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'I regret we could not spend more time with Prabhakaran,' Erick Solheim to WION

'If we had spent more time with him (Prabhakaran), we would probably be able to influence him more,' said Solheim. Photograph: (WION)

Padma Rao Sundarji New Delhi, Delhi, India
Aug 18, 2017, 06.23 PM (IST)

Story highlights

The Norwegian peace mediator in the 30-year-long Sri Lanka civil war breaks his silence on his controversial role in an exclusive interview with WION

Erik Solheim, the Norwegian peace mediator in the 30-year-long Sri Lanka civil war, breaks his silence on his controversial role in a conversation with WION's Padma Rao Sundarji.

Padma Rao Sundarji: How and when did the government of Norway decide to mediate in Sri Lanka and why did they pick you?

Erik Solheim: We were invited in absolute secrecy by the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga. At the time, only two people in Colombo knew, she and foreign minister Lakshman Kadiragamar. It stayed like that for one-and-a-half years. Only later, it became public.I believe we were invited because we could potentially be acceptable to India as a small nation. And, we were invited because we had, at that time, seen some successes in the Middle East. They were small successes. But as a small, faraway nation it was felt that we could not really mess up Sri Lanka and could be acceptable to both the Tigers and the government of Sri Lanka at the same time.

And were you acceptable to New Delhi too? India is, after all, the biggest immediate neighbour with close cultural, religious and linguistic ties to Sri Lanka.

There was a lot of scepticism in Delhi. What will these pink, Christian Europeans with no real knowledge of South Asia make of problems on this continent? But at the end, we were not only acceptable to India, we had the closest relationship. After every visit to Sri Lanka, I went to New Delhi to inform the political leadership and the Indian intelligence about what I had achieved or not achieved.

Take us back to your first and earliest effort at peace mediation in Sri Lanka. When was that and what was the result?

It was when I went to meet Prabhakaran for the first time. Again, that was not known to anyone in Sri Lanka; not even the PM was aware that we were allowed to go there by the President. We met him in an area controlled by the Tigers. We went by helicopter. Flying low over the fields and up again if it was mountains, it was kind of scary. Because neither the army nor the LTTE cadres on the ground knew we were there, they could have easily shot us down. Then we met with Prabhakaran. It was a good meeting. They confirmed their interest in the peace process. But it was a little bit difficult to understand how Prabhakaran got this enormous standing among Tamils, how he could be seen as their god, creator, and saviour at the time. He had this huge following. But we couldn’t really understand why people were following him like that.

What proved to be the biggest hurdles during all the years of peace mediation?

The first of two main hurdles was the fact that Sri Lanka’s Sinhala community was divided into two main parties, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP). Through independence, these two parties fought for power and both were much more consumed by the power struggle than with outreach to the Tamil community. Whenever one party was in power, the other party would oppose whatever the rival party did. Then the power would shift and so would positions.That was a huge problem. The Tamil community could not really place any confidence in any single offer from the Sinhala leaders because they did not know whether it would last. And then the more important issue: everyone knew that the only solution would be not a separate state but a federal organisation of Sri Lanka. In which the Tamils would have a lot of say and self-rule in the Tamil-dominated area but within one Sri Lankan state. And then, was Prabhakaran really ready for anything but a separate state? Could he embrace federalism?  The LTTE did that in one meeting in Oslo in 2002. But Prabhakaran was not consistent on acceptance of federalism. Still, we do not know whether he would have later accepted it. So working with that was difficult.These were the two main difficulties.

There are a lot of allegations against the Norwegian mediators. One is that even though the LTTE, within years of the struggle, were acknowledged to be an armed separatist group, the Norwegians turned a blind eye to that fact. And that the Norwegians to date maintain connections to many overseas ex-LTTE groups like the "Transnational government of Tamil Eelam" that sprung up even after the war ended. Could you address some of those allegations?

Remember that during our many years in Sri Lanka, we never ever did anything which we were not asked to do by the government of Sri Lanka. We worked with the government and the Tamil Tigers. We did not come with a lot of Norwegian opinions because we realised that our knowledge of Sri Lanka is limited. I don’t speak Tamil, I don’t speak Sinhala. I am not a Buddhist, I am not a Hindu, how can I really understand Sri Lanka? So what we could do is to see what the government wants, what the Tigers want and bring that together. That was our role.

