15th April 2001
Confusion reigns over talks
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|For the third time in suc cession
since Norway's advent to facilitate peace talks, another unexpected development
has plunged the Government into confusion.
Now, it is over Norwegian Ambassador, Jon Westborg's journey to the Tiger guerrilla dominated Wanni jungles last week. His mission was expressly to seek dates for peace talks and ascertain quantities of petrol, diesel, cement, fertilizer and other items to be allowed into Wanni. This is when restrictions are lifted on banned items as a fore-runner to the dialogue.
Hopes of these talks, possibly in May, this year, were raised after Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, told Parliament during the budget debate that a date would be made public before the end of the month. Evidently, six months of shuttle diplomacy by Norway's Special Envoy, Erik Solheim, had cleared much ground so both, the Government and the LTTE, could reach an accord, at least on the dates and on relaxing existing trade restrictions. The venue, a foreign capital, had already been agreed upon.
Besides the date, even if Government leaders were unaware until last week, another issue had become a thorn in the flesh for the LTTE. Special Envoy Solheim had been working on what was originally dubbed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) a document that was to embody concessions which each side would make to the other.
For the Government, it was to relax a ban on a number of items like cement, petrol, diesel and fertilizer. In return, Tiger guerrillas were to assure they would not carry out any offensive action in areas outside the North and East, the two designated operational zones. Though such an assurance seemed comforting, particularly to the political leadership, a formal acceptance of it by the Government, through an agreement, amounted to a tacit but public acknowledgement that the guerrillas did have a strike capability outside the operational zones. It would thus be a safe guess to say that such an acknowledged capability was significant enough to surmount preventive measures taken by the nation's Security Forces and the Police. Otherwise, the need to seek or receive such an assurance is of no use.
Before Mr. Westborg left Colombo, the Government changed the title draft Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to an Agreement on Humanitarian Measures. The thinking behind this move was the belief that an Agreement was a more definite and conclusive treatise than a Memorandum of Understanding.
This draft Agreement on Humanitarian Measures was to take most of the ten hours of discussion Ambassador Westborg had with LTTE Political Wing leader, Thamil Chelvam, on April 6 (Friday) and April 7 (Saturday). That made it clear the LTTE entertained apprehensions over the change from an MoU to an Agreement. Either way, neither a Government representative nor an LTTE member was going to place their signatures on such a document. The guarantee of its existence, for both sides to follow, was to be its authentication by Norway, the honest broker.
On April 7 (Friday) afternoon, Mr. Westborg and his Embassy colleague, Thomas Stangland, had hardly boarded a Sri Lanka Air Force helicopter for a flight to Colombo when the LTTE's highly efficient propaganda machinery had gone to work. An LTTE statement posted on the Tamilnet website told the story. It declared that Mr. Chelvam had placed before Mr. Westborg two new demands "as essential pre requisites for the commencement of political negotiations" lift a ban on the LTTE and reciprocate their unilateral ceasefire.
PA leaders who learnt of it were both shocked and surprised. In the absence of a statement on its own letter-head, some wondered whether it was in fact from the LTTE. They awaited Mr. Westborg's return to clarify matters. He was due to arrive at 3.30 p.m. that Saturday but his helicopter ran into bad weather and was forced to land at Anuradhapura. Eventually, he arrived at the Police Park grounds around 5.30 p.m. and drove to his residence.
He was inundated with calls, particularly from the media. He told The Sunday Times that Saturday night "it would not be appropriate for me to comment on anything right now. I am trying to reach President Kumaratunga to give her a full report. I will thereafter say what I have to say."
But the Presidential Secretariat was unable to give Mr. Westborg an immediate appointment. Foreign Minister Kadirgamar, the key player in the Norwegian facilitated peace process, was away in Oman and had to return to Colombo. He therefore broke his self imposed silence. Whilst awaiting an appointment with President Kumaratunga, his Embassy in Colombo issued a statement on April 8 (Sunday). Among other things, the statement made the following significant points:
"A number of concerns and questions raised by the LTTE concerning a proposal for building of understanding and creation of a foundation for direct talks between the parties were clarified. Possible alternatives were discussed.
"The discussion revisited some important issues also raised in the past, and the LTTE expressed concern that negotiations between the conflicting parties took place in an environment absent of hostilities and present of respect and understanding. These issues were presented as concerns that needed deliberation and it was agreed to refer a couple of questions to further consultations in the near future.
"Norway will continue its efforts of consultations between GOSL and LTTE."
Mr. Westborg eventually met President Kumaratunga last Tuesday (April 10), two days after his return to Colombo from the Wanni. Foreign Minister, Kadirgamar, who had returned from Oman that day, was also on hand. It is here that the Westborg-Chelvam talks in the Wanni and the contents of last Sunday's press release on the subject were discussed..
