By Mark Salter
(The writer is the author of ‘To End A Civil War: Norway’s Peace Engagement in Sri Lanka’ [Hurst, London, 2015])
Erik Solheim’s recent visit to Sri Lanka – his first in 16 years – elicited its fair share of media attention, with ‘what’s he doing back here again?’ the obvious starting point for much of the coverage.
On the back of an announcement soon after Solheim’s arrival that he had been appointed as the President’s Climate Change Advisor, interviews in this paper and elsewhere focused on the myriad environmental challenges facing Sri Lanka, the title of one ‘My appointment is not a paid job – Solheim’ doubtless answering the question on many people’s minds.
Most recently, ‘Rajasinghe’ – presumably a nom de plume – has penned an interesting profile of the man.
First a brief interest disclosure: I have known Solheim for 10 years, having authored a book on Norway’s engagement in Sri Lanka during the final 10 years of the civil war that draws extensively on in-depth interviews with him and Vidar Helgesen (also referenced by Rajasinghe).
Today I am equally a firm friend and (on some issues) a staunch critic of the man. And as anyone who’s read it will hopefully attest, my book is a critical account of the Norwegian’s role as third-party facilitators in the Lankan conflict.
So much for preliminaries. When it comes to Rajasinghe’s profile, the first thing to say is that it’s both wide-ranging and generally well-informed.
Second, and equally importantly, its overall take on the Norwegian role is a good deal more nuanced than a great deal of Sri Lankan media commentary of the last 20 or so years. It also displays a welcome balance between attention to the war years and more recent developments relating to Solheim and his public role.
That said, with respect to the ‘war years,’ the piece suffers somewhat from a series of factual errors, some minor, some more significant. More importantly, it rehashes a number of questionable judgements of events during Norway’s engagement in Sri Lanka.
First, facts. Referencing the period after Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW) had been elected Prime Minister in 2001, it’s suggested, initially absolutely correctly, that ‘although CBK had invited them [i.e. the Norwegians] to lead the dialogue [between the GoSL and LTTE] they were actually ‘more at home with RW and his adviser Hameed’. Whoever Oslo felt most comfortable with it can’t have been Hameed, as he had died over a year before RW came to power (although Solheim had certainly met him previously).
At an earlier stage Solheim had indeed been a party leader, as Rajasinghe asserts, but of the Left (‘Venstre’) party, not the Green-Liberals, with whom his colleague Arne Fjortoft was associated. Moreover, Solheim’s first visit to Sri Lanka was not during ‘the Wijetunga presidency’ but some years later in 1997, and at the invitation of Fjortoft, who was living in the country at that point.
When it comes to questionable judgements, first off is the suggestion that Norwegian interest in Sri Lanka was chiefly the result of political pressure on Oslo from the Norwegian Tamil diaspora. Quite apart from its tiny size – 10,000 in a population of around 5.5 million – there is no evidence whatsoever to support this oft-repeated contention. What undoubtedly did influence Norwegian interest not just in the Tamils but the conflict as a whole was a combination of several factors.
First, a late 1990s request from the LTTE to Oslo, to which Rajasinghe alludes, communicated via Solheim, to help get Anton Balasingham out of Sri Lanka to have the kidney transplant needed to keep him alive (this in quiet consultation with CBK).
Second, with the military situation seemingly in deadlock by 2000-2001, once they had decided to explore the ‘negotiated peace’ option, CBK and her Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar considered their options. In the end, they opted to invite Norway as facilitator – Colombo was always careful not to use the term ‘mediator’ to describe the role – because they wanted, in Kadirgamar’s words as reported by Solheim, a ‘lightweight facilitator,’ preferably ‘from far away and with no economic or post-imperial interests in the country’.
Finally, Norway’s earlier peace efforts in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, culminating in the 1993 Oslo Accords, as well as its lesser-known but equally significant mediation track record, in a raft of other conflicts from Guatemala and Mali to Colombia and Nepal, undoubtedly served as a useful calling card in Sri Lanka.
Ranil vs. CBK
Rajasinghe’s suggestion that the Norwegians preferred Ranil to CBK, seemingly in the way some people prefer coffee over tea, is both inaccurate and unhelpful. Inaccurate because the issue was not personal but political preferences.
