10th June 2001
Lanka wants Oslo but not Solheim
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Local and foreign media in Colombo first saw the above text in a press release put out by the Royal Norwegian Embassy on Friday afternoon. Some four hours later, a Foreign Ministry press release came out with the identical text.
The three sentence press release, though seemingly clouded in a great deal of mystery, was significant in many aspects and signalled the shape of things to come over the ethnic conflict and the 18 year long separatist war. Many an important message lay behind those three lines that formed a paragraph, though with the same voice, expressed separately by the Norwegian and Sri Lankan Governments. It was in a sense historic too.
It came on Friday, just the day after the nation had observed War Heroes Day, for the second year in succession. The first was last year. On that occasion, Cabinet Minister, C.V. Gooneratne, fell victim to a Tiger guerrilla suicide bomber, when he took to the streets of Ratmalana to receive public contributions, both in cash and kind, for troops.
Understandably, fears of another guerrilla attack last Thursday was uppermost in the minds of those in the higher echelons of the security establishment. VIPs were advised to intensify their security during public engagements and curtail movements. Many, however, took part in War Heroes commemoration ceremonies though the event was plunged into some confusion that day.
Several security establishments had national flags flying at full mast to mark the occasion. Others, particularly many Police establishments had them flying half mast in keeping with a Government directive declaring June 7 (Thursday) as a day of national mourning in memory of the King, Queen and other members of the Nepalese Royal family who were brutally massacred on June 1.
The weekly Cabinet meeting on Thursday was put off for Friday. During a four hour long session, in the evening, ministers ran through more than 60 items on the agenda, mostly mundane matters of official appointments or extension of services of State officials.
There were also some important issues like a proposal by Media Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa to establish a Media Training Institute and allied projects. Costing Rs. 240 million, the venture is to be located in the Rupavahini complex.
Defence officials believe Tiger guerrillas did try to attack VIP and other targets outside the north and east last Thursday but did not succeed. They say this is because of stepped up precautionary measures. One such incident that has confirmed their belief is the sky high smoke trail spotted by a police observation post near the Wilpattu jungles.
Around 9.15 am on Thursday, the smoke trail had been spotted over the skies of Gangewadiya in Wilpattu, just when a Sri Lanka Air Force Antonov 32 transport plane was heading towards Jaffna. It was cruising at an altitude of 20,000 feet, safely above the missile ceiling, when the smoke trail was spotted. (See box story on this page). But there were a string of other sporadic incidents in the Wanni, the North and the East but hardly serious enough to mar the observance of War Heroes Day like last year.
If the Tiger guerrillas did not succeed in flexing their military muscles in a bigger way in and outside the war front last Thursday to mar the War Heroes Day, the Government did flex its political muscles in a bigger way. Whilst observing War Heroes Day countrywide, it gave vent to an issue on the peace front that has been causing it serious concern, particularly in the recent weeks.
That was the role of Norwegian Special Envoy, Erik Solheim, the man who was tasked by the Norwegian Government to facilitate peace talks between the Government and the LTTE. Since his visit to the Wanni jungles and a meeting with Tiger guerrilla leader Velupillai Prabhakaran on November 1, Mr. Solheim engaged in shuttle diplomacy. He shunted from Oslo to Colombo, Wanni, London and also to many other world capitals raising hopes and fuelling euphoria of an imminent peace deal.
His eight month long peace marathon was to receive a further boost last month. On May 10, Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in a letter to his Norwegian counterpart, recalled that the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE have stated that "they share the overall objective of finding a negotiated political solution to the ongoing armed conflict that has plagued Sri Lanka for almost two decades."
Pointing out that the parties have jointly requested the Norwegian Government to facilitate the search for such a solution, Mr. Kadirgamar noted that "the Norwegian Government accepted this responsibility and designated Mr. Erik Solheim and Ambassador Jon Westborg to assist the parties to come together."
Showering praise on the two Norwegians, Mr. Kadirgamar declared "the indefatigable endeavours of these two gentlemen and their associates towards that end have earned the deep appreciation of the Government of Sri Lanka."
Ironical enough, the Government has, hardly three weeks later, found that the "indefatigable endeavours" of at least Erik Solheim no longer deserved the deep appreciation of the Government of Sri Lanka or its leaders. They made it clear that Sri Lanka, a sovereign state, did not wish Mr. Solheim to continue any further as a "facilitator" or be the Norwegian brokering peace with the LTTE.
What went wrong just when the contents of Mr. Kadirgamar's May 10 letter was still reverberating in far corners of the world where hopes were raised about impending peace talks ? All the reasons may never be known.
Mr. Kadirgamar himself has remained silent and left Colombo last night on an overseas tour. The Sunday Times has been able to piece together at least some of the reasons after speaking to well informed western diplomatic sources in Colombo as well as from sources close to official channels in Oslo, the Norwegian capital.
The Sunday Times learnt acute Government displeasure over Mr. Solheim came after his visit to Colombo last month. During this visit, he travelled to the Wanni on May 17 for a meeting with LTTE political wing leader, Thamil Chelvan, where during discussions the latter placed a demand for "de-proscription and ceasefire" as necessary steps for peace negotiations. On his return to Colombo, Mr. Solheim met President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar to report on the outcome of the talks and later flew to the United States.
