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Tamilnation > Struggle for Tamil Eelam > Conflict Resolution - Tamil Eelam - Sri Lanka > Norwegian Peace Initiative > Interim Self Governing Authority & Aftermath > Covetous Eyes on Sri Lanka's Strategic Jewel

Norwegian Peace Initiative

Covetous eyes on Sri Lanka's strategic jewel
Ramtanu Maitra  
30 January 2004, Courtesy Asia Times

After protecting Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) chief and fellow Norwegian Tryggve Tellefsen since October 23, when he was first accused of aiding rebel Tamil Tigers by Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga's Peoples Alliance (PA) party, Norway's Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helgesen finally announced Tellefsen's replacement with General Trond Furuhovde on January 16. Furuhovde was the first SLMM chief and had preceded Tellefsen.

The Norwegian's replacement and the incident behind it shed new light on the political fight that erupted between Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in November, and point to the strategic churning around Sri Lanka, the island nation off the southern coast of India at the crossroads between the Middle East and the rest of Asia.

In addition to Norway, India and the US have remained unseen string-pullers in Sri Lanka's latest effort to resolve the decades-old insurgency by the island's Tamil minority led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE).

Not surprisingly, Sri Lanka's Trincomalee - a "strategic jewel" that is considered one of the best deep sea ports in the world, and which lies in the Tigers' turf - is at the center of the maneuvering.

Peacekeeper's faux pas

In October, the PA, the coalition party behind Kumaratunga, complained in parliament that Tellefsen, using the authority of his office, had alerted the Tamil Tigers so that they could evade capture. According to the PA, the Sri Lankan navy had spotted a rebel Sea Tiger ship in Sri Lankan waters, and asked for monitors from the SLMM to go with them to apprehend the suspicious ship. The PA says that Tellefsen telephoned the rebels to inquire whether it was one of their vessels - in effect forewarning the Tigers. The ship in question fled.

Meanwhile, Kumaratunga was growing increasingly uneasy over Norway's pro-Tiger bias in its involvement in the ongoing peace talks between Colombo and the Tigers. Initially, the SLMM, set up in February 2002 by the LTTE and the government of Sri Lanka, comprised 25-30 persons representing Norway, Iceland, Denmark, Finland and Sweden. But by June last year, the mission was strengthened, and now comprises 47 representatives, including naval monitors, the majority from Norway.

The PA's finger-pointing at Tellefsen is not an isolated incident. Many observers in Sri Lanka were complaining that the SLMM, under the pretext of evenhandedness, was doing a whole lot to protect the Tigers' interests. On June 14 last year, for instance, the Sri Lankan navy sank the LTTE ship, Shioshin. Frederica Jansz of The Sunday Leader newspaper reports that when her newspaper contacted Tellefsen, he said the SLMM was still in the process of gathering all information from both parties concerned and would only be in a position to make a clarifying statement thereafter. No SLMM monitors were present at the time of the confrontation.

One might wonder why not. A mere 24 hours before the incident, The Sunday Leader points out, an LTTE leader had told Tellefsen that increasing interference with LTTE ships in Tiger-controlled areas and harassment of Sea Tigers, the Tiger navy, would lead to a serious confrontation between the two sides if not checked. Tellefsen was in the Tiger-dominated town of Killinochchi on Friday, June 13, together with a delegation from the SLMM.

Kumaratunga strikes

Following the PA's accusation before parliamentarians, Kumaratunga declared Tellefsen persona non-grata on October 23. Tellefsen had to leave Sri Lanka, but Helgesen and other Norwegian authorities kept Tellefsen's sacking at bay.

The Norwegian daily Aftenposten wrote recently that Tellefsen was forced to work from Oslo with the remaining members of SLMM in Sri Lanka, using the telephone and email. This charade might have continued longer, but New Delhi intervened on behalf of the Sri Lankan president, and Norway let the Tigers' good friend go.

On November 23 last year, while premier Wickremesinghe was in Washington receiving kudos for his government's on-going talks with the Tigers, whom the United States had officially identified in 2002 as a terrorist outfit, Kumaratunga proceeded to topple the Norwegian-pulled apple cart. Kumaratunga sacked defense minister Tilak Marapana, accusing him of allowing the Tigers to use the Norwegian-brokered ceasefire that had been in place for 20 months to strengthen militarily. She also fired interior minister John Amaratunga, who controls the police, and mass communications minister Imthiaz Bakeer Markar, who controls the state-run media. These three were considered the most powerful of Wickremesinghe's ministers.

The president announced the dismissal of the three ministers three days after the Tigers unveiled power-sharing in their formal proposals. She pointed out that she took this step "after careful consideration, in order to prevent further deterioration of the security situation in the country". Kumaratunga was acting on the belief, held by many Sri Lankans, that the peace process has led to a legitimization of the Tigers and their control of large chunks of the country's territory even though the group remains banned in countries from India to the US.

