerns to the LTTE. A confidential dimension of his message to the LTTE was that, during the interim period between March 1989 until the expected withdrawal of the IPKF by July 1989, the Sri Lankan government will provide the LTTE with arms and requisite intelligence to resist the IPKF. Premadasa also conveyed that, he will ensure the removal of the EPRLF-led Tamil government in the North-Eastern Province and ensure the conferment of governmental authority on the LTTE on the basis of the discussions which he proposed to have with it.” – page 287

“As I was to learn from the horse’s mouth during their dialogue with him, Mr Premadasa admired the LTTE for their determination, dedication, courage and sacrifice. He was fully aware of the objective conditions of Sinhala state repression that precipitated the armed liberation struggle of the Tigers. He felt that he could engage the LTTE in a positive dialogue and resolve the conflict through consultation, compromise and consensus, his famous three Cs for conflict resolutions. Having made a public announcement for inviting the Tigers for the talks, he desperately made attempts to contact the LTTE directly. The Eelam Revolutionary Organization (EROS) leaders Mr Balakumar and Mr Pararajasingham, when queried by Premadasa as to how to contact the LTTE, told him that Bala was available in London and that he was the only senior LTTE leader living outside Sri Lanka, who had contact with the leadership in Vanni.

“Somehow or other, Mr Premadasa managed to get our telephone number. Thereafter, he phoned Bala regularly and established a friendly rapport with him. Bala told him that the leadership in Vanni was considering his call for peace talks and an appropriate decision would be made at a suitable time. He also told him that, the LTTE would appreciate if the president made a public commitment to getting the Indian troops out of the Tamil homeland. Thereafter LTTE was waiting for Mr Premadasa’s response. On the 12th April 1989, Mr Premadasa announced a unilateral ceasefire between the Sri Lankan armed forces and the LTTE in celebration of the Tamil-Sinhala New Year and called upon the IPKF to follow suit. Responding to Premadas’s move, the LTTE in a hard-hitting open letter to the Sri Lankan president, rejected his offer of ceasefire arguing that ‘until the Indian Army of oppression leaves our land, there will be no such things as a ceasefire’.” The Will to Freedom by Adele Balasingham, pages 212-213

The open letter of the LTTE was hostile in content but it provided an opening for the Sri Lankan government to pursue the matter. Three members of the LTTE met Premadasa at his Ambanpola estate residence and conveyed the message of the LTTE leadership. This meeting, which was arranged secretly, was disclosed recently by H K J Wijedasa, a former secretary to Premadasa, at a commission of inquiry in connection with the death of Major-General Denzil Kobbekaduwa.

Though the open letter of the LTTE criticized Premadasa for backtracking on his pre-election pledge to secure the withdrawal of the Indian Army, according to Adele Balasingham, “Premadasa understood the message.”

On the instruction of the president, Ranjan Wijeratne, the Minister of State for Defense and Minister of Foreign Affairs, issued a statement on behalf of the government, inviting the LTTE leadership for talks. “Pleased with the developments, the LTTE leadership – through their headquarters in London – sent a letter to the Sri Lankan president accepting the invitation for talks and requesting the government to make necessary arrangements to facilitate these. The letter was followed up by quick confirmation by the leadership of the LTTE.” The Will to Freedom by Adele Balasingham, pages 213-214

The president, as stated earlier, a home-grown politician with his own brand of views and visions, reacted quickly and accepted the position of the LTTE. He had requested the Tamil militant organization to nominate an accredited representative to discuss necessary arrangements to facilitate a dialogue anywhere in Sri Lanka. Wijedasa also sent a brief fax, “Your message to have a dialogue with H E the president of Sri Lanka is very much appreciated,” to the international LTTE headquarters in London, which was positively responded to by the LTTE on April 15, 1990.

“On April 15, the LTTE headquarters in London responded by a fax addressed to the president accepting the invitation and hoping that the necessary arrangements would be made to facilitate a dialogue. Premadasa was spending the New Year holidays on his estate in Ambanpola and the fax message was rushed to him by special messenger. He received it around midnight. Early the next morning, he instructed Wijayadasa, his secretary, to telephone the LTTE in London, to invite their accredited representative to come to Colombo, to make arrangements for the dialogue. The cabinet was informed and within a few days, Anton Balasingham – the chief spokesman and ideologue – and his wife, Adele, were on their way to Colombo. The logistics of getting the rest of the LTTE team from the Wanni jungles needed detailed planning. It was a delicate operation since the group had to be picked up from the bush and brought to Colombo without falling into the hands of the IPKF, who were out looking for Prabakaran in the jungles. On May 3, three LTTE men, Yogi, Murthi and Lawrence, along with Anton Balasingham and his wife, who had made the trip to the jungle, were helicoptered to the army grounds from one of their secret hideouts in the Mullaithievu area.”Premadasa of Sri Lanka: A Political Biography by Bradman Weerakoon, pages 65-66

