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Peace at whatever price: The Norwegian connection

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By Uditha Devapriya

Chanaka Talpahewa, Peaceful Intervention in Intra-State Conflicts: Norwegian Involvement in the Sri Lankan Peace Process (Routledge, 2016, 289 pp., £96)

Frank, forthright, and facetious, Chanaka Talpahewa lives and breathes diplomacy. Bred and battered in the Foreign Service, one nevertheless feels his potential hasn’t been as used as it should have been there. This book, in that sense, was a long time coming: at one go it brings together the theorist and the practitioner, the scholar and the pragmatist, in him. Covering almost 10 years, from 1997 to 2008, it goes backward and lunges forward in time, offering us a prelude and a postscript to perhaps one of the most spectacular failures of third party intervention in a conflict zone.

What went wrong with Norway’s peace process, which lasted a decade, a ceasefire agreement, and a controversial administrative arrangement with the world’s most feared terrorist outfit following one of South Asia’s biggest natural disasters? What contributed to its unravelling and unfolding, and what have those whose involvement with it led to its unravelling have to say about it now?

To Dr Talpahewa’s credit, he doesn’t provide easy answers; he lets us find them, though he interjects his own views. From the start, he criticises those who take a purely historical approach to the issue, for two principal reasons: because Norway’s intervention in Sri Lanka was exceptional, and because Sri Lanka’s conflict did not fit the mould of most if not many case studies that the Norwegian model of peace and conflict resolution was deployed for. Adopting a “process-tracing methodology” instead, he relies on interviews, archive reports, and observations. Perceptions are what count there, and Dr Talpahewa gives us plenty of them.

From what I could gather reading through Peaceful Intervention in Intra-State Conflicts, we can list down six broad reasons for Norway’s failure to bring the government and the LTTE to the negotiating table. First and foremost, there was the interpretation made of the conflict. In reality, there were two interpretations made, and though the book doesn’t delve into them they are worth reiterating: firstly, that the war remained in its essential form a civilisational conflict, and secondly, that the best model for resolving it was the Good Friday Agreement between the Irish and the British. If you caved into the former line, you automatically conceded to the latter line as well.

But as both Asoka Bandarage and Dayan Jayatilleka have pointed out, these ignored the specificities of the Sri Lankan war, not least of all the difference between the quasi-democratic framework within which the IRA and Sinn Fein operated and the “classically fascist” structures within which the LTTE did; as Dr Jayatilleka has observed only too correctly, Sri Lanka’s equivalents of minority moderates are dead, and not a single one at the hands of the Sri Lankan government.

Compounding this were the perceptions which influenced the peace process itself. Here Dr Talpahewa lays the blame fairly and squarely on both parties, though overwhelmingly on the LTTE. Yet the issue wasn’t so much the apportionment of blame between governments on the defensive and terrorists on the offensive as who was doing the apportioning and to what degree. The Norwegians, the author tells us, teetered between getting both parties to the table while going out of the way to communicate with the Tigers: a treatment the government considered skewed against it.

To that difference in treatment one can add another: between the two parties in power at the time. As the book makes it clear, at the end of the first Chandrika Kumaratunga government the Norwegians made every effort to keep both government and Opposition informed. Yet after Ranil Wickremesinghe became Prime Minister in a government headed by an SLFP President, they did a volte-face, keeping the UNP (and Wickremesinghe especially) on the loop while excluding the President. No matter how justified the Norwegians may have been – they trot out the excuse that Kumaratunga was difficult to engage with – such selectivity contributed to the talks breaking down during the ceasefire; what made such a confusing state of affairs even more confusing was that before they won the general election in 2001, the UNP, under Ranil Wickremesinghe, had opposed Norwegian involvement.

