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Tamilnation > Struggle for Tamil Eelam > Conflict Resolution - Tamil Eelam - Sri Lanka > Norwegian Peace Initiative > Fourth Session of Peace Talks in Thailand & Aftermath > If Chandrika Returns to Power, it is back to war
If Chandrika returns to power, it is back to
says Anton Balasingham
Interview with Sunday Leader Editor, Lasantha Wickremetunge
12 January 2003
Chief LTTE Negotiator Dr. Anton Balasingham said that in the event of the PA coming back to power under President Chandrika Kumaratunga, it will be back to war again. In an interview with The Sunday Leader Editor, Lasantha Wickremetunge in Nakorn Pathom, Thailand, Balasingham stated that a stage has been reached where both parties have decided to explore a federal framework under the principle of internal self determination within a united Sri Lanka, substantial progress has been made in the peace process so far and there is a good rapport and mutual trust between the two parties.
Following are excerpts:
Q: The fourth round of talks has just concluded. How would you assess the progress made so far?
A: I would say that there has been substantial progress so far. As you know at this session of talks, we were discussing mainly about the urgent existential humanitarian problems. As far as the political dialogue is concerned, we have made rapid progress and we have reached a stage where both parties have decided to explore a federal framework under the principle of internal self determination within a united Sri Lanka.
That was a major breakthrough. Unfortunately the ground situation is not very good. The conditions of our people, the suffering of our people continues. For the last one year, since the declaration of the ceasefire there is a stable peace. There have not been any serious violations of the ceasefire. However, normalcy is not restored. About a million people are displaced. They need to go back to their houses. And they need to get back to their houses.
The resettlement of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) has become a formidable problem. Along with that, there are so many livelihood and existence problems of our people. So the people demand that these day to day issues be addressed. Therefore, what we have decided is to concentrate on these problems this time.
Q: With regard to addressing the urgent humanitarian problems concerning the people, an issue that cropped up was in relation to the High Security Zones (HSZ). Many people expected the peace process to fall apart on the issue of the HSZ. How did you overcome that problem during these talks?
A: It is true that the High Security Zones, problems relating to the HSZ created a controversy. This controversy originated from a statement made by Maj. General Fonseka. As far as we are concerned, it is a very hardline statement and the main theme of the document is to link the humanitarian problems of resettlement of refugees with the disarming of our cadres and decommissioning of heavy weapons.
As far as the LTTE is concerned, that is a very serious matter. The document was released to the media before it came to our hand and it generated a controversy in sections of the media. So, we had to study the document and we were compelled to respond. The leadership responded and I also made a comment where we have stated that linking of the resettlement issue with decommissioning is totally unacceptable and unrealistic. We felt that the Sub Committee on De Escalation, the objective of which committee was to resettle the people, that was the essential function of the sub committee, was rendered meaningless.
What has happened is that the engagement of the army commanders of both parties transformed a humanitarian problem into a serious military issue. So we thought this committee cannot handle this. Therefore, we decided to disband the committee and to transfer the functions into the other committee which is also dealing with the same humanitarian issue.
The other committee has senior political leaders and civil servants so that it could be handled by that sub committee. But it is a decision made by the LTTE. The government has a different view. They are of the view the matter could have been discussed and resolved at the negotiating table. But as far as we are concerned, we made this firm decision to impress upon the Sinhala people that if the army adopts a very hardline position, it would have a negative impact on the peace process. At the same time, we were able to discuss this matter and we ensured this matter doesn't affect the very spirited peace process. Therefore, we have disbanded the sub committee but not the functions. The function of that sub committee is transferred to a different committee.
Q: So, what you seek to do strategically by transferring the functions of one committee to another is sideline Maj. Gen. Sarath Fonseka whom the LTTE considers an impediment for moving the peace process forward?
A: What we feel is, to be honest with you, these matters have to be discussed by the army hierarchy with the government before they release the document. They know that this document in the LTTE language is a document for surrender. And it has some provocative language characterising the LTTE as terrorists and this and that with so many integral factors of counter subversive activity. It was not a well written document also.
Anyhow, if that document was submitted to the government and if it was the government's proposal, it should have been discussed with us before releasing the document to the LTTE through the SLMM. That is the mistake that was done and I will put the blame on General Fonseka because he has not taken this peace process very seriously. He has taken a very rigid stand and he should know it is very unreasonable to demand for decommissioning for the resettlement of refugees.
Q: Does the LTTE see this stand taken by Gen. Fonseka as a unilateral decision of his or do you see other forces involved in this whole exercise?
