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Midweek Review

Are we now moving towards a new Sri Lankan political culture?

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Rev. Fr. Vimal Tirimanna, CSsR

The general election of 2020 has become historical for many reasons. The Sri Lankan voters have overwhelmingly voted for the SLPP for the second time in just nine months, knowing well that in the process, they were freely approving the holding of the two most important public offices in Sri Lanka – the posts of President and Prime Minister – by two Rajapaksa brothers. Not only have they given an unprecedented mandate to them, but they have also decisively voted to send the oldest active political party in Sri Lanka – the UNP – into political oblivion. This particular election has many other salient features. To begin with, it is the election that was declared in April and took some four months before it could be really held. This was partly due to the Covid-19 threat and partly due to the alleged Constitutional blocks to holding an election (propelled by the understandable election phobia of most of the Opposition political parties). It’s also reported to be the most expensive Sri Lankan election thus far. It also will go down in history as the one that had so much of medical precautions surrounding the process of voting and counting the votes in view of the Covid-19 threat at a time when thousands of people are killed daily all over the world by the deadly virus. But one also needs to note that this was the election with least amount of violence in recent history in our country, a fact which is corroborated by all the election monitoring groups. As a matter of fact, no killing linked to elections was reported which is surely a major positive development. By conducting a peaceful general election under very strict health precautions (even though this cost so much of money) Sri Lanka has become a model to the entire world under the present trying conditions of health and economy all over the world. To those pessimist Sri Lankans (both within the country and outside of it) who always tend to see only what is negative in Sri Lankan ethos, the 2020 General Election is a clear indication that even with regard to local politics, there are quite a number of positive points that should never be ignored. As a matter of fact, this election could well be the moment of transition which marks the beginning of a new political culture in the country.

The massive mandate

No reasonable political pundit could ever imagine the ultimate result of this election, especially the margin of victory with which the SLPP won. Ever since J. R. Jayewardene master-minded the present proportionate system of electing members to parliament, and that too, under the preferential system of voting, at every General Election (except in 2010 when Mahinda Rajapaksa’s UPFA won immediately after the historical military defeat of the LTTE) it was hard for a single political party to muster even a workable majority to rule the country. Consequently, after each General Election, the winning political parties had to dilute their own manifestos and agendas to please those of the other parties with whom they were forced to form coalition governments. The fact that it was within such a crippling system of elections (which rarely reflected the overall will of the voters) that the SLPP won not just a simple majority but a nearly two-thirds majority, is surely a record. Only a massive wave of popularity could do this. Of course, during the election campaign, the SLPP clearly appealed to the voters to grant them a two-thirds mandate to right the wrongs and to untie the legal knots of the haphazardly formulated 19th amendment by the previous “Yahapalana” government. However, one wonders whether even the SLPP itself ever dreamt of coming closer to that target, realistically speaking. The fact that a vast majority of the voters as one block (so to say) have responded collectively to this call single-mindedly is itself a sign that they themselves freely chose to give a workable mandate to realize the agenda which the SLPP placed before them. This overwhelming voter response is also a flat refutation of the fears and phobias expressed continuously in the media and the Opposition political stages that granting such a two thirds majority would be unhealthy to democracy. It appears as if, a vast majority of voters en bloc had instead concluded that they rather need to give such a majority to the SLPP to correct those constitutional clauses of the 19th amendment which held the country at ransom during the last couple of years. As a matter of fact, the Sri Lankan masses were first hand witnesses to the glaring reality as to how the hands of the Executive President they elected with such a thumping majority hardly nine months ago were tied, thanks to the notorious 19th amendment. In short, this massive mandate is not only the Sri Lankan polity’s reaffirmation of the benevolent, well-intentioned policies of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa but it is also their clearing all potential obstacles for him to realize his dreams for the country. Now the President and his SLPP government will surely have no excuses not to realize the agenda they themselves had put before the voters.

The high voter turnout

True to its firm belief in democracy, the Sri Lankan citizenry also kept to its usual high percentage of voter-turn-out, thanks this time to the Election Commission and the Health authorities who defied all prophets of doom with regard to the threat of Covid-19, and assured the voters of their safety and that of the others. Sure, as usual in Sri Lanka, at this general election too, there has been a noticeable drop in the percentage of voters using their right to vote, compared to the Presidential elections (except the one in 1988 under the JVP insurrection when it dropped to less than 30%). Yet a 71% of overall voter-turn-out at this election is something very commendable, especially when one considers the trying conditions under which the recent election was held. Not even in those so-called “Western democracies” (some of whom habitually try to give lectures on democracy to nations such as Sri Lanka) does one notice such a high percentage of voting even under normal conditions. Thus, in the USA, the voter turn-out at Presidential Elections remains around 60% while in Britain it has been less than 68% at all the recent General Elections. Perhaps, this high voter turn-out in Sri Lanka could be attributed to the important value our voters assign to elections based on the long tradition of exercising the franchise in Sri Lanka which goes back to 1930’s. However, as already mentioned, since 1978 Sri Lanka has had one of the complicated voting systems in the world. Yet thanks to the high literacy rate, as well as the experience in democratic traditions, the vast majority of voters seem to have not got lost in the polling booth in choosing their candidates so far.