The lopsided character of the ceasefire agreement and the duplicity of the LTTE also contributed to the breakdown of the talks. Dr Talpahewa digs deep here, giving us interviews with key personnel who saw the CFA for what it was (and was not), from foreign officials who defend it to anti-LTTE Tamil politicians who condemn it. In a word, it was asymmetric: it disarmed Tamil groups which had come into the democratic mainstream while granting a strategic advantage to the Tigers twice over: de-proscription, plus the tentative granting of administrative autonomy. More fascist than terrorist (it idealised the Nazi salute), the LTTE holds the distinction of being appeased by more individuals than has been the case with other similar outfits. That this continued to be the defining thrust of the peace process, even after 9/11, is probably the biggest indictment one can make of that process.

By acting this way, Norway reduced the war to one between the government and the terrorists (what Talpahewa calls a two-centric view, and Bandarage calls a bipolar conflict model), failing to account for the complexities of politics in the north and east. Indeed, in reducing the potential of non-LTTE combatants AND the Sri Lankan government, Norway did little to assuage fears of it being swayed by the Tamil Tigers. That it doubled down on these differences of treatment with yet another – between the State and NGOs (NGOs it patronised with copious funds, details of which are given at the back of the book) – certainly didn’t help improve its standing in the eyes of its critics.

Here we come to the sixth and last problem, by far the most problematic: the third party itself. Why was Norway NOT the ideal country to go to and negotiate this war over? For Sinhala nationalists, the Norwegians pretty much remain the devil incarnate; for Tamil nationalists allied with the LTTE, on the other hand, it didn’t play that role enough. The LTTE was known for reverse salami slicing tactics whenever a third party got involved in negotiations: it would commit itself to negotiations and talks, promise something vague (in the case of the Norway talks, “internal self-determination” as opposed to secession in the so-called Oslo Statement), use what time it had to regroup, and then go back on what had been promised earlier (“There was no specific proclamation named the Oslo Declaration,” Anton Balasingham said in 2004). This line had once frustrated India, but Norway seemed to take it a tad too calmly, going as far as to hail the LTTE’s commitment to peace. How so?

Most critiques of the choice of Norway as third party peace broker here centre on two points: the presence of a significant Tamil population in the country, and the contradiction within its political structures between a commitment to peace and an avowal of war.

The latter is easier to deconstruct: from its status as a significant exporter of ammunition to its constitutional enthronement of Lutheran Christianity despite being a secular State, from its membership of NATO (which, as Johan Galtung informed the author in this book, was in itself a minus point against having Norway) to its adherence to the Washington Consensus, Norway’s involvement in this part of the world has been questioned by critics. These have only cast aspersions the country’s motives, even the role it played: casting itself as a facilitator here, it soon began taking stances a little too much to the side of one party.

Less easy to decipher is the link between the Tamil Diaspora presence in Norway and perceptions of the country’s “tilt” towards the LTTE. Going by the numbers, not many Tamils reside there: 13,000 in a population of 5.5 million, or barely 0.25 percent.

Yet such numbers should not be viewed in isolation, and must be compared, firstly to the non-Tamil Sri Lankan presence, secondly to demographics of other minorities, and thirdly to the populations of ethnicities pitted against those minorities. The Armenians, for instance, make up 0.15 percent of the population in the US, yet they have been unable to get the US government to declare the expulsion of a million descendants from Ottoman Turkey as genocide largely because Turkish Americans comprise about 0.2 percent of the population. American Jews make up 2.1 percent and form a significant lobby, but Muslim Americans make up 1.1 percent and are almost as significant.

On the other hand, the non-Tamil Sri Lankan population, specifically the Sinhalese, lags significantly behind the Tamil population: 0.07 percent versus 0.004 percent in the US, to give just one breakdown. What this means, of course, is that those among the Diaspora Tamils allied with the LTTE have been able to outrun their Sinhala counterparts in lobbying these governments for support, funds, and most importantly, ideological commitment to separatism. For Talpahewa, that has become a major issue in and for Norway, where the LTTE established an efficient organisational structure, soliciting funds and “convincing” politicians, even having a hand in manipulating elections. It has served to feed Sinhalese fears of foreign compulsions. Needless to say, this did not help with the peace talks.