A: This decision was endorsed by the army commander and congratulated by the President. This clearly shows the President and the military structure are prepared to put forward unacceptable conditions with an intention to create difficulties for the peace process.
Therefore, you can see on one side Ranil Wickremesinghe is making every effort to see the peace process succeed and we have been making tremendous progress. Suddenly, this sort of condition has generated controversy and problems. Anyhow, since there is an understanding between the parties and discussions, we were able to overcome it.
But the decision by the LTTE to dissolve this committee is unilateral in the sense that it is our decision taken without consultations with the representatives of the government. We conveyed our decision to them.
They are of course unhappy that one of the sub committees are getting dissolved because it has a negative element.
Q: But you say according to the LTTE proposal the functions will be taken over by the other committee?
A: Yes, they have accepted the fact that the function is crucial. The function is the resettlement of refugees, inside and outside the HSZ. And also the government has come out with a proposal saying that there are two places where refugees can be settled in areas outside the HSZ in the first phase where the army will systematically vacate public buildings and houses and then into the second stage. Of course they have sought international military expertise to give them some strategies to restructure the present HSZs without creating any threat or undermining their security situation. That study will be forwarded to us later on. On that basis we can discuss how far we can settle the people within the HSZs.
Q: Is this the formula you described as an amicable agreement between the government and the LTTE over this sensitive issue?
A: Yes, I think so because it is the most rational issue. Mind you, we are not asking, not asking for the dismantling of any military camps or complexes or relocating strategic camps. What we are saying is just allow our people to return to their houses. These houses are being occupied by the armed forces.
It is upto the armed forces and the government to work out an arrangement. At the same time taking into consideration their security and strategic concerns, our people should be allowed to go back. Because preventing civilians, particularly the refugees and IDPs from going back to their houses is a serious violation of human rights according to various UN documents. So they can't just say for security reasons we can't alter the structure. They have to do it.
Q: You spoke about the request for decommissioning of the LTTE by the army and the President. Do you see a consistency on the part of the President on this issue, in her dealings with the LTTE in the past when she was spearheading the peace process. She has just called for the disbanding of the Black Tigers. Did the President for example in the run up to the presidential election in 1994 when the UNP candidate Gamini Dissanaike was killed and the finger was pointed at the LTTE, call for the disbanding of the Black Tigers?
A: No, certainly not, because she realised peace talks will never take place if she made a demand like that. We continued discussions with Kumaratunga's representatives for nearly six months and this question of disarming did not arise at all.
There was a ceasefire agreement and Kumaratunga's government recognised that the LTTE had their own controlled areas. At that time the entire Jaffna peninsula was under our control. We had our army, police force, navy, all the banks, administrative systems - everything was there. She was fully aware of it and she never raised this question of disarming.
Not only her, but even her Advisor Kadirgamar is also insisting that disarmament should be on the agenda from the very beginning of the peace negotiations. That means they have the intention of creating difficulties for Ranil's administration. But everywhere, the whole world accepts that all liberation struggles and ethnic conflicts where the question of disarmament is taken up at a later stage because it concerns the security of the Tamil people.
As you know, we have sacrificed 17,000 cadres to get arms mainly from Sri Lankan armed forces and if, before a settlement, we give back those arms, what will happen? If Ranil's government is immediately dissolved and she takes over power and sets the army on a killing spree, all our cadres will be wiped out. This is a very dangerous suggestion.
Q: Are you saying the LTTE has no faith in President Chandrika Kumaratunga with regard to the peace process?
A: I can tell you very clearly that her intentions are not to promote the peace process even though now and then she comes out with a statement that she initiated the peace process. In actual fact, she is opposed to the current peace process and she is opposed to a solution of this ethnic conflict. She has been very inconsistent in her statements and taken a very hard line in her attitude.
I am frightened that sections of the armed forces might be instigated by her to create difficulties in the future. I think she is opposed to peace.
Q: Does that mean, Dr. Balasingham, that in the event President Kumaratunga and the People's Alliance led by her captures power, that the peace process will collapse and the LTTE will find it difficult to negotiate with the Chandrika Kumaratunga led government?
A: I am certain. We have already had bitter experiences negotiating with Kumaratunga. We found her very, very unreliable and she has no serious commitment to peace.
It is during her period the Tamil people faced a massive military onslaught. And it was during her time the Sinhala army as well as the LTTE suffered huge casualties. It was during her time the Tamil nation suffered massive destruction to property and resources. So we have no faith in President Kumaratunga.
If she takes over power, I don't think there will be any peace negotiations because she is committed to war.