The massive mandate given at this election has demonstrated once again that a winning political party need not always depend on minority political parties even when it means sabotaging their own agenda for the country for which the people had voted them. The unjustified clout which the minority political parties in our country (most of which are based on ethnic or religious foundations) had been enjoying since 1994 (a clout that usually held at ransom the will of the majority of voters in the last parliaments for nearly 26 years), had been neutralized by the voters at this election just as they did in the November Presidential elections. The winning party now need not depend on the minority parties and dance according to their tunes. While there is no denying that keeping to the best of democratic traditions the voices of both majorities and minorities ought to be represented and heard in parliament, in no way should this mean that using the political clout (in the form of the number of seats they have in parliament) the minority parties should dictate terms to the whole country as it has often happened in Sri Lanka during the last few decades. Lest this writer be misunderstood or misinterpreted, it needs to be repeated that minority representation in parliament and their involvement in the country’s decision-making are non-negotiable but in no way should it mean that they can suffocate the legitimate collective aspirations of the Sri Lankan voters as expressed at an election.

Unrealistic election promises

Promises by political parties during election campaigning is normal in any democracy. As a matter of fact, the voters need to know what the respective political parties would do if they were to be elected. A positive point of the recent General Election that should not escape the attention of any political analyst is the way the ordinary Sri Lankan voter (however poor and miserable his/her socio-economic condition may had been) has flatly refused to be hoodwinked by the unrealistic election promises of various political parties. Gone are the days when they would vote for two measures of rice or eight kilos of grain, as promised by political leaders of the caliber of the late Sirimavo Bandaranaika and the late J.R. Jayawardena, respectively. Just as at the last Presidential elections, at this election too, the voters have refused to be taken for rides by such cheap promises. If not, they ought to have elected with a thumping majority the newly formed SJB of Sajith Premadasa who continued to make bizarre election promises which could not be realistically maintained with our weak economy. The promise to give each person 20,000 rupees is an example in this regard. There were also others who were trying to keep pace with him but to a lesser degree. The promise of the UNP leader, Ranil Wickremasinghe to give “money in the hand” of every citizen, was one such example. The very high cost of living and the dwindling of job opportunities due mainly to the Covid-19 epidemic did not tempt the voters (especially those in the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder who form the bulk of the voters in Sri Lanka) to be hoodwinked by such enticing promises. Rather, they seemed to have been more interested in long-term, realistic programs aimed at promoting the common good of the country, first of all, by eliminating corruption and poverty. This surely is a mature sign of a nation in transition towards a new political culture.

New faces in Parliament

In spite of the great trust the Sri Lankan citizens have consistently placed in democracy, especially in elections (of which the Opposition parties had a phobia), they have been continuously disappointed by the type of persons they themselves had elected. Not only did those members of parliament fail to keep what they had promised, but more so, their uncivilized, arrogant behaviour and highly corrupt practices in enriching themselves (such as the robbing of the Central Bank in broad day-light), and their other glaring abuses of power (such as letting free the real culprits of the Easter bomb attacks) had been disgusting to the majority of Sri Lankans, so much so that quite a number of them even opting never to vote again! Things in this regard had deteriorated so much that many citizens have come to believe

that the easiest way to enjoy power and status, and at the same time mint money at one’s will (and that too, often, without any professional qualification or hard work) is to become a member of parliament. In short, people had come to perceive that to be elected to parliament was the easiest way for ‘nobodies’ to become ‘somebodies’. It is in this sense that a vast number of Sri Lankans, both rural and urban, had been longing to see a new political culture, especially among their elected representatives. As is well-known, there has been a clamour in the country for some time now for new faces in our parliament, replacing the hackneyed corrupt and unruly political lot, and thank God, at this election a good number of new faces have been elected who hopefully will not disappoint their electors. At the same time, more than 70 members of the last parliament have been defeated. Another gratifying aspect is the amount of professionals that have been elected. Although the mere fact of being a new face or a professional is no guarantee of decent and ethically respectful politics, at least the voters have placed their trust in the new faces and professionals they had elected, hoping that they would not rob our national assets in aggrandizing themselves as it had been happening in recent decades, thanks to some hooligans and uneducated riff raff entering parliament. The new faces and the professionals, together with two newly formed political parties, the SLPP and the SJB as the main political parties (though both of them still have some corrupt and useless members of the bygone years) in this new parliament, we Sri Lankans now have a good opportunity to re-kindle our hopes for a new political culture in Sri Lanka.

A Mandate to change the 19th Amendment/ the Constitution

One of the main mandates asked by the winning SLPP from their General Election platforms had been the request to grant them a two-thirds mandate to change the Constitution, especially to change the disastrous 19th amendment which was hurriedly enacted immediately after the general election in 2015, mainly to keep Mahinda Rajapaksa from coming to office again.

It was so haphazardly drafted with this single intention that even the noble democratic elements that were used to camouflage it (such as the establishment of Independent Commissions) paled into an insignificant horizon. Moreover, the 19th amendment crippled the functioning of that very “yahaplana government” itself, especially in the latter part of that government. The many unprecedented legal knots and riddles with regard to the constitutional matters during the past few years sprang forth mainly from that notorious 19th amendment. Now that the people have given a resounding mandate to change it, the new government should not hesitate to do so as early as possible, but at the same time taking precautions to safeguard those positive aspects of it, such as the establishment of Independent Commissions, and making sure that under the new Constitution, the members appointed to those Commissions be really “independent”.

