Solheim Looks Back On The Peace Process
- ‘Only Gotabhaya thought a military victory was possible’ – Erik Solheim
Minster of the Environment and International Development, Erik Solheim was speaking last week at a seminar in Oslo which was followed by the launch of the evaluation report of the Norwegian peace effort in Sri Lanka.
The evaluation had been performed by CMI in Bergen and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, and dealt with the Norwegian peace effort in Sri Lanka between 1997 and 2009.
Solheim said that none other than Gotabhaya Rajapaksa thought a military victory was possible. Though he was close to Indian intelligence throughout this process, he observed that at no time did any Indian official hint that a military victory was possible until mid 2008. At this time he had begun seeing a gradual shift in the attitudes of M. K. Narayanan and others where they believed that the government could wipe out the tigers militarily. Before that no one thought it was possible: the United States, India and Colombo thought it was impossible. So it was a complete change from what the peace process was based on until that point.
Solheim claimed that the Sri Lankans tried to manipulate situations every single day during the whole 10 year period, for their own business interests. He said that while the Norwegians may be fools, they were not that foolish that they did not realise that attempts were being made by Sri Lankans to manipulate them.
He thanked Gunnar and his team for a very valuable and interesting report and said that even though he had not been able to study everything in the report, he would go through it in detail, in order to see what more can be done to assist Sri Lanka in the future and more importantly how this evaluation can help Norwegian efforts in other peace processes.
He said that Norway is involved in one way or another in about 20 peace processes in the world, not as a main actor as in Sri Lanka, but in supporting the parties and other international actors in bringing peace. As such it is very valuable to analyse all these experiences, and added that this may be the first time, that one party involved in the peace process is commissioning a report into all the positives and negatives of what happened.
Norway should have withdrawn from the peace process
He broadly agreed with most of the comments made in respect of the fact that Norway should have withdrawn from the peace process, but had one major reservation. He said, “I think indeed that Norway should have withdrawn from the peace process when it was clear to everyone that the government of Sri Lanka wanted a final military victory. There were no doubts in Washington, or Beijing, or Colombo or Vanni about that. Indeed at this point we should have withdrawn”.
He explained that the Tamil Tigers asked them to continue and the government of Sri Lanka also to some extent, asked Norway to continue. Civil society and all the peace groups in Sri Lanka also asked Norway to continue, as did the United States of America, India and the European Union. He said that neither Vidar Helgesen nor he could sit in Oslo and decide to pull out when everyone else in the world wanted Norway to do its best under the most difficult circumstances.
He said that it is important to view the outcome of Sri Lankan events cautiously. Reminiscing, Solheim said that Richard Armitage and he had agreed that the war for American Independence by George Washington would have taken a completely different turn, if George Washington had been hanged as a terrorist and the UK had continued to occupy the US for another fifty years.
If Pirapaharan had not forced Tamil voters to abstain from elections in 2005
Speaking on the issue of what would have been the outcome if Pirapaharan had not forced Tamil voters to abstain from voting and a few more “ifs” in the peace process of Sri Lanka; Solheim said that if Tamil voters had not been forced to abstain from voting in 2005, Ranil Wickremesinghe would have been elected president and not Mahinda Rajapaksa. He claimed, “Everyone knows that”.
Solheim believes that the death of Dr. Anton Balasingham had a great impact on the LTTE leadership since after his death, they made serious mistakes. “Prior to that, they were quite clever both in the political and military field. In the three years after Balasingham’s death, there was not one single meaningful political or military initiative from the Tamil Tigers,” he observed.
He felt that Karuna’s split from the LTTE, was irreversible and had a great impact on the group.
He said that if Chandrika Kumaratunga and the other actors had to be able to move fast after the after the Tsunami, and capitalised on the new situation which existed in Sri Lanka where the Tamil Tigers assisted the army and similarly the army assisted Tamils there could have been a new beginning. But the whole process was long drawn out and finally nothing positive happened. He added that another feature was that no one believed that a military victory was possible.
Issues highlighted in the report
Speaking on what can be learned from all this, Solheim said that a number of issues had been highlighted in the report. He said a key factor of the peace process was patience. “The Indians told us, please be patient, if you cannot be patient go away, get out of the way you will only complicate matters. This will take a decade at the minimum. So we learned to be patient and you need patience in any peace process,” he said.
With regard to understanding the international context correctly, Solheim agreed with Gunnar’s observation that maybe the government had a military victory because it understood the international situation and the tiger leadership better. He said, “Rajapaksa understood it was basically possible to build up a coalition of China, Pakistan, Iran, and a number of new actors in the Sri Lankan context to get on the one hand, military support from these new actors and on the other hand to also use these new actors to put pressure on old actors,” he added.
Other issues extended to the inclusiveness of the Muslim community in Sri Lanka as it was very important in all peace processes to be as inclusive as possible. Solheim said that they “were fighting throughout to particularly include the Muslim community in Sri Lanka in a much broader way in the peace process… It was not easy, mainly, because the Tamil Tigers were very reluctant to see a separate Muslim dimension to the struggle.”
