The roadblocks are gone: That’s the easier part

The roadblocks are gone: That’s the easier part

“New brooms, in time, become old brooms” – (my string hopper-woman)
By Dr. John Gooneratne
Formerly of the Sri Lanka Foreign Service

Venturing into Colombo Fort a few days after elections, one found that the roadblocks and checkpoints one had got accustomed to were no longer there. The roadblocks and checkpoints have been proliferating on our streets, after each terrorist attack by the LTTE on targets in the Colombo area and elsewhere. The number of incidents over the last several years do not need recounting. But, that is no reason for continuing them, I guess. Perhaps it was the suddenness with which they disappeared. I wasn’t sure whether it was because of some new security policy adopted by the new government, or whether it was the new broom syndrome at work. Time will tell.

Negotiating has already started

The UNP victory seems to have added to the season’s good cheer, joining the line up of Christmas, New Year and Thai Pongal. The LTTE, though, has not lost its touch for strategic moves. Taking the initiative, and putting the government on the defensive, the LTTE on 19 December announced that it will observe a month-long ceasefire, beginning at midnight on Christmas-eve, 24 December 2001, till midnight 24 January 2002. The LTTE statement said: “Our decision to cease armed hostilities and observe peace during the festive season should be viewed as a genuine expression of goodwill, demonstrating our sincere desire for peace and negotiated political settlement.” The LTTE statement goes on to say that the ceasefire will be extended “if the Sri Lanka government reciprocates positively to our goodwill gesture and ceases armed hostilities again our forces and takes immediate steps to remove the economic embargo and other restrictions.” The statement also mentions that: “We are confident that the new government will utilise this space of peace to implement goodwill measures to create congenial conditions of normalcy in the Tamil homeland by withdrawing the economic embargo and other restrictions and prohibitions imposed on our people.”

The government responded on 21 December that it would reciprocate by observing a ceasefire for the same period, and further added that “as part of its initiative to bring about an atmosphere conducive to invigorating the peace process, (they) will take immediate and concrete steps to improve living conditions for civilians in the uncleared areas.”

The government statement, in its opening, also made clear the basis on which it is responding. “The United National Front (UNF) has received an overwhelming mandate from all the communities in Sri Lanka to achieve a negotiated political solution within an undivided Sri Lanka.” All this has a familiar ring. The LTTE wants “congenial conditions of normalcy” created before starting to talk about a negotiated settlement. And the government side says talks have to be on the basis of “an undivided Sri Lanka.” These are the other kind of roadblocks that now need attending to.

Roadblocks to negotiations

The government has announced that it has asked Norway to re-start its earlier “third party” role, which came to a dead-end in June 2001. And with the negotiating about negotiations having already started between the government and the LTTE, it is instructive to examine the earlier attempts at negotiations with the LTTE to find out why they did not result in anything positive. Perhaps we can become aware of what were the roadblocks to progress.

Different governments have negotiated with the LTTE on three previous occasions. In 1989/90 under President Premadasa, in 1994/95, and again in 2000/2001 under President Kumaratunga. In the first two attempts, the two sides talked to each other direct; but by the time of third attempt, the two sides were not on talking terms, and so had to use the services of a “third party” (Norway).

Premadasa – LTTE talks

The negotiations conducted in 1989/90 are best remembered for the fact that President Premadasa provided large quantities of arms and ammunition to the LTTE during negotiations. By this, the LTTE which had been pushed into a corner by the IPKF, and were short of arms and ammunition, were given a new lease of life. And what a healthy adult it has now become!

The negotiations with the LTTE can be broken into two parts. The first part was from April 1989 to March 1990, at which time the IPKF left Sri Lanka. Though the talks between the LTTE and the government were elaborately structured, it was more structure and minimum content. All that the LTTE talked about at these sessions was the need to drive out the IPKF from Sri Lanka. It was sweet music to President Premadasa’s ears. Each side wanted the IPKF out, for their separate reasons. The LTTE were allowed to use the joint statements issued at the end of each session to indulge in anti-Indian statements, resulting in acrimonious battles of communiques between the Indian High Commission in Colombo and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The IPKF left Sri Lanka in March 1990. And it was only in meetings held after the IPKF departure that political issues come into the forefront. President Premadasa assured the LTTE leadership that “early action” would be taken to “fill the political vacuum” in the North and the East as a result of the non-functioning of the North- East Provincial Council.

The LTTE delegation urged that steps be taken to dissolve the Provincial Council immediately and to hold fresh elections. At the same time, they also wanted the President to repeal the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution if they were to contest the elections to the North East Provincial Council.

It was clear that the government was facing a lot of problems in securing the North and East, now that the IPKF had departed. The LTTE had already walked in to fill the vacuum. The LTTE were now militarily controlling the North and East, and restricting the freedom of movement of the Sri Lankan security forces. The LTTE strategy had worked; and the government’s lack of a military strategy was badly exposed.