Q: You spoke of the humanitarian needs of the people. Resettlement is one. What are the other issues facing the people that need immediate redress?
A: I think we are concentrating mainly on the resettlement of the internally displaced and refugees. There are a million people and this is a massive, formidable humanitarian issue. Along with that of course there are the problems of rehabilitation and reconstruction. All these problems are linked.
First we have to give priority for the people to go back to their homes. Then once they go back, areas have to be de-mined. Once it is de-mined, their houses have to be rebuilt. Then, there has to be infrastructure development for the people to live. There are several villages where the infrastructure is totally wiped out. They need hospitals, schools, this and that.
It is a massive project but the urgent thing is we don't want our people to languish in various refugee camps as has been the case for the last 10 years. Now it is time for them to go back.
The government is sympathetic but they have to deal with the armed forces. The armed forces have to deal with President Kumaratunga. So there are dual centres of power and the contradictions that arise from the uneasy cohabitation between these two centres of power is creating difficulties for us.
Q: You mentioned the President and the armed forces again. One point put forward in the south, specially Sinhala opinion, is that while the people should be allowed to resettle in their homes because it is a humanitarian issue, by the LTTE's own admission the military status quo should also remain till a settlement is reached. And, therefore, the same reciprocity should be there for the Sri Lankan armed forces. Therefore, if there is a threat to the security forces camps through this process of resettlement, then a via media has to be found. How would you respond to that concern expressed by the Sinhala people?
A: I think it is illogical and unfair to assume that the LTTE will march in and attack the camps once the IDPs are settled in the HSZs because the main argument put forward even by General Fonseka is that the LTTE will try to move the artillery and heavy mortars closer to the army camps if these people are allowed to settle.
I can tell you that it is impossible to move heavy artillery and mortars towards Jaffna when Jaffna is occupied intensely. There is an intense heavy military presence in Jaffna and it is impossible to carry artillery along the road or anywhere else, the mortars. And we have positioned our artillery in the jungle areas of Wanni. The Palali army camp and the KKS harbour, the strategic locations which the army wants to protect are beyond the target range.
It is rather strange the army thinks we can move the artillery if the refugees are let in, than talking about the balance of forces. We are not asking for the dismantling of the armed forces, army camps or military complexes.
What we are suggesting is to work out a strategy to relocate the forces allowing a space for our people to go and settle down. We are not asking the army to withdraw.
Q: Withdrawal, that was a position the LTTE took up sometime earlier...
A: Yes, so what we are saying is stay put in your camps, maintain your security, we understand your security concerns. Without disrupting the balance of forces, without disrupting the combat ability of the forces, can you do something so that the people can go back? That is what we are saying.
Apart from that, outside the security zone in Jaffna, there are thousands of houses occupied by the armed forces. These have to be vacated.
Q: On that issue, some agreement was reached here in Thailand. From the LTTE's point of view, when these people move in to their homes, would the LTTE object to the normal civilian administration to take place including the law and order machinery of the government such as the establishment of police stations, etc.?
A: We will never object to this. Already the Sri Lankan state machinery is operating in the government controlled areas. They have their police systems, judicial systems, their own administrative and Kachcheri systems. Even in Jaffna they are having it. Even in various densely populated towns controlled by the army, the state machinery is functioning.
Even within LTTE controlled areas, the government's state machinery is functioning, such as schools, various departments, secretariats - all these government institutions are still functioning. Only the law and order is in our hands.
Q: Following the declaration of the ceasefire, you yourself said substantial progress was made with regard to the political issues. A federal system within a united country, respecting the right for internal self determination, some compromise has been reached on the HSZ issue, etc. But your detractors including those from the Tamil community like the EPDP keep saying the LTTE cannot be trusted, that you are still recruiting child soldiers, a New York Times report on this issue is also cited. How would you respond to these charges?
A: We find the New York Times report baseless because we are not recruiting children. We have made a policy decision long time ago not to recruit anyone below the age of 18 years. And, of course, our recruitment campaign is going on here and there but not on a big scale but a smaller scale because we need some people for administrative and political purposes.
Secondly, the intention of the LTTE is not to wage a war against the state. We have made substantial progress in the peace talks. The ceasefire is holding on and we have reached a decision to study a framework for a political solution. These decisions are irreversible in the sense that we have to proceed with continuing discussions. And the international community is watching both the parties and how we are progressing.
On our part, we are seriously and sincerely committed to peace and a peaceful solution to the problem. Difficulties may arise from the south, particularly the nationalist and chauvinistic elements who are opposed to a settlement. And of course the President and sections of the armed forces might create some problems.
