Geneva talks: The inside story

Norway’s Minister for International Development Erik Solheim reads out the joint statement after two days of talks between a Government delegation and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ended in Geneva last Thursday. The two sides were present for this media event. Photo: Sudath Silva

Geneva talks: The inside story
Who foxed whom at Chateau de Bossey
The words of Norway’s ebullient International Development Minister Erik Solheim saw the birth of a dialogue between the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Geneva this week.

In a hall at the Chateau de Bossey, 22 kilometres from Geneva, heavily secured by plain clothed Swiss security and intelligence personnel, he declared “this meeting is about the strengthening of the Ceasefire Agreement.” He said there is a new President, a new team and a new concept. He expressed the hope that a “new confidence can be built” but cautioned “it will be slow at the beginning.”

This is the first time the two sides were facing each other. Talks then between the United National Front Government of Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe and the LTTE broke down in April 2003. Even more significant, the event in the cooler conclave near Lake Geneva was a welcome diversion for both sides that were clearly edging towards an all-out war. At least for the moment, though both sides are getting more prepared for an outbreak of hostilities, such an eventuality has now become distant. Under intense international pressure, they have buckled down to talk whilst preparing more for war.

With little or no experience in talking peace or waging war, President Mahinda Rajapaksa appears to have succeeded, at least with this new start, in formulating a new approach for the talks.

This is not only by hand picking his Government’s delegation, subjecting them to a virtual “information overload” or getting them briefed and documents made available on all conceivable issues the LTTE may raise. More importantly, it was through the setting up of an Operations Centre on the ground floor at Temple Trees. That helped him keep in touch personally with what went on in Geneva.

If he was not in the Operations Room last Wednesday and Thursday, he had slipped into his bedroom upstairs for a short rest. Even then, his Secretary Lalith Weeratunga shunted up and down giving him up to the minute briefings. How useful the arrangements became can be seen by one event. When the first day’s events ended, President Rajapaksa was told of moves by the LTTE delegation to stage a walkout if the Government delegation did not adopt a conciliatory stance.

Mr. Rajapaksa was ss. He asked the delegation to stand firm and not to wilt to such threats. “If they want to walk out, it is up to them. All we have to do is tell the world our position very clearly,” he declared. The message was promptly conveyed. The next day the delegation reported back that the LTTE was less belligerent.

There were some humorous moments too. At one point, an official at the Operations Room asked an official in Geneva on the telephone “How is Nimal Siripala de Silva. Is he sleeping?” The answer was prompt. “No, no. He is not. To the contrary he is well focused and doing a very great job.” Some clapped. At one point, news arrived that another member of the delegation was fast asleep and had to be woken up by Minister Ferial Ashraff. There was laughter all round.

On their part, the Norwegian facilitators had restricted media access to the conference venue. They did not want leaks from either side to dominate coverage and thus have an adverse bearing on the talks. They had also sought assurances from the Government and the LTTE that only the Norwegian facilitator would release information to the media unless they are advised to do so. Having agreed to this arrangement, the Sri Lanka delegation was upset the LTTE had breached the understanding.

Delegation leader Nimal Siripala de Silva protested that the opening statement of Anton Balasingham had appeared in full in the Tamilnet website. Mr. Balasingham agreed nothing would be divulged thereafter until Thursday evening when the talks ended. This was how even Mr. de Silva’s seven page opening statement was released on Wednesday itself.

Last Tuesday, soon after the two delegations arrived in Celigny, Norwegian facilitators began consultations. This was over modalities for the next day’s talks including seating arrangements. At first, Mr. de Silva insisted that as leader of the Sri Lanka delegation he should make the opening statement. However, thereafter, as a matter of “courtesy” he agreed to permit Anton Balasingham to do so.

He followed thereafter with his speech. Seating arrangements were also finalised during these consultations. If Wednesday’s talks were dominated by the opening statements and deliberations on the Ceasefire Agreement itself, on Thursday there were wider issues. Main among them was the issue of child conscription by the LTTE, the role of paramilitary groups, Government and LTTE allegations of killings and abductions. The Sunday Times (Situation Report) today gives you an account of how these issues played during two days of talks.

On Thursday when curtains came down on the talks, the task of formulating a joint statement (SEE BOX STORY ON THIS PAGE) fell on Norwegian facilitators. This is where the Sri Lanka delegation was put to their strongest test. Anton Balasingham had made two strong demands – (1) the Government of Sri Lanka should agree in the joint statement to uphold article 1.8 in the Ceasefire Agreement. This provision relates to dismantling paramilitary groups, or (2) guarantee in the joint statement that it would ensure that paramilitary groups would be dismantled. The Government delegation rejected both demands. It was on the grounds that the Government had on no occasion had any links with paramilitary groups or condoned their presence.