Mr. Westborg's ac count of his talks with Mr. Chelvam, The Sunday Times learnt, contrasted sharply with the LTTE statement that appeared on the Tamilnet website. He is learnt to have explained that the LTTE had placed no "pre-requisites" or demands for taking part in the peace talks. However, during the penultimate stage of the discussions, Mr. Chelvam had referred to the need to lift the ban on the LTTE, reciprocate their unilateral ceasefire and raised other relevant issues. The ten hours of talks, Mr. Westborg had explained, were conducted in a very cordial atmosphere leaving him with little doubt that the dialogue would continue. Why then did the Norwegian Embassy press release refer to "concerns that needed deliberation" ? Why did it say " it was agreed to refer a couple of questions to further consultations in the immediate future ?" Were they not references to "pre requisites." ?
The Sunday Times has learnt that Mr. Westborg's reply was that the press release referred to the draft Agreement on Humanitarian Measures a subject which he had discussed at length with Mr. Chelvam. He was firm in his assertion that no demands in the form of "pre-requisites" or "pre conditions" for peace talks were placed by the LTTE.
As asserted in his Embassy's press release, Mr. Westborg declared that Norway will continue its efforts of consultations between the Government and the LTTE. He said he would apprise Special Envoy, Mr. Solheim of the new development. That meant the Norwegian facilitators would seek clarification from the LTTE. It would of course have to come before any further efforts are made to seek dates for peace talks or a relaxation of trade restrictions. With the meeting over, Mr. Westborg drove to a tourist resort in Sigiriya for a short holiday.
When the National Security Council met after a long break last Monday, the issue of Mr. Westborg's visit and the LTTE's statement came up for discussion. President Kumaratunga, Commander-in-Chief quite rightly pointed out that the Government was still not aware of the official position. She said she was meeting Ambassador Westborg the next day (Tuesday) and would learn first hand about the details.
With that meeting now over, more questions have come to the fore. If Mr. Westborg's account of the talks were correct, how authentic was the LTTE statement posted in the Tamilnet ? Was it the work of a group of LTTE hard liners who wanted the talks scuttled ? Or was it diplomatic posturing by Mr. Westborg, who did not want to divulge all details for fear that talks would be derailed ? As a rule, experienced negotiators in conflict resolution do not tell parties to the issue critical comments or other vital matters that endanger a continuing dialogue. Was it one such instance ?
Within hours of Mr Westborg's meeting with President Kumaratunga, one important thing became very clear. There was no more doubt that the LTTE statement in the Tamilnet website was their own. Proof of this came during the clandestine Voice of Tigers, radio heard in the Wanni. In its nightly Tamil news bulletin on April 7 (Saturday), just a few hours after Mr. Westborg had departed, gave a lengthy account of his talks with Mr. Chelvam and spelt out the LTTE's position. It was now official.
Security Forces establishments in the Wanni routinely record the VoT Tamil broadcasts. An English translation of that Saturday night's bulletin, obtained by The Sunday Times showed it was identical in content to the news release put out on the Tamilnet website. This is what it said:
"Mr S.P. Thamil Chelvam, the Head of the Political Wing of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE), has called upon the government of Sri Lanka to lift the ban on his organisation and reciprocate positively to the LTTE's unilateral cease-fire as essential pre requisites for commencement of political negotiations. This message was conveyed through the Norwegian Ambassador Mr Jon Westborg when he had lengthy discussions with the political leader in Wanni, northern Sri Lanka yesterday and today morning.
" Mr Jon Westborg and an official of the Norwegian Embassy, Mr. Tomas Strangland, arrived in Mallavi, Wanni, yesterday afternoon and engaged in a marathon discussion for six hours last night with LTTE's Political Wing leaders. The discussions continued for more than two hours in the morning today before the Norwegians left for Colombo. Along with Mr. Thamil Chelvam, Thangan, Mr. Pulidevan and Mr. George were present during the discussions.
"Presenting the LTTE's position on peace talks Mr. Tamil Chelvan insisted that a climate of peace and goodwill conducive for talks should be created before the commencement of political negotiations. The LTTE has always emphasised the necessity and urgency of the cessation of armed hostilities by the parties in conflict before talks, Mr. Thamil Chelvam told the Norwegian diplomat.
"We have argued that it would be difficult to hold talks whilst engaging in a bloody war. Irrespective of the belligerent stand taken by the Sri Lanka government, the LTTE unilaterally declared ceasefire and has been extending the truce for the last few months. This measure clearly demonstrates our sincere determination to seek peace and a negotiated settlement. So far Sri Lanka has not positively responded to our goodwill gesture. But it is absolutely essential that both the parties cease all armed hostilities and maintain peace as an essential condition for the resumption of peace talks," Mr Thamil Chelvam said.
"Mr Thamil Chelvam also impressed upon the Norwegian delegation of the necessity of lifting the ban on the LTTE by the Sri Lanka government to create a goodwill atmosphere for peace talks. We are glad to note that the Sri Lanka government has finally realised the importance of talking to Tamil Tigers to resolve the ethnic conflict. The realisation entails a recognition that the LTTE is the preponderant representative organisation of our people. Therefore, the time has come for the Kumaratunga government to lift the ban on the LTTE and embrace us at the peace table as the authentic representative of the Tamil people. We will not under any circumstances participate at the peace negotiations as an out-lawed outfit, the LTTE's political wing leader told the Norwegian Ambassador.