One of the main factors that paved the way towards the deterioration of the well-establisehd democratic political culture in our country was the introduction of the proportionate system of voting and electing members to parliament in 1978. The preferential system of voting which came along with it had been mainly responsible for the in-fighting even within the same political party, thus, paving the way to a violent political culture in our country since then. It is high time to put an end to this root cause of political violence at elections, which the country had suffered for more than four decades. Also it would be imperative for any new Constitution first of all to respect the will of the voters that is normally expressed through their franchise. As such, the recent phenomenon of MP’s getting elected from one political party and then crossing over to another after the elections should be stopped at any cost because this is a brutal betrayal of the voters, especially under the present system of elections. If this is not checked through some provisions to the Constitution, it could lead to a serious erosion of people’s confidence in democracy and in elections.

Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country, a fact which no Constitution can afford to ignore. Fair representation for the ethnic and religious minorities in the country’s decision-making is a must. It is in this sense that the new Constitution should assure that those ethnic and religious minorities be given seats in parliament through what is now known as “the National List” or some other list similar to it, so that those minority ethnic and religious groups (who cannot get their representatives elected at the elections) would have their representation in parliament. Under the first Constitution of Sri Lanka (Ceylon) there was a list of reserved seats for this purpose under the title “Appointed MP’s”. The 1972 and the 1978 Constitutions also wished to continue this practice through what came to be known as the “National List”. But unfortunately, for the past four decades or so, instead of giving representation to those minorities of our country through that list, what we have witnessed is the shameless practice of filling this list with the cronies who are supporters of the respective political parties, or still worse, with those defeated candidates. We witnessed this shameless act at the last parliament, when the ruling UPFA appointed six of its defeated candidates to fill their National list, while the UNP and the JVP, too, did the same. This is nothing but a thundering slap on the face of the Sri Lankan voters (and eventually on democracy) – namely, to bring in the very persons whom they had rejected at elections! The new Constitution ought to prevent such shameless, undemocratic practices.

The Need for a Benevolent “Dictator”

To get out of the messy political culture we had been in, we, the Sri Lankan citizens need a political leadership with a firm and resolute will. This is what most of the citizens in ordinary parlance intend when they say “We need a benevolent dictator”. Of course, we need a “dictator” in Sri Lanka, but not a dictator with the true literal sense of the word, but someone who acts like a dictator using his/her legitimate authority but always well within the Constitution. Such qualifications may sound as a tautology, but what is meant is that we need someone who can take decisions for the common good of the country, with firm and resolute will, ignoring all political party affiliations and favouritisms. He/she ought to be someone who upholds law and order, irrespective of the status or political affiliations of persons. Ever since his election in November 2019, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has shown many signs of such resolute and impartial leadership for the good of the country. His commendable way of coordinating the available persons and resources in our country in the fight against the world-wide threat of Covid-19 is a case in point. The unprecedented mandate given to him at this General election is a clear endorsement of the style of leadership he has been exercising during the past nine months. Now that he is given what he wanted, namely – a parliament that would cooperate with him in implementing his programs for the common good – one hopes that he would continue this style in exercising his role as President of our country (as the head of State) in the coming years too so that at last we as a nation could now begin our journey realistically towards a new political culture in our beloved motherland. We as a nation that believes in democracy and elections cannot afford to be disappointed again!

 



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Midweek Review

Closure of Norwegian Embassy in Colombo and other matters (Part II)

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Sept 22, 2022, Trincomalee: Norwegian Ambassador Trine Jøranli Eskedal at the closing ceremony of a Norwegian funded training programme conducted by the elite Special Boat Squadron (SBS). The UN-backed training programme meant to tackle a wide range of crimes taking place via sea routes got underway in early May 2016. Among the participants were 07 male and 01 female officers of the Maldivian Coast Guard as well as 01 male and 01 female officers of the Maldivian Ministry of Fisheries (pic courtesy SLN)

Wartime Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa is one of those who strongly believed that the LTTE could be defeated. The Gajaba Regiment veteran didn’t mince his words when he met Norwegian officials on April 06, 2006 in the run-up to the closure of the Mavil-aru sluice gates in the third week of July 2006. According to a NorwegianForeign Ministry document in the public domain: “On April 06, 2006, Hanssen-Bauer and Brattskar had a tense meeting with Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. In response to a question about whether the ethnic and political problems in Sri Lanka could be solved by military means, Gotabaya answers, ‘yes’. The LTTE launched Eelam War IV in August 2006. Within two years and 10 months the Sri Lankan military brought the war to a successful end.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Colombo-based Norwegian diplomats burnt their fingers by seeking information from the Maldivian High Commission in Colombo as regards an Indian fishing craft (Sri Krishna) that had been commandeered by Sea Tigers and was intercepted and sunk by the Maldivian Coast Guard in May 2007.

The Norwegian Embassy reached the Maldivian HC soon after the Maldivians intercepted ‘Sri Krishna’ that was reported missing several days before while fishing in Indian waters.

The Island last week dealt with the Norwegian decision to close down its diplomatic mission in Colombo next year, two decades after Oslo arranged a highly controversial secret Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) (Not even the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga was aware of it till it had been signed) between the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The US, EU, Japan and Norway functioned as Co-Chairs to the peace process.

