Address by Ambassador Bernard Goonetilleke at Capitol Hill, Washington DC - 25 January 2008

Ladies and Gentlemen:

I am privileged, to be able to share with you, some thoughts on Sri Lanka’s attempts at conflict resolution and peace negotiation with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or the LTTE, which, the FBI earlier this month introduced as, “one of the most dangerous and deadly extremists in the world.”

I regret that Dr. Peter Chalk, who was to speak on “The International Dimension of the LTTE,” could not be with us today. However, as intended, I shall focus on the Ceasefire Agreement, the peace process and the role of the international community, while Dr. Stanley Samarasinghe will speak on how Sri Lanka could realistically resolve the conflict.


Separate state based on mythology

You are aware that Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious democracy, in fact, one of the oldest democracies in South Asia. You are also aware that the LTTE shuns democracy, and intends, through terrorism, to establish a mono-ethnic, mono-political separate state in Sri Lanka’s north and east. This separate state will encompass approximately 30% of the country’s landmass, and is intended for Sri Lankan Tamils, who, according to the1981 census, comprise approximately 12% of the county’s population. The majority of these Tamils, incidentally, live outside the north and the east.

LTTE Leader, Prabhakaran in a speech on November 27, last year said, and I quote, “We are struggling only to regain our sovereignty in our own historical land where we have lived for centuries, the sovereignty which we lost to colonial occupiers.” The sovereignty he spoke of ended in 1560, when the Portuguese defeated Jaffna’s ruler, Cankili 1, more than 200 years before the U.S. declaration of independence. Note that Cankili’s rule at that time was limited to Jaffna, and did not extend to present day northern and eastern provinces.

The LTTE demand for a separate state, called “Tamil Eelam,” at best, can be described as “fictitious,” for there was never, at any time in Sri Lanka’s history, “a traditional Tamil homeland,” as the Vadukkodai Resolution of 1976 declared, based on an erroneous claim by the first British colonial Secretary Hugh Cleghorn.

Sri Lanka is a small island, home to 20 million, similar in size to West Virginia, or is twice the size of the island of Hawaii. It has been home to many ethnic groups for over 2000 years, who migrated north to south and south to north over the years. Thus, the Sinhalese, Tamils, Moors, Burghers, Malays and other communities, too numerous to be listed, can all rightfully claim the island as their traditional homeland.


The Ceasefire Agreement

Sri Lanka’s Ceasefire agreement or the CFA and its recent abrogation, has been very much in the news these days. My familiarity with the CFA runs back to the time of its presentation in draft form by Norway, to its signature in February 2002, to its implementation, or more to the point, its brazen violation by the LTTE, from day one. I recall my critical remark in early November 2005, that a glaring defect of the CFA was the inordinate haste of its conclusion, denying the opportunity, particularly to the Sri Lanka government, to deeply scrutinize it.

The eagerness to conclude the CFA with least delay, was due to the fact, that by Christmas 2001, the government had agreed to an informal ceasefire initiated by the LTTE, and Norway, in its wisdom, considered it desirable to have a formal agreement signed before the informal ceasefire began to unravel. In retrospect, at least some of the CFA’s shortcomings could have been addressed, if the parties had more time to consider the ramifications of individual articles of the agreement, including practicability of timelines indicated in the CFA.

On January 3, 2008, the government gave notice to abrogate the CFA, which became operational on January 17, 2008. Since then, many close observers of Sri Lanka’s conflict and the peace process, Co-Chairs of the Tokyo Donor Conference viz. Norway, Japan, the US and the EU, other friends of Sri Lanka and the civil society, have expressed concern. The sentiments commonly expressed have been that withdrawal from the CFA would escalate fighting, leading to heavy civilian casualties and violation of human rights, that there is no military solution to the conflict, that a solution can be found only through negotiation, and that parties to the conflict should return to the CFA.

Let me pause here to comment.

First, the government’s notice of abrogation on January 3, was not out of the ordinary, as Article 4.4 of the CFA provided for either party to withdraw by giving 14 days notice to Norway. The government action to abide by the agreement, contrasts with the LTTE’s actions with respect to the previous truce, where the LTTE commenced hostilities following several hours of notice, on April 18 1995.