On 6 June the government spokesman, State Minister for Defence, Ranjan Wijeratne, announced the government would, as a matter of urgency, be introducing amending legislation to the Provincial Councils Act that would help overcome the current impasse where there was no provision to dissolve the Council. The legislation was ultimately passed in July, just a month later. But apparently a month’s wait was too long for the LTTE. On 11 June 1990 ten soldiers were killed in Kalmunai by LTTE cadres and all police personnel from the Batticaloa, Akkaraipattu, Kalmunai, Eravur and Valaichchenai Police stations were forced out by “orders” from LTTE. Over 700 of these police personnel were later executed by the LTTE.

The LTTE thus managed to avoid having to discuss or agree to a political settlement. This was to be repeated in later negotiation efforts, raising justifiable doubts over whether the LTTE was really keen about negotiating a political settlement, or just manipulating the peace process.

Negotiating through letters

On 19 August 1994 Mrs. Chandrika Kumaratunga was sworn in as Prime Minister. In the background of having campaigned on a platform of talking to the LTTE with a view to bringing the ethnic conflict to an end, within two weeks of assuming power, on 1 September, the government announced the relaxation of the economic embargo that had been in force in the North since 1990. The government also said it would avoid major offensive operations by the security forces, including routine aerial bombardment and shelling which had been taking place before.

The LTTE, on its part, responded immediately on 2 September by releasing ten policemen who had been in their custody since June 1990. The LTTE also said they wished “to reiterate that we are prepared for ceasefire and unconditional talks.”

Prime Minister Kumaratunga wrote to Prabhakaran on 9 September, expressing her appreciation of the release of the 10 policemen. And picking up the offer to negotiate made by the LTTE, she asked him to nominate representatives to begin discussions with the government. Thus began a lengthy correspondence between Mrs. Kumaratunga and Prabhakaran. The correspondence continued till mid-April 1995. To understand the progression of the negotiations one has to study the contents of the correspondence with the discussions that took place in four rounds of talks. The first round was on 13 and 14 October 1994; the second round on 2 January 1995; the third round on 14 January 1995; and the fourth round on 10 & 11 April 1995.

The very divergent approaches of the two sides to the negotiations surfaced at the very first meeting. The joint statement, issued on 14 September, which gave the positions of the two sides separately, indicated the different strategies. This divergence kept surfacing in the subsequent correspondence also. Mr. Prabhakaran explained the approach of the LTTE in his letter to Mr. Ratwatte on 21 December 1994: “We have insisted from the very beginning and reiterated over and over again that the initial stages of the peace negotiations should address the immediate and urgent issues faced by the Tamil people. You will appreciate that what we have been insisting is that the most urgent issues that arose as a consequential effect of the military offensive operations of the State against our people should be addressed before we engage ourselves in analysing the root causes of the armed conflict.” And as Mr. Prabhakaran stated in the same letter: “What we wish to emphasize is that the peace process should be advanced in stages.”

The approach of the government was explained as follows in a letter dated 29 December 1994 from Mr. Ratwatte to Mr. Prabhakaran: The alleviation of the hardships faced by the people of the North-East, the cessation of armed hostilities between the Government and the LTTE, are all preliminaries – essential no doubt, which should simultaneously lead on to the primary objective – which is the formulation of a political package of solutions to end the war and to resolve the problem of the Tamil people of the North-East of Sri Lanka.”

Put in a nutshell, the LTTE wanted the various elements attended to in stages, while the government wanted them attended to simultaneously. And this difference in approach blighted any progress that could be made.

Negotiations came to an end with a terrific bang. During the night of 18/19 April 1995 two navy gunboats berthed inside the Trincomalee harbour were attacked and sunk by suicide-squads of the LTTE. Once again the LTTE had managed not to discuss any item of a political settlement. They negotiated no end about cessation of hostilities, violations of cessation of hostilities agreement, lifting of embargoes, bringing about “conditions of normalcy” etc., but not a word about their ideas of a political settlement.


In February 2000 the Norwegian government agreed to Sri Lanka’s request that it play a “third party” role to initiate a dialogue between the Sri Lanka government and the LTTE, aimed at resolving the ethnic problem. And Mr. Erik Solheim was appointed to as as a “facilitator.”

Mr. Solheim was engaged in his task as a facilitator for about a year and a half. And his efforts came to a sudden end, when on June 8, 2001, a Press Release from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Colombo, announced that Mr. Thorbjorn Jagland, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Norway had visited Colombo on 7 June for a few hours for a discussion with President Kumaratunga; and at that meeting “it was decided that the Government of Norway will henceforth participate at a high level to advance the peace process involving the LTTE.” That was diplomatic language for saying Solheim was being taken off the job.

Mr. Solheim’s particular task was to see how the chasm of suspicion between the government and the LTTE could be bridged so as to get the two sides to talk to each other. Mr. Solheim was trying to do this through the mechanism of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU).

Negotiating the MoU took a very long time. Over five months. And in the end nothing came of it. The government and the LTTE blamed each other for the failure to reach agreement on a MoU. The purpose of the MoU was to improve the humanitarian situation in the North, and to create an atmosphere conducive for negotiations. The draft contained mutually reciprocal obligations by which the Sri Lanka Government was to lift the economic embargo facilitating a free flow of goods into the Wanni, and the LTTE was to cease all acts of violence and sabotage in the southern provinces. An international monitoring committee was to supervise the implementation of the reciprocal obligations.