The Norwegian effort received the backing of New Delhi though the Indians were skeptical. Nevertheless, they fully cooperated.

The LTTE quit the negotiating table in April 2003, one year and three months after the signing of the CFA. But, the Norwegians went out of their way to appease the LTTE regardless of the consequences. The diplomatic intervention made on behalf of the Tigers involved in the incident in the Maldivian waters is a case in point. In a way, the LTTE and its sidekick the Tamil National Alliance failed to utilize the Norwegian effort to advance the peace process, whether sincere or not. Instead, the LTTE exploited the Norwegian initiative so much that the negotiating process finally collapsed. Their strategy undermined the then Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe, who meekly towed the Norwegian line. On the other hand, their actions bolstered the nationalist groups and those opposed to the Norwegian questionable initiatives.

Dissolution of Parliament and calling for fresh parliamentary elections in April 2004 should be examined against the backdrop of utterly irresponsible LTTE strategy and its appeasers. However, the elections allowed the TNA, with the LTTE openly stuffing ballot boxes in areas it controlled, to secure the lion’s share of seats in the then amalgamated Northern and Eastern Provinces. Peace Co-Chair EU in its Election Observation report declared that the TNA colluded with the LTTE. Unfortunately, Co-Chairs, including the EU didn’t take the report into consideration.

The incident in the Maldivian waters should be examined basically against the backdrop of the overall deterioration of the situation for want of clear guidelines to handle the peace process.

The Norwegians wouldn’t have intervened without being asked by the LTTE with a nod from a powerful Western interest. We must also note that Norwegian peacemaking efforts in Palestine with obvious American backing that brought about the Oslo Accord with much promise fared even worse with the Palestinians continuing to be humiliated and pasted by the Israelis almost on a daily basis. Where the hell is UNHRC? No war crimes there on your watch Michelle Bachelet? At least the UN should have given her a Nelsonian eye patch.

The Norwegian mission here definitely cleared its move with Oslo. However, by the time they got in touch with the Maldivian HC, Male had cleared Sri Lankan Navy intelligence to interrogate the apprehended LTTE cadres in the custody of the Maldivian. The Island reported the Norwegian intervention in its May 26, 2007 edition. The LTTE had used the ill-fated vessel to transfer weapons from its floating armories to Wanni and was on such a mission when the Maldivians intervened.

At the time the Maldivians sank Sri Krishna, Tamil Nadu had accused the Sri Lanka Navy of destroying that particular vessel. What Tamil Nadu as well as India never expected was another country intervening in the clandestine LTTE arms smuggling operation.

The Maldivian Coast Guard made the intervention on May 16, 2007. The Maldivian Coast Guard engaged a vessel carrying the Sri Lankan flag after the latter fired at a Maldivian fishing craft.

Following a 12-hour standoff, the Maldivians sank the craft flying the Sri Lankan flag.

Interestingly, there had been some Indian naval personnel onboard the Maldivian craft engaged in the operation against the Tiger commandeered vessel.

The LTTE would have never expected its cadres who commandeered the vessel to surrender as they are noted for biting their cyanide vials to prevent capture. The Maldivians however rescued five Tigers who jumped overboard from the sinking vessel, subsequently identified as Sri Krishna. The rescued men told the Maldivians and their Indian instructors (The Indians were helping the Maldivian Coast Guard personnel to familiarize with CG vessel Huravee, gifted by New Delhi to Male) the circumstances under which they were found in Maldivian waters, while engaged in transferring armaments from a floating warehouse.

Sri Krishna’s skipper, Simon Soza had been among the five rescued by the Maldivians. The Sea Tigers admitted that the remaining Indians were being held in a camp in the Vanni (Maldives sinks Indian craft hijacked by Sea Tigers – The Island May 18, 2007).

The sinking of the Sri Krishna was the second high profile incident involving an Indian trained terrorist group in the Maldivian territory. The raid on Male during the first week of November, 1988 by sea borne PLOTE (People’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) terrorists at the behest of a Colombo-based Maldivian businessman, Abdulla Luthufee was the first. Interestingly, the Indian Navy sank MV Progress Light commandeered by Luthufee’s mercenaries while trying to reach Sri Lankan waters.

Former Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris, who led the then UNP government’s negotiating team for talks with the LTTE in 2002-2003 period, appreciated the role played by the Scandinavian country.

GL, Palihakkara, Salter,Jehan comment

Mark Salter

Prof. Peiris, now a leading member in one of the SLPP rebel groups said: “The Norwegian government was significantly involved in the economic development of Sri Lanka, long before its association with the peace process. In particular, there had been substantial Norwegian support for infrastructure development, especially rural roads in the South of Sri Lanka, in addition to assistance in the fisheries sector, human resources development and community work of various kinds.

In the aftermath of its facilitation role in the peace process in the late 1990s and early in the present century, the government of Norway commissioned an independent evaluation of their role here with a view to ascertaining its strengths and weaknesses. I believe this study led to more useful insights.

We regret the decision to close down the embassy in Colombo for the time being, but understand that it is part of a worldwide evaluation process.

The government of Norway has announced its commitment to and support for the people of Sri Lanka will continue. We appreciate this assurance.”

