“Sri Lankans will have to find a solution, not foreigners” – Erik Solheim

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The Daily Mirror recently spoke to Erik Solheim, former peace negotiator, who acted as the main facilitator of the peace process in Sri Lanka from 1998 to 2005. Followers of the discussion on Twitter had the unique opportunity to pose questions and engage with Solheim directly, during this live DM Twitter Space. Excerpts of the discussion: 

  • First of all, I believe that Sri Lankans will have to find a solution to the Sri Lankan problem. Not foreigners. At the end of the day, Sri Lanka is the island of the Sinhalese, Muslims and the Tamils. It’s not the island of the Indians, Europeans or Americans.
  • If the UNP made a peace effort and made a deal with the LTTE, they would be afraid that the SLFP will not come along and undermine it, and vice versa. When (President) Chandrika tried to do something for peace, she was afraid that Ranil would undermine it at the time. That made peace very difficult and sometimes even felt that the two parties spent more calories fighting each other rather than finding a common ground to find a compromise with the Tigers.

 

 Q   What was the outline of the peace process in Sri Lanka?

 

 

In 1998 Norway was approached by the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga and the Tamil Tigers LTTE to be the third party in the peace process. They discussed other options but settled on Norway and that was mainly because it was a faraway country with no particular interest in Sri Lanka and acceptable to both parties, but also important to India and some other important foreign players in Sri Lanka.

The first couple of years everything was a complete secret in Colombo. Only (President) Chandrika herself and then Foreign Minister Kadirgamar were aware of the efforts on the LTTE side. But in 2000 after Chandrika was attacked and nearly killed by the Tigers she went forward and made our role public. In 2001 and 2002 we made the ceasefire agreement. For the first two years it was incredibly successful, no one was killed on either side.

The so-called Oslo Declaration was agreed upon which said that the two parties would explore a federal solution to the issue in Sri Lanka. When this happened the LTTE was in the peak of its power. Most people in Colombo said LTTE was dragged into the peace process and did it because they were weak. But they had just taken Elephant Pass and were very, very close to driving the Sri Lankan Army out of the Jaffna peninsula. The attacks on the airport had a crippling effect on the Sri Lankan economy. So the LTTE was at the peak of its power when they started the peace process.

Gradually the peace process collapsed and killings started to pick up on both sides. But the LTTE did more than the government side. When Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected to power the LTTE from the very beginning started to undermine his presidency with roadside explosives. The LTTE made it possible for Mahinda to be elected.
From the beginning Prabhakaran was a very successful military leader, not so successful as a political leader. He started to make every mistake in the book, started to act like a conventional army rather than a killer force. In my idea, it’s fairly clear that war crimes were committed by both sides at the end of the war. The LTTE kept the civilian population hostage for their cadres, while the Sri Lanka armed forces bombed areas with heavy civilian population and targeting civil institutions like hospitals. It is for international human rights commissions to decide, but I think it’s very clear that massive war crimes were committed.

  Q   You spoke about the lack of vision among the political leadership in Sri Lanka which complicated achieving a political solution. Can you elaborate?

 

The two main political blocs of Colombo at the time the UNP and the SLFP never were able to cooperate. They were competing for the same positions in parliament and government. The lack of ability to work together for the common ground by the two main parties in Sri Lanka was making the peace process very difficult. If the UNP made a peace effort and made a deal with the Tigers, they would be afraid that the SLFP will not come along and undermine it, and vice versa. When (President) Chandrika tried to do something for peace, she was afraid that Ranil would undermine it at the time. That made peace very difficult and sometimes even felt that the two parties spent more calories fighting each other rather than finding a common ground to find a compromise with the Tigers.

  Q   In hindsight with your role as a peace negotiator, was there anything you could have done to change the outcome? 

 

Norway could not really influence the main parties to find a common ground. Maybe we could have worked more closely with India. It’s hard to make some common efforts in Colombo polity to achieve that, it would have been difficult but we should have done more on that side. We should have done more to reach out to the religious leaders in Sri Lanka. I visited Kandy and on a number of times I spoke to the Mahanayakes but it would have been good to establish a better relationship with particularly Buddhist leaders, because religion is a very critical influence in Sri Lanka.

We should have been allowed to meet Mr. Prabhakaran much more. We should have made sure that more people met with Mr. Prabhakaran. His view was very narrow. He really didn’t understand India, he had done something as stupid and criminal as killing Rajiv Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India. He had a very limited world view. It would have been good if more people had met him. We tried to encourage American, European and Asian leaders to go meet him but this was stopped by the government. They did not want visits to Prabhakaran. It ended up being me and the Norwegians being basically the only foreigners who met him. As far as I’m aware during the last 15 years, Prabhakaran never met any Sinhalese, Indians. Basically everyone he met was Tamil and it would have been very good if he had got a broader perspective of the world.

  Q   You said several times that Prabhakaran didn’t have any knowledge on politics or geo-politics. And if you didn’t spend much time with Prabhakaran how were you sure that he didn’t have this knowledge? Can you clarify?