Second, the demand of a return to the CFA is like requesting a return to the make-believe world in which Sri Lankans lived since 2002. True, the CFA halted open hostilities and saved many lives. However, those who are familiar with the CFA would recall that the LTTE began violating the agreement willy-nilly, within weeks of signing it. By end April 2007, Tigers had amassed a catalogue of 3800 violations as determined by the Nordic monitors, as against some 300 minor violations by the government forces. I vividly recall how one of those initial violations took me to Kilinochchi for a meeting with late Thamil Chelvam. That encounter proved, beyond any doubt, how fickle the Tigers were, about upholding the nascent CFA. Throughout the CFA, they engaged in serious truce violations such as, assassinating moderate Tamil politicians, officials and members of the armed forces; murdering political opponents; engaging in suicide bombings; abducting civilians for ransom; and conscripting child soldiers, despite the tripartite agreement signed with the government and UNICEF. It was during this so-called “ceasefire,” that the Tigers assassinated foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, made two attempts to kill another Tamil minister, Douglas Devananda, using female suicide bombers, and employed yet another female suicide bomber in an attempt to assassinate the commander of the Sri Lanka Army. I wonder, which country, among those who ask Sri Lanka today to return to the CFA, would agree to continue with a charade of that nature, in the face of such grave provocations.

It is a fact that a ceasefire agreement existed until recently. However, the violations listed by Nordic monitors clearly establish that the Tigers never ceased firing. What remained of the CFA, until its recent abrogation, was an agreement on paper, rendered defunct by the Tigers, from day one. In this backdrop, it is ironical that, after the government served notice to withdraw from the CFA, the LTTE solemnly declared, it would uphold the CFA 100%! However, none of those critical of the government’s decision, thought it fit to ask the Tigers why they failed to uphold the CFA 100% since inception.

Third, critics predict that Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from the CFA would result in increased levels of violence. If the Tigers had been genuine about a negotiated settlement, they had a golden opportunity in November 2005, when President Mahinda Rajapaksa was sworn in as President of Sri Lanka. The President, in his inaugural speech, said, “I reaffirm my commitment & determination to pursue the peace process to achieve an honourable peace that will respect the aspirations of all communities in our country…. To achieve this noble goal, my Government will be ready to engage the L.T.T.E. in discussing a political solution, when the L.T.T.E. declares their readiness to resume negotiations, which they unilaterally abandoned.” Two days after the inauguration, Prabhakaran acknowledged President Rajapaksa as a pragmatic man and said that he would give him time to find a solution to the conflict.

Pause for a moment to examine the difference between the words and the deeds of the Tigers.

Eight days later, on December 5, 2005, the Tigers carried out their first claymore mine attack against the armed forces. This was followed by killing scores of civilians in isolated villages, bombing of a market place in Trincomalee, employing a suicide bomber to assassinate the Army Commander, killing the third most senior officer of the army and detonating claymore mines targeting a bus carrying civilian passengers, taking the lives of over 60 passengers.

Thus, sane thinking would indicate that it was not the abrogation of the CFA that would lead to increased violence, but it was the ever increasing violence and grave provocations that led the government to abrogate the CFA.

Fourth, Sri Lanka shares the view of its friends, the US included, that the conflict can only be resolved politically, not militarily. President Rajapaksa said so on the day of his inauguration, and has, since, repeated it many times. If you think that the political leadership says one thing, and the military is pursuing its own agenda, Army Commander Sarath Fonseka, said at a media briefing on January 12, 2008, and I quote, “Ultimately, any solution will have to be political. But there can be a political solution only after the LTTE has laid down arms.”

Fifth, on the subject of the CFA, Sri Lanka has attempted no less than six series of negotiations, since 1985. Of those, only the last three, in 1995, 2002/2003 and 2006 were conducted in an environment of CFAs. This demonstrates that a CFA, while being a useful tool, is not essential for negotiations, if parties to the conflict are serious about a resolution. What is essential is to conduct negotiations in good faith until a lasting solution to the conflict is agreed upon.