"The major portion of the discussion time was devoted to the "Memorandum of Understanding," the proposals submitted by the Norwegian Government to de-escalate the conflict and pave the way for talks. Having expressed their dissatisfaction over the alterations by Sri Lanka of the title of the document into an "Agreement on Humanitarian Measures" the LTTE delegation insisted that the original version of the title as 'Mamorandum of Understanding' should be retained.
"The LTTE delegates also expressed their displeasure over the distorted comments made by Mr. Kadirgamar on this crucial document, the implementation of which is vital for the normalisation of civilian life in the north-east and peace and stability in the south.
"Mr Thamil Chelvam explained in more depth and detail the requirements of fuel and cement in the Wanni region for agriculture, industry and for the reconstruction of the infra-structure totally destroyed by the savagery of the war. Expressing his dismay over the Sri Lanka government's determination to restrict the flow of these essential items vital for the economic life of the Tamil people, Mr. Thamil Chelvam urged the Norwegian envoy to persuade Sri Lanka to allow the fuel and cement to satisfy the requirements of the war affected civilian masses. Mr. Westborg assured the LTTE's Political Wing representatives that he will discuss the issues raised by them with the Sri Lanka and Norway governments."
The latest confusion prevents the Government from making a formal statement, its response to what was contained in the LTTE press release. Since Ambassador Westborg has said that no "pre requisites" were placed, the Government would have to wait until the Norwegians clarify the official position of the LTTE. Interestingly, such a response would have to come in the next ten days. Otherwise, the Government would be able to gauge the position on its own. That is when the LTTE declares whether or not it would extend its unilateral ceasefire when it expires on April 24. That is the Government's dilemma.
Ambassador Westborg's claim notwithstanding, there are very strong indications that the LTTE will not extend its unilateral ceasefire when its ends. There are also very strong indications that they would not compromise on the two tough new demands lifting of the government ban and reciprocating their unilateral ceasefire. These were new demands and were never placed with Mr. Solheim when he began the role of a facilitator in November, last year. It would be a test of strength for the Norwegians to persuade the LTTE to withdraw these new " pre requisites."
The Government imposed a ban on the LTTE on January 27, 1998, in the wake of the LTTE bombing of Sri Dalada Maligawa. Since then, the Government has been campaigning for other countries to ban the LTTE. President Kumaratunga has repeatedly made it clear talks with LTTE could go on despite a ban. She likened the UK ban on the IRA and how the Government there were negotiating with the group. As for reciprocating the ceasefire, the Government has rejected the offer from December, last year, when it was first made.
President Kumaratunga was wise in doing so. She said in the past, the LTTE had used a ceasefire to both re-arm and re-group. The ongoing unilateral ceasefire by the LTTE is no exception. They have re-armed and re-grouped. They are now ready for another phase where they want to challenge the new firepower of the Security Forces. Hence, the tough new demands which the Government will find impossible to concede.
Even if the Government has been alert to this, its woefully inadequate and totally incompetent media (or propaganda) apparatus has not been able to successfully counter the confusion caused by the LTTE during the past six months of peace talks. This is the third such time.
The first was when Mr. Solheim flew secretly from Colombo to the Wanni for talks with LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. Hardly had he left the area, when an LTTE statement posted on the Tamilnet website declared Mr Prabhakaran was prepared for peace talks. He had then set out two "pre requisites" create conditions conducive for peace talks by de-escalating the war and lift a so called economic embargo. The news caused so much confusion that military commanders in operational areas inundated Army, Navy and Air Force headquarters with calls to ascertain whether the war was going to be stopped.
The second occasion was when the LTTE announced a Christmas eve ceasefire last December. Five different ministers expressed five different views, all purporting to be views of the Government. It took a while before a final statement set matters to rest. And now, another LTTE statement is causing more confusion, at least to the Government, about the future of peace talks.
As Commander-in-Chief, President Kumaratunga has not only enhanced the firepower of the Security Forces by spending billions to further modernise their equipment, but has also unprecedentedly won the support of several Western countries. They are also providing assistance to further modernise and improve skills of the Security Forces. With the military balance, at least for now, in her Government's favour, this is not to suggest that war is not the only way out of the present conflict.
But all the gains and all the strengths of her Government are being
buried by the incompetence and ineptness of her own media apparatus. That
is in addition to a censorship. They are unable to tell the Government's
own story not only to Sri Lankans but to the entire world. If President
Kumaratunga does not act promptly to remedy this situation, increasing
confusion will not only deny to her Government a better public understanding
but also deprive the Security Forces and the Police their own due for the
sacrifices they are making. The confusion will therefore continue.
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