Kumaratunga's drastic move no doubt rattled not only Wickremesinghe, but also some in Washington with whom he was then visiting. "We certainly hope that these political tensions do not delay progress on peace talks ... " one unnamed official said, in a veiled attack on Kumaratunga. Washington made clear at that point whose side it would be on in case a full-fledged power struggle was unleashed in Sri Lanka between the president and the prime minister. The growing US interest in the Sri Lankan peace talks is particularly intriguing as there was no evidence in Sri Lanka of any al-Qaeda involvement, Washington's ostensible priority concern.

Trincomalee to the fore

The revived US interest in Sri Lankan affairs centers, no doubt, on the old Trincomalee port. Trincomalee, located on the northeastern coast of Sri Lanka, has a slightly higher percentage of Tamils than Sinhalese (the majority community) or Muslims. The Tamils, who mostly live in the north and the east, claim they have been discriminated against in job allocation, land use and education by governments run by the majority community.

Trincomalee, meanwhile, is considered by military experts as one of the best deep seat ports in the world. Moreover, it is situated strategically on the sea lanes through which oil is carried from the Middle East to east and far-eastern Asia. According to observers, Trincomalee is a "strategic jewel". For several decades, the Pentagon had shown interest in this port, but during the Ronald Reagan administration interest appeared to have waned.

The recent revival of interest in Trincomalee in the Pentagon can then only be associated with the growing overall US interest in acquiring bases for intervention and rapid deployment for the sake of developing a quick strike capability in the general area. According to anti-imperialist American strategists such as Chalmers Johnson, "once upon a time" you could trace the spread of imperialism by counting up colonies. Says Johnson: "America's version of the colony is the military base. By following the changing politics of global basing, one can learn much about our ever-larger imperial stance and the militarism that grows with it. Militarism and imperialism are Siamese twins joined at the hip. Each thrives off the other."

Visits to Sri Lanka by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and ranking US government and military officials in recent times, and the strong statements repeatedly issued by the US ambassador in Sri Lanka, Ashley Wills, are noteworthy.

Is the US seeking a base?

Soon after the ceasefire between Colombo and the Tigers was announced in February 2002, the Straits Times of Singapore put out an article, perhaps to test the Indian reaction. "As rebel fire ceases in Sri Lanka, the United States has been laying the groundwork to deploy its military personnel to the strategically located country. This move will both aid its campaign in Afghanistan and keep New Delhi's growing influence in check," the newspaper reported. "Located between the Middle East and Asia, Sri Lanka could ease the transport of US military ships, troops and equipment. Its port, Trincomalee, is one of the world's deepest natural ports and could serve as a refueling station for the US military."

It has been generally reported that Sri Lanka and the US have been discussing military cooperation for some time now. The two countries have been negotiating an Acquisition and Cross-Service Agreement (ACSA) for several months. The ACSA would allow US forces to procure food, fuel, ammunition and transport in Sri Lanka at the same rates as those paid by Sri Lankan forces.

But the US's move, if there ever was a formal one, was not in any manner challenged by New Delhi. In fact, New Delhi had struck up an excellent relationship, centered around economic and trade issues, with Wickremesinghe, who, to put it mildly, was gung-ho on the peace talks. Signals emanated from New Delhi suggesting that India was watching every move the Norwegians made like a hawk. But at the same time, New Delhi exhibited the utmost caution. Every time the star Norwegian peacemaker, Erik Solheim, visited India, he was cordially received. This despite India's discovery of the paw-marks of the Tigers in India's turbulent northeast, and the Tiger-Naxalite alliance in India's southern states in recent years. In other words, India and the US concurred in seeing that the peace talks succeed.

But Sri Lankan observers point out that India was fully aware of the growing American interest in Trincomalee. It is perhaps for that reason that soon after the Straits Times article appeared, Indian High Commissioner Gopalkrishna Gandhi, along with other embassy officials, paid a visit to the Trincomalee harbor. Gandhi's inspection of the oil tanks located in the harbor was a reminder of the abiding Indian interest in Sri Lanka.

One result of Gandhi's trip to Trincomalee is an Indo-Sri Lankan agreement to lease part of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation's 99 oil tanks, each with a capacity of 100,000 tonnes, to the Indian Oil Corp. The deal was signed in New Delhi in June, 2002. The deal was not adequately analyzed at the time, but it could be Kumaratunga's way of keeping India in Trincomalee and fending off the US pressure. The other major commercial establishments already in the city are a flour mill owned by Prima Ceylon, a subsidiary of Prima Singapore, and the Tokyo Cement Co plant, a subsidiary of Japan's Mitsui.