Finally, a “ceasefire” by its very definition, is a temporary measure, until it is replaced by a more permanent arrangement. Similarly, the CFA signed between the government and the LTTE was a temporary suspension of hostilities until negotiations were concluded. After the Tigers unilaterally moved away from negotiations in April 2003, it took Norway nearly three years to bring them back to the table. When they repeated their performance in October 2006, there seemed little prospect of their return. Neither can the government be confident that the Tigers would be any less fickle in future peace talks, than they have been during the last two decades.


Peace Talks

Thus, it is regrettable that the international community has failed to understand the complex dynamics that have played out over nearly three decades in Sri Lanka. With the ease of the uninformed, some countries repeatedly call on the government and the LTTE, to shun hostilities and to resume peace talks. The reality is that Sri Lanka has attempted negotiations with the Tigers on six different occasions, viz., in 1985 at Thimpu with Indian mediation; in 1987 with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi taking the lead; during 1989/90 with President Premadasa; in 1995 with President Chandrika Kumaratunga; during 2002/03 with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe; and with President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2006. The past twenty odd years are testimony to the fact that Tigers only agree to negotiate as a mere ploy; to buy time to regroup, to replenish and to strengthen their fighting capability. When adequately geared to fight, they walk away from negotiations, as they have done at each series of talks. That was not all; they were brazen enough to take the lives of those who initiated two rounds of talks viz. the former Indian Prime Minister Gandhi and President Premadasa and very nearly took the life of President Kumaratunga, in all three instances employing suicide bombers.

We ought to ask, then, how serious were the Tigers, when they sat at the negotiating table. I can authoritatively speak of the six meetings we had in Bangkok, Oslo, Berlin, and Hakone, between September 2002 and March 2003, as I was part of the government team. The LTTE insisted that the two sides focus on banal issues, or to borrow late Balasingham’s own words, “the existential problems” faced by the Tamil civilians in the north and the east first, and only after resolving them, to discuss issues leading to a settlement of the conflict. Our plea that we utilize the time to discuss both issues simultaneously fell on deaf ears.

Against this background of Tiger stonewalling, Norway made a valiant bid in Oslo, in November 2002, to persuade the leader of the LTTE delegation to agree on a compromise, where the LTTE agreed to the terminology “the parties agreed to explore a solution founded on the principle of internal self - determination in areas of historical habitation of the Tamil-speaking peoples, based on federal structure with an united Sri Lanka…” and, for the first time, agreed to initiate discussions on substantive political issues leading to a political solution, such as: Power-sharing between the center and the region, as well as within the center; Geographical region; Human rights protection; Political and administrative mechanism; Public finance; and Law and order. That was a refreshing breakthrough, given the tense atmosphere in Oslo the previous evening. That was also a landmark decision, as the LTTE agreed to climb down from its demand for a separate state, and the government agreed to a solution based on a federal structure, a concession successive governments failed to concede to the Tamil minority.

What followed thereafter is history. Opposition soon built up against the leader of the LTTE delegation in his own camp, and he abruptly ended a crucial visit to Wanni, following Prabhakaran pressurizing him to retract. He returned to London, a sick and broken man and went into isolation, severing all connections with the LTTE, Norway and the rest of the world. Later, he painstakingly tried to explain there was no agreement in Oslo for a solution based on a federal arrangement!

The final meeting held in Hakone, Japan, in March 2003, was an eye opener, as that meeting clarified beyond any doubt that the LTTE had reverted to its old position of not discussing any substantive issue to resolve the conflict. On par with the understanding reached in Oslo, the International Adviser on Human Rights, Ian Martin, presented a paper, and the late Balasingham came up with reasons why they could not agree to international monitoring of human rights. His response was that Sri Lanka’s national Human Rights Commission was equal to the task. When pressed to focus on other substantive issues agreed upon in Oslo, Balasingham sheepishly said he had no mandate to discuss any of those subjects, proving that he had been prohibited from engaging in discussing substantive issues by the LTTE leadership.