Since the President has extraordinary executive powers including the power to dissolve parliament, the state is somewhat, I would say unstable. But what is important is the support of the people we have. A vast majority of the Sinhala people support the peace process and the government. It is on the basis of that confidence we continue engaging the government.
I think if there are no obstructions, difficulties created by these people who are opposed to peace, then this process will go on smoothly until we reach a final settlement. Eventually, a permanent peace will usher in Sri Lanka if these forces are restrained and from destructing the peace process.
Q: The war has gone on for 20 years and there are LTTE cadres who were not even born at the time the war commenced. They identify the Sinhalese only as the enemy because they have only been in battle with the Sinhalese. Does the LTTE have a process through this peace process to educate the Tamil people on this aspect so that a rapprochement can take place between the two communities?
A: Yes, it is a very important question because that is precisely what we are trying to do. We have set up a peace secretariat and embarked on a massive propaganda wave to educate our cadres and youth that there should be ethnic reconciliation.
At the same time, a large number of Sinhala people are coming to see Wanni and they are going to Jaffna regularly. There is a growing understanding between the two communities. For the first time after 20-25 years there is an opportunity for both the communities to interrelate and understand each others' problems.
I think a proper atmosphere is being built up and both of us, the government as well as the LTTE have to embark on an educational campaign not only among our cadres but also in the south because if you study the history, when opportunities were created for reconciliation, forces opposed to peace revolt against the government and bring down the government and the peace collapses.
That was the past history. So it is upto the Sinhala people to prevent these forces from moving against the government and ensure the government is strengthened and stabilised so that there will be a permanent peace and economic prosperity for everyone.
Q: You spoke about moves by the LTTE to educate the people. In that context there was a recent controversy over the import of some radio equipment by the LTTE with President Kumaratunga going to the extent of writing to the Norwegian Prime Minister taking offence at the role played by the Norwegian Embassy in Colombo and Ambassador Jon Westborg. The LTTE for its part has for the first time asked for a licence to operate within the laws of Sri Lanka. Do you see obstacles in the path of the LTTE even when it seeks to operate within the laws of the country?
A: Yes, we are also rather surprised because we approached this problem eagerly informing the government and sought a licence through the proper channels. This is the first time the LTTE has made a move legally within the parameters of the country's law to get a broadcasting instrument for the normal purpose of propagating peace.
We are publishing a Sinhalese paper also. What we have thought is to broadcast some positive features, positive stories through this radio system what the LTTE is for, that we are not a band of terrorists committed to murder and mayhem but rather we are sincerely working for peace.
It is for propaganda purposes, for propagating the ideals of peace that we sought this instrument through legal means.
But the President has created a bigger controversy. She has also taken up this matter with the Norwegian government. We are rather surprised why she has gone to this extent to create an image that Norway is doing something illegal. As you know, the government itself has issued a statement justifying what has happened. So we stand by the government version.
Q: Coming to the Eastern Province, there were reports of some heated exchanges between SLMC Leader Rauf Hakeem and yourself at the negotiating table. There is a perception that the LTTE wants to keep Muslim representation out of this whole process. How would you respond to this allegation?
A: That was a wrong report. Even this evening we had a very lengthy discussion with Mr. Hakeem in our house along with Mr. Karuna. It was a cordial discussion.
The argument we had with Mr. Hakeem was that this peace process is mainly between two protagonists, two parties in conflict. Between the state of Sri Lanka and the LTTE. Both parties were involved in a lengthy armed conflict.
The armed conflict has been brought to an end and both parties are sitting and discussing. It is a conflict between the Tamils and the Sinhalese. At the same time, we have recognised Mr. Hakeem as the Leader of the Muslim Congress and he has being participating in the peace process.
Then there was a crisis within the SLMC and the party split into three. There is a request that the Muslim community be given equal representation like the LTTE in the peace talks. And he is calling for tripartite negotiations.
I had a discussion with Mr. Hakeem not in an acrimonious manner but I told him this is a negotiation between parties in conflict. But at the same time both parties have decided to call in an accredited Muslim delegation when substantial issues are taken up for discussion.
In the meantime, Mr. Hakeem, when he comes, not only represents the government but also Muslim matters. Last time, when this decision on federalism was taken, he was not present. He says a decision was taken when he was not present, I said it is not our problem, that we can't be waiting till he sorts out his internal problem and comes.
At the same time, we have defined the north east as a historical habitation of the Tamil speaking people, that is Tamils and Muslims. So we have incorporated the Muslims within the framework of the federal structure. But at this stage we don't want a tripartite all party conference. When an appropriate time when the substantive issues are discussed, definitely a delegation of Muslim people will be invited.
