The Norwegians managed to secure peace talks between the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) and the LTTE and the peace process continued for a number of years under successive Governments. Though Norwegian peace envoy Erik Solheim mediated between the GoSL and the LTTE under three Sri Lankan leaders, in the end attempts made by him and many others to ensure that the peace process continued failed. In an exclusive interview with the Daily Mirror online, Solheim revealed details of some of his discussions with the rebels and the GoSL as well as the role played by the international community.
You played a very critical and crucial role in Sri Lanka as peace envoy. Do you regret taking on that role considering the criticism and accusations you faced, especially at the latter part of your role as peace negotiator?
Look, this was one of the most bloody conflicts in modern times killing tens of thousands of people. There are so many people in Sri Lanka missing their loved ones. Whether they are soldiers from the village in the South or Tamil civilians in the North, people are missing. People are lost. So, my regret is that we couldn’t succeed. But we did try. The fact that we are attacked by extremists on both sides doesn’t concern me. Sinhalese chauvinists claim I was too close with the LTTE and Tamil extremists claimed I was personally responsible for the defeat of the LTTE or that the Norwegians were to blame for the killing of Tamil civilians during the end phase of the war.
Overall, I think you need to start blaming the war mongers and not those who try to make peace. Peace is what the Gods wants from us and peace is what the vast majority of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims wanted from us.
Was there a time when you were peace negotiator when you felt enough was enough due to much criticism?
Never ever. What counted for us was not about people criticizing us. That was normal. What counted throughout the peace process was that we had the confidence of both parties. Those were the people that needed to make peace. We had the confidence of Prabakaran, Balasingham and the LTTE leaders. We also had the confidence of Chandrika Kumaratunga, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Mahinda Rajapaksa; all the key leaders on the side of the State. So as long as they had confidence in us it didn’t bother us whether there were some critics here and there.
Q Based on your internal discussions with the LTTE did you ever think the LTTE was genuinely committed to peace?
Absolutely. There is a misconception in the South. Please recall that the LTTE pursued peace when it was at the peak of its power. The LTTE was never before nor later as strong as they were in 2000-2001. It had overwhelmed Elephant Pass. It was very close to overtaking the entire Jaffna peninsula. It was beaten at the last moment because of Pakistani help to the GoSL. And they had destroyed the Sri Lankan economy with the attack on the Bandaranaike International Airport. So, it was at the peak of the strength of the LTTE that it pursued peace. So, it showed that the LTTE was absolutely genuine. However, whether it was ready to go all the way for a federal settlement, you may question. I think Prabakaran wanted peace and was ready for peace, but there was a lot to compromise on.
Q There were allegations that the LTTE used the peace process to regroup and strengthen its military capabilities. Norway was also accused back then of helping the LTTE procure arms. Is there any truth to those claims?
Absolutely not. We do not give gifts to or take gifts from any side. But more importantly this is also another misconception in the South. The Sri Lankan Army strengthened itself more during the peace process than the LTTE. This we saw when we came to the final phase of the war which was between 2007 and 2009. Sri Lanka also had support from nearly all Governments in the world, whether it was India, US or China or European powers. They all wanted peace. But they also had to make a choice between the LTTE and the GoSL and they were all on the Government side. So, it was the GoSL that strengthened its position and not the LTTE.
Q Was it difficult to deal and negotiate a settlement with then President Mahinda Rajapaksa and then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa?
Mahinda came into power in 2005. I don’t think he had a clear plan of how to handle the peace process. He listened to our advise. But to be fair to him, he also got into a difficult position because Prabakaran made life difficult for him at the time. The LTTE started these road-side bombs killing soldiers in the North.
Prabakaran and Mahinda had two rounds of talks through their proxies in Geneva. At the time Mahinda told me that he was completely open to having a summit with Prabakaran. What Mahinda didn’t want at the time was a long protracted peace process. So the situation in 2006 was very different to what we anticipated today. And I think it was the last missed opportunity for peace.
Q So was this showing of interest by Mahinda Rajapaksa for a summit with Prabakaran actually communicated to Prabakaran? What was his response?
Absolutely. None of this was made public at the time. But now we can speak openly about this. There were two different approaches to the peace process. The LTTE wanted a step by step approach, winning confidence and making acts on both sides which could promote peace. The GoSL wanted to move much faster to the end discussion which was on autonomy, self-rule, self-governance or self-determination for Tamils within one State of Sri Lanka. A separate State was never on the cards. That could never be the result of the peace talks. So the compromise had to be something in-between, which was federalism.
I think Sri Lankans should relax (on federalism). You can watch across the bay. Federalism is working very well in India. States can run their own affairs without interference from Delhi while at the same time being part of the union of India.
Q Could India have played a bigger role in this conflict back then?
India was a firm supporters of the peace process throughout. India always said that there is no solution to this conflict except for a negotiated settlement. In 2008 September the Indians started to change their opinion by stating that it should be a military settlement, meaning that the GoSL could win the war. But up to that point India had firmly believed that the result should be through a negotiated one. True, India provided military and other logistic support to the GoSL during the final phase of the war.
But throughout the peace process, as long as peace was realistic, India supported peace. No doubt.
Q Looking back what could Norway as peace negotiator have done differently to ensure lives were saved and the war came to peaceful end?
