Address by His Excellency Bernard Goonetilleke
Ambassador of Sri Lanka

at the
Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Massachusetts
on April 6, 2006

At a recent hearing of the Asia and Pacific Sub-Committee of the House International Relations Committee, a Congressman pleading that the FTO status of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) be lifted, inquired “What is the difference between terrorism on the one hand, and waging a legitimate guerrilla struggle on the other”. The carefully negotiated and balanced language used in the General Assembly Resolution 51/210 of 1999 provides the answer to that question. It reiterated “that criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or other nature that may be invoked to justify them”. It condemned all such acts, methods and practices of terrorism as criminal and unjustifiable, wherever and by whosoever committed.

The definition of terrorism used by the U.S. Department of State, is much simpler and determines that terrorism is “the calculated use of violence or the threat of violence to inculcate fear, intended to coerce or intimidate government or society as to the pursuit of goals”.

Often terrorist groups argue that resorting to such acts of terror is permissible in their quest for self-determination, and some even try to bolster their case by making partial reference to paragraph 7 of the 1970 Declaration on Friendly Relations and Cooperation among States, made in the context of decolonization. That declaration supported the realisation of equal rights and self determination of peoples in accordance with the provision of the Charter, and spoke of the duty of every state to render assistance to the U.N. in carrying out the responsibilities entrusted to it by the Charter. The Vienna Declaration of 1993 reaffirmed the 1970 Declaration by recognising that all peoples have the right to self-determination. Amplifying that right, it said “Taking into account the particular situation of peoples under colonial or other forms of alien domination or foreign occupation, the World Conference on Human Rights recognizes the right of peoples to take any legitimate action, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations”. Therefore, it is evident that right of self determination could be pursued only through legitimate action in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations. Resorting to acts of terrorism are neither legitimate, nor such acts can expect to gain legitimacy through the UN Charter under the cover of the right to self determination.

It is against this background that one should reflect on the questioning by the congressman concerned whether the LTTE should be regarded as terrorists or freedom fighters, as well as apparent justification of their acts by some, despite the trail of blood and destruction left behind by that group in pursuit of the right to “self determination”.


The historical context of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka is well known. The 1957 Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact and 1965 Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Pact are milestones in our search for a negotiated solution to that conflict. After several disappointing setbacks, the peaceful struggle of the Sri Lankan Tamils for political space took a militant turn in the mid 1970s, and was hijacked by several militant groups in the early 1980s. The politically motivated attacks against the Tamils in July 1983, where many Tamils lost their lives and large numbers were displaced, is a blot on Sri Lanka’s recent history. In the subsequent period Tamil militant groups increased their acts of terror, such as massacres of villagers, bombing of buses, trains, planes, places of worship, and economic targets etc., deliberately directed against non combatants with a view to attaining their political goal of a separate state.

The gulf between the demands made by the Tamil politicians in the north and the resistance to those demands by the Sinhala politicians in the south was so wide; reaching an accommodation acceptable to both parties had always been a difficult problem. Since the failed Thimpu Talks, successive administrations in Sri Lanka sought to reach accommodation with the LTTE, which after 1985 had effectively neutralized other Tamil militant groups through a campaign of internecine warfare. A series of negotiations with the LTTE in 1987, 1989, and 1994, under Presidents Jayawardene, Premadasa and Kumaratunga, respectively were another set of milestones. It must be pointed out that, as the respective administrations were engaged in such negotiations, acts of terrorism by the LTTE against the civilian population, as well as political figures, continued unabated resulting in the assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, President Premadasa, and an attempt on the life of former President Chandrika Kumaratunga in 1999 by employing suicide bombers. These attacks were designed to eliminate those very leaders, who were spearheading political negotiations, derail whatever political process that was underway, and most of all to provoke a backlash against the Tamil community in the south.

One thing is certain, that is the LTTE failed to provoke such a backlash.


The question one might ask is why did successive governments continue their search for a political solution despite these grave provocations.

Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, following the lead of the United States, there appears to have developed an unwritten convention that governments must not negotiate with terrorists. This position seems to have been further strengthened following the terrorist attacks, such as those that took place in Madrid, London, Jakarta, Beslan etc., targeting innocent and unsuspecting civilians.

It is against this backdrop that the decision of the Sri Lanka Government to enter into a ceasefire agreement with the LTTE in February 2002, to remove the proscription against that organisation, and subsequently to commence negotiations, despite the fact the LTTE had remained a proscribed terrorist organisation in India, the U.S. and the U.K., should be examined.

The simple answer to this question is twofold. The first was the consistent belief of successive Sri Lankan governments that there was a need to address the real and legitimate grievances of the Tamil people. The second was that after many years of armed confrontation which ended in a stalemate, the realisation that resorting to military means was not a feasible option.


Having been involved in the previous round of negotiations between the Sri Lanka Government and the LTTE in 2002/2003, I have had the opportunity to observe first hand the pot holes experienced in the journey in search of a political solution. In this context, I wish to identify four main challenges faced in negotiating with the LTTE, which has often used terrorism as a means of achieving its political goals.

i. The use of negotiations as a mere tactical ploy.

If we were to retrace our steps to the several rounds of negotiations, such as those that took place in 1987, 1989, and 1994 or even 2002-2003, one aspect becomes crystal clear. That was, the LTTE effectively used each round of negotiation as a tactical ploy to achieve certain politico/military advantages. The decision to negotiate in 1987 came about due to the Indo-Lanka Accord. However, the LTTE reneged its commitments within weeks of that agreement and took on the Indian Peace Keeping Force that caused numerous casualties to both sides. In 1989, the LTTE found common ground with the Premadasa administration, due to the mutual eagerness on the part of both parties to see the departure of the IPKF from the island, but returned to armed conflict soon after the departure of the IPKF having massacred over 600 policemen, who had surrendered to the LTTE. Later a LTTE suicide bomber succeeded in killing the President. In 1994, the LTTE reached an understanding with the Kumaratunga administration. However, having carried out several suicide attacks during the period of the truce, three months later, the LTTE broke the ceasefire agreement and returned to armed conflict. Later in 1999, the LTTE employed a suicide bomber, who nearly killed President Kumaratunga. Finally, against the backdrop of 9/11, the group declared a unilateral ceasefire in December 2001 and entered into a formal ceasefire agreement with the Wickremesinghe administration in February 2002. Although they did not abrogate the Ceasefire Agreement, which continues to be in operation, they did abruptly end political negotiations in April 2003. Despite the ongoing Ceasefire Agreement, the LTTE made an attempt to assassinate a Tamil Cabinet Minister using a suicide bomber in July 2004, and succeeded in assassinating the Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in August 2005 who was also a Tamil.

A close examiniation of these events shows one common thread: the LTTE skilfully employed ceasefire agreements and political negotiations with one objective in mind. That was to continue its quest for a separate state, albeit stage by stage. In 1987 it was the Indian pressure, in 1989 it was the desire to see the IPKF leaving the island, and in 1994 it was the hope that the Kumaratunga government could be manipulated to give in to their manifold demands that prompted the LTTE to temporarily cease armed confrontation. In essence, agreement to pause fighting was due to tactical reasons and not with the intention of reaching a negotiated political solution.

ii. The absence of a commitment to any political settlement.

The constant slogan of the LTTE both during the periods of armed conflict and periods of truce has been and still is “The thirst of Tamil people is for the Tamil Eelam”. In other words, irrespective of what was said and done, the LTTE has not deviated from its ultimate goal over the years and it continues to focus on the separate state or the ‘promised land’ that was pledged to the Tamil people since the inception of the organization. If that is the case, we have to conclude that the several rounds of negotiations the LTTE had with the government, were in fact ‘pit stops’ in the journey toward that final goal.