I have also said this problem has to be sorted out because there is criticism not only of the LTTE but also the Prime Minister, saying he is promoting one section ignoring the other units. There are so many Muslim MPs in the UNP, SLFP, etc. 60% of the Muslims live in the south. So these matters the Muslim community has to sort out and then send their accredited representatives.
We have no problem with Mr. Hakeem. We are sorry the crisis within the SLMC has come at this stage when the issues of the Muslim people are to be discussed.
Q: You spoke about an agreement within a federal framework. When are you expecting to focus on this issue?
A: This decision to adopt a federal model is an extraordinary development at this early stage of the discussion. But to work out a federal model is not an easy task. We have to study various models and take out the essential aspects of federalism to suit our country, to suit our situation. This will take some time.
Secondly, even after we work out a framework, then we need to have a new constitution - a new constitution that will redefine the polity of Sri Lanka with a federal structure where the Tamil and Muslim people will be accommodated in a regional autonomous model.
This process is going on even though we have not discussed it at the table because we are concentrating on the humanitarian issues this time.
We are engaging with the members of the Canadian Forum for Federation. We have been to Switzerland and other places and furthermore there are going to be further visits by our political committee.
We have appointed a political committee consisting of senior LTTE cadres who will be visiting various countries to get acquainted with political models and systems.
It also involves wider debate amongst our people because myself and Peiris can't work out a federal model and get a new constitution.
It involves the larger participation of the Tamil people, Sinhala people and the Muslim people. Then there has to be a consensus. How and when this new constitution can be effected, we have no idea because of the current situation where the President has become a stumbling block. It is going to cause problems, maybe later.
Q: You have discussed the setting up of a fund where donor money can be directed. Have you identified projects for the utilisation of these funds?
A: We have decided to set up a fund but it does not have any money. The first thing we have to do is get a custodian for the fund. We have decided to request the World Bank to be the custodian for the North East Development Fund and they have agreed. That is the first step.
Now, once this is worked out, slowly monies will be deposited in this fund. Some countries will give money straight to the government of Sri Lanka and some countries might release the money to the fund. We have got quite a lot of urgent programmes which have to be taken up immediately.
It is not that we don't have programmes. We have programmes, we have set up the structure and mechanism for the working of the Sub Committee on Humanitarian Needs. What we need is money.
Q: A donor conference is scheduled late May in Japan. By that time would you be ready with definite development projects for the north and east?
A: Not only north and east. The government wants to involve the south as well. Primacy will be for north east development. By that time both the parties have decided to work out some comprehensive proposals, projects for the re construction of the north and east. So infrastructural reconstruction is a monumental task.
Without the assistance of the international community, it is not easy for the government to undertake that project without funds. We are working on it. I think we will be able to produce something substantial when we meet at the donor conference.
Q: One other concern that keeps recurring is the role of India. Are you confident India will not be a stumbling block for the ongoing peace process?
A: I think India has been extremely helpful. Even though they are not taking an active role, they have been in constant touch with the government of Sri Lanka and the Norwegians. They are morally, politically and diplomatically supporting this peace process.
They are very much interested and keen to see this peace process succeed. I think India is also one of the factors that restrains Chandrika taking some irrational actions because the Indians know this is a very, very important process and that if anybody disturbs this process, Indians will be very unhappy. So India is backing the peace process at this stage. It is a tremendous boost to Ranil's administration.
Q: When the talks commenced months earlier, the idea was to initially build trust between the two parties. Looking back at the last year and all the developments, has the trust between the two sides increased or diminished?
A: I can say confidently, the cordial relations have increased. There is a good rapport between the parties and we place a lot of mutual trust between the parties. For example, when we had the problem of the HSZ, we were able to discuss and reach an agreement.
Of course there is an intense engagement between the parties when there is a problem without acrimonious debates or hostility. These problems are taken up and discussed in a logical and rational manner without getting emotional. So we were able to sort it out. This clearly indicates the intensity and depth of the relationship between the parties.
Q: If you have a message for President Kumaratunga, what would it be?
A: I would appeal to her to help this government, to help Ranil Wickremesinghe to resolve this problem because it is extremely crucial not only for the Tamil people but also the Sinhala people as a whole that this process should succeed.
And she should not create unnecessary obstacles nor should she impose demands. She should not instigate the armed forces or any other forces to impede this peace process.
I think she should not be an obstacle to congenial cohabitation between the Prime Minister and herself and act like a statesperson and help to promote this peace process.