Instead, the Sri Lanka delegation offered a differently worded assurance. It said “The Government of Sri Lanka is committed to taking all necessary measures in accordance with the Ceasefire Agreement to ensure that no armed group or person other than the Government security forces will carry arms or conduct armed operations.” This was accepted.

Members of the Government delegation explained that this clause was only a re-iteration of Government policy whether a CFA existed or not. They held the view that no sovereign Government in any country would condone an armed group or person carrying unauthorised weapons or conducting armed operations. Moreover, the re-iteration of this Government position also encompasses the LTTE. The inclusion of this clause is in marked contrast to the hype and hyperbole by the LTTE weeks ahead of the talks that it would specifically demand an assurance from the Government for the dismantling of paramilitary groups.

However, there was a contradiction on the government’s position with regard to another provision in the joint statement. The Government had asserted that it is “committed to respecting and upholding the Ceasefire Agreement……” This is in marked contrast to Mr. de Silva’s opening speech in which he said the Government considered the CFA as “prejudicial to the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of the Republic of Sri Lanka.”
Nevertheless, he said, certain benefits flowed to the people from the observance of the ceasefire, which resulted in our strong determination and desire to preserve the ceasefire. Therefore, would it not have been better for the Government to have committed itself in the joint statement to “respecting and upholding” the ceasefire instead of the Ceasefire Agreement which it declares is “prejudicial to the sovereignty and territorial integrity” of the nation?

Of course, one of Sri Lanka’s most eminent lawyers H.L. de Silva declared last Wednesday that notwithstanding the negative aspects, the Government of Sri Lanka had accepted the Ceasefire Agreement but not its legal recognition. On the basis of such acceptance he wanted the two sides to engage in the task of exploring ways and means of strengthening and implementing it.

There were tense moments in Geneva on Thursday evening when Norwegians found it difficult to reconcile the positions of the two sides for the joint statement. At one point, even the next round of talks were in doubt with the two sides only expressing willingness to meet at a future date. The two sides were told they could make their own statements or allow Norway to make one on their behalf. But Erik Solheim had swung it around. He later told a member of the Government delegation this was the first time they (a Government team) had used the negotiating table to the fullest.

Here is an account of the highlights on how the talks went on during the two days:

Norway’s Minister for International Development, Erik Solheim made an opening address. It was followed by the Swiss Political Director of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs Urs Ziswiler. Thereafter, statements were made by Anton Balasingham on behalf of the LTTE and Nimal Siripala de Silva on behalf of the Government.

Anton Balasingham complained that the Government of Sri Lanka delegation was large in number and had come well prepared. The Government had been reluctant to make available to the LTTE the names of their delegation members. This was despite the LTTE making its delegation known weeks earlier. He said apart from what he called this imbalance, he was not happy at the nature of the discussion. He said the talks should focus only on the Ceasefire Agreement and this was the mandate given to his delegation by their leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. He said the speech made by the Government delegation was vague and accused the Norwegian facilitators of not formulating a more focused agenda.

He said the LTTE was only concentrating on the CFA. Paramilitary groups are operating. As for issues with regard to recruitment, there is no provision in the CFA to debar it. We have taken thousands of children under our care to look after them. The agenda is the implementation of the CFA.

Mr. Solheim explained that the statements were made in a general context. The LTTE was right when they said the CFA had not forbidden recruitment. He said the issue of child recruitment could be taken up at another stage since implementation of the CFA was now the focal point.
Mr. Balasingham was to ask whether the Government of Sri Lanka accepted the CFA. It is only if they accept its validity could its enforcement be discussed. Mr. de Silva said irrespective of other issues, we have indeed acknowledged and we are here to talk on strengthening the CFA. He said if there were anomalies, they have to be corrected. Mr. Balasingham pointed out that some of the articles in the CFA must be adhered to. He said otherwise that would create problems. Counsel H.L. de Silva expressed the view that legal validity arises only when the CFA is subjected to a process of law. He said two parties can accept a written understanding as an agreement.

Mr Balasingham also said that if the Government was not prepared to disarm paramilitary units there will be no other sessions of talks. He said the LTTE delegation has come with a specific request to disarm these elements. Even the donor co-chairs have made this request. He said if the Government does not want war, they should disarm these groups.

