Sunday, 11 November 2012

Tigers’ two-track policy: talks and assassinations

War on terror revisited : Part 68

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Having won the Dec. 5, 2001 parliamentary polls comfortably, the UNP-led United National Front (UNF) moved swiftly to finalise a tripartite Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) with the LTTE and Norway. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe didn’t even bother to discuss the CFA with the service chiefs, leaving the then Ministers, Prof. G. L. Peiris and Milinda Moragoda in charge of the initiative. The UNF felt that the military could jeopardise the peace process or at least delay the signing of the CFA. The government also feared that those military chiefs close to President Chandrika Kumaratunga could pass vital information as regards the Norwegian-led initiative to the President cum Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces.

A simmering dispute between the government and the army over the exposure of a secret Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) project had soured relations between the UNF and the military. In fact, the UNF exposed the ongoing operation directed at LTTE leaders behind enemy lines in the run-up to the Dec. 5, 2001 election.

Ministers Prof. Peiris and Milinda Moragoda played a critical role in negotiations leading to the finalisation of the CFA on Feb. 23, 2001. The government didn’t even brief its own parliamentary group as regards the forthcoming CFA.

The then Norwegian International Development Minister Erik Solheim said that he had had a long discussion with LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham in London and Prof. Peiris and Moragoda in Colombo as regards the main requirements. Solheim was responding to NGO Guru Kumar Rupesinghe, who at that time played a pivotal role in the Norwegian initiative (Negotiating Peace in Sri Lanka: Efforts, failures and lessons Volume II). Rupesinghe was the Chairman of the Foundation for Co-existence responsible for propagating the Norwegian ‘peace’ message in Sri Lanka. Rupesinghe quoted Solheim as having commented on his meetings with Balasingham, Prof. Peiris and Moragoda: "We spent tens of hours discussing issues and concerns and the looking at the text. The two parties made a lot of changes and brought it back to us and it was discussed orally. Then again I drafted a new proposal, which took about two months. It was signed on the 22n of Feb, 2001. A period of six to eight weeks were spent in discussion and writing the agreement."

It would be pertinent to mention that the Norwegians successfully concluded negotiations on the CFA in the wake of a four party Tamil alliance led by the TULF calling for the lifting of the ban on the LTTE (imposed consequent to the truck bomb attack on the Dalada Maligawa on Jan 25, 1998), removal of ‘economic embargo’ and the declaration of a ceasefire to pave the way for the resumption of talks.

On the morning of Aug 29, 2001, the then Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar declared that the PA government was ready for a mutually agreeable ceasefire with the LTTE ahead of peace talks and said it was considering a fresh invitation to the LTTE to begin negotiations. Addressing the media at a hurriedly arranged briefing at the Information Department, government’s chief negotiator said: "There has been a re-assessment of policy on this matter and we are now ready for a mutually agreeable ceasefire before talks." It was a dramatic shift in the PA’s policy, as pre-talks ceasefire was a major LTTE demand which had stalled the Norwegian initiative. The government made the offer immediately after the collapse of talks between the PA and the UNP as regards a joint statement on the Norwegian-led peace process. Originally, the offer to declare a pre-talks ceasefire was planned as part of a joint statement issued by the PA and the UNP (Kadirgamar says government ready for truce, considers talks offer––The Island Aug. 30, 2001).

Kadirgamar declared that there was a ‘lull in the peace process’ while insisting that President Kumaratunga hadn’t given up the Norwegian initiative. "The Norwegians are still very much in the picture and I am still very hopeful," Kadirgamar said.

Obviously, President Kumaratunga and Minister Kadirgamar didn’t envisage a damaging split in the PA leading to an influential section led by the then SLFP Gen. Secretary S.B. Dissanayake and Prof. Peiris switching their allegiance to UNP leader Wickremesinghe. An irate Kumaratunga sacked Minister Dissanayake in the first week of Oct. 2001. Wickremesinghe picked leading PA dissident Prof. Peiris as the chief negotiator for talks with the Norwegians as well as the LTTE. The Norwegian government clearly followed a two-track policy. On the one hand it pursued talks with the LTTE, which compelled the TULF-led Tamil National Alliance to declare it as the sole representatives of the Tamil speaking people in the run-up to the Dec. 5, 2001 parliamentary polls. And on the other hand, the Norwegian government had parallel talks with the GoSL and the UNP.