As for those talks? They wrapped up. When? Early January 2008, when the government informed the Norwegians that it was withdrawing from the ceasefire agreement, two years after the LTTE’s act of shutting down the sluice gates at Mavil Aru provoked the army to strike back and demonstrate, for the first time in a long while, its capabilities against the Tigers. By then the deal was off the table, dead as a dodo, never to be revived again. It had been through the moment it was penned.

Dr Talpahewa minces no words and cuts no corners in his book. This is a fine analysis, certainly a scholarly one. My only complaint is that it hasn’t got off the ground as it should have: first published in 2015, Peaceful Intervention in Intra-State Conflicts was never really promoted, never bought, never sold to the Sri Lankan public (much less the foreign public), in the same way other books on the peace process and the conflict were. True, the price isn’t too affordable, but then an inexpensive South Asia edition, or even distribution among libraries, is an option. If the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – and I believe we have one at the moment – is serious about promoting the truth about what happened here in those years to the world at large, it must consider promoting the works of our academics: not those funded from abroad, but those working from within, literally at home.

In any case, Talpahewa’s book needs to be read. There’s a point where it asks more questions than it gives answers, where it asks us to ponder what went wrong. It’s only right that we find those answers, and ascertain why the world’s most formidable promoter of peace couldn’t stall the machinations of the world’s most corpulent promoter of war. It’s like what Keyser Söze says in The Usual Suspects: “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” Mr Prabhakaran came pretty close to beating the Devil: he convinced half the world he didn’t want war.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com



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Sat Mag

When a wonderful human being crosses the great divide

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Sarasaviya took this picture of Punya and Milroy at their home after the “Abhimani” Legendary Award was conferred on Punya, during their last visit to Sri Lanka to attend the Sarasaviya Festival in 2016.

“There are friends,
There is family,
And then there are friends
That become family”

Such a friend was Milroy, whose passing away a few days ago, we learnt with heavy hearts and deep sorrow.

To those who didn’t know him, he was the husband of Punya Heendeniya, the actress who captivated the hearts and minds of a nation by her portrayal of Nanda in the film classic “Gamperaliya”; Nanda was the quintessential Sinhala upper class village maiden who valued tradition over love.

To MBS (Siri) he was a lifelong friend “who stayed forever, beyond word, beyond distance, beyond time”.

To me (Kumar Gunawardane) who came to know him through Siri and also through his brothers, he was a pleasant companion, and good friend.

PUNYA:

“He loved music, sing songs and kalawaa (art) in all its forms. That is why he married me. He went out of his way to help the needy in whatever way he could. He did everything for me and the children.

“In the last year or two he took to understanding what real Buddha Dharma was.

“May he attain the supreme bliss of Nibbana!”

SIRI:

“We met on the very first day in the “Block”; alphabetically we were next to each other, Milroy de Silva and MBS de Silva. That day, wearing our white jackets and ties back to front, we had to march to the Anatomy laboratory, jeered by serried ranks of haughty seniors. The naked bodies lying on marble slabs was nauseating. I was directed to the appropriate cadaver by a tutor and paired with a brilliant student JBC De Silva, to dissect the upper limb. Confused and bewildered I could only gaze at the colleague carving the other arm. He looked equally nonplussed wielding a scalpel nonchalantly, while another student recited the instructions from Cunningham’s manual of Anatomy. Our eyes met and that was the start of a beautiful friendship; a coming together of the high-spirited and full of joie de vivre. We immediately downed tools and scampered to the canteen to revive ourselves with a cup of tea, laced with condensed milk, and the cheapest available cigarette ‘Peacock’. Our interests were similar; studies took a back seat, larking around taking precedence. The friendship was sealed further when we joined Bloemfontein the formidable male medical student hostel alternatively feared and lauded.

“I remember our first Block dance at the King George’s hall. He was smartly dressed in black tuxedo pants and a cream jacket; only missing element was a lady companion. I, who wore a black shirt and a white tie, had a beautiful girl on my arm. I asked Milroy where he came by his tuxedo and he disdainfully replied I have two brothers who are doctors and one tuxedo for the whole family and now it is my turn to have it!!

