Damage control as peace process hits the rocks

[TamilNet, Tuesday, 12 June 2001, 05:15 GMT]
(News Feature) The bi-lateral decision by Norway and Sri Lanka last Thursday, at the latter's insistence, to reduce the prominence of Oslo's peace envoy, Erik Solheim, has delivered an unexpected and severe blow to the Liberation TigersÇ confidence in the Norwegian initiative, political analysts said Monday. Sri Lanka's state-media Monday strove to give the impression that the process was still on track, but the LTTE's strongly worded statement Sunday and sentiments being expressed by Tamil politicians and media emphasised the depth of the crisis, they said.

The decision by the Sri Lankan government to seek the effective sidelining of Erik Solheim first became apparent only when Norwegian Foreign Minister Thorbjoern Jagland flew in last Thursday to meet with Sri Lanka's President Chandrika Kumaratunge and Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. Solheim, who had arrived in Colombo with Jagland, was however not permitted to attend the meetings, Norwegian embassy officials told AFP.

jagland_t.jpgFollowing several hours of talks, both Norwegian officials hurried back to Oslo whilst the government issued a terse statement. "It was decided that the Government of Norway will henceforth participate at a high level to advance the peace process," it said, without elaborating.

There was some confusion Friday as Jagland played down suggestions that Solheim was being marginalized, but saying that he (Jagland) would be playing a greater role. Solheim also put a brave face on matters Saturday, saying that he would still be the facilitator, but acknowledging that senior officials would now be involved.

Significantly, Jagland admitted the LTTE had not been kept in the loop. Meetings with the organisation would be held soon, but no dates had been set, he said. However, the LTTE reacted angrily over the weekend to its exclusion in the decision making process related to Solheim's role.

chandrika_kumarathunge_11-p.jpgIn a statement issued from the Vanni, the LTTE Sunday "expressed its displeasure over the unilateral initiative taken by the Sri Lankan government to effect a change in the role and function of the Norwegian peace envoy Mr. Erik Solheim."

It was Sri Lanka's seeming ability to change the modalities of the peace process at whim, without the consent, or in this case, even the knowledge of the LTTE, which the Tigers were objecting to.

"The facilitatory process in peace making is not an exercise in inter-governmental relations; it involves tripartite relations between the facilitator and the parties in conflict," the Tigers said. "[Norway's] bi-lateral decision with the government of Sri Lanka, circumventing the other party in conflict entails a breach of protocol and neutrality."

The LTTE statement drew widespread coverage through the Colombo-based international news agencies and many regional newspapers. There was no official reaction from either Colombo or Oslo to the statement, revealing the severity of the situation.

Meanwhile Tamil political parties were angry with the Sri Lankan government over the down-grading of Solheim, accused it of insulting the Norwegian envoy and blocking the peace process, the Times of India reported Sunday.

"This is another tactic by the government to drag on the issue. It is an utter insult to the Norwegian government and they have treated Solheim, who did so much for the [Sri Lanka], very shabbily," V Anandasangari Vice President of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) told the paper.

erik_solheim-1_p.jpgThe removal of Solheim at this juncture, as demanded by the Sri Lankan government, would inevitably set the process back, said Joseph Pararajasingham, MP of the TULF. "The LTTE's apprehensions over the affair is understandable," he said. "It is disturbing when one party can make unilateral decisions [like this]."

"Dropping Solheim now raises suspicions whether the government is genuinely trying to settle this [conflict] peacefully," he told TamilNet. "There is no need to change horses in mid-stream."

Whilst avoiding official comment, the Sri Lankan government Monday tested the waters on the possible temporarily lifting of the proscription of the Liberation Tigers, in what was seen by some Sri Lankan political analysts as a measure to divert focus away from the Solheim affair.

The state-owned Daily News said Monday that Colombo could "reflect some flexibility and accommodation" over its categorical rejection of the de-proscription of the LTTE. The suggestion comes a few days after definitive comments by a government minister that the ban could not be lifted

"The ban cannot be lifted because the LTTE is a terrorist organisation. If it is to be de-proscribed it has to prove that it is not terrorist by coming for unconditional talks," Sri Lanka's Justice Minister Mr. Batti Weerakoon was quoted as saying last Tuesday.

Norway's readiness to reduce Solheim's role, whilst at the behest of the Sri Lankan government, also comes in the wake of mounting criticism of the envoy by the Sinhala far-right. Two weeks ago, the United Sinhala Maha Saba, or Sinhalese Council, which is said to represent Sri Lanka's powerful Buddhist clergy, said they wanted Solheim declared persona non grata.

Whilst the influence of the Buddhist clergy on Sri Lankan government decisions was acknowledged, the newly formed perception that the influence extended to the Norwegian peace process could undermine Tamil confidence in it, political analysts said.

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