Norwegian role

Norway first offered its services as a peace facilitator to Sri Lanka as well as the LTTE way back in January 1991 during President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s tenure. The Norwegian offer was made in the wake of the government struggling on the northern front. Following 14 months of direct talks (May 1989-June 1990), the LTTE resumed hostilities with the massacre of several hundred police officers and men in the second week of June 1990. Within a few weeks, the SLA lost the Kandy-Jaffna A9 Main Supply Route (MSR) to the Jaffna peninsula. The overland MSR remained in the hands of the LTTE until Jan 2009 until the then Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s army regained the vital supply line. It was perhaps one of the army’s greatest feats.

The army couldn’t meet the LTTE’s challenge. Having realised the difficulties on the war front, even the late President Premadasa sought Norwegian help to negotiate a fresh peace deal with the LTTE. At the President’s behest, the then Foreign Minister A.C.S. Hameed contacted the Norwegian government through one-time Norwegian politician, Arne Fjotoft, Secretary General of the Worldview International Foundation. The LTTE hadn’t been interested in entering into a fresh dialogue with President Premadasa as it would have meant giving up on their military initiative. In a series of operations, the LTTE evicted the army from all its bases north of Vavuniya up to Elephant Pass. About six months after President Premadasa’s attempt to involve the Norwegians, the LTTE launched a massive multi-pronged assault on the Elephant Pass base. The LTTE almost succeeded in overrunning the base, if not for the SLA’s largest amphibious operation codenamed Balavegaya to break the siege.

Shortly before the assassination of President Ranasinghe Premadasa on May Day 1993, Minister Hameed had met LTTE representatives in Geneva under the auspices of the Norwegians. Subsequent police investigations revealed the LTTE infiltrating President Premadasa’s inner circle during secret talks to carry out the assassination. Premadasa’s successor, D. B. Wijetunga didn’t pursue the peace initiative. Instead, he declared that the LTTE was a terrorist organisation and should be treated as such. After the change of government in Aug. 1994, the PA, Prime Minister Kumaratunga invited Norway to help monitor a truce agreement between the PA and the LTTE finalised in the second week of Jan 1995. Norway, Canada and the Netherlands agreed to deploy a ceasefire monitoring mission. Some of the monitors arrived in Sri Lanka, where they had the opportunity to meet both government and LTTE representatives. While the deployment of international truce monitors took place under Norwegian leadership, the LTTE resumed war on the night of April 19, 1995 by sinking two gunboats at the Trincomalee harbour. Within 10 days, the LTTE shot down two fixed wing transport aircraft killing about 100 security forces personnel. The Norwegians remained silent.

Having resumed the war in April 1995, Prabhakaran invited Norway to play the role of a mediator. The fresh LTTE move involved Norwegian NGO FORUT, leading to Norwegian representatives meeting Anton Balasingham in a bid to arrange a meeting between the GoSL and LTTE representatives in Bergen in Feb 1996 on the sidelines of a seminar organised by the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI). This attempt was made in the wake of the Catholic clergy pushing for fresh negotiations under Norwegian supervision (Evaluation of Norwegian peace efforts in Sri Lanka, 1997-2009). Norway commissioned the CMI and Jonathan Goodhand of the School of Oriental and Asian Studies (SOAS) in London to evaluate the process. The report was released in Sept. 2011 with the participation of Solheim and Moragoda at a well attended function in Oslo.

The bid to resume a fresh dialogue was made close on the heels of the government regaining Jaffna town in early Dec. 1995. The armed forces brought the entire peninsula under their control in May 1996, with the liberation of Vadamaratchchy.