The LTTE appointed Anton Balasingham as the accredited representative and chief negotiator of the LTTE. The proposed talks would be the second, the first being in August 1985 in Timpu, Bhutan. The first discussions, with four Tamil militant organizations, including the Tigers, failed after the Tamils accused the Sri Lankan government of violating a ceasefire. Those talks were initiated by Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

There was a mixed reception from Sinhalese political leaders to the proposed dialogue. Lakshman Jayakody, a senior member of parliament from the main opposition Sri Lanka Freedom Party, was more cautious. “It is good … it is good. But the government should not fall into a trap.” He also said that the Tigers should also talk to opposition parties.

A spokesman for the Eelam Revolutionary Student Organization, a former Tamil militant organization which had 13 members in parliament, praised the government and the Tigers. “At last we see a dawn of peace. We have often stressed the need for talks with the Tigers … Our efforts have paid off.”

The south Indian daily newspaper The Hindu, in its editorial commented, “In the most recent period, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have reached out to Mr Premadasa and to the norms and values on foreign policy matters that his administration represents.”

The EPRLF spokesman, Rajan, in an interview with the Sunday Times, dated April 30, 1990, said that the proposed talks were a move to “manipulate the contradictions between Sri Lanka and the Indian governments”. When questioned on whether he thought the Tigers were sincere in trying for a negotiated settlement, Rajan replied, “If they want peace, they should talk to the Indian government too, as they are part of the Indo-Lanka accord. They should also have discussed with all Tamil groups, which is the only way to bring real peace. It is only then we can ask the IPKF to go away. We think it is just for show, so we don’t give much importance to them. We know the current IPKF offensive has made the Tigers very weak. To satisfy their cadres that their leaders are taking other steps also, they have called for these talks. Otherwise the morale of their members would have gone down if they realized that the Tigers only wanted to continue fighting and dying in their search for Eelam. The constant living in the jungles, the continued fighting have all contributed to this drop in morale. Their leaders wanted to show that something else is being done. They are manipulating the contradictions between the Sri Lanka and Indian governments on this issue but they should realize they cannot do this at the international level on agreements already signed between countries.”

The leader of Eelam Revolutionary Student Organization, V Balakumar, rejected the observations of Rajan. “The EPRLF, on the other hand, suffers from a great lack of credibility, because they have not been able to make the Provincial Council work and prove they can look after Tamil interests. There is also lot of emotions involved in their association with the IPKF.” The EROS leader appealed to the Sinhalese masses, political parties and groups like the JVP to give the LTTE-government talks a chance to succeed without setting out too many conditions and driving the Tigers away. He also expressed caution by stating that the failure of the talks would only result in the battle for a separatist state continuing and for other Tamil groups with no alternative but to follow suit.

Balakumar in a press interview said, “I see it as an opportunity to be grasped with both hands by the Sri Lankan government and the Sinhala people, including those in the opposition. In the first place, I must say that our group had no involvement in the Tiger’s decision to come for talks as claimed in some newspapers. The Tiger’s move came as a complete surprise to us, too, but we welcome it. We believe the offer was made seriously and what we want now is for the Indian and Sri Lankan governments and the Sinhala people to realize this. I feel this is a meeting point for a variable alternative to Eelam and what is urgently needed now is to listen to what LTTE has to say without raising various objections as already happened, with demands for conditions and so on. Not all of us agree with everything the LTTE does but they are a factor we cannot ignore in any settlement of this crisis. There is no military solution and all Tamil groups were told by the Indian Premier Rajiv Gandhi during the time of the accord that India would not tolerate a separate state in Sri Lanka.”

The Tiger spokesman, Stanislaus Anton Balasingham, a former sub-editor on a Colombo-based Tamil daily newspaper- Virakesari – arrived with his wife in Colombo, where he was met by the Sri Lankan president and given VIP treatment.