Since you mention it, the leadership of the LTTE was Christian…

Yes but the LTTE leadership was not really really religious and those who were, were Hindu. But I don’t think religion was important to them. The driving energy for Mr Prabhakaran was his Tamil national view. He took the names of the Tigers from historical Tamil kings. And they really adored the Tamil language. Some of his advisors would often say that all the southern Indian languages be it Kannada, Malayalam or Telugu, were all versions of Tamil. So it was a very very strong Tamil nationalism. Of course, it was also based on the fact that Tamils have been enormously successful.The Tamil diaspora is the most successful anywhere in the world, stockbrokers, doctors, lawyers, they do very very well. Even in India, the state of Tamil Nadu is doing better than others. So the Tamils have a lot to be proud of and that was the driving energy for Prabhakaran and the LTTE, not a religion.

Indeed, that is another allegation.That there is a sizable Norwegian population of Sri Lankan Tamils in Norway and that they are the reason why the Norwegian government, and Erik Solheim, got involved in Sri Lanka. After all, you have been a politician in your country too.

To the contrary. We kept a very limited contact with the Tamil community in Norway for this very reason. Also because our main point of contact with the LTTE was their chief political advisor Anton Balasingham in London, whom I met every week. Simultaneously, our ambassador in Colombo would meet Chandrika Kumaratunga, Lakshman Kadirgamar and later Ranil Wickremesinghe every week too. Balasingham did not want us to involve the Tamil expat community. So the Tamil community neither had any influence on the peace process nor was kept in the loop. Indian leaders were -I went to Delhi all the time. But we did not inform the Tamil community in Norway for this reason.

I remember speaking to your successor, Jon Hanssen-Bauer, the evening the Norwegians decided to pack their bags and leave the peace process. What was the last straw for the Norwegians? When you finally threw up your hands and said look we’re not touching this anymore…

We actually never did that. We said until the last day that if we can be useful to the government of Sri Lanka, to the Tamil Tigers, we are there for you. And we were being criticised for that attitude. People were telling us you should have stayed, you should have done more, that we had the wrong attitude. Here is a small nation, trying to assist two communities, the Tamils and the Sinhalese, in a country where thousands are dying every month and every year, there is no way you can give up, you mustn’t give up, as long as they want your support, you should support them. That was the one constant message from Delhi and from Washington (but Delhi was more important to us), 'please don’t give up, please continue, never give up. Even if you can’t do anything big, if you can do something small, please continue'. I remember during my first visit to Delhi. Jaswant Singh was the foreign minister. After a long chat, he said: I have only one question. Are you patient?  I said, no, no, I’m not patient, how can we be when people are dying in Sri Lanka every month? Mothers are crying, children are dying, how can we be patient? To that, Singh said: do you know the way to Indira Gandhi International Airport? Go. Buy a ticket, making sure it's a one-way ticket to Europe. Because if you’re not patient, you’ll only run into problems here. If you take a 10-15 year perspective on the Sri Lankan conflict, then you may do something good. Of course, he was right, I was wrong. We learned our lessons and became patient. But still, the fundamental issues in Sri Lanka, the status of Tamils, and the influence of Tamils within the state of Sri Lanka are not resolved.

Tell us more about your relationship with LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran. I remember you told me once that you went fishing together. Was it a friendship or more of a business relationship?

What I regret with the benefit of hindsight is that we could not spend more time with him. I met him more often than any other foreigner did in the world because basically he just met Tamils, only once met a Muslim delegation in Sri Lanka, met with a few Sinhalese but nearly always just met with Tamils. If we had spent more time with him, we would probably be able to influence him more. We did try to establish a more personal relationship with him by speaking about issues he really cared about, he was interested in films for sure, in food, he was known to be a good cook himself, he took some interest in nature. But it was hard to build a personal relationship because we had limited time and were not allowed to go up to the warring North by the Sri Lankan government too often. Then there was also a language barrier – his speaking in Tamil meant we needed an interpreter. And finally, he was the kind of a character who was not obviously open. Charismatic, but more closed and cautious.