“Our bonds strengthened during our intern year. Milroy returned to his roots in Galle and I joined him a few months later at Mahamodara, the hospital by the sea. It was a year of back breaking work, but also a year of fun and frolic.

“Milroy was then posted as chief (District Medical Officer) of the Moneragala hospital. But “I was left high and dry, Milroy, thoughtful as ever arranged for me to work with his brother Dr A.S.H De Silva, who had a thriving general practice just down the road from the hospital. Three months later, I got a posting to Buttala, which was then a mostly elephant and serpent infested jungle. It was classed as a ‘punishment’ station by the Health Department. The attractions however were the proximity to Milroy, and also the predecessors who included medical giants such as Professor Rajasooriya and the distinguished surgeons Dr Bartholomeuz, and R. L. Spittel the Surgeon of the Wilderness. In this pastoral outpost Milroy was bowled over by the image of Punya. He was at a loss to reach her. I advised him to write and he did so with panache. She invited him to visit them at Mirigama, her hometown to meet her folk. They teamed up in Punya’s own words for 52 years seven months and 22 days; a match made in heaven.

“As a dutiful father, he wanted to give his son and daughter the best education available and so it was that he and Punya migrated to Zambia. It was here that they demonstrated hidden strengths of character which helped them overcome adversities and even threats to their lives and move over to England. Milroy re-invented himself and rose to top of the ladder to become a consultant psychiatrist. His two children also became consultants in the NHS, the son a gastroenterologist and daughter an endocrinologist. He acknowledged freely Punya’s role not only in all his triumphs, but also in the hazards and misfortunes in their paths.

“Yet, more than all this was his humanity and humility, generosity to those less well endowed especially relatives and also to those medical graduates at the threshold of their careers. They were gracious hosts; Punya was an accomplished cook and less well known, a euphonious singer. I and my good friend Karu had the good fortune to enjoy their hospitality on many occasions in London.

“Milroy my friend, “To live in the hearts of those we love is never to die”

“May your journey in Samsara be short and my you attain the Supreme bliss of Nibbana!”

 

KUMAR:

I first got to know Milroy at Bloemfontein, the medical student’s hostel adjoining Carey College. He was a dapper figure, stylishly dressed with an unceasing gentle smile on his face. His chums, Siri, Gerry, Wicky and others were always friendly with us juniors and never intimidating. Their banter and capers in the dining room and the spacious portico were invariably hilarious.

My friendship with Siri was cemented in the hurly-burly of the Galle hospital, where I too did my internship. When I was unemployed after its completion it was Siri who arranged for me to work with Dr ASH, Milroy’s brother. ASH and Kingsley, another brother became my friends and mentors.

“Punya was a heartthrob of many young bucks of our era. But only one, Milroy, could win her hand and her heart. What a splendid partnership it was.

The Buddha Dhamma teaches that death is natural and inevitable. Yet it is sorrowful and we pray for you and your family’s peace and comfort. Their sadness is soothed by the beauty of your life, a life well lived. As the Buddha said death has no fear to those who fashioned life as a garland of beautiful deeds.

May you attain the Supreme Bliss of Nibbana!

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A New Arrival at the Pathfinder Wildlife Preservation Centre

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A newly hatched blue and gold macaw bred at the Pathfinder Wildlife Preservation Centre being attended to by a staff member Sisira Kumara.

The Pathfinder Wildlife Preservation Centre has a comprehensive collection of rare macaws, cockatoos, lorikeets, and parrots from Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The collection also includes a range of Arowana fish. This unique collection was originally presented to the Centre by Nimal Jayawardena, a leading business person, lawyer, and wildlife expert.

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Sat Mag

Imagining Malinda Seneviratne

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By Uditha Devapriya

I’d like to begin this tribute with a memory. I wasn’t always an avid reader of newspapers. My father, on the other hand, was. Somewhere in middle school, in Grade Eight I believe, I began picking them up once he had done with them, poring over the columns.