According to Adele Balasingham in her book The Will to Freedom, the only available source that reveals the LTTE’s version on many matters, “When we arrived in Colombo on April 26, 1989, we were accommodated at the Colombo Hilton. A government delegation consisting of Mr K H J Wijayadasa, secretary to the president, General Sepala Attygalle, Minister of State for Defense [Sepala Attyagalle was actually secretary to the Ministry of Defense] and Mr Felix Dias Abeysinghe, a senior Foreign Ministry official [former Election Commissioner], paid a courtesy call in the evening. In a brief meeting, Mr Wijayadasa conveyed to us the president’s pleasure at the LTTE’s acceptance to talks. On the following day, Mr Sepala Attygalle and General Ranatunga visited us in the hotel to work out the date, venue and other modalities to bring the LTTE delegates from the Northern jungles. It was decided to give the Vanni mission media publicity and to take a team of selected journalists in the helicopters. The mission was to take place on the 3rd May 1989.” – page 214

The president of Sri Lanka appointed a three-man committee under his secretary, K H J Wijedasa, to hold preliminary discussions with the Tiger representative. The other members of the delegation were General Sepala Atyagalle, a one-time Commander-in-Chief of the Sri Lankan Army and the present Secretary of Defense, and Felix Dias Abeyasinghe, an impartial civil servant, who had earlier been the Commissioner of Elections and later the Secretary to the All Party Conference, which was held in 1983 and 1984, to find a solution to the ethnic conflict. Later, this committee was expanded by four more officials, Bradman Weerakoon, the chairman of Air Lanka and former secretary to Premadasa when he was the prime minister, W T Jayasinghe, a diplomat and former Foreign Secretary, Bernard Tilakaratne, the present Foreign Secretary, and General Cyril Ranatunge, the former Joint Operations Commander, who was for a few years at the helm of anti-LTTE operations.

On the side of the LTTE, Lawrence Tilakar came from London and R Manickajothi from locally, joining with Anton Balasingham and his Australian-born wife Adele. The former LTTE’s Jaffna regional commander Sathasivam Krishnakumar, alias Kittu, was expected to join the Tiger team, but for reasons unknown he was not in the picture.

The government ultimately arranged to airlift the representatives of the LTTE from their jungle hideout. Anton Balasingham, his wife and four Colombo-based journalists flew into the jungle of Mullaithievu in two US-built Bell 212 helicopters on May 3 to meet the LTTE members. After an informal meeting, nine LTTE leaders, namely Yogaratnam Yogi, Paramu Moorthy, Lalith, Pancharatnam Lawrence, Das, Ducky, Udhayan, Jude and Theet were flown to Colombo. The LTTE leaders were dressed in army fatigue uniforms and were armed.

Adele Balasingham in her book The Will to Freedom described the helicopter flight, “Before our departure from Colombo, it had been arranged with the Sri Lankan military establishment that our cadres should mark a huge white cross in a clearing in the jungle to indicate to the helicopter pilots the whereabouts and a safe landing zone. But as the helicopters circled repeatedly, a glimpse of the white cross remained elusive. Flying from one area to the next, the helicopter gulped fuel as we scanned the jungle below for a sign of the landing zone. As the search went on, our excitement at the prospect of meeting our cadres again waned, as we wondered if the fuel would hold out for us to cover the vast area of jungle stretching to the horizon. Had the pilot got his direction wrong or was it our cadres who had made a mistake?

“It didn’t really matter; what concerned us most was to locate the landing zone as quickly as possible while we had the fuel to do so. Then, just as thoughts of abandoning the mission entered into the pilot’s considerations, we saw a red spot in the distance. As the Bell helicopter chugged closer to the spot, it transformed into a young man frantically waving a red flag in a bid to attract our attention. Gradually the white cross became evident through the green. It had to be our cadres. Bala picked up the short ranged walkie-talkie, dialed in the code number and smiled when he heard, ‘Hello Bala Anna, we receive you’.” – pages 206-207

President Premadasa told the groups of government and opposition MPs that he would consult all political parties to evolve an amiable solution to the ethnic problems in the country. This commitment was given in answer to a plea from Mahinda Wijesekera, the SLFP MP from the Matara District that an all-party discussion be held to evolve a solution to the present problems and restore peace. The Minister of Foreign Affairs and the State Minister for Defense informed that the Indian government would be kept informed of developments with regard to the talks. The minister also said that the IPKF had cooperated with the government in letting the LTTE cadres come out from their hideouts.