From the start of the facilitation effort in 2001, it was clear to the Norwegians that there was little love lost between the President and Prime Minister (as became evident a decade later, however, these things can and do change).
Unhelpful because it obscures the fact that, particularly following the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA)’s February 2002 signature, the Norwegians viewed CBK’s attitude to the emerging peace process as critical, verging on the obstructionist. What they failed to appreciate at the time, however, was CBK’s resentment stemming from Ranil’s failure to consult her during the run-up to the CFA.
Meanwhile, seemingly ignorant of this fact, Solheim’s view was that Ranil was delivering on the peace process and was accordingly viewed as the Norwegian’s ‘go-to’ man for taking it forward. As they freely admit now, this was a crucial mistake.
Ultimately the Sri Lankan peace process failed, but what it can still do is provide lessons for efforts to resolve conflicts elsewhere. One such relates precisely to the vital importance of the bipartisan political consensus in support of a peace accord so conspicuously lacking in Sri Lanka. Instead, the SLFP-UNP party political division within the majority Sinhalese community remained etched into the peace process.
Accordingly, while an uneasy official truce between CBK and Ranil was preserved throughout the six rounds of peace talks held between 2002 and 2003, this eventually broke down following the October 2003 tabling of the LTTE’s Interim Self-Government (ISGA) proposal and CBK’s subsequent seizure of key Government ministries, ostensibly on grounds of national security.
In fairness to the Norwegians, the importance of bipartisan political support for a peace process was not clear to them at the time – in itself a reminder of the importance of a thorough understanding of local context for external mediation efforts. If they had taken a look around the world at other such processes, however, they might have noticed, for example, that the 1998 Good Friday Agreement was reached only after achieving bipartisan support from the Conservative and Labour parties in the UK House of Commons.
Returning to the positives, it’s heartening to note Rajasinghe’s reference to Solheim’s role in establishing communication channels between the LTTE and GoSL. Heartening because it shows an implicit understanding of the fact that the Sinhalese anger directed at Solheim over the years for his perceived ‘White Tiger’ role obscures the important truth that peace negotiations by definition involve talking to both sides.
In his facilitator’s role as principal LTTE liaison, Solheim inevitably spent plenty of time talking to – and being photographed talking to – Prabhakaran. From this fact, many Sri Lankans continue to draw the conclusion that he became the best of friends with the LTTE supremo and thereafter did all he could to favour them in their dealings with the Government. (There are all sorts of outlandish variants to this theory, too, all equally crackpot, involving money, gifts, women, houses, and so on).
That conclusion is, however, plain wrong. The Norwegians in general and Solheim in particular invested time in talking to Prabhakaran for the simple reason that that was what their assignment required them to do. If Solheim had had his way, moreover, more international politicians would have done the same, as he believed that the best way to coax the LTTE supremo out of his blinkered, isolated worldview would have been to expose him to as many different views and perspectives as possible.
A couple of further reflections. First, Rajasinghe spends some time recounting the story of International Alert (IA) and, to a lesser degree, Arne Fjortoft’s wartime involvement in Sri Lanka. Since the latter was for a long time led by a Sri Lankan, Kumar Rupesinghe, this is perhaps understandable.
What he misses in doing so, however, is the fact that throughout the CFA period and beyond, the Norwegians invested significant resources in supporting a wide range of civil society organisations and projects drawn from all communities and across the country.
In other words, Oslo backed its political engagement with economic support. While one can certainly criticise aspects of the way in which the resources involved were distributed – as the Norwegians themselves did in a later evaluation exercise – the overall attempt to ‘walk the walk’ as well as ‘talk the talk’ should surely be given due recognition.
Second, with regard to the 2005 Presidential Elections, Rajasinghe argues that the LTTE-enforced Tamil boycott in the north and east stemmed from their belief in the ‘theory that an MR victory [would] promote Sinhala racialism and thereby push India and the West into supporting the LTTE and ensur[e] Eelam’. This is one of a number of standard accounts. Almost certainly, however, they are all wrong.
There is very good evidence to suggest that the boycott stemmed from an agreement brokered between the leaderships on both sides involving the payment of significant sums of money to the LTTE side for organising the boycott, with more to come if MR actually won the election. Want to evaluate for yourself the evidence for this contention? Read my book and decide for yourself – it’s all in there.