Inspector General of Police Chandra Fernando makes a statement. 
Mr. Balasingham said there have been many instances of violence when peace talks were held in Thailand. Two LTTE merchant vessels were destroyed and 26 cadres were killed. Fishing trawlers were attacked. The Karuna renegade faction received the support and sustenance of the Government. They have their bases/camps inside military controlled areas. You should not permit these groups to operate. They send deep penetration teams and they kill within LTTE areas. Thereafter they flee.

Mr. de Silva reminded that President Rajapaksa had assured that if these persons are caught, they would be brought under the due process of the law. He said the LTTE should accept and be satisfied with this honest assurance. He said the Government should be given a chance without predetermining its intentions.

Mr. Balasingham accused Douglas Devananda’s EPDP of being both a political party and a paramilitary group. He said the IGP should look into camps operated by them. He said Mr. Devananda was then engaged in killings in (Madras) in Tamil Nadu. He said the EPDP should function as a political party. If this happened, the LTTE will not attack him. He also accused the Eelam National Democratic Liberation Front (ENDLF), a breakaway group of the People’s Liberation Organisation of Thamileelam (PLOT). He charged that their leader Paranthan Rajah was protected by the Indian intelligence agency RAW. He had now moved to Bangalore. He alleged that Rajah sent his cadres to Polonnaruwa to carry out killings. EPDP cadres were now being trained together with Karuna faction cadres. He said the ENDLF, EPDP and Karuna were jointly functioning as one group.

Countering Mr. Balasingham’s arguments, Mr. de Silva said the LTTE must accept the genuine assurance given by President Rajapaksa. He said the Government would give an undertaking that no armed groups will operate in their controlled areas. He said the Government would study the facts made available by Mr. Balasingham in this regard.

This brought a response from Mr. Balasingham. He said the LTTE accepted the Government’s assurance. He said he would convey that to his leader, Mr. Prabhakaran. He added that if the Government takes positive action, the Tamil people would appreciate it.

Rohitha Bogollagama said de-escalation and normalisation were important to the Government. He said Mr. Balasingham was empathic about the civilian aspects. He asked what about the military. He said he appreciated Mr. Balasingham’s frankness. He had been candid on a number of issues. Mr. Balasingham responded by saying de-escalation and normalisation are inter connected. He said parties causing the violence must be decommissioned. He said that would automatically lead towards normalisation.

When Mrs. Ferial Ashraff rose to speak, Mr. Balasingham told her to speak in Tamil. He said Mr. Thamilselvan would not otherwise understand. But there was no translator. Mr. Solheim said she could speak in English and LTTE translator George (Velupillai Kumaru Pancharatnam) gave the Tamil version. She said one of the most disturbing facts of the war was the fact that children were being drawn in. Mr. Balasingham wanted to know whether she was talking about Muslim and Tamil children. She replied she was speaking about children.

Mr. Thamilselvan said Mrs. Ashraff spoke as a mother and he would prefer to speak as a father. Being a person familiar with the East, Mrs. Ashraff most regrettably had not taken into account the total situation in the area two years ago. Karuna was not behaving in a manner acceptable to the LTTE leadership over child recruitment. That was one of the factors that led to his expulsion.

Mrs. Ashraff intervened to point out that during talks in Berlin and also in Oslo the LTTE had agreed to work on a plan to exclude children. I quoted a UNICEF report that dealt with a situation brought about by the LTTE, she said. The Government is concerned about children and that was why President Rajapaksa set up a Ministry for Children. Lawyer Gomin Dayasiri intervened to say the Government had a right to protect children. He said international law binds the LTTE to protect children. Thamilselvan thanked her but shifted to making references to children in the south who were being subjected to manual labour and other abuse.

Mr. Balasingham said international law was a vast area. He said that the Americans were recruiting under the age of 16. So did the British. At the age of 18 they join the LTTE. We have hundreds of cases where children join us and parents seek their release. But they are all over 18 years. Mr. Solheim was to point out that recruitment was not covered by the CFA. He said both sides are free to recruit and added that age of recruitment is not mentioned in the CFA. The SLMM has viewed recruitment of children as a violation. This figured in talks in 2003 too.