What happened in Oslo in December 2003 was a clear example of the determination of the LTTE to ensure that political negotiations go only in circles but not forward. At a time when the negotiations were virtually grinding to a halt, the Norwegian facilitators successfully got the two parties to address issues of substance, at which point both parties agreed to focus on several core issues. viz.

- Power-sharing between the centre and the region, as well as within the centre;
- Geographical region;
- Human Rights protection;
- Political and administrative mechanism;
- Public finance; and
- Law and order.

However, it appears that the LTTE leadership had concluded that due to international pressure, the negotiations were moving in a direction away from its declared goal for a separate state. Consequently, during the last three rounds of talks, these issues of substance referred to in Oslo were not allowed to be discussed by the LTTE delegation. With international pressure mounting for the LTTE to moderate its stance, there was only one way out of the situation. That was to walk out of the negotiations, which the LTTE did in April 2003. In the final analysis, the LTTE did what it had to. The inference we must draw from it, is that their thirst for Eelam had to be quenched at any cost.

iii. LTTE’s abhorrence to democratic practices.

The LTTE claims that it is the sole representative of the Tamil people. This is not a claim made on the basis of a democratic process through which that organisation had been conferred such a responsibility by the Tamil people. Since its inception in the early 1970s, the LTTE had made every effort to be the pre-eminent organization, which status the organization was eventually able to achieve by a ruthless campaign of attacks against other Tamil militant organizations, which included bombings and assassinations both in Sri Lanka and in India. Commenting on this issue Nirmala Rajasingham, sister of Rajini Thiranagama, who was slain by the LTTE in 1989, told the BBC recently, if the Tamils accept the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamil people “then that means there is no room for any other alternate political opinion or political party”.

Others have posed the question as to what kind of representative organisation the LTTE could claim to be when it forcibly conscripts its own under aged children, in certain instances even those under 10 years of age, through deceit and coercion to be used as cannon fodder for armed combat? The UNICEF has documented this abhorrent practice of the LTTE and paragraph 48 of the United Nations Secretary General’s report to the Security Council (S/2005/72) has named the LTTE among other armed groups in the world engaged in child conscription.

An important decision taken during the 2002/2003 peace negotiations to address human rights violations taking place in the North and the East was the decision taken by the two parties to engage the services of an internationally recognised human rights advocate, Ian Martin, who was tasked with the function of developing a road map for promotion and protection of human rights. That road map was to be adopted at the 7th round of the peace negotiations, which was to be held on 29th April 2003. However, one week prior to the appointed date, the LTTE decided to terminate the peace talks, THUS ERECTING A ROAD BLOCK TO the relisation human rights. To those who were familiar with the past negotiating record of the LTTE unilaterally decided this decision did not come as a surprise, for it was clear that the LTTE by that time had come to the conclusion that the trajectory of the peace talks was taking the organisation to a destination beyond their comfort level.

It is therefore, evident that the LTTE is not yet ready to transform itself from what it is today to a democratic entity, and seek to represent the Tamil people after having obtained a democratic mandate.

iv. The tendency to view the international community as a malleable entity.

The international dimension of the Sri Lankan conflict began to unfurl with the riots of July 1983, which saw thousands of Tamils leaving their island home. Those who had limited means ended up in refugee camps in South India and others, who had the means or relatives in the West, moved to Europe, Canada and elsewhere.

With the hapless refugees, another group of individuals began to move. Those were the individuals belonging to various Tamil armed groups. Among them were the members of the LTTE, who saw fertile grounds not only for their propaganda campaign but also for collecting funds for continuation of its armed struggle in Sri Lanka. The means adopted by them to achieve their objectives were a mixture of coercion, intimidation and downright extortion, exploiting Tamil households, Tamil businesses, places of religious worship etc. The Human Rights Watch published details of such activities of the LTTE and its front organisations in the U.S., Canada and several countries in Europe, on March 15 under the title “Funding the “Final War”: LTTE Intimidation and Extortion in the Tamil Diaspora”. With funds flowing in to their war chest uninterrupted, there is hardly any reason for the LTTE to move away from their current policy of armed confrontation.

