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Tamilnation > Struggle for Tamil Eelam > Conflict Resolution - Tamil Eelam - Sri Lanka > Norwegian Peace Initiative > Oslo Peace Support Meeting > Tiger diplomacy makes headway - Sutha Nadarajah

Norwegian Peace Initiative

Tiger diplomacy makes headway
Sutha Nadarajah, Tamil Guardian,  4 December 2002

"...The increasing ease with which the LTTE is able to engage the international community is having an impact on the movement's ability to articulate its political cause abroad..."

The 'Sri Lanka Peace Support Meeting' held in Oslo on November 25 was intended, as stated by the Norwegian hosts, as a 'political event' to demonstrate international support for their peace initiative in Sri Lanka, with the $70million emergency aid pledged being seen as a secondary, albeit important, objective. But another key and controversial aspect of the event has been the participation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) at the landmark summit. The movement's seat at the conference in which nineteen countries from four continents participated has been viewed by its supporters and detractors alike as a barometer of the LTTE's new international standing.

The strong statement on the day by US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Armitage and India's refusal to send a delegation Delhi was represented at the opening ceremony by a local embassy diplomat has been cited by the LTTE's critics as evidence of the movement's continuing international isolation. In his address to the assembled delegates Mr. Armitage urged the Liberation Tigers to make a "public renunciation of terrorism and of violence" and to abandon the goal of Tamil independence. But the LTTE, on the hand, saw itself "gaining international acceptance and respectability" from its participation at the event, according to the head of its Political Wing, Mr. S. P. Tamilselvan.

The answer as to which view is more accurate needs to be discerned not only from the events of the day itself, but also from the conference's position in the chronology of international diplomatic activity involving the LTTE over the past year since the Norwegian peace initiative in Sri Lanka began to make real progress and the island became the subject of sudden and considerable international focus.

The matter of the LTTE's international legitimacy remains a vital part of the ethnic question particularly for the Sinhala right. It has assumed such emotive heights now that press attention was even directed as to whether or not British Development Minister Clare Short looked at the LTTE delegates during her address to the Oslo meeting she did, later warmly applauding LTTE Chief Negotiator Anton Balasingham's own speech to the conference.

Also contrary to earlier Sri Lankan press speculation, Mr. Armitage also returned to his seat after the first break to listen to Mr. Balasingham's address. Before the Oslo conference, press reports had said the United States and Britain intended to cold shoulder the LTTE at the event and focussed on whether India would attend.

The LTTE is banned in all three countries. It is also included amongst organizations deemed to be engaged in terrorism by Canada and Australia, both of which also attended the conference.

Perhaps conscious of the considerable controversy brewing in Colombo, British and American delegations avoided what might be perceived as fraternisation with LTTE delegates at least while the media was present forcing some sophisticated logistic choreography by Norwegian Foreign Ministry officials as delegates took their seats for the opening ceremony at the Holmenkollen Park Hotel Rica. Nevertheless, "the US's participation is significant and we are very pleased that Mr. Armitage came," Mr. Balasingham told reporters after the conference.

But other countries, including those with domestic bans on the LTTE and closely allied to UK and US, exhibited no such reservations and at the event's conclusion, reporters saw diplomats from several countries involved in discussions with Mr. Balasingham and other senior LTTE delegates. The media was permitted to attend the opening addresses and concluding press conference only.

Behind the closed doors of the conference Norway's delegation, led by Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helegesen, chaired the meeting, flanked by the LTTE delegation to their left and the Government of Sri Lankan delegation to their right. Diplomats from other countries took their seats crammed in around the large conference table as the joint appeal of the LTTE and GoSL for rehabilitation assistance was read out and discussed.

Apart from this main event on Monday, senior LTTE delegates held bilateral closed door meetings with key governments, including those with domestic bans on the Tamil Tigers, officials told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity. Some meetings took place on Sunday and Tuesday also, they added.

The emergent diplomatic acceptability of the LTTE which is felt to enable such high profile international engagement with the movement has provoked considerable acrimony in Colombo, where the Sinhala right is bitterly critical of the ruling United National Front (UNF) government for 'permitting' the LTTE onto the world stage.