The LTTE delegation, consisting of Anton Stanislaus Balasingham, his wife Adele, Yogaratnam Yogi and Paramu Moorthy met the president for the first time on the evening of May 4, at his Sucharitha Mawatha residence in Colombo. The delegation informed him that they had with them all the information regarding the plight and predicament of the Tamil people and that the sufferings of their people should be brought to light. It was only by understanding the fundamental problems of the people that durable solutions could be found. They emphasized the need for the restoration of peace and normalcy before such solutions could be worked out. This was according to the government press release issued after the talks with the president.

President Premadasa told the delegation that the first stage of the talks would be with officials nominated by him to decide on the modalities and to identify the issues. A government news release stated that the president also stressed the need to know the truthfulness of all issues in order to arrive at meaningful solutions. He added that his mandate from the people was to restore peace through a process of consultation, compromise and consensus. “This was the reason that he extended an open invitation to the LTTE.”

Anton Balasingham told the press that the present delegation would be in Colombo for some time, depending on the talks. He added that their leader Prabakaran had given full authority to the delegation to start a dialogue with the government in Colombo. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Ranjan Wijeratne said that the LTTE had informed the government that it would observe a ceasefire while the talks were on. He emphasized that the government was told that the LTTE would not be on the offensive while the talks were on.

The Sri Lankan team was led by A C S Hameed, the Minister for Higher Education, supported by Ranjan Wijeratne and several other ministers and a hand-picked team of officials by the president, who changed as the agenda for the discussions dictated. The officials included General Sepala Atyagalle, Secretary, Ministry of Defense, Bernard Tilakaratne, Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Wijayadasa and Bradman Weerakoon, from the President’s Office, Ivan Samarawickreme, on the issue of Land and the secretary to the government’s delegation was Felix Dias Abeyasinghe, former Election Commissioner.

At the end of the each day’s meetings, a press release was issued, drafted by Abaeyasinghe and Balasingham. The president kept in touch with the proceedings and met the LTTE team as and when necessary, at his Sucharita office in Colombo. Prabakaran did not attend the meetings, but it was reported that the LTTE delegation was in constant touch with him by radio.

The talks were held in two rounds. The first round of nine meetings was held in May 1989. Following this, the LTTE team went back to their jungle hideout in the Vanni forest. The second round of meetings commenced on June 16 and ended on July 2, 1989. For the second round of negotiations, Lawrence Thilakar from Paris and Hassan, Karikaran and Ibrahim from the Eastern Province joined the LTTE delegation.

“Getting the IPKF to withdraw was the primary objective in round one of the talks and Balasingham spent much time dealing with the atrocities of the IPKF and the sufferings of the people of the North and East. This caused the impatient Ranjan Wijeratne, who had come to participate in a hard bargaining on a political settlement, to say, what was going on was ‘not dialogue but a monologue’.” Premadasa of Sri Lanka: A Political Biography by Bradman Weerakoon, page 67

In the mean time, the Indian High Commissioner in Colombo, Jyotindra Nath Dixit, left for Pakistan in the first week of March 1989, after completion of duty in Sri Lanka. Dixit, who was responsible for safeguarding the interests of India in Sri Lanka and the one who ran the Indian show in the North and Eastern provinces and the one who gerrymandered the North Eastern Province provincial elections and the parliamentary general elections, was succeeded by Lakhan Lal Mehrotra.

In an interview with The Island, a Colombo-based English daily, on May 14, 1989, he said that India had already welcomed the talks with the LTTE. He said that there was no misunderstanding between India and Sri Lanka, only misinformation, he quoted President R Premadasa as telling him. History and geography, he said, kept both countries together and they must learn to live together – as friends. The High Commissioner reviewed the relationship between the two neighbors, describing his views on the implementation of the Indo-Lanka accord and spelled out what he thought was necessary to improve understanding between India and Sri Lanka.

Question: How do you assess the situation in the north and east today? What would you say are the results of the IPKF’s operations?

Answer: The IPKF has come here under the mandate of the Indo-Lanka accord. The mandate is very clear. It is supposed to secure the surrender of the militant groups and to promote peace and harmony in the North East province. Now by any standards, I should think the IPKF has done very well. They have brought the LTTE from the towns and villages into the confines of the Vanni jungles and by and large provided a very high sense of security to the people in the province. They have done it at a huge sacrifice to themselves, but these sacrifices have paid off in a big way. In any country there would be normal incidents of crime so no one can claim that incidents are not taking place or will not take place in the North-East Province. But you can see the contrast for yourself, from the situation as it obtained before the IPKF came and now. There is a world of change.