Another secret move

Another covert Norwegian move launched in Jan. 1997 to bring the warring parties back to the negotiating table came to light only after the LTTE had made an abortive bid to assassinate President Kumaratunga at her final presidential campaign rally on Dec. 18, 1999. On the same day, the LTTE assassinated retired Gemunu Watch veteran, one-time Army Chief of Staff, Maj. Gen. Lucky Algama at a UNP rally at Ja-ela. Had the LTTE succeeded in eliminating President Kumaratunga, that particular secret wouldn’t have become known.

It would be of pivotal importance to examine the circumstances leading to the signing of the CFA between the UNF and the LTTE on Feb. 23, 2002. The CFA was signed on the basis of talks initiated by President Kumaratunga. Had she been killed in the Dec. 19, 1999 suicide attack, Wickremesinghe would have won the presidency, leading to a CFA between him and Prabhakaran.

The LTTE adopted a similar strategy under different circumstances in the run-up to the presidential election in 1994. Having led the PA to a resounding victory at the Aug 16, 1994 parliamentary polls, Kumaratunga initiated direct talks with the LTTE. The go-between was Wasantha Raja, the then presenter and producer of BBC’s Sinhala service Sandeshya. Kumaratunga gave the go ahead to Raja in May 1994, even before the parliamentary polls. Her move led to a first round of talks on Oct. 13 and 14, 1994. On the day before the second round of talks (Oct 23, 1994) the LTTE assassinated UNP presidential election candidate Gamini Dissanayake at a political rally at Thotalanga. President Kumaratunga was compelled to put off the second round of talks due to strong feelings among the Sinhala community. Eventually, the second round of talks was also held in Jaffna on Jan 2, 1995. (CBK-LTTE talks will be discussed in a separate installment).

Coming back to the 1999 peace initiative, President Kumaratunga secretly invited Norway to bring the LTTE back to the negotiating table in May. This was in the wake of Solheim initiating talks with the LTTE following the organisation making representations to him in Oslo. There is absolutely no doubt that Solheim would never have come to the attention of the LTTE if not for him being in Colombo during Jan-Feb 1998. The contact was made through Arne Fjotoft, Secretary General of the Worldview International Foundation, who also helped President Premadasa to establish contact with Norway in the aftermath of heavy military defeats on the northern front in the middle of 1990.

Those who believed that the LTTE had accepted Norway as the facilitator after President Kumaratunga had given the group an opportunity to pick one out of five countries, conveniently forget that Norway sent a message through Norwegian NGO Forut inviting Norway to be the mediator soon after the collapse of talks with the PA on the night of April 19, 1995.

The failed assassination bid helped President Kumaratunga win a second term. SLFP General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena in his memoirs admitted that the UNP candidate Dissanayake had posed a formidable challenge to the incumbent President.

Although President Kumaratunga led the PA to victory at the parliamentary polls in Oct. 2000, a series of clever moves by UNP leader Wickremesinghe deprived her of a majority in the House a year later. The President called for early general elections on Dec. 5, 2001. She lost badly, leading to the formation of the UNF administration and signing of the CFA on Feb 23, 2001.

US push

The change of government in Norway on Oct. 19, 2001, may have changed that country’s position on the Sri Lankan peace process. Newly appointed Foreign Minister Jan Petersen had been quite doubtful about the Norwegian role in Sri Lanka. But, he changed his position and threw his weight behind Solheim’s initiative due to US influence. Petersen acted swiftly to take up the issue with Kadirgamar, who appreciated the Norwegian role. On the night of the Dec. 5, 2001 general election, a confident Wickremesinghe requested Westborg to go ahead with preparations for talks with the LTTE (Evaluation of Norwegian peace efforts in Sri Lanka, 1997-2009). Premier Wickremesinghe and his top aides were in a hurry. While the Sri Lankan top brass were denied an opportunity to examine the CFA, Norwegian military experts worked behind the scenes to finalise the agreement with regard to a gradual withdrawal of government forces from the Jaffna peninsula, forward defence localities etc. The CFA had the blessings of India, though President Kumaratunga, in spite her being the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, was denied the opportunity at least to peruse the document.

War on terror series dealt with the situation from 2002 to 2009 including naval and air operations during this period.