In response to The Island query regarding the Norwegian pull out, Executive Director of the National Peace Council (NPC), Dr. Jehan Perera has sent us the following statement: “The departure of the Norwegian Embassy from Sri Lanka is a big loss to us. This is a time when we need all the assistance and friendship we can from the international community, especially those who have helped us in the past. The Ambassador has stated that Norway will continue to provide Sri Lanka with assistance and will engage in development activities. However, Sri Lanka will lose out because remote support is not the same as in-country support where Norwegian diplomats and embassy staff are in constant interaction with Sri Lankan people. We also need to acknowledge the huge investment Norway made to help us resolve our ethnic war through negotiations and a political solution. They supported organisations such as the National Peace Council to build bridges between the communities, which we continue to do. Norwegian support for peace-building work got reduced after the failure of the ceasefire agreement and peace process. NPC did not receive Norwegian financial support over the past decade. But the capacity for peace-building work that Norway supported us to achieve, and which continues to remain with us, is a cause for gratitude and we regret very much the closure of their embassy.”

The author of ‘To End a Civil War: Norway’s Peace Engagement in Sri Lanka’ Mark Salter said: “The closure of the Norwegian Embassy in Colombo ends an important chapter in relations between the two countries. At the joint invitation of the government and the LTTE leadership, in 1999-2000 Oslo accepted the role of peace facilitator between the two parties. To their great credit, over the following decade the Norwegians stuck at their appointed ‘peace diplomacy’ task through thick and thin – possibly the most sustained instance of external engagement with a peace process to date. And this including when, in the aftermath of the return to war in autumn 2006 and the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) the Norwegians brokered in 2002 looked increasingly dead in the water, they became the subject of increasing domestic attacks, notably by both the government itself and Sinhala nationalists who tarred them with the brush of ‘White Tigers’.

As we know, theirs (and other) peace efforts ultimately failed. A messenger, however, is only as good as the message they carry – a fact that often seems completely lost on the legions of Lankan critics of the Norwegian’s ‘messenger’ role. As Erik Solheim and others have long since acknowledged, Oslo undoubtedly made mistakes along the way – notably the failure to foster an initial bipartisan Sinhala political consensus in support of the peace process. Ultimately, however, the failure of the peace process comes down to the failure in their different ways of both parties to continue to engage seriously with the process itself.”

For those who are genuinely interested in knowing the Norwegian-led process, perusal of Salter’s work is a must. Former BBC journalist and analyst, Mark Salter who launched ‘To End a Civil War: Norway’s Peace Engagement in Sri Lanka’ in Colombo several years after Norway released ‘Pawns of Peace: Evaluation of Norwegian peace efforts in Sri Lanka (1997-2009)’ meticulously addressed the issues. Salter’s work help the readers to understand what really went wrong if the official Norwegian examination didn’t achieve what was expected. Chr. Michelsen Institute and School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, jointly put out that report. The team responsible for the official version comprised Gunnar Sørbø, Jonathan Goodhand, Bart Klem, Ada Elisabeth Nissen and Hilde Selbervik. The Wikileaks revelations should be of pivotal importance for those keen to know the developments here.

One-time Foreign Secretary H.M.G.S. Palihakkara who served as the Governor of the Northern Province during the Yahapalana administration, has sent us the following statement in response to a query posed to him: “It does not look like a singular decision by one country, at least optics-wise, since both countries announced the intended closures within a space of a few months this year, Sri Lanka being the first in April and Norway following in September. Embassy closing of course is news one can hardly celebrate esp. in bilateral diplomacy. The notion that reciprocity is the first lesson in diplomacy still has some currency. And that factor may have weighed in at some stage of this decision-making process. However, speculating on that won’t help either side.

What is of promise is that both countries have been quick to emphasize that the decisions are derived from ‘structural’, rather than bilateral considerations and will not impinge on relations.

Sri Lanka has further qualified closure as ‘temporary’ while Norway has recommitted itself to ‘further the constructive and friendly relations’. It would be reasonable to say these relations have endured many decades and vicissitudes including a complicated and even controversial ‘peace process’ with the LTTE through a vain facilitation effort by Norway.

The Norwegian envoy in Colombo, Ambassador Trine Jøranli Eskedal in her media comments has quite professionally put these positives at a higher notch saying ‘ We will continue to maintain our warm bilateral relations with Sri Lanka and development assistance will also continue.’ So the ‘distancing’ signified by these closures at first glance, may be more apparent than real. The fact remains that SL has benefitted from several billions of NKR bilateral ODA for projects ranging from the well-known Cey-Nor in the North to extensive rural development in the South. Since modern diplomacy is often about building on what you have rather than imagining the ideal, it is up to both sides to do just that-build on the positives.”

Whatever the views expressed by interested parties regarding the planned Norwegian closure of its embassy here the fact remains the move is detrimental to Sri Lanka, especially at a time the country is experiencing its worst post-independence economic crisis. Norway spent lavishly on its Sri Lanka project. Civil society groups benefited immensely. A simmering dispute between the Norwegians and the late Dr. Kumar Rupesinghe, one of the largest beneficiaries of the Norwegian funding highlighted the controversial relationship between the embassy and the civil society. The Norwegians ended up squandering their taxpayers’ money even on the LTTE and its front organizations. That is the undeniable truth.