Question: If the IPKF completes its withdrawal, which according to the Sri Lankan government might be by the end of this year, without completely disarming the LTTE, couldn’t India be accused of not fulfilling its obligations under the accord?

Answer: You can rest assured that India will fulfill its obligations under the accord. The IPKF now maintains several units in several areas – the Jaffna sector, Trincomalee sector, Batticaloa sector and Ampara sector and they assess their operational requirements from time to time. At this point in time, they felt that they could, without jeopardizing their operations, afford to withdraw some people. So they have done so.

Question: You said that the situation has improved considerably, but there are still attacks on Sinhalese villages.

Answer: The IPKF is very attentive in the matter. It is trying to do all it can and as I said an incident here and an incident there could take place even under very normal circumstances. Now, the IPKF is functioning under the most abnormal circumstances. So some amount of tension here or there may arise from time to time. The IPKF is trying to maintain peace and law order as best they can. The IPKF will fulfill the mandate that has been given to them. I am not suggesting that the IPKF will pull out if the violence continues. The IPKF is there in response to a request by the government of Sri Lanka. Now, the Sri Lankan government is constantly watching the situation. The forces of India are engaged in the fulfillment of a task. The two governments are in constant touch with each other.

Question: How would you describe India’s attitude towards the latest round of peace talks between the LTTE and the government?

Answer: India has already welcomed these talks. Under the Indo-Lanka accord, it is very clear that they have reached a situation in which all the armed militant groups take to the way of peace. They give up their arms, they shun violence … they come to the negotiating table and they reach viable agreements in the interests of peace and harmony for all ethnic groups. Now these are the objectives of the accord. The LTTE coming to talks can only therefore be welcomed. The reports that the IPKF tried to obstruct the government’s efforts to bring the Tigers for talks are patently false, because the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister himself has publicly stated that, the IPKF was requested to make it possible for the LTTE negotiators to come to Colombo for talks and that they have rendered immediate and effective assistance in this matter.

Question: When you look back at the peace accord signed more than one-and-a-half years ago, what would you say it has achieved? How would you say both countries have benefited by it?

Answer: There can be no doubt of the peace accord – the very title speaks for itself. It is an agreement between India and Sri Lanka to achieve peace. India is deeply interested in the stability of Sri Lanka and peace in Sri Lanka, just as Sri Lanka is deeply interested, intrinsically interested in its stability and in peace. These are common objectives. If there is instability in Sri Lanka and if there is lack of peace and harmony in Sri Lanka, the situation spills over and it will automatically have its reverberations in India. As a well-wisher of Sri Lanka and as a friendly neighbor we could wish for nothing more than peace and stability in this land.

Now, the accord came at a critical point of time. I do not have to spell out the situation as it prevailed at the time the accord was signed. The situation was such that both countries felt that at particular moment of time India could effectively help Sri Lanka in resolving its ethnic conflict. That’s how the accord came into existence. One of the provisions in the accord is that the Sri Lankan government may request the Indian government to send its armed forces to achieve the objectives under the accord. And if it does make such a request, India will act in that behalf. Now, the Indian government had fulfilled its obligations under the accord and the IPKF has been carrying out these peacekeeping operations ever since then. In the process, they have lost 860 men and suffered in terms of men, in terms of resources – but in a very good cause to maintain peace and harmony in the region and to give to India and Sri Lanka the satisfaction of the ends and purposes of the accord being achieved.

Now, I have been told by many of my Sri Lankan friends and colleagues that they see for themselves that the situation in the north today is radically different from what it was just prior to the accord. By and large the administration is running, the citizens are able to indulge in their normal activities and as compared to the rest of Sri Lanka, the rate of crime is much less. So it has brought to the masses in the region a sense of security and well being. The political process has also been activated. Several of the militant groups have surrendered their arms and taken to the political process. They have participated in elections and elected a council with a chief minister of their own, which is constantly holding sessions.

The Sri Lankan government has passed the 13th amendment, the Provincial Councils Act and debated on May 10 in parliament an act for the further devolution of power to the provincial government. Therefore, in my opinion this is a very long list of achievements because it goes a considerable way to satisfy the legitimate requirements of the people of that troubled area. Now, I would say that everything has been achieved as perceived in the accord, for example, the process of devolution could have been faster, the government in the North-East Province could have functioned more effectively and the chief minister could do much more than he is presently able to do. But this is an on-going process and we have been assured during the visit of the Foreign Secretary by the government of Sri Lanka that they are moving in this direction and doing everything possible to expedite the process of devolution a reality. So they have a very positive attitude towards the matter and we welcomed this.