My eyes rested on certain topics more than others. They’d invariably centre on the war. How were we fighting the enemy? How was that enemy fighting back? What new conspiracies had been unearthed? Who had unearthed them? Who was next on the enemy’s kill list? The peace process, dead as a dodo long before it died, had floundered. Officially, we were back at war. As intriguing as that would have been, it was also disconcerting.

Even more disconcerting was the ambivalent stand of the English language press on the war. Not that the editorials called for a cessation of hostilities, much less a return to the peace process. But beneath the fine print, one could discern an almost confused pacifism, an almost abstruse neutralism.

This conformed to the same pattern: an acknowledgement of the heroism of the armed forces followed by a critique of government policy. Ultimately it all boiled down to, not whether the government was conducting the war properly, but whether the war had to be conducted at all. Even there the editors remained indecisive: they concluded that the LTTE had to be defeated, yet refused to endorse the war being waged to achieve that end.

None of that felt frustrating, of course. Cut off from the fears of a war next door, one could only revel in the delicatessen of wartime journalism. Yet it was clear the scales tilted to a side: very few writing in English advocated a military solution to the world’s longest running ongoing ethnic conflict. What explained their hesitation?

I didn’t bother finding out, but given the preponderance of those who wrote against the war, I was transfixed by those who wrote in support of it. Of them, one in particular caught my attention. Seven years later I met him: a coincidence I ponder over even now.

I have known Malinda Seneviratne in his many forms: writer, poet, translator, activist, editor, citizen, father, husband, and teacher. Yet I can’t recall why I wanted to meet him. Was it the eloquent prose, sharp as nails even at its most polemical? The equally eloquent poetry, haiku-like and evocative of both Neruda and Galeano? Or the activism, unabashedly nationalist in a country whose Westernised intelligentsia abhors such “tribalist” sentiments?

Malinda’s political education began with the Left, first with his father Gamini, then with a batch-mate of his father, Nanda Wickramasinghe (attached to the Revolutionary Communist League at the University of Peradeniya), and finally with Vijaya Kumaratunga and Ossie Abeygunasekera (until the latter’s defection to the UNP). The Ratawesi Peramuna, precursor to the Sihala Urumaya, came later.

His activism in (and for) the Ratawesi Peramuna followed his return from Harvard (where he completed his Bachelor’s in Sociology) in 1991. It was while in this group that he deepened his friendship with two of his biggest influences, Patali Champika Ranawaka and Athuraliye Rathana Thera. It was also his activities there that landed him in trouble; the police swooped on a meeting organised in 1992 at Wadduwa, following an exhibition of LTTE, IPKF, and JVP human rights abuses held in Matara, was intercepted by the police, who proceeded to arrest 15 members, including Ranawaka, Rathana Thera, and Malinda.

Held for three weeks, and tortured on the orders of a drunken OIC, they filed a fundamental rights case at the Supreme Court. Upholding their case, the Court, which acknowledged that the RP did not constitute a threat to national security and did not warrant the treatment meted out to its members, ordered the State to pay Rs 5,000 for each applicant. The Human Rights Library of the University of Minnesota later archived the case, “Channa Pieris and Others v. Attorney General and Others.” In the meantime, the Ratawesi Peramuna turned into Janatha Mithuro, a green socialist/nationalist outfit preaching the gospel of alternative development paradigms (what Ranakawa called the “third chapter of development”).

Malinda ended his political associations once he started out on his journalistic (and writing) career in the 2000s. By then he had gone through Janatha Mithuro, Sihala Urumaya, and the National Movement Against Terrorism (2006-7). These are, no doubt, colourful affiliations, befitting a colourful memoir. Yet, despite his activism, it’s hard to put a finger on his convictions: he just can’t be categorised in the same way his opponents, or for that matter his allies, can.