I spent quite some time with Prabhakaran and lots more with Anton Balasingham, the chief negotiator.
What may have been useful was to make other people meet Prabhakaran so that he could have learned more about perspectives, directly from the Europeans, Americans, Indians or others.
At the time if I were to tell Prabhakaran these views, he may not have liked to hear it from me. In my view, Anton Balasingham was the hero in the peace process. Sometimes Prabhakaran listened to Balasingham and sometimes not. When he didn’t, he mainly made mistakes like fighting as a conventional army, rather than a guerilla force, which came to an end in 2009. It was not exactly a federal solution which Balasingham strongly advocated.

  Q   After the Sri Lankan government took care of the LTTE, do you think now they have found Muslims as their new enemy, using Islamophobia for their own reasons? Can you throw some light on it?

There are two aspects to this. Muslim terrorism is a real thing. We had these horrible killings during the Easter Attacks. The government needs to take that aspect seriously. If you keep a very close watch over extremists groups, maybe they are sometimes also encouraged by foreigners. But besides that I think it’s very important to meet Muslims with respect, and all the four religions in Sri Lanka. Let’s remind ourselves that there have been extremists in all communities in Sri Lanka. Reaching out to Muslims in society and not making enemies out of Muslims is very important.

  Q   Even during the conflict Muslims were on the state side, and never against the state. But even before this attack there was a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment among especially Buddhist clerics. But I see the way they go after Muslims is pretty Islamophobic.

 

During the peace process the Muslims at a time demanded separate Muslim delegation to the peace talks. That was rejected by the LTTE who insisted that it should be a two-partite dialogue between the LTTE and the government. The end of that was that Muslim leader Rauff Hakeem was included in the government delegation. Overall Muslims in Sri Lanka have not supported a separate state.

  Q   The story since the end of the conflict has been various UNHRC attempts to resolutions etc. I find very little progress in those resolutions promoting peace and reconciliation. What can external actors, such as yourself do to foster reconciliation?

First of all I believe that Sri Lankans will have to find a solution to the Sri Lankan problem. Not foreigners. At the end of the day, Sri Lanka is the island of the Sinhalese, Muslims and the Tamils. It’s not the island of the Indians, Europeans or Americans. Resolutions will have to be found domestically. What the international community can do is to support. By far without any comparison the most important foreign actor is India. They have clearly demanded that the government should implement the 13th Amendment, which will be self-governance for Tamils, but within a Sri Lankan state. If the Sri Lankan government were to adopt that, there would be huge support from every corner of the world. There will be none objecting to that in America, Europe or China.

  Q   The 13th amendment is an Indian sponsored solution and a hugely contested issue in terms of implementation. I can’t see the interventionist measures from UNHRC in terms of accountability mechanisms, actually leading to reconciliation. It pushes the communities further apart. 

I believe for instance when Prime Minister Modi of India visited Sri Lanka, he asked solutions to the problem. Of course he didn’t impose them; he pointed the way forward which is to recognise that Tamils need some kind of self-government in the Tamil dominated North and East. And that Tamils need to be seen as first class, not as second class citizens in their own nation.
At that time I got a lot of criticism mainly from Sinhalese nationalists and sometimes extremists. Lately I have been criticized the same way or even worse by the remnants of the LTTE claiming that I was the person who killed Prabhakaran. All these accusations are completely meaningless and I don’t really bother much about the seriousness of those charges. We knew it was about the life and death of people, if we could bring peace to Sri Lanka, thousands of lives will be spared. A big regret is that we couldn’t succeed and a huge number of Sri Lankans were killed.

  Q   Do you have any regrets or note any failures on your part?

 

 

We could not enforce anything; we couldn’t assert any pressure on (President) Chandrika or Mr. Prabhakaran to enforce peace. We could only do what the two parties at the time wanted us to do. I don’t want people to discourage people to fight for peace, there are many conflicts in the world today. It’s a risky business, very often it will fail, but we need more, not less peacemakers in the world.

  Q   Would there be another armed struggle in Sri Lanka?

 

I potentially don’t see any future armed struggle taking place in Sri Lanka because I think the people of Sri Lanka are so tired of war. The main problem causing the conflict is the Tamil national question which is not resolved. The Sinhala people of Sri Lanka will do well to try to understand how Sri Lanka looks like from a Tamil perspective. Tamils feel like second-class citizens in their own nation, they cannot approach the Police or authorities in a language they understand. There is a need to find a settlement to the Tamil question to go forward.

 

  Q   How do you see the re-engagement strategy of the Sri Lankan Diaspora? How important is it to invest in it?

Diaspora has a huge role to play. The Sri Lankan Diaspora is mainly Tamil but also Sinhalese and they are successful. They are a highly educated group. In my nation Norway, young Tamils are doing much better than the average young Norwegians do in universities. This is the case in Canada, Germany and UK. If we could invest that (potential) into good schools, universities, jobs, factories or tourist spots in Sri Lanka that will take Sri Lanka forward. Diaspora should provide support to all peace efforts but they need to accept that the peace effort in Sri Lanka should be led by Sri Lanka itself. Diaspora should be encouraged to give critical, intellectual and moral support as well.

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Disclaimer: “Sri Lankans will have to find a solution, not foreigners” – Erik Solheim - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Latheefarook.com point-of-view

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