Closure of Norwegian Embassy in Colombo and other matters (Part II)

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Wartime Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa is one of those who strongly believed that the LTTE could be defeated. The Gajaba Regiment veteran didn’t mince his words when he met Norwegian officials on April 06, 2006 in the run-up to the closure of the Mavil-aru sluice gates in the third week of July 2006. According to a NorwegianForeign Ministry document in the public domain: “On April 06, 2006, Hanssen-Bauer and Brattskar had a tense meeting with Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. In response to a question about whether the ethnic and political problems in Sri Lanka could be solved by military means, Gotabaya answers, ‘yes’. The LTTE launched Eelam War IV in August 2006. Within two years and 10 months the Sri Lankan military brought the war to a successful end.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Colombo-based Norwegian diplomats burnt their fingers by seeking information from the Maldivian High Commission in Colombo as regards an Indian fishing craft (Sri Krishna) that had been commandeered by Sea Tigers and was intercepted and sunk by the Maldivian Coast Guard in May 2007.

The Norwegian Embassy reached the Maldivian HC soon after the Maldivians intercepted ‘Sri Krishna’ that was reported missing several days before while fishing in Indian waters.

The Island last week dealt with the Norwegian decision to close down its diplomatic mission in Colombo next year, two decades after Oslo arranged a highly controversial secret Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) (Not even the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga was aware of it till it had been signed) between the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The US, EU, Japan and Norway functioned as Co-Chairs to the peace process.

The Norwegian effort received the backing of New Delhi though the Indians were skeptical. Nevertheless, they fully cooperated.

The LTTE quit the negotiating table in April 2003, one year and three months after the signing of the CFA. But, the Norwegians went out of their way to appease the LTTE regardless of the consequences. The diplomatic intervention made on behalf of the Tigers involved in the incident in the Maldivian waters is a case in point. In a way, the LTTE and its sidekick the Tamil National Alliance failed to utilize the Norwegian effort to advance the peace process, whether sincere or not. Instead, the LTTE exploited the Norwegian initiative so much that the negotiating process finally collapsed. Their strategy undermined the then Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe, who meekly towed the Norwegian line. On the other hand, their actions bolstered the nationalist groups and those opposed to the Norwegian questionable initiatives.

Dissolution of Parliament and calling for fresh parliamentary elections in April 2004 should be examined against the backdrop of utterly irresponsible LTTE strategy and its appeasers. However, the elections allowed the TNA, with the LTTE openly stuffing ballot boxes in areas it controlled, to secure the lion’s share of seats in the then amalgamated Northern and Eastern Provinces. Peace Co-Chair EU in its Election Observation report declared that the TNA colluded with the LTTE. Unfortunately, Co-Chairs, including the EU didn’t take the report into consideration.

The incident in the Maldivian waters should be examined basically against the backdrop of the overall deterioration of the situation for want of clear guidelines to handle the peace process.

The Norwegians wouldn’t have intervened without being asked by the LTTE with a nod from a powerful Western interest. We must also note that Norwegian peacemaking efforts in Palestine with obvious American backing that brought about the Oslo Accord with much promise fared even worse with the Palestinians continuing to be humiliated and pasted by the Israelis almost on a daily basis. Where the hell is UNHRC? No war crimes there on your watch Michelle Bachelet? At least the UN should have given her a Nelsonian eye patch.

The Norwegian mission here definitely cleared its move with Oslo. However, by the time they got in touch with the Maldivian HC, Male had cleared Sri Lankan Navy intelligence to interrogate the apprehended LTTE cadres in the custody of the Maldivian. The Island reported the Norwegian intervention in its May 26, 2007 edition. The LTTE had used the ill-fated vessel to transfer weapons from its floating armories to Wanni and was on such a mission when the Maldivians intervened.

At the time the Maldivians sank Sri Krishna, Tamil Nadu had accused the Sri Lanka Navy of destroying that particular vessel. What Tamil Nadu as well as India never expected was another country intervening in the clandestine LTTE arms smuggling operation.

The Maldivian Coast Guard made the intervention on May 16, 2007. The Maldivian Coast Guard engaged a vessel carrying the Sri Lankan flag after the latter fired at a Maldivian fishing craft.