On the ‘national Question’, on the 13th Amendment, on our relations with India, indeed on global politics, he projects a provocative perspective. Thus, for instance, while he supported the Sihala Urumaya’s and Hela Urumaya’s parliamentary aspirations, he critiqued the latter’s decision to field Buddhist monks at elections. Even so, however, he does not oppose the entry of monks on a matter of unyielding principle: for him, they constitute a group having as much a right to parliamentary representation as any other.

In any case, whatever those convictions, the more I read him in my middle school years, the curiouser I got: then as now, what defines Malinda is the contrast, one could say paradox, between his ideological predilections and his poetic instincts. The two do get together, more often than you’d think, in his anthologies (just sample his poems on Geneva). And yet there’s a disjuncture between them. Perhaps this was what made me want to visit him.

Our first meeting went by innocuously enough. Lasting a little more than an hour, it ended on the promise of a second meeting, which transpired a month later – to be followed by another, and then another. The rapport between us grew quickly; by the time of the third meeting, he was asking me to come in and write to the paper he supervised as editor.

I hesitated at first. With characteristic flippancy, though, he shrugged my concerns aside: “When you work for me,” he promised, “you will write on everything.” I thus gave in: as with all 21-year-olds new to the trade, I wanted to write and be read in print. A few months later, in fulfilment of a promise he made before the January 2015 election, I was in.

Malinda taught several lessons as a writer, journalist, and senior. First and foremost among them was the line between writing news and writing features. For no matter what people may say, a good writer does not necessarily make for a good reporter. Pen and paper in hand, you need to record whatever it is that you’re covering is putting out to the public. Cutting through a morass of irrelevant anecdotes, you need to distil what you heard. And of course, you need to separate facts from comment: you can’t editorialise.

This proved to be a difficult exercise for me, far more difficult than the light pieces I ended up submitting to the features section. Suffice it to say, then, that insofar as Malinda taught me anything about journalism, it was that I could never aspire to be a journalist.

The second lesson was simpler: no matter how good (or bad) you may be as a journalist, if your editor doesn’t encourage you, your ink will dry. This applies to other professions also: where would Thomas Wolfe be, for instance, without Max Perkins?

Malinda, of course, was not my first editor. Yet he and I shared interests which immediately bridged the gap between him and me. In the end, I wound up writing on topics I had always wanted to talk about. That could not have been possible without him.

The third lesson, the most important one, was that writing to newspapers is never going to be a stable profession, especially not here. I learnt this lesson the hard way: five months after I got in, his paper closed down. Petrified for days, wondering whether I would ever be able to write again, I eventually came to realise that, as shocking an experience as it may have been to me, for Malinda it did not mean much: he’d been pole-vaulting from one paper to another from the day he left active politics for journalism.

His experience there became my guide: one evening, after the storm clouds of his termination had died down, he told me bluntly, “In this trade, if you’re good enough, you’ll never be out of tenure.” I disputed him. Six years later, having contributed to every paper he wrote to and is writing to, I realise I was wrong to do so.

Having read him and met him, I thus ended up learning under Malinda: a trajectory I am yet to go through a second time with anyone else in his line of work. I can’t really assess him, or do him justice, except maybe to note that, for the little or the lot he taught, he never demanded a payback.

Perhaps that’s just as well. For without taking away anything from what he did, I was hardly the only person he supported this way. Many others, most of them as young as I, all of them endowed with a superior penmanship, also found their way to the pages of the papers he oversaw. I know for a fact that he always insisted on compensating them – in full.

The West Indian international relations scholar Herb Addo once wrote that Andre Gunder Frank, from whom he learnt about the political economy of underdevelopment, “taught me nothing.” For his contemporaries, Addo argued, Frank “taught from a distance”, yet let his students develop as individual, independent intellectuals, in their own right.

By no means do I suggest that Malinda taught me nothing, or that he did so from a distance. But reflecting on how he taught all that one needed to know, and how he dismisses it today as though was just letting me evolve on my own, I wonder: was he, as Frank had been to Addo, a teacher in the Gibran vein, leading me to the threshold of my mind?

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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