Question: But don’t you think that when you take the country as a whole, the accord has only led to more violence and bloodshed?

Answer: I do not perceive this as the reality because you did have disturbing elements present in the rest of the country from well before the accord. And they have been as far as my information goes, violently active from time to time. I believe that a few years ago the same elements had created an even worse situation of violence than obtains at the moment. And therefore I do not agree with the thesis that the disturbed situation in the rest of the island is a sequel to the Indo-Lanka accord. They may have used the accord as a pretext. That’s a different matter.

Question: Why does the High Commission use the word Provincial Government to refer to the Provincial Councils when the Sri Lankan government has specifically asked the North-East Provincial Council not to use that word? Don’t you think this could cause some embarrassment to the government?

Answer: The word chief minister or for that matter the words prime minister have only one connotation in international parlance around the world. The prime minister is called head of the government of a country. The chief minister is also called the head of the government. The prime minister is the head of the government of a country. The chief minister is generally the head of a government of a province, and as you have a chief minister, it follows that you have a government. The two inseparable – they go together. We have no desire to embarrass the obvious.

Question: Could you explain what India feels about the draft friendship treaty proposed by Sri Lanka?

Answer: The draft treaty proposed by Sri Lanka is a good gesture – a forward-looking gesture. The treaty is under discussion presently between the two governments. The contents of the treaty can be made public only after it comes into effect. A friendship treaty is something that has a long vision to it – something that could be operated for a long period of time. [The unofficial draft of the treaty is given separately]

Question: During the last five years or so, particularly since the accord was signed, there has been much concern among most Sri Lankansi about India’s role here. The term “Big Brother” has been used to describe India’s attitude towards Sri Lanka and India has been accused of trying to impose its will on Sri Lanka. What actions and attitudes on India’s part do you think has led to these feelings?

Answer: I do not think India has acted in a manner that should cause our friendly people of Sri Lanka, our brothers of Sri Lanka, any concern. If you look at the present state of things you will realize how keenly committed India is to the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. We are not only committed to it in word, but in deed. Our armed forces have made sacrifices in a big way to keep Sri Lanka’s integrity intact. And therefore, if the people of Sri Lanka have any such fear, I would say these fears don’t have any basis in fact. I’m also quite confident that given the historic ties between India and Sri Lanka, given our shared attitudes, there is an inner core of friendship between the people of Sri Lanka and the people of India, and that this inner core comes to bear itself on our relations. And as time passes, they will realize as many many, many of them already do, that India has done nothing but helped, that India has only one objective – to promote stability in Sri Lanka and harmony in Sri Lanka of the diverse ethnic and linguistic groups in Sri Lanka is as much in the interest of Sri Lanka as it is in India’s own interest.

Some people may have this perception about India. Once in a while I do read the words Big Brother and Small Brother. We are all a family in this subcontinent. It so happens that India is a larger entity than others, but history and geography both keep us together and we have got to learn to live together. We must live together as friends. Now, what distinguishes a friend from others? A friend cares for a friend, you do not want to hurt a friend, his joy is your joy, his sorrow is your sorrow, his development is your development. We want to live with our neighbors and much more, so with Sri Lanka, which is bound to us with such strong historic and cultural ties as brothers. We can’t even very remotely think of hurting the interests of Sri Lanka, or imposing our will on Sri Lanka. But it is necessary that as brothers, as friends, we understand each others’ concerns, each others’ anxieties and so long as we do so we remain bosom friends.

To change these perceptions, I think there should be a greater extent of deliberation on the part of both countries, to see that people understand that nature of our relations, they understand the truth. As his Excellency the President of Sri Lanka told me, there is no misunderstanding between us, there is only misinformation. So the very first requirement is that there is no misinformation. The second requirement is that we build more and more bridges of confidence. The third requirement is that we expand our relationship in every direction. The fourth requirement is that we must not jump to conclusions or we must not go by rumors, but we must examine facts as they are. It is very important that we do away with this Big Brother, Small Brother syndrome, because it comes in the way of the real understanding of issues and the nature of relations between two neighbors, which are so close to each other in every possible way. And we must make sacrifices for each other and we must be ready to stand for each other. And it is in this spirit that I would like Indo-Sri Lanka relations to prevail and to flourish.