I have traced the history of negotiations, not to heap blame on late Balasingham, or even on the LTTE. All what I want to say is, that the LTTE had a clear strategy then, as it does now, and that is, to establish a separate state by hook or by crook, irrespective of the deaths it would cause to the Tamil people it claims to represent, and destruction to the country. After all, Prabhakaran has given permission to his cadres to kill him if he wavers from the commitment he made for a separate state. And, the slogan of the LTTE still remains “The thirst of the Tigers is the Homeland of Tamil Eelam.”

Against this backdrop, the question we ask from those who urge the government to seek a negotiated settlement is, are they asking us to negotiate with the LTTE once again? If the LTTE demand for a separate state is non-negotiable, what exactly are we going to negotiate with them? There are more questions. How can a democratically elected government hand over a part of its sovereign territory to an undemocratic entity like the LTTE, which engages in terrorism? What is the fate of the Muslim and Sinhala people, living in the areas claimed by the LTTE, as the traditional homeland of the Tamils?

Finally, we have to ask, who would guarantee that this time around, the LTTE will not walk away from the negotiating table. Some may even ask, if the players were different, for example, would the US negotiate with a terrorist group, which has used suicide bombers to assassinate one president, nearly killed another president, and assassinated several secretaries, including the Secretary of State?

There are certain individuals, who try to draw parallels between the LTTE demands with the American demand for independence from Britain. However, in my view, the more appropriate comparison is to describe the LTTE to the secessionist Confederates, who tried to break away from the Union. As President Abraham Lincoln said in his First Inaugural Address on March 4, 1861, “Plainly, the central idea of secession, is the essence of anarchy." Likewise, “Physically speaking, we can not separate. We cannot remove our respective sections from each other nor build an impassable wall between them” Sri Lankan government too, being a representative entity like the Union, finds secession wholly unacceptable, and seeks friendship of all its citizens, and genuine peace, as President Lincoln did, where all citizens in the country can co-exist as equals in harmony, as they did for many centuries.


Role of the International Community

Throughout the conflict, Sri Lanka’s friends have remained steadfastly supportive of a negotiated solution to the conflict. The Tigers, however, see this involvement as being partial toward the government. In his Heroes Day speech in November 2007, referring to the role of the international community, Prabhakaran, said, “This partisan and unjust conduct of the international community has severely undermined the confidence our people had in them. And it has paved the way for the breakdown of the ceasefire and the peace efforts.”

Despite the stance of Tigers, Sri Lanka is indeed appreciative of the positive role played by the international community in the war on terrorism. The ban on the LTTE, first by India, the U.S., the U.K., followed by Canada and the 27 member EU, has helped dampen the Tigers’ increasing ability to raise funds for their war chest. The U.S. ban on one of the LTTE front organizations, the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization (TRO) in November 2007, was a significant blow to the Tiger fundraising capabilities. This kind of international action is critical to make the Tigers realize they do not have an endless fount of resources to carry on a relentless terrorist campaign to achieve its major political objective, a separate state, by force of arms.

The international community also needs to persuade the LTTE to return to the negotiating table, and to hang in there until a satisfactory comprise is reached. Only such action will drive home the message that undemocratic methods of seizing power as the Tigers currently employ, are unacceptable to the civilized world.

The international community needs to be cognizant that democracies cannot take extra-constitutional measures, and, political solutions to conflicts require discussion, debate and compromise before consensus is reached.

As you may be aware, after deliberating for one and a half years, the All Party Representative Committee (APRC), comprising the political spectrum of the country, submitted its proposals for devolution to the President, two days ago. Complex arrangements for devolution and power sharing, that also involve constitutional changes and consultation of the people, are inevitably, an incremental process. It is necessary to remind the international community, that this is only a beginning of an evolving process, which requires its fullest and continuing support.

Thank you.

Home | Sri Lanka-US Relations | Trade | Investment | Travel | Consular | Press Releases |
Statements | Features | Reports & Publications | Archive | Contact I Ideas Line