Following a 12-hour standoff, the Maldivians sank the craft flying the Sri Lankan flag.

Interestingly, there had been some Indian naval personnel onboard the Maldivian craft engaged in the operation against the Tiger commandeered vessel.

The LTTE would have never expected its cadres who commandeered the vessel to surrender as they are noted for biting their cyanide vials to prevent capture. The Maldivians however rescued five Tigers who jumped overboard from the sinking vessel, subsequently identified as Sri Krishna. The rescued men told the Maldivians and their Indian instructors (The Indians were helping the Maldivian Coast Guard personnel to familiarize with CG vessel Huravee, gifted by New Delhi to Male) the circumstances under which they were found in Maldivian waters, while engaged in transferring armaments from a floating warehouse.

Sri Krishna’s skipper, Simon Soza had been among the five rescued by the Maldivians. The Sea Tigers admitted that the remaining Indians were being held in a camp in the Vanni (Maldives sinks Indian craft hijacked by Sea Tigers – The Island May 18, 2007).

The sinking of the Sri Krishna was the second high profile incident involving an Indian trained terrorist group in the Maldivian territory. The raid on Male during the first week of November, 1988 by sea borne PLOTE (People’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) terrorists at the behest of a Colombo-based Maldivian businessman, Abdulla Luthufee was the first. Interestingly, the Indian Navy sank MV Progress Light commandeered by Luthufee’s mercenaries while trying to reach Sri Lankan waters.

Former Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris, who led the then UNP government’s negotiating team for talks with the LTTE in 2002-2003 period, appreciated the role played by the Scandinavian country.

GL, Palihakkara, Salter,Jehan comment

Mark Salter

Prof. Peiris, now a leading member in one of the SLPP rebel groups said: “The Norwegian government was significantly involved in the economic development of Sri Lanka, long before its association with the peace process. In particular, there had been substantial Norwegian support for infrastructure development, especially rural roads in the South of Sri Lanka, in addition to assistance in the fisheries sector, human resources development and community work of various kinds.

In the aftermath of its facilitation role in the peace process in the late 1990s and early in the present century, the government of Norway commissioned an independent evaluation of their role here with a view to ascertaining its strengths and weaknesses. I believe this study led to more useful insights.

We regret the decision to close down the embassy in Colombo for the time being, but understand that it is part of a worldwide evaluation process.

The government of Norway has announced its commitment to and support for the people of Sri Lanka will continue. We appreciate this assurance.”

In response to The Island query regarding the Norwegian pull out, Executive Director of the National Peace Council (NPC), Dr. Jehan Perera has sent us the following statement: “The departure of the Norwegian Embassy from Sri Lanka is a big loss to us. This is a time when we need all the assistance and friendship we can from the international community, especially those who have helped us in the past. The Ambassador has stated that Norway will continue to provide Sri Lanka with assistance and will engage in development activities. However, Sri Lanka will lose out because remote support is not the same as in-country support where Norwegian diplomats and embassy staff are in constant interaction with Sri Lankan people. We also need to acknowledge the huge investment Norway made to help us resolve our ethnic war through negotiations and a political solution. They supported organisations such as the National Peace Council to build bridges between the communities, which we continue to do. Norwegian support for peace-building work got reduced after the failure of the ceasefire agreement and peace process. NPC did not receive Norwegian financial support over the past decade. But the capacity for peace-building work that Norway supported us to achieve, and which continues to remain with us, is a cause for gratitude and we regret very much the closure of their embassy.”

The author of ‘To End a Civil War: Norway’s Peace Engagement in Sri Lanka’ Mark Salter said: “The closure of the Norwegian Embassy in Colombo ends an important chapter in relations between the two countries. At the joint invitation of the government and the LTTE leadership, in 1999-2000 Oslo accepted the role of peace facilitator between the two parties. To their great credit, over the following decade the Norwegians stuck at their appointed ‘peace diplomacy’ task through thick and thin – possibly the most sustained instance of external engagement with a peace process to date. And this including when, in the aftermath of the return to war in autumn 2006 and the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) the Norwegians brokered in 2002 looked increasingly dead in the water, they became the subject of increasing domestic attacks, notably by both the government itself and Sinhala nationalists who tarred them with the brush of ‘White Tigers’.