Question: Could you describe the sort of security assistance India can provide Sri Lanka?

Answer: It is a very well known fact that, whenever Sri Lanka has been in need for any security assistance from India, that assistance has been forthcoming. Whether it was a couple of decades ago, or whether it was a year-and-a-half ago, when Sri Lanka needed security assistance from India and asked for it, it came rather fast, just as you wanted it. I have no doubt that within the limits of our resources and given our commitment to preserve the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka and the need for ethnic harmony in the country, we would be happy to do whatever we are called upon to do by way of security assistance.

Since the accord was signed first in terms of security, the former president asked Indian forces to come and obtain the surrender of the militant groups in the northeast. In terms of military cooperation we are in touch with each other every day. We are ready to give any assistance that Sri Lanka needs, asks of us within the limits of our resources. We do not want to define the periphery of this. By way of training, you know that India is training some people from Sri Lanka and we are ready to train more if you want. By way of equipment, if we can supply your requirements we would be very happy to do so. These are matters that I can’t discuss in public.

Question: What does India feel about Sri Lanka’s military links with China and Pakistan, which have provided equipment and training?

Answer: You must look at it from the point of view of the security environment of the whole of Southeast Asia. Sri Lanka is a friend of India and I have no doubt at all that Sri Lanka would not want to do anything which will even remotely hurt India’s security interests.

Unofficial draft of the friendship treaty

Agreement to consolidate and extend the friendly relations and cooperation between the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka and the Republic of India.

The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka and the Republic of India, (hereinafter referred to as the Contracting Parties)

Conscious of the friendship between the two states stretching over two millennia or more and recognizing the importance of nurturing, intensifying and strengthening the traditional ties of friendship;

Believing that these traditional bonds have been given a fresh meaning, importance and impetus by fact that the two states have over their four decades of independence and against threats to the cherished system successfully upheld and promoted the democratic political order;

Aware that the consolidation of their states as democratic societies and the further democratization of these societies are matters mutual to their national interest;

Recognizing the territorial character of their state order and resolved to protect the independence, unity, integrity and sovereignty of their states;

Recognizing, however, that the two states are multi-ethnic, multilinguist and multireligious societies and the need, therefore, to foster conditions in their states in which all citizens can live in equality, safety and harmony and fulfill their aspirations, thereby strengthening the force contributing to the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of their two countries;

Conscious of the fact that the processes of democratic evolution and national consolidation in their states are complicated by cross-border links and sensitivities that have historical origin and determines to work together constructively to remove any impediments to these processes from this situation;

Believing that the further development of their friendship, and particularly their constructive cooperation in promoting mutual goals, would be a contribution not only to national consolidation and democratic progress in their two states, but also to regional cooperation and regionalism in South Asia;

Reaffirming their firm commitment to the UN Charter and to the principles of the non-alignment, peaceful co-existence, sovereign equality of states, mutual cooperation, non-interference in the internal affairs of states, non-use of force or threat of force and respect for territorial integrity, political independence and sovereignty;

Declaring their resolve to promote a regional environment conducive to the security and progress of their two states, have agreed as follows:

Article I: 
The contracting parties solemnly declare that enduring peace and friendship shall prevail between their two countries and peoples. Each contracting party will respect the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the other and refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of the other. The contracting parties will continue to develop and strengthen the relations of friendship, good neighborliness and all-round cooperation existing between them on the basis of the principles states above.

Article II:
In this spirit, the contracting parties agree to work for the consolidation of mutual trust, confidence and good neighborly relations and cooperation by eliminating any hindrance to achieving such relations and cooperation. In particular, the contracting parties will:

(i) Ensure that all ports within their respective territories will not be used for military purposes to the prejudice of the national interest of either contracting parties;

(ii) Deport any national of one contracting party who, within the territory of the other, engages in terrorist activities or advocates separatism or secessionism with respect to the other country.

Article III:
The contracting parties will also:
1:1 Review the relevance and employment of foreign military and intelligence personnel with a view to ensuring that such presences will not prejudice Indo-Sri Lankan relations;

1:2 Review any agreements with foreign broadcasting organizations to ensure that any facilities set up by them within the territory of either country are used solely as public broadcasting facilities with respect to the other contracting party.

2. The government of India in a spirit of friendship and cooperation will provide training facilities and military supplies for Sri Lanka’s security forces at the request of the government of Sri Lanka.