But didn’t the fact that the LTTE used child soldiers, practically invented the suicide bomb, didn’t these facts disturb you while you were negotiating with him? After all, you come from the European/ Scandinavian tradition which is so firmly embedded in human rights…

Absolutely. But we also negotiated with people on the Sri Lankan government’s side who committed huge war crimes and evil acts. Despite all that I used to just ask myself one question: what do the victims of the crimes want us to do? I came to the conclusion that what the victims really wanted was for us to speak to these guys and put a stop to this war. So, more important than my feelings was the impact on the victims.Tens of thousands of Sri Lankans died, thousands of young Tiger cadres but also young soldiers from southern Sri Lankan villages and, towards the end of the war, tens of thousands of Tamil civilian victims. So, what did the victims want? I feel that peace negotiators in Yemen, Syria and other parts of the world must also focus on that, what the victims expect of us, how can we put a stop to the war.

Why are Scandinavians and Europeans, and you all have constitutions embedded in the protection of human rights, so concerned about violations by the armies of other sovereign countries?  In the case of Sri Lanka, there were certainly alleged violations of human rights by the Sri Lankan armed forces and they are still being investigated by the Sri Lankan army. But what about the wars that western nations are themselves involved in, like in the Middle East, in Iraq, Syria where there are hundreds and thousands of human rights violations by your troops taking place on a daily basis? Why do they go unnoticed? Why do they not evoke that great an interest? Is it because these nations, like NATO states, for instance, are involved in those wars themselves? 

If one has that perspective, it is obviously completely wrong. I went into politics to a large extent because of the war in Vietnam, a war where the US committed enormous crimes. A completely unnecessary war which achieved nothing. It merely killed 2-3 million Vietnamese, 55 thousand Americans. And of course today, Vietnam is a blossoming nation, rapidly moving economically – and – best friends with the United States! So at the end of the day, all those millions suffered or died for nothing. If the Americans had left Vietnam alone, this would not have happened. War crimes and all unnecessary wars by all sides should obviously be condemned and we should focus on the conflict entrepreneurs who start wars.The United States has started a number of unnecessary wars. Very few people today believe it was a good idea to attack Iraq. Even if Saddam Hussein was a most despicable, horrible dictator, the US war has created so many problems. If it weren't for that war, we would probably not have the Islamic State today. So let’s keep an equal focus on western and non-western wars and on terrorists and armies.

But I will persist. The EU and the US initially looked upon the separatist war in Sri Lanka as a " freedom struggle. " They offered refuge to many thousands of LTTE cadres. And these overseas Tiger sympathisers armed and funded the LTTE – K.Pathmanathan, their chief financier, told me this in an interview with WION earlier this year. Why do western countries sometimes live in 'La- La ' land as far as faraway conflicts are concerned? Hasn't the West made a mistake in nurturing and harbouring these groups?

Let’s accept that the public in many western countries has limited knowledge about other parts of the world and quite often make mistakes. For many years, I was in Myanmar. The western world kept up a boycott, sanctions on Myanmar which did not work. When I spoke to westerners, they said yes, we know sanctions do not work but we will still continue with them. So this ignorance, or lack of real concern, is definitely there.The answer to that is to try to understand more. And we should obviously find an amicable peaceful solution to any conflict. If the Sinhalese and the Tamil leaders had been able to do that in the 50s or 70s, the conflict would not have come. And of course, fighting for Tamil rights, I have a lot of sympathy with that but, I have no sympathy with suicide bombing or, killing Rajiv Gandhi or, planting bus bombs or attacking the holy temple of Sinhala Buddhism in Kandy. Tamil Tigers made such horrible decisions, killing people. But we should all have some sympathy with the Tamils in Sri Lanka. If you are a Tamil there and you want to go to the police, the police just speak Sinhala so you can understand, that’s not easy.

There are Eelam separatist organisations regrouping within Europe, they frequently raise the LTTE flag and that flag symbolises separatism, not merely Tamil rights. Why are your governments allowing this?

European countries allow basic freedom of expression, some find that positive, others not so. But I agree with you. Part of it is naiveté about what different groups want to do and that naiveté must stop. But when we worked in Sri Lanka, we were constantly doing everything on the basis of what the Sri Lankan government wanted and what the LTTE wanted, we were concentrated within that and aware that our knowledge was limited. That’s why we consulted India all the time because Indian intelligence had much more information about what was actually happening on the ground in Sri Lanka than I could possess. So it was useful to tap into their deep knowledge of the conflict. 