But, perhaps their biggest mistake that had been influenced by interested parties here was the assertion as acknowledged in ‘Pawns of Peace: Evaluation of Norwegian peace efforts in Sri Lanka (1997-2009)’ that the LTTE cannot be defeated.

The Norwegians as well as other Co- Chairs operated on the premise the Sri Lankan military couldn’t match the LTTE’s strategy or the fighting will. Those who benefited from the Norwegian largesse propagated that myth wherever possible like their Western pay masters. That assessment was proved wrong in May 2009 when a soldier shot Velupillai Prabhakaran on his head on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon.­

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Midweek Review

The Isle on a High

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By Lynn Ockersz

At the Lotus Tower’s highest point,

Where the pain of living eases for a while,

And delirium takes over minds and hearts,

Sightseers look down and find nothing wrong,

With gold chain-grabbing turning a way of life,

Poor women calling at mushrooming spas,

And elders hitting the streets in despair;

All happening amid a rash of plush malls,

And palatial houses seeing steady demand,

Making up quite a skewed state-of-affairs,

Which serve to remind the few of clear mind,

That Lotus Towers and other lulling ploys,

Are aimed at silencing the revolting mind.

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Midweek Review

Oslo pullout, new Geneva resolution and origins of terrorism (part 1)

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Norwegian Ambassador in Colombo Trine Jøranli Eskedal

” Norway will never forget how LTTE influenced the worst ever act of terrorism on its soil. Far right Norwegian Andres Breivik, 32, responsible for the July 22, 2011 massacre of 77 persons, mostly teenagers in two successive attacks in Norway was inspired by the LTTE. A few hours before, Breivik went on the rampage, he made reference to the LTTE’s eviction of the Muslim community from the Northern Province in Oct/Nov 1990, in his so-called manifesto released online. The following are the references (1) Pro-Sri Lanka (supports the deportation of all Muslims from Sri Lanka) (Page 1235) and (2) Fourth Generation War is normally characterized by a ‘stateless’ entity fighting a state or regime (the EUSSR). Fighting can be physically such as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to use a modern example. (Page 1479). Perhaps, Sri Lanka should ask for an international inquiry. One of Sri Lanka’s foremost diplomats Jayantha Dhanapala appearing before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in 2010 stressed the accountability on the part of foreign governments. The then Mahinda Rajapaksa government probably blinded by unfathomable victory was not bothered. It only sought political advantage of the developments even at the expense of Sri Lanka.”

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Norway on Sept 09 announced that its diplomatic mission in Colombo will be closed at the end of July 2023. The Norwegian Embassy in Colombo declared that this would be among five diplomatic missions to be closed as part of the planned structural reforms in its network of diplomatic missions. The Embassy didn’t mention the other diplomatic missions facing closure.

Norway established a diplomatic mission here in 1996 during Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s presidency. The setting up of that mission was primarily to facilitate negotiations between Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The establishment of the Colombo mission took place in the wake of the military consolidating its position in the Jaffna peninsula. Jaffna town was brought under government control in early Dec 1995.

The signing of the one-sided Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) in Feb 2002 can be considered the highpoint of the Norwegian intervention here that allowed the LTTE to expand its sphere of influence. Who really drafted the CFA? Did the then top Norwegian negotiator Erik Solheim draft it as he claimed in an interview with the late Kumar Rupesinghe? Whatever the circumstances, the CFA certainly didn’t take into consideration concerns of the military.

However, the Norwegian Embassy made available the Norwegian Foreign Ministry press release that dealt with the proposed closure of some diplomatic missions. Accordingly, the diplomatic missions in Slovakia, Kosovo and Sri Lanka and the Embassy office in Madagascar and the Consulate General in Houston, Texas, are to be closed. It would be pertinent to mention that Norway established a diplomatic mission in Slovakia in Sept. 2004, just a year after Slovakia moved out of the Czechoslovakian Federation and in Kosovo four years later. NATO member Norway participated in large scale air offensive to drive out Serbian forces from Kosovo-Norway set up Embassy office in Madagascar in 2004 and the Houston ‘mission’ back in 1977.

The closure of the Norwegian Embassy in Colombo should be also examined against the backdrop of cash- strapped Sri Lanka closing down our missions in Norway and Iraq and the Consulate General in Sydney, Australia, early this year.

Norway has thrown its weight behind a new six-page draft resolution before the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council, (UNHRC) handed in by the UK. The UK leads Sri Lanka Core Chairs and the resolution is widely regarded as the strongest since the successful conclusion of the war against the LTTE in May 2009.

A vote on this new resolution is due before the sessions end on October 7. Sessions commenced on Sept 12.

The resolution is co-sponsored by the United States, Canada, Germany, Malawi, Montenegro, and North Macedonia. Sri Lanka’s rejection of the latest resolution is irrelevant. Therefore, another heavy defeat at the UNHRC is quite possible. But, Sri Lanka conveniently failed so far to set the record straight in Geneva and at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Successive governments allowed Geneva to dictate terms by failing to present Sri Lanka’s case. The incumbent government is no exception.

