Dr.Chanaka Talpahewa’s book on the Norway-facilitated peace talks in Sri Lanka (2002-2006) is a welcome addition to the limited array of scholarly publications on the subject, or for that matter on Sri Lanka’s conflict itself. It is based on his doctoral thesis accepted by the University of Cambridge,with an addedPostscript that looks at the post-war [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Enter Norway the third party: A book that is topical even in post-war years


Dr.Chanaka Talpahewa’s book on the Norway-facilitated peace talks in Sri Lanka (2002-2006) is a welcome addition to the limited array of scholarly publications on the subject, or for that matter on Sri Lanka’s conflict itself. It is based on his doctoral thesis accepted by the University of Cambridge,with an addedPostscript that looks at the post-war period,after 2009. This review is written from the perspective of a general reader with an interest, but not expertise, in the subject.

The book begins with two introductory chapters that deal with the conflict background and a survey of conflict resolution (CR) studies, goes on to two chapters that chronologically follow the events before and during the ceasefire agreement (CFA) wherein the original data he had gathered are presented and discussed, and ends with a concluding chapter and the Postscript.

The main issue he addresses is the place of peaceful third party intervention in today’s belligerent global context. The importance of third party intervention has increased in recent decades, with evolution in the nature of intra-state conflicts and the failure of conventional international remedial mechanisms. The Sri Lankan case is considered important, since the Norwegians invested their time, effort and money in it in the reasoned belief that success was possible, if not probable, but left it in a situation where a direct military confrontation between the two protagonist parties was inevitable and a peaceful settlement impossible – as clear a statement of failure of third party intervention as one can imagine.

His research questions are important globally: What went wrong? Is it in the ‘tools’ or the ‘analysis’? Do third party interventions still have their place in the world, and if so with what precautions should they be embarked on? But while the research questions themselves may be relevant globally, the manner in which he has conceptualised, studied and presented them yields lessons for Sri Lanka, even in the post-war environment.

For the period 2002-2006, Talpahewa adopts the case study approach, which differs from the historical narrative approach in that it examines events to evaluate or critique causal mechanisms, whether hypothesised or theoretical, rather than trying to understand events in relation to accepted causal mechanisms. The Postscript is a concentrated,richly footnoted chronology of the events and problems leading up to 2015.


The book’s strength derives primarily from the enormous amount of original data he has gathered. These have come from semi-structured interviews with 109 ‘information-rich’ key informants from 14 stakeholder groups (including LTTE operatives and officials from Norway, US, EU and India), much of it in real time while the drama itself was unravelling.

The next source of its strength is the painstaking triangulation of each datum with empirical observations and archival sources (both primary and secondary) – which is when a datum transforms into information, or writing into scholarly work. As an unexpected outcome, this has shown up the parts of the picture that are in the dark, perhaps forever, due to an absence or paucity of archival data or ‘missing files.’

The book is richly footnoted and referenced, and some of the footnotes are priceless.

Talpahewa’s writing style also helps. It is matter-of-fact and unobtrusive, but also lively and flowing. The two chapters on the findings and their discussion are genuinely unputdownable.


The book has its weaknesses too. Sadly, a good copy editor could have spotted the numerous spelling and grammar errors.

The survey on CR studies is extensive but not thematically conceptualised and, therefore, not very accessible. Furthermore, perhaps because of the nature of the current CR literature itself, his survey has focused on how to facilitate discussion between conflict groups (or ‘group studies’), neglecting the social, political or economic backgrounds of groups and their importance to the outcome. In fact, one of his conclusions, quite unsurprisingly, is that this shifted focus was crucial to Norway’s failure. As one of his academic-interviewees articulated, “The Norwegian approach was the basic CR approach dominant in the West. Not related to identity-based conflicts.”

The addition of information boxes on important events and people interspersed within the text would have made the book accessible to the reader who is not conversant with Sri Lankan affairs.And while on information boxes, why not some pictures too?