The three main issues in Solheim’s perspective of the peace process
He said that these issues need to be contemplated in the case of future situations; first on the peace priority list is whether there were other ways to influence the Tamil Tigers leadership in a more effective way. He mentioned that the only access to Pirapaharan was via the Norwegians. He said that they had met Pirapaharan possibly ten times.
During the peace process, in addition to the Norwegians, Chris Patton from the EU had met him once and Akashi from Japan met him maybe once or twice, except for that it was just Norwegians.
Solheim believes that if more actors had been able to meet the LTTE, then they would have opened up more and the chances for a successful peace process would have been greater.
He said that after Balasingham negotiated the Oslo declaration, which was drafted by Milinda Moragoda and Solheim, which stated that the LTTE will explore Federalism, he (Balasingham) had taken it to Pirapaharan and the latter rejected it. However, Solheim believes that had there been more influence by more actors on the LTTE leadership, the result may have been different.
Pirapaharan was the LTTE
Solheim claims that Balasingham had asked him to please understand that Pirapaharan is a warlord and not a member of a democratic society nor does he understand the international community. He said that in reality Pirapaharan was the LTTE. He would speak with some of his military leaders and also consult with Balasingham but ultimately he would make the decisions.
Solheim said that only one Balasingham could advise Pirapaharan, possibly because he was ten years older than Pirapaharan.
The second issue, Solheim claimed were the two governing political parties at that time. The UNP and the SLFP had a long history of not working together during most of the peace process. Chandrika was the President while Ranil Wickremesinghe was the Prime Minister and they were not on speaking terms even though both believed they were doing whatever possible to further peace.
He said that perhaps Norway could have done more in bringing together those two estranged parties, but felt that it was outside Norway’s mandate, which was to negotiate with those in power in Colombo and the Tamil Tigers, and that any further intervention would mean intervening in the domestic affairs of the State of Sri Lanka.
Solheim also referred to the agreement facilitated by Dr. Liam Fox in the late 1990s. He said that there were lots of opportunities for the Indians and others to bring the two parties together. He acknowledged that he did not know to what extent the peace agreement was discussed in the beginning with Chandrika. The ceasefire agreement was signed soon after Ranil Wickremesinghe’s political victory. Chandrika was side lined.
Should more have been done to bring Chandrika into that agreement?
Solheim agreed that more should have been done to bring Chandrika into the agreement. He also accepted that Norway became very unpopular by that time. He believes that the main reason for that was whenever people saw Pirapaharan or the LTTE speak with the Norwegians (because no one else was doing so) it appeared to the Sri Lankans that Norway was very close to the LTTE. He said, “I am very clear we should have done more to reach out to the Buddhist clergy in Colombo in Sri Lanka and the Mahanayakes in Kandy …” However, he claimed that the Norwegians were clearly advised by Chandrika Kumaratunga not to spend too much time on the Buddhist clergy.
He accepted that much more should have been done to reach out to Pirapaharan to accept a federal state system and also that more should have been done to bring the UNP and SLFP together.
If you want to receive support from the USA will you kill a US president?
Solheim believes that the war on terror was not the main problem. On the one hand the LTTE made enormous mistakes with high profile assassinations of Sri Lankan politicians which gained them nothing from any political or military point of view. He asked rhetorically what benefit did the LTTE gain by assassinating Rajiv Gandhi; after all if someone wants to receive support from the USA would they kill a US president? He went on to say that India was the main source of support to the Tamil Tigers.
Norway should have done more to reach out to the Buddhist clergy.
Solheim stated that soon after Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected president, the LTTE commenced killing large numbers of Sri Lankan army soldiers. He said that the Norwegians had then intervened and Pirapaharan had promised to stop and did so. There were no killings by the LTTE until the Government began killing Tamils and the LTTE responded.
LTTE did not start the peace process at the weak point
Solheim observed that the LTTE did not engage in the peace process from a position of weakness – rather, they were at the peak of their power during 2000 and 2001.
He said that the LTTE was very close to capturing the Jaffna peninsula; it had destroyed the Bandaranaike Airport in Colombo bringing the economy of the Sri Lankan state to zero and they were at the peak of their power at the time they started the peace process.
He observed that there is not even one critical remark about Norway’s role in the peace process on WikiLeaks.
Solheim went on to give examples of killings by the Sri Lankan state, such as the assassination of Joseph Pararajasingham (MP) on Christmas day while at Mass, and the assassination of a famous Editor in Colombo, Lasantha Wickrematunge. He agreed that there is no doubt that these assassinations should be condemned and those responsible brought before Court.
He believed that it was regrettable that the LTTE was banned. He said that from the point of view of Norway, it was not possible to mediate if one party is banned. He said that throughout the peace process India had veto power over it. Milinda Moragoda and he had been to New Delhi on many occasions and at no time were any major steps in the peace process taken without informing India.
In his concluding remarks, Erik Solheim said, that he still believes that the peace process could have produced a very different result.
Excerpts from ColomboTelegraph