According to the LTTE, the Sri Lanka government “was sitting on the Norwegian proposal” for quite sometime, and even denying its existence. And when it did respond the government “made alterations in the title and in the preamble” of the MoU, and imposed ‘severe restrictions’ on lifting the economic embargo.

And it was to discuss these changes that Mr. Westborg, the Norwegian Ambassador, visited the Wanni on 6 & 7 April 2001. But what came out of these discussions was that the LTTE added further new conditions. They were now demanding that the Sri Lanka government remove the proscription of the LTTE before talks could proceed.

A government statement issued on 30 April laid the blame for lack of progress squarely on the LTTE. It stated that considerable progress had been made in reaching agreement on the MoU. In fact the Foreign Minister had written to the Foreign Minister of Norway informing him that the government would by April 11 give its formal consent to the document, in order to commence implementation of the agreed humanitarian measures.

The LTTE was proscribed in January 1998 after the LTTE attacked the Dalada Maligawa. The LTTE had not asked for the deproscription when the Norwegian initiative commenced in 2000. The only explanation that circumstances, and the history of negotiations with the LTTE point to, is that after agreement was reached on a MoU, discussions on political subjects would be next in line. And this was an area the LTTE wanted to avoid at all costs. So they put forward this new condition, just as they had done during the Premadasa talks by asking for the repeal of the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution. In the end the LTTE had managed, once again, not to get anywhere near discussing any details about what they had in mind for a political solution.

“Trust in Allah. But tie your camel.

This Arab Bedouin saying comes to my mind as the government, makes what is a fourth attempt in trying to find a political settlement to the long festering ethnic problem. At the moment we are seeing a replay of many elements from earlier negotiating scenarios and tactics – a new government claiming to have a mandate to solve the ethnic conflict, much expectation from Tamil political parties, unilateral ceasefires from the LTTE with conditions laid down for extension of the ceasefire, unilateral offers from the government to ease the embargo on goods to the North. But significantly still missing is the very important element, that the LTTE is prepared for political negotiations, and will not once again manipulate the peace process.

The government cannot expect the LTTE to roll over and play dead. The LTTE is bargaining and negotiating hard to protect and further its interests. Those negotiating with the LTTE should understand this position of theirs, and reciprocate with similar hard bargaining and serious negotiating. We see the path to negotiations blocked with all kinds of roadblocks set up by both sides – lifting of embargoes, return to conditions of peace and normalcy before negotiations can commence, ceasefires, cessation of hostilities, last minute conditions being laid down like the repeal of the Sixth Amendment and deproscription before negotiation, undivided state, unitary state, united state, union of states, the F-word and what not. Negotiations should be honestly and seriously approached.

Colombo, LTTE agree on federal structure

OSLO (Norway) Dec. 5. Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam today agreed to develop a government that would give the rebels regional autonomy — a breakthrough decision after months of efforts to end the 19-year-old ethnic conflict in the island nation. Both the sides agreed to pursue a peace based on the principle of internal self-determination in the Tamil-dominated areas of the north and east, according to a draft copy of the joint statement obtained by the Associated Press.

“The parties have decided to explore a political solution founded on internal self-determination based on a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka,” the statement said. It also said that political steps must be supported by measures to ensure continuation of the existing ceasefire and “that new concrete measures will be taken to facilitate further de-escalation.”

Norway’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Vidar Helgesen, said the three days of talks were conducted in a “frank, open and constructive manner.” The agreement was reached a week after the LTTE leader, Vellupillai Prabakaran, said for the first time that the Tigers were in favour of a solution that offered “substantial regional autonomy.” The statement said that the rebels would let competing political parties stay in their regions as long as they were unarmed, and that the activities of their courts and police would not extend to Colombo-held areas.

The LTTE’s chief negotiator, Anton Balasingham, said “both parties made an unprecedented historic decision… Our struggle was based on the concept of self-determination.” The peace process would move forward, step-by-step. “There is no need to resort to violence.”

And the Government negotiator, Gamini Peiris, said the commitment to peace was in place. “There is not going to be a war. We are certain of that,” he said. “The people of the country are yearning for peace.” Ways of incorporating the Tigers into the Government will be examined in the next round of talks in Japan.

Mr. Balasingham said a Muslim delegation would be included in the next round of talks.

‘Major step’

V. S. Sambandan reports from Colombo:

Oslo’s Special Envoy to Sri Lanka’s peace process, Erik Solheim, termed today’s agreement as a “major step” but expressed caution that a “long and bumpy road” was ahead before a final solution could be reached.

“They have decided what sort of house they want to build. They want to build a house with a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka. The decision to raise this house takes a long time,” Mr. Solheim told The Hindu over phone from Oslo. The Tigers had made it “very clear that they will settle for a federal option based on self-determination but within a united Sri Lanka.” While the two sides were “definitely closer” to a solution than they were at the start of the talks, it would be “absolutely illusory” to expect an early solution, he said.

About editor 2954 Articles
Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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