It is a well-known fact that militant groups have the tendency to use periods of ceasefire and particularly negotiation, where the pressure that might have previously been applied on them, both domestically and internationally, is relaxed to their advantage. In fact, they use such negotiations to bolster themselves – financially, militarily and politically, in a manner to leverage their legitimacy. Paradoxically, most democratic political regimes that seek to walk the extra mile, and engage with militant groups, end up being victims through the process of democratic accountability.

The LTTE has more than on one occasion succeeded in deceiving the international community in such manner. The reluctance of the Canadian Government as well as the EU to add the LTTE to its list of proscribed terrorist organisations, for fear that it would jeopardize the talks is a clear case in point.


In conclusion, I wish to point out that there are numerous instances where terrorist groups have given up their violent practices and transformed themselves in to political organisations. The PLO and the IRA could be cited as two such examples. Similarly, there have been instances where, with the support and encouragement of international players, militant organisations have given up armed confrontation and sought political settlements. We have such examples in South Sudan as well as recently in Aceh, Indonesia. The most recent terrorist group that had engaged in acts of terrorism to secure the right to self determination to give up terrorism and armed struggle was the Basque Separatist Movement (ETA) of Spain. On March 24, ETA declared a ceasefire stating that the objective of their decision was to “launch a democratic process in Basque country with a view to bringing a new framework within which our rights as a people will be recognized”.

In fact, there was a time, when in 1989, the LTTE made a brief foray into politics with the registration of a political party: People’s Front of Liberation Tigers (PFLT). Unfortunately, that was done for merely tactical purposes and was short lived. There was also the expectation that the LTTE might seriously consider transforming themselves into a political entity in the aftermath of the signing of the Ceasefire Agreement in February 2002. In fact, during the press interview given following the signing of the ceasefire agreement, LTTE leader Prabakaran assured that space would be given for political parties to function in the areas dominated by that organisation. Similar assurances were also given by the leader of the LTTE delegation during press conferences held following the negotiating rounds that were held in several venues. But that promise too was never kept. Instead, the LTTE has adopted a hunt and kill policy with a view to eliminating political opposition which has lead to armed confrontation between the LTTE and other Tamil political groups.

The time has come, for the LTTE to make good of the lip service it constantly pays, by allowing return of democracy to the north and the east of Sri Lanka. The international community has a special responsibility to ensure that the LTTE makes that historical transition. It would be unthinkable that the international community, which insists on transforming autocratic states into democracies, should persuade Sri Lanka, an “old democracy”, to change its democratic practices with a view to accommodating an authoritarian organisation.

In my view, the international community has also a special responsibility to ensure that militants/terrorists, who enter into negotiations, stay locked on to them and that such groups eventually make the paradigm shift from armed struggle to political negotiations.

Past experience makes it amply clear that international appeals and demands that the LTTE ends terrorism and embraces democracy “by word and by deed”, have not evoked the desired response. It is time that the international community severally and collectively considered more imaginative ways of making it clear to the LTTE that their resort to terrorism to secure reasonable and legitimate aspirations of the Tamil people, is passé.

I wish to highlight four tangible means that come to my mind, through which this objective might be achieved:

i. Given that financial support is pivotal to the sustenance of armed struggles, particularly in situations, where such groups are supported by Diaspora living in western democracies, there is a real need to prevail upon them to stop funding armed struggle that contribute to terrorism. Instead, such armed groups should be persuaded to seek negotiated political settlements.

ii. Monitor the movement of weapons and personnel in support of such groups with even greater intensity with a view to interdicting such movements.

iii. Instead of allowing armed groups to go scot-free when they engage in unlawful or illegal activities, in the erroneous presumption that taking action against them would be prejudicial to the peace process, to act with vigour to prevent and pre-empt such activities.

iv The principle of proportionality must also be applied by the international community in dealings with armed groups, so that such groups are not rewarded in expectation of good behaviour in the future, but for tangible progress made in negotiations.


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