What had only been conceded informally earlier, finally became official on 16 February when visiting Norwegian Foreign Minister Knut Vollebaek announced in Colombo that his country had accepted the task of acting as thirdparty intermediary to help resolve one of South Asia’s longest civil wars. Norway will work towards bringing Sri Lanka’s predominantly Sinhala People’s Alliance (PA) government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) together for a dialogue aimed at bringing in a negotiated settlement to the island’s ethnic crisis.
An official communique quotes Vollebaek as saying: “The conflict in Sri Lanka can only be solved by political means. A basis for a dialogue must be established between the parties. Upon a request from the president and following a wish from the LTTE, I have today informed the president that Norway is willing to accept the challenging task of trying to bring the parties together in such a dialogue. We have also discussed modalities for commencing direct talks. This places a heavy responsibility on the parties themselves. I am encouraged by the expressed willingness to seek a politica solution. However this will take time. It will be difficult. It will require courage and sacrifice and it will require the necessary political will from the parties.”
It is quite apparent from the Norwegian minister’s comments that he has no illusions about the task he has been entrusted with. The Scandinavian country has a tremendous reputation for having helped resolve some of the world’s most intractable conflicts, ranging from Palestine to Guatemala, and Vollebael himself is well versed in the art of peacemaking But this is the first time that the Norsemen have sailed into the turbulent seas of a South Asian conflict, and the nuances and parameters 0f the Sri Lankan situation comprise an imbroglo that may prove tough to untangle for even those most experienced at brokering peace. But that is yet to be seen.
Prior to visiting Colombo, Vollebaek me with LTTE political adviser and theoreticiar Anton Balasingham in London for a 115-minite one-on-one meeting, and they are expected to interact once again to finalise the modalities concerning the government-LTTE dialogue Tentative procedures envisage the preliminary round to take place within three months, either in London or in Oslo, and if the LTTE wants to fly out delegates from Sri Lanka for the talks Colombo is obliged to provide all assistance and security for it. Neither side is to imposes any pre-conditions and a ceasefire will be announced only after the initial discussions. Both sides, however, are expected to undertake mutual confidence-building measures, create a conducive climate on the ground and gradually de-escalate the conflict as a prelude’ to direct negotiations. The talks are expected to conclude within 14 months.
A significant bone of contention between the two sides right now is in the definition of the third-party role itself. In deference to Indian reservations as well as Sinhala sentiment, the government does not want a “mediator” but only a “facilitator”. The LTTE, on the other hand, is quite insistent that third-party mediation is absolutely essential because of what it says is the untrustworthy track record of the government in this respect. For the moment, given Colombo’s sensitivity over the question of the intermediary assuming a facilitatory and not a mediatory role, Norway has confined its role strictly to that of providing its good offices only. A puerile debate over semantics it may appear to the outsider, but it is one that could easily result in preventing the talks from proceeding beyond a certain level if both parties persist in their inflexibility.
In Sri Lanka itself, the Norwegian involvement has raised hopes among peace activists. There is realisation that Norway is not acting unilaterally but has the tacit support of most Western nations connected with Sri Lanka as aid-giving and/or refugee-accepting nations. Indeed the locus standi for Norwegian intervention is the increasing flow of Lankan Tamil refugees to that country. The role of Norway, therefore, is perceived not only as a well-meaning singular effort but as the cutting edge of a much larger Western consensus.
Another positive factor is the visibly personal initiative of the high-profile Vollebaek fciimself, who, instead of delegating functions “to lesser officials, is actively participating from the preliminary phase onwards. Also Noteworthy is the fact that Norway has provided maximum publicity to its role and has been very open about its efforts instead of wrapping it in secrecy as is customary in such instances.
For its part, Colombo is acting with extrasensitivity with regard to possible Indian reaction to the exercise. Having been rapped in the past for inviting into the region forces seen as inimical to India (such as the attempt to let the US use Trincomallee port’s oil storage facility back in the early 1980s), Colombo is certainly taking no chances. In fact, the choice of Norway as intermediary was greatly influenced by the pronounced distaste South Block has towards ‘big alien powers’ getting involved in South Asia.
The Lankan government is also concerned about how New Delhi would react to direct talks with the LTTE given that India has proscribed the LTTE and has also charged e LTTE chief Velupillai Prabakharan as the primary conspirator behind Rajiv Gandhi’s killing. Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, who was in New Delhi during the 26 January Republic Day celebrations as a guest, used the opportunity to sound out India. And during President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s conclusive discussion with Vollebaek, the Lankan envoy to India too was present, which points to Colombo’s intention of keeping India informed of all developments in this sphere.
There have been other peace efforts in the past, two of them internal and two with external dimensions. India played an important and useful third-party role as a benign intermediary from 1983 to 1990. But despite the Indo-Lanka Accord and the deployment of the Indian Army, those efforts proved fruitless. Britain tried a limited function in 1996-97, when it succeeded in getting the government and chief opposition United National Party (UNP) to agree on a bipartisan consensus in talking to the Tigers. That never got off the ground. Then there were the UNP-LTTE talks under President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1989-90 and the PALTTE talks under Chandrika Kumaratunga in 1994-95. Neither succeeded.
It is now the turn of Norway, and the outcome can hardly be predicted. But recent history has demonstrated clearly that external intervention can succeed only if there are overwhelming internal compulsions among the protagonists for a peaceful settlement. Is there a way out through Norway, or is it again going to be ‘No Way’?