Oslo has announced the termination of its mission here over a decade after the eradication of the LTTE’s conventional military capability. Had the Western sinister project succeeded, Sri Lanka would have been divided on ethnic lines. The CFA allowed the LTTE freedom to operate in the Northern and Eastern Province as it did away with restrictions placed on Tiger armed cadres entering government-held areas. The Norwegian led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) that was empowered to oversee the Ceasefire Agreement, continued to mollycoddle the LTTE in spite of a spate of blatant CFA violations by the Tigers.

In the wake of the then treacherous UNP government exposing the covert intelligence operation carried out by the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) behind enemy lines, the LTTE went after its operatives with a vengeance. The Norwegians went to the extent of providing funding to the LTTE and its front organizations, much to the dismay of those who really believed in a genuine effort to bring peace.

The Norwegian funding continued even after the LTTE quit the negotiating table in late April 2003. There had never been a proper examination of the Norwegian intervention here though Norway funded the costly joint study undertaken by Gunnar Sorbo of the Chr. Michelsens Institute (CMI) and Jonathan Goodhand of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). Their report titled Pawns of Peace: Evaluation of Norwegian peace efforts in Sri Lanka 1997-2009, released in September 2011 made specific reference to the SLMM, having accessibility to best possible intelligence.

High profile Oslo project

According to the report, the SLMM received intelligence from both the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and India’s premier intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW).

Thanks to NATO and India, those running the peace process couldn’t have been unaware of the LTTE’s rapid preparations for war. Norway received NATO support as a member of the military alliance (Pawns of Peace: Evaluation of Norwegian peace efforts in Sri Lanka 1997-2009, page 100).

The Norwegian study quoted the then SLMM head as having said that RAW only reached them through informal channels, therefore they couldn’t be fully trusted. “They weren’t giving it to us to be nice. We would always ask ourselves why they want us to know this. Intelligence provided by NATO only confirmed what they already knew”, the SLMM chief was quoted as having said.

The RAW destabilized Sri Lanka to such an extent, beginning with the election of J.R. Jayewardene, because of his overt tilt to the West, Sri Lanka was compelled to transform its ceremonial army into a lethal fighting force.

But, those who had been pursuing hostile agenda against us in Geneva quite conveniently forget how major powers ruined Sri Lanka by sponsoring, particularly the LTTE terrorism, and also giving them a free hand. Can the so-called leader of the Core Group, the UK, absolve itself of the responsibility for promoting terrorism here? The UK allowed LTTE’s International Secretariat to propagate the war against a Commonwealth country from London, granted citizenship to the late Anton Balasingham who advised Prabhakaran on terror project and even allowed secret talks therein between the LTTE theoretician and top Norwegian diplomats in the wake of the then Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar’s assassination by the Tigers. The UK has also given refuge to his wife Adele despite her having nourished Tamil young girls to take up violence. She was photographed donning cyanide capsules around the necks of such girls as they passed out after training.

The LTTE assassinated Kadirgamar on Aug 12, 2005, while the CFA, supervised by Scandinavian countries, was in operation. On April 25, 2006, the LTTE almost succeeded in assassinating Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka at the Army headquarters. On Oct 01, 2006, the LTTE made an abortive bid to assassinate Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa near Piththala junction, Kollupitiya. The Norwegians and Peace Co-Chairs comprising the US, Japan and the EU remained inactive. The LTTE continued to advance its project. The CFA didn’t prevent the LTTE from unloading ship loads of armaments or carrying out high profile assassinations.

The Norwegian role should be examined taking into consideration the Japanese involvement in the peace initiative.

Dr. John Gooneratne, who had been with the government Peace Secretariat from its inception in January 2002 to May 2006, explained serious shortcomings in the CFA over a year after the conclusion of the conflict in May 2009. Appearing before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) on September 15, 2010, Dr. Gooneratne revealed that four key matters proposed by the government weren’t included in the CFA. (A) There had been no reference to the requirement to use the CFA to pave the way for talks to find a negotiated settlement. (B) Specific reference to the prohibition of unlawful importation of arms, ammunition and equipment was not included. (C) Although the LTTE was allowed to engage in ‘political work’ in government controlled areas, other political parties weren’t given access to areas under the LTTE control (D) Forcible conscription of personnel to the LTTE’s fighting cadre, too, was not added to the list of prohibited activities.

Dr. Gooneratne, a veteran career diplomat, faulted the then UNP government as well as the Norwegians for being hasty in their approach. Dr. Gooneratne said: “What lessons can we learn from this experience? Firstly, negotiating on such security and military matters should have been a more inclusive format than by just the party in power. Secondly, in negotiating documents, such as the CFA, thoroughness should be the standard, and not just the speed.”

The CFA created an environment that allowed the LTTE to exploit the situation. Defence Secretary General Kamal Gunaratne in his book ‘Road to Nanthikadal’ launched in 2016 dealt with the CFA and how the LTTE abused and misused it. Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative in Geneva, former The Island columnist and prolific writer C.A. Chandraprema, in his book ‘Gota’s War’, too, dealt with the Norwegian role here. But, those who really desired to know about the Norwegian project should definitely peruse ‘Peaceful Intervention in Intra-State Conflicts: Norwegian Involvement in the Sri Lankan Peace Process.’

Career diplomat Dr. Chanaka Thalpahewa had dared to go the whole hog and lucidly explain the Oslo initiative harmful to Sri Lanka.

