Like Mary and her little lamb, Norwegians tend to follow Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW) wherever he goes. This was true during the north-east war, when, at Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s (CBK’s) request, the Norwegian Government began to intervene as a supposedly ‘honest broker’ in attempting to solve our ethnic conflict.
What CBK did not know was that by then many pro-LTTE Tamils had migrated to Norway. With its electorates [Ridings] being small, Norwegian politicians were increasingly under pressure to help the Tamil cause and treat Prabhakaran as an equal negotiating partner with the Sri Lankan State.
Though CBK invited them to lead the dialogue, Norwegian interlocutors were more at home with Prime Minister RW and his advisor Hameed. Norwegians had achieved fame as mediators in the Israel-Palestine conflict with Norway’s representatives journeying to the Middle East and the Israelis and Arabs visiting Oslo for consultations. Many a Palestinian leader went to Norway for all-expenses-paid medical treatment, including Arafat, as they could not be sure of Israeli sabotage in many mid European countries.
A Norwegian NGO named International Alert (IA) also attempted to mediate in Sierra Leone, where the military dictatorship was threatened by an uprising which was based in the diamond-rich and hilly interior provinces. IA also hired Kumar Rupasinghe, who had later married a Norwegian lady and was domiciled in Oslo, to lead a well-funded peace initiative in Sri Lanka.
He ran a very popular and profitable outfit in Colombo and became a man of influence among politicians here of different parties and ethnicities. He arranged with AI to host Sri Lankan parliamentarians from all parties on visits to Northern Ireland, Bangladesh, and the Philippines to study ethnic relations there, in the hope that they would be more informed when deciding policy regarding devolution. AI also supported the publicity efforts of NGOs to establish a dialogue between the Government and Tamil groups.
In the field of communications, the World View Foundation (WVF), which was initiated by Arne Fjortoft, a well-known TV and radio personality, helped with the establishment of television in the country. WVF also started many development projects in the Asian region and was a player in the media field in the ’80s.
Solheim and Sri Lanka
Erik Solheim came to Sri Lanka on the invitation of Arne Fjortoft as they shared a passion for development in the least-developed countries of South Asia. He originally wanted to work in Myanmar, but had to abandon the project as he was denied a visa. He came to Sri Lanka during the Wijetunga presidency, but interacted more with the then Prime Minister RW. However, in 1994 CBK won the election and a honeymoon period with the north began. Yet it did not go far, partly because CBK’s hand-picked negotiators were tyros who had to refer everything back to “Madam,” who was a quintessential micro-manager.
The well-intentioned ‘détente’ failed mostly because Prabhakaran feared the growing sympathy of ordinary Tamil people for the new Sinhala leader as shown in the popularity of ‘Chandrika bangles’ and ‘Chandrika sarees’ among their young womenfolk. Prabhakaran launched an attack and resumed the war. This blighted CBK’s radical initiatives to reform the economy along the ‘capitalist road’ mightily encouraged by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank representatives in Colombo. This paved the way for the United National Party (UNP) victory in 2001 and the ascent of RW to the PM’s position yet again.
During this time, RW engaged in discussions with the LTTE with the help of Norwegians like Helgessen and Erik Solheim. As a result Solheim was viewed with suspicion by the Sinhala electorate and he in turn established good relations with the LTTE, and particularly Anton Balasingham, who was – till he was estranged from the Supremo – the Foreign Policy Advisor to Prabhakaran.
Norway arranged for Balasingham to be treated for his ill health in Oslo. However, they could not influence the LTTE leadership to give a fair chance to RW in the 2005 Presidential Election, which would have enabled him to defeat Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR), who finally won the presidency by a few lakhs of votes. The LTTE enforced a boycott in the Tamil areas on the theory that a MR victory will promote Sinhala racialism and thereby push India and the west into supporting the LTTE and ensuring Eelam. He miscalculated and thereby wrote his own death warrant.
Solheim was the leader of the Green – a socialist party in Norway. Although not a major party, the Greens managed to get some of its members into the Parliament. Arne Fjortoft, who led a liberal party and was tipped to be the Minister of Development Assistance, failed to win a single seat for his party and had to bow out of politics. His place was taken by Solheim, whose party went into a coalition with the much larger Social Democratic and Christian Party. From 2005 to 2012, he was Minister of International Development and Environment.
As an ambitious politician, he could set his sights on the premiership of Norway. However, in 2012 he lost and did the next best thing by joining the United Nations as the Executive Director of the UN’s Environment Programme (UNEP). He had a good track record as Minister who pioneered the setting up of a world record by dedicating 1% of the Norwegian national budget as development assistance. He also created the Nature Diversity Act of Norway, which is considered to be the most important environmental legislation in the country for the last 100 years.
A good move
President RW has made a good move. He has moved fast in the political chess game because he is under pressure to show his international credentials. Though by a sad coincidence Norway has decided to close its mission in Colombo, Solheim with his global connections can help in raising bilateral assistance and multilateral trust funds to rejig our economy.
Perhaps even more importantly, RW has sent a message to Solheim’s friends and fans in the Tamil diaspora that he is a man with whom they can interact with confidence in both political and economic reforms and this is not the time to rock the boat. Finally, it is a message to the Tamil political parties who have been playing footsie with the Opposition that, as in the case of accepting the presidency, he is for the last man standing.