Mr. Balasingham admitted that there had been underage recruitment of children by the LTTE but added it has now stopped. Added Mr. Thamilselvan: “We do not have large amount of funds to care for these children”. He said on behalf of the Tamil people and the LTTE he would urge President Rajapaksa to take into serious consideration to disarm paramilitary groups without delay. He said Mr. Prabhakaran has made this a high priority.
Mr. de Silva said even if the LTTE accepted it or not, it was the policy of President Rajapaksa to bring to book any party that is resorting to any illegal activity. He said peace was the Government’s primary objective. “We will not, directly or indirectly, help any party or group to engage in any illegal activity,” he said.

Before the talks, Anton Balasingham was known to have told many members of the Tamil media that the Sri Lanka delegation would receive their biggest “orientation” course from him in Geneva. This was after media reports that the Sri Lanka delegation was being put through detailed briefings.
As the talks ended, it seems it is Mr. Balasingham and his fellow delegates who have now received a fuller “orientation” course from the Sri Lankan side.

Armed with details, Police Chief confronts Bala

Police Chief, Chandra Fernando

If President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s administration were to offer rewards for performance to members of the Sri Lanka delegation to the Geneva talks, one of the topmost contenders, no doubt, would be the Police Chief, Chandra Fernando.

Days ahead of his departure to Geneva, he had burnt midnight oil at his office at Police Headquarters arming himself with case records, documents, finger prints and even photographs. One evening, he gave a catalogue of documents he wanted to officials of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), gave them a deadline and wanted them delivered. The officials worked late and voluminous files reached him on time. The hard work became handy at the talks and Mr. Fernando came in for praise by other members of the delegation.

If there were noteworthy performances, there were disappointments too. Concerns were expressed both in Colombo and in Geneva about the “non performance” of at least one delegate, a Cabinet Minister. If he passed the microphone when he was given a turn to speak, there were complaints that the only thing he did was to chat in the lobby of Chateau de Bossey with members of the Tiger guerrilla delegation.
When the talks began on Wednesday, the head of delegation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Anton Balasingham, had blamed the renegade Karuna faction for the brutal murder of former Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar. This was his response to the charge made by Sri Lanka delegation leader, Nimal Siripala de Silva, during his inaugural speech.

Mr de Silva paid tribute to the late Mr. Kadirgamar as “one of the great statesmen of our times,” internationally respected, widely acclaimed and highly honoured. “The fact that such a person was assassinated by the LTTE when the ceasefire was in force demonstrates the disregard with which the agreement had been treated and also highlights the significant deficiencies of the current ceasefire,” he pointed out.

On Thursday Mr. Fernando held out the fingerprints of late Mr. Kadirgamar’s assassin. “They were found on the weapon and the tripod used in the killing,” he said. He gave the name of the killer and declared he was an LTTE member. They were now hiding somewhere in the Wanni.

Mr Fernando began with a personal introduction about joining the Police force in 1973. Throughout his career he had been in close touch with developments in Jaffna. “My colleague seated on your (the LTTE) delegation, Mr Nadesan (Balasingham Mahendran) was one of my constables in 1975. I know his wife also very well.”
Mr Nadesan is now the “Police Chief” of the LTTE.

“Since the murder of Mayor Alfred Duraiappah (on July 27 1975), the LTTE has had a history of killings,” Mr. Fernando said. He read out a number of names and added that even political leaders who were in the democratic mainstream like the late Mr. Appapillai Amirthalingam were killed. He referred to several murders carried out by Tiger guerrillas during the ceasefire. This included Lt. Col. Tuan Muthaliff of the Army’s Directorate of Military Intelligence, SSP Charles Wijewardena and Tamil journalist Relangi Selvarajah. He also referred to several attempts by the LTTE on the life of Douglas Devananda, leader of the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP).There had also been attacks on EPDP offices by Tiger guerrillas.

He said suspects connected with some of the murders were in Police custody. “We know what they have told us about the LTTE and how they wanted the murders carried out. If we are given a mandate to go into LTTE areas we would apprehend the culprits and subject them to the due process of law,” he pointed out.

Mr. Fernando said: “We are committed to peace. Our President has vowed that he is for peace. It has to be honourable peace, he has said.” The Sri Lankan police chief also blamed the LTTE for the murder of their own political wing leader for Batticaloa district, Kaushalyan. “There are strong indications towards this,” he declared. The remarks prompted Anton Balasingham to laugh loudly.