The most controversial aspect of your involvement in Sri Lanka remains shrouded in mystery to most people. I remember you spoke to me about it briefly at the time but the details remain largely shrouded. Would you care to tell us about the ‘White Flag’ incident involving the killing of LTTE top brass Puleedevan, Nadesan and others, despite their willingness to surrender? And the allegation that will not go away that you personally tried to save LTTE chief Prabhakaran and his family?

It was on the 17th of May. It is also Norwegian national day so I remember it since I was on my way to our parade in Oslo. I received a call from Puleedevan, he was one of the nicest members of the Tigers. He was the chief of the LTTE's political wing. He told us they wanted to surrender to the Sri Lankan army and whether we could assist him. I did not speak to him directly but a Norwegian colleague told him that it was too late for us to intervene because the end of the war was very close. We pointed out that we had offered them opportunities in the past to give up the struggle at a time when it was still possible for us to intervene. But that it was too late now. But what we can ask you, we told him, is to hoist a big white flag, that 's why it’s called the White Flag incident, and through loudspeakers and whatever means you have, make your intentions known to the Sri Lankan armed forces. We, on our part, will inform Sri Lankan leaders of your intention to surrender. 

And did you inform the Sri Lankan leaders?

Absolutely for sure. We informed Basil Rajapaksa, the advisor to President Rajapaksa. We were not alone, the Tigers did the same through some key Tamil and also, I think with some Indian interlocutors to send a message to the Sri Lankan leadership.The day after, we were informed that Nadesan and Puleedevan were killed. The exact circumstances of the killing are still not known. I don’t think they were with Prabhakaran at the time but I don’t know this exactly. How Prabhakaran himself was killed, I do not know either. But we have a very very strong suspicion that the 12-year-old son of Prabhakaran was captured by the Sri Lankan army and later executed by them, a completely irresponsible and evil act. And unfortunately for the Sri Lankan armed forces and to put it very, very nicely, there's a big question mark on these killings, why they did not accept surrender and bring these people into court, rather than killing them ...

Are you still in touch with the current Sri Lankan government over these issues because there is an investigation on...

No, I’m only in touch with them over environment issues now. But we now discuss the reconciliation between Tamils and Sinhalese after the war and how I, as a UN official concerned with the environment, can assist on environment issues, setting up investment facilities, working on saving the elephants, water management and suchlike.

You have been environment minister, minister for international development of your country, the peace mediator in Sri Lanka, then the chief of the OECD in Paris and are now the chief of the UNEP. Which of these hats have you enjoyed wearing the most and which has been the most challenging?

The most challenging was, of course, the peace process in Sri Lanka. Because that was a matter of life and death for people. We knew that our acts may increase the killings if we did not get it right. During two years, there was not a single political assassination in Sri Lanka, which was considered huge progress at the time. Later, it went out of control and tens of thousands of Tamil civilians were killed. But the challenge to mediate between these two, the Tigers and the Sri Lankan leadership, and also being criticised for whatever we did which is normal in times of both peace and war, that was the biggest challenge.

So you don’t regret playing the role of mediator at all? 

I have no regrets.The only regret is that we did not succeed, because if we had succeeded, tens of thousands of people, who are now dead, would have been alive. Now when I look into the eyes of the women who lost their husbands or mothers who lost their children, whether they are Sinhalese or Tamil, I always ask myself, could we not have given them more. But if you ask what I enjoy the most, that’s my present position. Because working for the global environment is in my view the defining issue of our time. 

Are you planning to return to Sri Lanka in the near future? We hear you’re writing a book on that experience...

I’m not writing a book on Sri Lanka. I would be very happy to go back. But I will not go back in any way which is seen as a problem for the peace-makers, the reconciliators in Sri Lanka. I have so many friends there Chandrika, Ranil, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Tamil National Alliance leaders, the Muslim leader Rauff Hakim, I want to see them all. But I will go at a time when it does not create problems for anyone. 

Did Sri Lanka become a kind of a second home to you?

Absolutely. It’s a place I care about the most other than my home country.

(Padma Rao Sundarji is an award-winning veteran foreign correspondent who covered the Sri Lankan civil war for nearly two decades. She is the author of “Sri Lanka: The New Country” published by HarperCollins India in 2015 and is currently Senior Foreign Editor at WION)