As we know, theirs (and other) peace efforts ultimately failed. A messenger, however, is only as good as the message they carry – a fact that often seems completely lost on the legions of Lankan critics of the Norwegian’s ‘messenger’ role. As Erik Solheim and others have long since acknowledged, Oslo undoubtedly made mistakes along the way – notably the failure to foster an initial bipartisan Sinhala political consensus in support of the peace process. Ultimately, however, the failure of the peace process comes down to the failure in their different ways of both parties to continue to engage seriously with the process itself.”

For those who are genuinely interested in knowing the Norwegian-led process, perusal of Salter’s work is a must. Former BBC journalist and analyst, Mark Salter who launched ‘To End a Civil War: Norway’s Peace Engagement in Sri Lanka’ in Colombo several years after Norway released ‘Pawns of Peace: Evaluation of Norwegian peace efforts in Sri Lanka (1997-2009)’ meticulously addressed the issues. Salter’s work help the readers to understand what really went wrong if the official Norwegian examination didn’t achieve what was expected. Chr. Michelsen Institute and School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, jointly put out that report. The team responsible for the official version comprised Gunnar Sørbø, Jonathan Goodhand, Bart Klem, Ada Elisabeth Nissen and Hilde Selbervik. The Wikileaks revelations should be of pivotal importance for those keen to know the developments here.

One-time Foreign Secretary H.M.G.S. Palihakkara who served as the Governor of the Northern Province during the Yahapalana administration, has sent us the following statement in response to a query posed to him: “It does not look like a singular decision by one country, at least optics-wise, since both countries announced the intended closures within a space of a few months this year, Sri Lanka being the first in April and Norway following in September. Embassy closing of course is news one can hardly celebrate esp. in bilateral diplomacy. The notion that reciprocity is the first lesson in diplomacy still has some currency. And that factor may have weighed in at some stage of this decision-making process. However, speculating on that won’t help either side.

What is of promise is that both countries have been quick to emphasize that the decisions are derived from ‘structural’, rather than bilateral considerations and will not impinge on relations.

Sri Lanka has further qualified closure as ‘temporary’ while Norway has recommitted itself to ‘further the constructive and friendly relations’. It would be reasonable to say these relations have endured many decades and vicissitudes including a complicated and even controversial ‘peace process’ with the LTTE through a vain facilitation effort by Norway.

The Norwegian envoy in Colombo, Ambassador Trine Jøranli Eskedal in her media comments has quite professionally put these positives at a higher notch saying ‘ We will continue to maintain our warm bilateral relations with Sri Lanka and development assistance will also continue.’ So the ‘distancing’ signified by these closures at first glance, may be more apparent than real. The fact remains that SL has benefitted from several billions of NKR bilateral ODA for projects ranging from the well-known Cey-Nor in the North to extensive rural development in the South. Since modern diplomacy is often about building on what you have rather than imagining the ideal, it is up to both sides to do just that-build on the positives.”

Whatever the views expressed by interested parties regarding the planned Norwegian closure of its embassy here the fact remains the move is detrimental to Sri Lanka, especially at a time the country is experiencing its worst post-independence economic crisis. Norway spent lavishly on its Sri Lanka project. Civil society groups benefited immensely. A simmering dispute between the Norwegians and the late Dr. Kumar Rupesinghe, one of the largest beneficiaries of the Norwegian funding highlighted the controversial relationship between the embassy and the civil society. The Norwegians ended up squandering their taxpayers’ money even on the LTTE and its front organizations. That is the undeniable truth.

But, perhaps their biggest mistake that had been influenced by interested parties here was the assertion as acknowledged in ‘Pawns of Peace: Evaluation of Norwegian peace efforts in Sri Lanka (1997-2009)’ that the LTTE cannot be defeated.

The Norwegians as well as other Co- Chairs operated on the premise the Sri Lankan military couldn’t match the LTTE’s strategy or the fighting will. Those who benefited from the Norwegian largesse propagated that myth wherever possible like their Western pay masters. That assessment was proved wrong in May 2009 when a soldier shot Velupillai Prabhakaran on his head on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon.

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