Article IV:
The contracting parties, convinced that bilateral problems could only be resolved by discussion and dialogue declare their commitment and adherence to solving all bilateral problems through discussion and negotiations on the basis of their sovereign equality.

Article V:
The contracting parties affirm their commitment to the consolidation and extension of their friendly relations and mutual cooperation. Toward this end, they agree to promote active cultural, educational, technical, scientific and other fields as mutually agreed.

Article VI:
The agreement shall be subject to ratification and shall enter into force upon the exchange of instruments of ratification.

Article VII:
The agreement shall remain in force until either contracting party declares its intention to terminate it by giving the other six months’ written notice.

Article VIII:
The contracting parties shall consult each other with regard to any amendment or modification of this agreement and such amendment shall be effected in writing as mutually agreed.

Article IX:
Any difference of interpretation or application of this agreement that may arise between the two countries shall be settled in a spirit of mutual trust and understanding. (Source – Lanka Guardian – June 1, 1988)

On May 3, 1989, Indian Foreign Secretary V K Singh was in Colombo to discuss with the treaty with President Premadasa, along with many other topics of currency.

S Sivanayagam, former editor of Saturday Review, posed a question in his “The Premadasa-LTTE Dialogue”, article that appeared in the Lanka Guardian of Colombo dated June 1, 1989, as follows:

“But what chances are there of the LTTE-Premadasa talks yielding any tangible benefits to the Tamil people? This is a question that every Tamil will naturally want to ask. Before that, one must disabuse oneself of exaggerated notions about the ambit of the talks. Because the political object of the LTTE is an independent Tamil homeland, it does not follow that the motive and the nature of the talks will center around fundamental objectives. It cannot and it would be naive on anyone’s part to expect it. If it were that easy a proposition – to win Tamil Eelam across the table – there cannot be any sense or rationale in waging an armed struggle at tremendous sacrifice of lives. For example, The Hindu Correspondent reporting from Colombo (April 28), ‘Yesterday’s talks apparently went off well, and one of the positive indications has been that Mr Balasingham did not mention the demand for a separate state’. He was being either naive, or mischievous, or merely articulating his paper’s obsession against Tamil Eelam.” – The Pen and the Gun, page 153

Sri Lankan government delegations met the LTTE representatives in the first rounds of nearly nine meetings. The first round of talks was held from May 4 to May 30, 1989 at the Hilton Hotel and at the Galadari Meridian Hotel, in Colombo. The government delegation was led by A C S Hameed, Minister of Higher Education and (chairman); Ranil Wickremasinghe – Minister of Industries and the Leader of the House; Ranjan Wijeratne – Minister of Foreign Affairs; Sirisena Coorey – Minister of Housing and Construction; U B Wijekoon – Minister of Public Administration, Home Affairs and Provincial Councils; and P Dayaratne – Minister of Lands, Irrigation and Mahaweli Development. The Tigers team was led by Anton Balasingham, and included, Yogaratnam Yogi, Parama Murthy, Panchcharam Lawrence and Adele Balasingham.

The first formal meeting identified issues for further discussion:

  • the role and function of the IPKF in the North and East;
  • the disabilities faced by Tamil-speaking people and human rights issues arising from the “occupation” by the IPKF;
  • the disruption of economic activity of the civilian population, such as agriculture, fishing, industry and trade. State-sponsored colonization, which was apparently continuing under the Mahaweli Authority, particularly in the Eastern province;
  • conscription of youth, the building-up of the Civilian Volunteer Force (CVF) and their training by the IPKF, and;

 

  • the need to seek a negotiated political settlement, taking into consideration the aspirations of the Tamil-speaking people.”Getting the IPKF to withdraw was the primary objective in Round One of the talks and Balasingham spent much of the time dealing with the atrocities of the IPKF and the sufferings of the people of the North and East. This caused the impatient Ranjan Wijeratne, who had come to participate in a hard bargain on political settlement, to say that what was going on was ‘not a dialogue but a monologue’. State sponsored colonization and forced conscription of youth by the EPRLF for the Civilian Volunteer Force, which the IPKF was training, were also issues on which much discussion was centered. Follow up of these by the government was very quick.” Premadasa of Sri Lanka: A Political Biography by Bradman Weerakoon, page 67

    The first round of talks ended on May 30 and the LTTE team, including Anton Balasingham, went to Vanni for further consultations with the LTTE leadership.

    NEXT: Chapter 38: Badgering for India’s withdrawal

 

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