The Norwegians had been careless, extremely reckless. There cannot be a better example than importing radio equipment in agreement with the then government that bent backwards to appease the LTTE. The then Norwegian Ambassador Jon Westborg earned the wrath of some Opposition political parties as well as Sinhala nationalist groups for directly playing a role. The political leadership tried to underscore the importation of state-of-the-art radio equipment by the Norwegian Embassy in agreement with the Peace Secretariat though all knew it was a political decision. CFA time Defence Secretary and one of those who negotiated with the LTTE Austin Fernando’s ‘My Belly is White’ launched in January 2008 at the height of the war, too, is a must read.

UNHRC, GTF silent on India’s accountability

The Island in its Sept 19, 2022 edition (both print and online) carried a statement issued by the UK-based Global Tamil Forum (GTF). The TNA’s partner called for a strong new resolution on Sri Lanka that reflected the recommendations of the High Commissioner’s Report. Having demanded punitive action against Sri Lanka, the GTF thanked India for backing their cause at the UNHRC. The GTF and the UNHRC owed an explanation whether they wanted to leave India out of the proposed investigations.

Can accountability pertaining to the Sri Lanka conflict be examined by turning a blind eye to Indian intervention here, ranging from sponsoring of terrorist groups, atrocities perpetrated by the Indian Army that prompted the LTTE to assassinate former Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi and the sea borne raid on the Maldives carried out by Indian trained PLOTE terrorists and the killing of TULF’s Jaffna MPs by TELO at the behest of RAW?

The UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s report called on Sri Lanka to ‘re-launch a comprehensive, victim-centred strategy on Transitional Justice and accountability, to establish credible truth seeking mechanism and ad hoc special court’. Obviously, UNHRC and GTF are in a dilemma. India lost well over 1,000 officers and men here while approximately 3,000 others received injuries, some maimed for life.

Instead of opposing Geneva led investigations, Sri Lanka should request for a wider probe to establish how foreign support allowed the LTTE to wage war for nearly three decades and to ascertain the origins of terrorism.

The incumbent government should publicly ask those demanding accountability on Sri Lanka’s part to explain why the predominantly Tamil speaking northern and eastern electorates overwhelmingly voted for General Sarath Fonseka at the 2010 presidential poll after repeatedly accusing he and his Army of committing war crimes and how the TNA should be dealt with for recognizing the LTTE in late 2001 as the sole representatives of the Tamil speaking people. Those who are skeptical about alleged TNA-LTTE links should peruse the European Union Election Observation Mission report on the April 2004 general election. The EU explained how the TNA secured 22 seats at that poll with the direct help from the LTTE by stuffing ballot boxes in areas controlled by it. For some strange reason, Sri Lanka never bothered to raise these issues thereby allowed those pursuing extremely hostile agenda to humiliate the country.

Should the TNA be accountable for atrocities committed by the LTTE after their recognition of the organization as the sole representative of the Tamil speaking people? Perhaps, the TNA and the very vociferous Tamil Diaspora should be asked to prove that they at least requested the LTTE not to take cover behind civilians and hold them as a human shield after the combined armed forces pushed the LTTE fighting forces across the A9 to the Mullaitivu coast by April- May 2009.

The role of the Sri Lankan Church, too, should be probed. There cannot be any justification in leaving the Church out if Geneva wants to establish the truth.

Can the proposed Truth Seeking Mechanism refrain from inquiring into the deaths of Sri Lankan Tamils in the hands of Indian law enforcement authorities in the aftermath of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination? How many died? What were their identities? Do they still remain in the missing persons lists? Perhaps, the female LTTE cadre who committed suicide in the process of blowing up Gandhi may still be categorized as a missing person. Would it be possible to identify those PLOTE cadres killed by the Indian Navy on the high seas as they fled the Maldives in early Nov 1989 following the abortive bid to assassinate the then President of that island nation?

However, the writer has no dispute with the GTF’s call for thorough investigation into corruption accusations and action against all those responsible regardless of their standing in society.

Foreign passport holders

For want of Western governments’ support, thousands of people, categorized as dead/missing, live abroad under assumed identities. Sri Lanka never succeeded in securing their cooperation as they hid the real identities of thousands of Sri Lankans issued with new passports. How many Sri Lankans have received foreign passports over the past 30 years, particularly since 2009? The missing persons issue must be examined taking into consideration the rapid expansion of the Tamil Diaspora and their capacity to influence major political parties in Western countries, where they now reside.

Take the case of newly elected Norwegian lawmaker of Sri Lankan origin Khamshajiny (Kamzy) Gunaratnam, who reached Norway in 1991. Her family fled Sri Lanka in the wake of the Indian Army withdrawal and was lucky to end up in Norway. India ended itse military mission in March 1990 with then President Ranasinghe Premadasa showing them the door. The LTTE assassinated Gandhi just over a year later. Another high profile case is the ex-LTTE terrorist Antonythasan Jesuthasan receiving an opportunity to play the lead role in notable French Director Jacques Audiard’s award-winning Dheepan (2015). Jesuthasan, too, may be on some missing persons list.

The much-touted Geneva investigation should ascertain the actual number of Sri Lankans living abroad under assumed names. No less a person than Ranil Wickremesinghe when he served as the Premier of a previous government denied the state holding any Tamils in any secret location other than those held officially in jails.

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