I spent a lot of time trying to reflect on that issue. It’s also well covered in the book by Mark Salter ‘To End a Civil War’. I believe there were two main obstacles to peace.
One was the lack of cohesion in Colombo. At the time there were two main parties. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the United National Party. They were fighting over every issue. It’s not as if Chandrika did something Ranil would support or vice-versa. So the conflict between the two made it difficult to make a real offer to the LTTE. And it also made it difficult for the LTTE to believe that if they had agreed to say federalism that it could be carried out by the two main parties in Colombo throughout. We could not resolve the issues between the two main parties in Colombo. But maybe we could have worked closely with India and others who could have done that.
The second is that we could not convince Prabakaran that federalism was the solution to the conflict. We should have been allowed to speak a lot more to Prabakaran. Of course I was probably the non-Tamil in the world who met him most often. Very few foreigners met Prabakaran. That gave him a very wrong perspective of the world. He didn’t understand the outside world. If more foreigners were allowed to meet him it would have been much easier to convince him that he also needed to compromise.
Both sides need to compromise if you need a peaceful settlement.
Q Talk to us about this person called Prabakaran since you had so many meetings with him. Was he just focused on fighting or was he interested in enjoying what others in the world were experiencing?
He was this masterful military leader for a very long time until the last phase of the war. The LTTE was the only non-state entity in the world which had established its own air and naval forces.
His political understanding, unfortunately, was much less than this. He had very little understanding of the South, India and the outside world. Many Tamils from the diaspora gave him all the wrong advise. They told him to be non-compromising and strict rather than find ways out of the conflict.
To his credit he kept all promises. Whenever he promised to stop military action he stopped. He had full control of his forces. Balasingham was his main confidant and main advisor. As long as he listened to Balasingham nearly everything went right. When he didn’t listen to Balasingham he got it wrong.
When it came to personality he was a good cook. We had good meals together. But he was a guarded person, so it was not easy to get close to him.
Q You recently tweeted saying you knew the thinking of the then LTTE’s peace negotiator Anton Balasingham than most others. Had Balasingham ever revealed plans by the LTTE to carry out terror attacks before the LTTE actually executed those plans?
Absolutely not. And for the obvious reasons because Balasingham was never involved in the planning of military events or terrorist attacks. Balasingham was the civilian political advisor of Prabakaran. He gave very good advise on how to understand the South and how to understand the global context and how to approach peace. At the end of the day Balasingham was the bedrock of the peace process. He was the one who really moved it forward.
If Prabakaran had listened to Balasingham a lot of things would have been different. Balasingham told me that the LTTE might lose the East. That it might even lose the North because Prabakaran objected to Balasingham’s attempts. He (Balasingham ) thought that the peace process should continue and that the LTTE should not attempt a new military strategy.
You have a lot of what ifs in history. I’m sure if the LTTE took Balasingham’s advise the Sri Lankan Tamils would have been in a much better position today. They would have probably enjoyed some self-rule in the North within one Sri Lanka.
Q When and what was your last conversation with the LTTE leaders on the ground?
Our last conversation was on May 17, 2009. Pullidevan, who was the head of the LTTE peace secretariat, contacted and said they (members of the LTTE) wanted to surrender to the Army and requested for help. We said its far too late to offer any help on the battle field. That can never be done. That should have happened earlier. We advised them to hoist a big white flag, maybe make announcements through loudspeakers and make their intensions clear about wanting to surrender. Then we will inform the GoSL about your intention.
So we informed the GoSL. The others did the same. There were some Indian Parliamentarians and some embassies who got involved. The GoSL was properly informed about this. The day after we got the message that Pullidevan and Nadesan (head of the LTTE police unit) had been killed. I do not know the exact circumstances of what had happened, but it is very, very hard to believe that they were not killed in cold blood by the Sri Lankan Army. If so, it is a war crime. If people wanted to surrender they should have been allowed to surrender and brought to court.
Q From the information you had do you know if Prabaakaran also surrendered?
I have no information about that. All indications are that both he and his family were killed on May 18, 2009.
What’s interesting is that we made an offer, which I believe could have solved the problem at the time. The offer was backed by the US, US and India. It was a very strong offer.
We told Prabakaran that he was losing the war and that there was no way he could win this. The offer was that every civilian and every cadre would be registered, names would be taken down and the civilians would be moved out by ship to the South or abroad. And we would have the major backing of India and the US that no one will be harmed after they handed themselves over. We were confident that this would work, but in April 2009 Prabakaran rejected the plan. So in the end no key LTTE leader survived and thousands and thousands of civilians died.
Q Sri Lanka today is rebuilding after the war. Do you think military action may have been the best solution since the LTTE was not really giving in either?
First of all we must celebrate peace. Peace is very important. People are able to rebuild their lives. But I don’t think a military solution was the right one. I think a compromise should have been found. We also need to remember that the main political issue which has torn apart Sri Lanka has not yet been resolved. Tamils feel like second class citizens in the Sri Lankan State. This is often hard to understand for the Sinhalese.
But at least there is peace. Sri Lanka needs to develop economically. There is a lot of positives in Sri Lanka like in education and in health. It’s a beautiful place with a decent life.
The Rajapaksas have won an overwhelming majority in Parliament. Its time for them to reach out to Tamils to find a lasting compromise.
Courtesy: Daily Mirror