India alerted

What drew the attention of Indian authorities to developments surrounding the ceasefire agreement was the report they received from former Sri Lankan foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar during a visit last August to New Delhi to "alert and sensitize" Indian leaders about the "grave situation" on the island.

The former Sri Lankan foreign minister, who is now a senior adviser to Kumaratunga, pointed out during extensive discussions with Indian National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra, External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha, Finance Minister Jaswant Singh, former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal and Congress leader K Natwar Singh, that the Tamil Tiger guerrillas have tightened their stranglehold over the strategic eastern port of Trincomalee, taking advantage of the ceasefire. Armed with a map of the harbor and the LTTE camps and bases that have sprung up around it, Kadirgamar also provided Indian leaders with details of preparations being made by the Tigers to seize control of Trincomalee port at any moment. This revelation startled the Indian officials, who made it clear that the development was of concern to New Delhi. Kadirgamar did not make a similar pilgrimage to either Oslo or Washington.

Interestingly, the ill-fated Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987 contains an annexure stating: "Trincomalee or any other port in Sri Lanka will not be made available to military use by any country in a manner prejudicial to India's interests." Further that "the work of restoring and operating the Trincomalee oil tank farm will be undertaken as a joint venture between India and Sri Lanka."

In early January, when Kumaratunga was in Islamabad attending the South Asian Association of Regional Countries (SAARC) summit, she told reporters that Sri Lanka is ready to work out a defense pact with India. Within days, a defense team from Sri Lanka arrived in New Delhi to work out the details. It is yet to be seen how the defense pact gets formulated and until such time as it is made public, it is unlikely that Washington will respond one way or the other.

The LTTE has already expressed serious concern over the envisaged Indo-Sri Lankan Defense Agreement, arguing that it could have far-reaching negative consequences for the current peace process, sources told TamilNet on January 19. Anton Balasingham, the chief negotiator and political strategist of the LTTE, has also reportedly conveyed his organizations' objections to the government of India.

The same Balasingham told the Norwegians that the proposed defense agreement between New Delhi and Colombo might upset the balance of forces to the disadvantage of the LTTE. What "balance of power" Balasingham is referring to is difficult to fathom, unless he is still thinking of an independent Tamil nation.

How solid is the ceasefire?

The peace talks have been stalled since early November as the power struggle between Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe heated up in Colombo. Kumaratunga has further increased tensions by bringing her political party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), and the pro-socialist Sinhala party, the Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (JVP), together. Sri Lankan observers say that this alliance is a clear parting of the ways between Kumaratunga and the Wickremesinghe-led United National Front (UNF) government.

The SLFP-JVP alliance has rightly pointed out that the February 2002 ceasefire agreement gave away too much to the LTTE. At the same time, the LTTE has all the reasons to consider the SLFP-JVP alliance as a move directed against the continuation of peace talks. The JVP is against devolution and believes the ethnic conflict should be resolved only by administrative decentralization. Kumaratunga, on the other hand, is the only Sinhala leader to have unilaterally put on the table a far-reaching devolution package to resolve the conflict as early as 1995. The JVP's condition for the short-lived alliance it had with the PA in 2001 was a freeze on plans for devolution. While no such condition was mentioned in forming the alliance this time, the SLFP-JVP "memorandum of understanding" clearly states their differences on the devolution issue. The SLFP-JVP combine says it believes in a "negotiated settlement" to the ethnic conflict.

The declaration of the SLFP-JVP alliance is an indication that Kumaratunga is considering an early parliamentary election to break the cohabitation deadlock between her and the UNF government. In reaching an understanding with the JVP, Kumaratunga, who has sidled quite close to New Delhi in recent months, has linked the political fortunes of the PA, of which the SLFP is the main constituent, with a party that was once virulently anti-India and heavily dominated by anti-Tamil, Sinhala chauvinists.

Kumaratunga had hinted at snap polls at the beginning of the year when she said her party is ready to face the electorate at any time. Washington has indicated that it does not encourage a snap poll. There is no doubt that New Delhi does not want a snap poll to take place right now. Kumaratunga sent Economic Reforms Minister Milinda Moragoda as her emissary to India on January 23 to discuss the island's worsening political crisis and the troubled peace process against a backdrop of new proposals to resolve the tug-of-war, officials said. She held talks with Sinha and Mishra over the weekend.

Since the SLFP-JVP alliance has been announced, the Tigers have warned at least twice that the ceasefire could break down. Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels have increased their numbers of child soldiers in spite of a ceasefire, the United Nations reports. The BBC's Frances Harrison in Colombo says there is a real possibility that the child soldiers may fight again. Sri Lankan newspapers report major rallies in the Tamil-dominated districts in northern and eastern Sri Lanka as an indication that the Tamils are preparing for confrontation once again.



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