Book Facts: ‘Peaceful Intervention in Intra-State Conflicts: Norwegian Involvement in the Sri Lankan Peace Process’ by Chanaka Talpahewa (2015; Ashgate) Reviewed by
Panduka Karunanayake


And now, to what I believe is the importance of the book, especially to Sri Lanka’s current situation.

Naturally, I was quite sad to read about how some of our most experienced politicos played ‘party politics’ so thoughtlessly and irresponsibly. The Norwegian facilitators have been able to use this subtly (but not with any difficulty) to their, and to the LTTE’s, advantage.

Talpahewa’s naming of our conflict merely as a ‘conflict’, rather than qualifying it with adjectives like ‘ethnic,’ ‘separatist,’ ‘military’ etc., is very wise. This enables us to see not merely the peace talks but also the subsequent military engagement and current predicaments in the wider context – right now, with the war over, this one point makes this book as topical as it would have been in the war years. It is salutary that he avoids labelling it even ‘ethnic,’ citing Smith who pointed out that “what are commonly called ‘ethnic conflicts’ are, in the end, conflicts over power or for access to economic resources, which comes in an ethnic mask”. Talpahewa points out that our conflict was in the 1930s about “the balance of power in parliament represented by the elites”, in the 1950s a language issue, in the 1960s a Marxism/youth issue on the background of a failing economy and increasing unemployment, in the 1970s “an intra-ethnic class and caste struggle with Marxist orientation” and in the 1980s, with the exclusion of the Muslims from the North, an ethnicity issue.

Talpahewa’s wider conceptualisation of ‘the third party’– including in it NGOs, professional groups, the media, specialised civil society and CR groups, humanitarian relief and development organisations, and human rights advocacy groups –is also important, and only too rational to us now. Indeed, on this broad canvas, it is almost as if ‘the third party’ has never ‘left us’ merely for the war having been won!

Future of the third party

The book takes added significance in the wake of a recent effort by Erik Solheim to put the blame for the failure of the peace talks on the international community, as reported in The Island of February 9, 2016 (see ‘Norway failed in SL for want of broader int’l involvement’ by Shamindra Ferdinando). Talpahewa’s discussion of the fifth and sixth rounds of the peace talks incontrovertibly reveals why, and how, the LTTE pulled out of the talks, and his subsequent pages also show how the international community failed to exert any pressure on the LTTE to return to the negotiating table.

Talpahewa tries to explain this ‘international community failure.’ He shows that this was more a case of refraining from an attempt than one of failing to attempt enough, and offers as the reason what he names ‘intransigence fatigue’ – a result of Norway “…growing tired of the continued stubborn and inflexible behaviour of the LTTE, which resulted in the undermining of its image as an effective and efficient third party facilitator”. The concept, while novel and interesting, also throws questions to Solheim and other facilitators: Was intransigence fatigue in fact the justification for the obvious inaction, making inaction a justifiable ‘solution’ to the unique ‘problem’ that Norway faced? Importantly the CFA had provided for the two protagonist parties to pull out, but should future CFAs have provisions for third party-pullout too?

Talpahewa cautions third parties in the future to be cognizant of this. Although the current CR literature speaks about judging ‘the ripe moment’ for third parties to step in, he argues that there should also be a discussion about ‘the ripe moment to leave’. The situation that Norway faced vis-à-vis LTTE’s intransigence – unlikely to be unique to one terrorist organisation – and Talpahewa’s scholarly study of it have yielded these novel concepts as lessons.


Most importantly to us, the book drives home the need to see our situation holistically and professionally, and shows the importance of career diplomats, international relations experts, scholars and think tanks to our destiny – something that the late Lakshman Kadirgamar envisioned so clearly. Talpahewa’s scholarly work throws a grim reminder of the need for professionalism in our approach. I do hope that the arrival of this book will enthuse some significant changes – starting perhaps with discussions, debates and more of scholarly publications and so on, in each of the many facets that have added complexity to our ‘protracted conflict.’ We have to go a long way to realize Mr. Kadirgamar’s dream, but we need to go there. This book is an alarm bell to our self-imposed slumber. 

The writer teaches medicine at the University of Colombo.


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