A week before the Oslo event, for example, Sri Lanka's main opposition People's Alliance (PA) party criticized the conference, Norway's peace role in Sri Lanka and the international community for 'rewarding terrorism' through the meeting. In a statement drafted by former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadrigamar, the PA said it "is disturbed by the impending accommodation of the LTTE, on a level of parity with the Government of Sri Lanka, at the forthcoming talks to be held in Oslo." The PA also condemned Norway's role in the peace process as "no longer impartial" and said "the signal that will go out from Oslo is that, notwithstanding resounding universal declarations that terrorism must be resisted in all its manifestations, terrorism will in fact be rewarded when the interests of certain donor countries merge with the interests of a terrorist group," he said.

The context of the present controversy over the LTTE's standing emerged in the late nineties when, along with a comprehensive military onslaught against the Tamil Tigers, the PA government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga also launched an international diplomatic offensive against the movement. Led by Mr. Kadirgamar, the objective of the latter was to politically marginalise the LTTE by securing its proscription in as many countries as possible. The US banned the organization in 1997, Britain in early 2001, Australia and Canada in late 2001. India banned the LTTE in 1991, accusing it of assassinating Premier Rajiv Gandhi. Whilst vilifying the Tigers abroad the PA also maintained a blackout on LTTE held areas of the island, blocking access to the international press and Colombo's diplomatic community. Sri Lanka's ban in 1998 further restricted possibilities of contact. But since the United National Front (UNF) government assumed power last December and engaged resolutely in the Norwegian peace initiative, the LTTE's diplomatic contacts have grown considerably, resulting in a sea change in the movement's profile access to the international diplomatic space and hence to its profile.

Firstly, the mutual ceasefire signed by the movement and the UNF government includes a multinational (mainly Nordic) monitoring team which has a presence in all of the island's Tamil provinces.

Secondly, the lifting of the embargo on Tamil areas has permitted the international press and diplomats unfettered access to LTTE controlled areas. Colombo's de-proscription of the LTTE early September further improved matters.

Thirdly, considerable diplomatic engagement between the LTTE and international governments is being conducted through Mr. Balasingham's offices in London, according to LTTE officials.

In the past six months, the LTTE has met at its Vanni Political Headquarters with diplomatic delegations from Britain, China, the European Union, Japan, Canada, and Australia amongst other countries. The authority of the diplomatic delegations which are often led by High Commissioners or Ambassadors or sometimes more senior officials and the depth of the issues discussed is undoubtedly based on the movement's standing as a key player in Sri Lanka's future and thereby represents the practical ineffectiveness of the PA's international campaign to marginalise the LTTE. But, perhaps understandably, the issue of the LTTE's proscriptions abroad has become an ideological line in the sand for Sinhala hardliners, with considerable anxious attention focussed on the possibilities of changes in the various bans around the world.

These proscriptions have also, as the movement repeatedly warned they would, now become a serious impediment to a political solution to the island's conflict. In mid-September the LTTE announced in the wake of the first direct talks with the Sri Lankan government in Thailand that it was seeking internal self-determination for the Tamils as its key objective. Mr. Balasingham, the LTTE's political advisor, also said the movement was keen to explore 'federal or confederal' models of governance. But leading practitioners of these or similar power sharing systems the US, Britain, Australia, Canada have banned the LTTE, making it impossible for the movement's members to travel to these countries to study their practices and structures. Perhaps cognizant of this, Margot Wallstr´┐Żm, a top EU official, told the 'Support Meeting' that the European Commission hoped "to identify a way to enable [us] to extend to the LTTE the possibility to look at different European government models."

Physically isolated from the international diplomatic space, the LTTE was, until recently, unable to engage in the requisite breadth and depth with world governments to advance their political case. The transfer in 1999 to London from the Vanni of Mr. Balasingham and the emergence this year of near routine contact with numerous countries through Colombo based diplomats has enabled the movement to discuss key issues directly with relevant governments and non-governmental organizations.

Working contacts between LTTE officials at different levels and different sections and diplomats and other international officials has also given the movement much needed experience, LTTE officials say. But whilst acknowledging international acceptance will require greater diplomatic efforts on its part, they are optimistic. "I think in the course of time the countries that have proscribed the LTTE will review their stand on the basis of the progress of the negotiations," Mr. Balasingham said.


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