Kaushalyan was killed on the night of February 7, 2005 at Welikande together with four others. It included former MP, Chandra Nehru.
Looking at him, Mr. Fernando went on. “We are impartial. We don’t take sides Mr. Balasingham. Our concern is that the due process of the law must take place.” He referred to the reported abduction at Welikande of members of the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) and gave a detailed account from Police reports. “I want Mr Pulithevan (Seevaratnam Prabagaran) and Mr Nadesan (Balasingham Mahendran) to accompany me. I will take you under protection and show you what has happened. You can see them for yourself,” Mr. Fernando declared.
At this point Mr. Balasingham raised issue with Erik Solheim over too much time being allowed to the Sri Lanka delegation. He explained this was done in the best interests of the dialogue so there is fuller exchange of views but assured sufficient time would be given to the LTTE side.

Later, Mr. Balasingham declared, “Serious charges have been levelled against the LTTE by the Sri Lankan IGP. This ethnic war has taken a toll of 70,000 Tamil people. Successive governments have conceded that grave harm has been caused to the Tamil people. Even Madam Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratuanga has admitted that serious harm has been caused to the Tamil people through state oppression, he said.
He said during the ethnic violence of 1983 some 6,000 Tamils had died. ” As a result of “state oppression” we emerged as an armed group to kill your soldiers. We are not a political party but an armed group. We have been killing GOSL (Government of Sri Lanka) people. We do not deny that. There has been genocide. The IGP, please listen to me,” he declared.

Mr Balasingham added: “You cannot reduce the totality of our armed struggle by simply listing isolated incidents. We will kill. That is our job. We do not deny that. There has been a war. What we are trying now is to prevent it. If we go on listening to the 48 brutal massacres we have listed, it will go on for days.”

Mr Balasiangham was evidently angered by Mr Fernando’s remarks. He said, “please understand Mr. IGP, this is not a police station. We are aware of your arrests and the people you release. There are double agents. I do not want to embarrass or humiliate you.

Looking at Nimal Siripala de Silva, he said, “I did not say that Karuna was responsible for Kadirgamar killing. Conclude your investigations and you will know how to come to a conclusion.”

Mr. Balasingham said the LTTE had lost 20,000 of its cadres during the war. “It was a high scale mutual killing and slaughter. We have realised the futility. The Norwegians have come in at that time.” He said because of the prevailing situation, the LTTE was training Jaffna citizens to fight back. This is for self defence of our areas and to protect our people, he pointed out.

Replying delegation leader Nimal Siripala de Silva, who said the Government had no links with any paramilitary groups, Mr. Balasingham declared, “you have political connections with them. You know well that these organisations have military wings. Such wings have not been dismantled yet. We have in our custody several persons who have confirmed this to us.”

Mr Balasingham said it would be embarrassing for the Government to admit its involvement with paramilitary groups who are responsible for “so many killings.”

“President Mahinda Rajapaksa,” he said, “has given some assurance through other sources that he will disarm these groups. I can confidently assure that if this is done the threat of war will come to an end and we can move forward.”

Mr. Balasingham added: “We are still struggling to formulate a common agenda. We are just sticking to the Ceasefire Agreement and believe everything is flawed. H.L. de Silva complains about ambiguities of the CFA and thinks it is flawed. I speak at length about war but the IGP speaks about killings. The attitude here is not congenial or compromising.

“Rejection of autonomy for us, a Tamil homeland or our other demands will not work. If you want to resolve this problem do not confine yourself to only existing viewpoints and Mahinda Chinthanaya. They are only congenial to the Sinhala majority. That is what I call a closed universe. We have formed a Government of our own. Otherwise it will soon be a de facto state.”

Geneva joint statement: Govt., LTTE committed to truce
The following eight paragraph statement was issued by Norwegian peace facilitators after the Geneva talks between the Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

“The Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) met in Geneva 22-23 February 2006 for talks on the Ceasefire Agreement.

“The parties discussed issues related to the ceasefire, including the concerns of the Muslim, Sinhalese, and Tamil civilians. “The GOSL and the LTTE are committed to respecting and upholding the Ceasefire Agreement, and reconfirmed their commitment to fully co-operate with and respect the rulings of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM).
“The GOSL and the LTTE are committed to taking all necessary measures to ensure that there will be no intimidation, acts of violence, abductions or killings.

“The LTTE is committed to taking all necessary measures to ensure that there will be no acts of violence against the security forces and police. The GOSL is committed to taking all necessary measures in accordance with the Ceasefire Agreement to ensure that no armed group or person other than Government security forces will carry arms or conduct armed operations.

“The GOSL and the LTTE discussed all issues concerning the welfare of children in the North East, including the recruitment of children.
“The SLMM will report on implementation on the above agreements at the next session of talks. “The parties requested the Swiss Government to host the next round of talks in Geneva on 19-21 April 2006.”

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Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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