He was later reported to have had talks with US Government officials on the outcome of his meeting with Mr. Chelvam in the Wanni and the subsequent meeting with President Kumaratunga and Foreign Minister Kadirgamar. One high ranking diplomatic source said "your Government appears to be deeply angered and humiliated by the reports of Mr. Solheim's talks with US officials." The Government appears to be of the view that some of the remarks made by Mr. Solheim were well beyond his brief as a facilitator and reflected his own prejudices vis-à-vis the Government. The source declined to elaborate, except to add that he allegedly tried to persuade US officials to pressure the Sri Lanka Government to de - proscribe the LTTE.
This surprising turn of events had come at a time when PA leaders were showing increasing concern about overwhelming media exposure Mr. Solheim was subjecting his own role as facilitator – regular newspaper interviews and internet discussions. The PA leaders were of the view that his conduct was in marked contrast to other Norwegian peace brokers who maintained a high degree of secrecy about the roles they played. One Government official cited the Norwegian mediatory efforts between the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Israel. Another instance, he said, was the silent diplomacy of Dr. Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State during President Richard Nixon's tenure. He made several visits to China, all in secret, before normalising US relations with that country.
A closer study of Mr. Solheim's conduct together with his public statements appears to have prompted the Government to go into action. Reports from Oslo said Foreign Minister Thorbjorn Jagland who has maintained a dialogue both with President Kumaratunga and Foreign Minister Kadirgamar in the past few months, received a telephone call last week. It was from Mr. Kadirgamar inviting Mr. Jagland to Colombo for a meeting with President Kumaratunga. The Norwegian Foreign Minister had promptly responded.
He arrived in Colombo on Thursday accompanied by Special Envoy, Mr. Solheim. It was only thereafter that Mr. Solheim learnt that he was not an invitee for a working dinner President Kumaratunga and Foreign Minister Kadirgamar had scheduled for Thursday night at "Janadipathi Mandiraya" . Only Mr. Jagland was an invitee. The discussion followed by a chat over dinner had lasted nearly five hours.
Details of the discussion were not immediately available. However, The Sunday Times learnt that there was a free and frank exchange of views including developments arising from Mr. Solheim's conduct. It has become clear that the Government has lost confidence in Mr. Solheim in respect of his discretion and impartiality.
It is well known that during the past so many months, Mr. Solheim has spoken very extensively to the media in various countries on the situation of the peace process. During some of the interviews conducted through Internet, people around the world raised questions. He had used the same core questions and answers suggesting that he has been on some kind of personal image building exercise. He, in fact, is said to be preparing to author a book on his role as facilitator.
The Government position appears to be that it engaged the Norwegian Government because of its excellent reputation for discretion and low key diplomacy. It feels Mr. Solheim's conduct is at complete variance with this Norwegian tradition. Both Norway and Sri Lanka had agreed on Friday night that any future dialogue should be conducted in secrecy. It had been agreed that both sides should issue joint statements from time to time on the progress. Friday's joint statement is said to be the first in this regard and jointly formulated by the two Foreign Ministers, the previous night.
The Government, The Sunday Times learnt, wants to make it clear to the international community that its dealings are with the Government of Norway and not with any individual – a position which is learnt to have been explained to Mr. Jagland during Friday's talks. The Government is also learnt to have re-iterated that it remains totally committed to the peace process but would like it to be handled discreetly, efficiently and professionally as it always hoped the Government of Norway would be able to.
The reference in the joint Norway-Sri Lanka press release that "It was decided that the Government of Norway will henceforth participate at a high level to advance the peace process involving the LTTE" is now clear. It is not about elevating the level of the ongoing Norwegian dialogue from a facilitatory role to one of a mediator. It is purely a way of saying diplomatically that Mr. Solheim will no longer play his role as a peace broker.
According to reports from Oslo, Mr. Jagland is said to be busy formulating how the renewed Norwegian facilitatory efforts should get under way and who should lead it. The likelihood of Mr. Jagland himself undertaking the task together with senior officials is not being ruled out entirely.
Official sources in Oslo say Mr. Jagland's initiatives now focus on getting the stalemated peace initiatives started "within weeks." These sources say he has returned from Colombo armed with a comprehensive account of the Government's position on some of the thorny issues related to peace talks. "He is armed with a full list of options and responses can be awaited soon," said these sources.
But how the LTTE would respond to these developments remains to be seen. This is not only in respect of the virtual ouster of Mr. Solheim as facilitator, the emergence of a new personality or personalities as new peace brokers and more importantly, the demands it has placed.
On the other hand, another question is whether Mr. Solheim would respond to the allegations against him or serve as a junior player in a new peace team.
Whilst these events fall in place, the security forces are staying alert but will not resort to any major offensive action. As revealed last week, the LTTE, however, appears to have set in motion its latest war plans which includes destabilising the East. There is a marked increase in their attacks on military and civilian targets.
Where their new offensives will reach when fresh Norwegian efforts get
under way is a crucial question. More so when some are demanding that there
should be peace at any cost. There are others, equally powerful, who differ.
They want peace at some cost. Both war and peace appear to be most costly.
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