Saturday, Nov 15, 2003
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WHEN NORWAY FIRST began to facilitate a peace process between the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), its representatives continually warned against expectations of quick results. They said that there would be several ups and downs, that these should be treated as part of the process, and that they were prepared for the long haul. So it is surprising that the Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister, Vidar Helgesen, should now announce the suspension of his Government's participation in the peace process till "clarity is re-established" on the question of who in the Sri Lankan Government is in charge of the peace process. The decision comes in the wake of last week's full-fledged confrontation between President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe during which Ms. Kumaratunga, exercising her constitutional powers, took charge of three ministerial portfolios, most importantly the Defence Ministry. While Ms. Kumaratunga has made it abundantly clear that she will not obstruct the peace process in any way, Mr. Wickremesinghe maintains he cannot carry on the process without control of the Defence Ministry. A meeting between the two leaders a few days ago brought no resolution. Significantly, Mr. Helgesen made the announcement withholding Norway's facilitation a day after his meeting with the LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabakaran.
What does this mean? Norway's decision to "go home and wait" till Ms. Kumaratunga and Mr. Wickremesinghe sort it out between themselves is remarkably similar to the LTTE position that it needs to be clear on who in the Sri Lankan Government it can continue the peace process with. Facilitation, Norway knows well from its West Asian experience, is not for the weak-hearted. One interpretation of Norway's action is that it is a strategy to pressure the two sides of the divided Sri Lankan polity to come together. If that is the case, two interesting questions arise: why did Norway not use similar tactics to force the LTTE back to the negotiating table last April when it suspended participation in the peace talks? Why did Norway not use such tactics to ensure that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe did not marginalise President Kumaratunga in the pursuit of peace? After all, she initiated this peace process. The decision to nominate Norway as the facilitator because of its acceptability to both the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE was also hers. But Norway went along with the effective sidelining of President Kumaratunga post-December 2001.
Motives aside, the stepping back by Norway demonstrates the limitations of third party facilitation or mediation in any attempt to bring peace to Sri Lanka. India discovered that some years ago but not before paying dearly for its involvement. For peace to return to Sri Lanka, the main stakeholders all the people of Sri Lanka, irrespective of their ethnicity or political affiliation must feel ownership of the process. Every attempt to bring peace has thus far been divisive in some way and for this the Sri Lankan political leadership has to take a major share of the blame. In a sense, bringing the divided political establishment together must form part of any peace process between the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE. Norway must have known this when it decided to take up the role of facilitator but many of its actions, particularly its perceived lack of impartiality and even a pro-LTTE tilt, served to accentuate the polarisation. In walking off saying it was never its mandate to "facilitate between the political parties in the south," Norway will sharpen those divisions even more.
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