Norway the villain: A response to Malin

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"If Norway maintained a policy that enabled LTTE activists to show their organisational strength in Oslo better than elsewhere, it is only a demonstration of the civil liberties that Norway provides to its citizens and residents."

by Chaminda Weerawardhana

(May 26, London, Sri Lnaka Guardian) This article is a reflection of some of the points raised in an article entitled “Will Norway ever ban her adopted child LTTE?” written by Malin Abeyatunge and published in the Sri Lanka Guardian on Wednesday 25 May 2011. It is definitely not an outright critique of the views expressed by Malin Abeyatunge; on the contrary, the present article revolves around several ideas that are deemed worthy of reflection at a time when political debates on Sri Lanka are characterised by foreign policy-related concerns. Critics of the Sri Lankan Peace Process (2002-2008 – that year marking the official abrogation of the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement by the Government of Sri Lanka) have often been apt at demonstrating a constant equation between the Royal Norwegian Government and the LTTE, maintaining that the former has been a direct endorser of the latter, and that the latter had found (and according to Malin Abeyatunge, continues to find) a safe haven for its activism in the Kingdom of Norway.

These assumptions, widely expounded by the critics of Sri Lanka’s Norwegian-facilitated Peace Process, and the ideologues who nurtured the strong Sinhala nationalist political discourse that vehemently accused Norwegian facilitation and Ranil Wickramasinghe, especially in the post-2004 phase, ought to be read by the discerning reader with a fine pinch of salt. Such accusations, as Malin Abeyatunge amply raises them in her recent submission to the Sri Lanka Guardian, are marked by a blatant misreading and misunderstanding of Norwegian politics, political culture, Norwegian foreign policy, immigration policy and the notion of civil liberties in the Norwegian context.

Norway is home to a substantial Tamil community, whose numbers are higher than those of neighbouring Denmark or Sweden. The Royal Norwegian Embassy in Colombo adopted a benevolent policy in terms of political asylum for Sri Lankan Tamils, in the aftermath of the 1983 Black July and especially as the security situation in the Northern and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka (and the in the rest of the island, for that matter), deteriorated in the 1988-1989 phase. One of the most insightful readings of the lives led by members of the Tamil community of Norway (and elsewhere in the West) can be glimpsed from Øvin Fuglerud’s book Life on the Outside: The Tamil Diaspora and Long-Distance Nationalism (Pluto Press, 1999). Like any other diaspora community from a deeply divided society suffering from violent conflict, the Tamil Diaspora (in Norway and elsewhere) elaborated programmes to raise funds for the cause they supported, through both legal and illegal means. The Tamil Diaspora’s economic strength in Norway was yet another key factor that led to their active engagement in fundraising and other initiatives in support of the LTTE and the Tamil separatist cause. Such campaigns were not limited to Norway, and were conducted in full swing across Europe and North America, in places where Tamils lived. If raising funds for the Tamil secessionist cause is to be read as an endorsement of terrorism, such an accusation should not be levelled at Norwegian Tamils alone. Members of the Tamil diaspora across the world were forced to take part in LTTE fundraising campaigns, in some cases by the use of coercive methods.

The engagement of the Royal Norwegian Government (RNG) in Sri Lanka is a totally different issue, and has to be viewed in separation from the Tamil Diaspora and its activism on Norwegian soil. The RNG was formally invited to provide its good offices and play a facilitative role in Sri Lanka by the Government of Sri Lanka, with the agreement of the LTTE leadership. The key reasons put forward by the Kumaratunga administration, which made the first move, were that Norway had no strategic interests in Sri Lanka, was devoid of historical burden marked by colonial ties, and Norway’s diplomatic track record as a provider of third party good offices in peace negotiations in deeply divided societies (NB: whether Norway has been successful in such initiatives is a different matter, which requires a separate article. In order to avoid going hors sujet, this writer sticks exclusively to the allegation that the Royal Norwegian Government is an LTTE supporter).

Norwegian engagement in Sri Lanka was marked by an initial effort by Norwegian facilitators to develop a form of ‘balance’ between the two main parties to the conflict, i.e. the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE. Such a balance is generally deemed a necessary component of successful peace negotiations. Nevertheless, efforts of this nature, where a secessionist militant outfit with a notorious reputation as a terrorist organisation and a democratically elected sovereign government are involved, are very likely to result in criticism, intense debates and condemnation, as it did happen (and as Malin Abeyatunge’s article demonstrates, continues to happen) in Sri Lanka. As the provider of third party good offices, Norway was also apt at taking measures to engage with the LTTE, and assist it in entering the political mainstream, thereby renouncing armed violence. Once again, this is a key strategy employed by third party facilitators in peace processes taking place in deeply divided socio-political contexts. The Voice of the Tamils (VOT) radio station issue, that raised a major anti-Norway debate during the height of the Nowegian-facilitated Peace Process in Sri Lanka, provides a fine example. Yet another telling example is the European trip for LTTE leaders, in the course of which they were taken to a series of government offices in a number of EU states, and allowed to interact with policymakers. Initiatives of this nature, which also serve as Confidence-Building Measures (CBMs) are part and parcel of any peace process, and are not specific to Sri Lanka, LTTE or to Norway. The largest portion of accusations levelled against Norwegian engagement in Sri Lanka is based on a misreading of Norwegian efforts to create a sense of balance between the adversaries and CBMs, and despite the all too evident flaws in the manner in which Norwegian facilitators proceeded in Sri Lanka, it is inconsistent and uncritical to hammer the Norwegians for their resolve to implement standard methods of third party facilitation in the context of a peace process in which they engaged, on the invitation of both parties concerned.

Similarly, Norway’s (especially Minister Solheim’s) alleged engagement with Messrs Nambiar and Holmes of the UN during the last stages of Eelam War IV to save the lives of the top LTTE leadership should not be read as an attempt by Oslo to support terrorism. It can only be read as a last, failed attempt by the Norwegians to make the LTTE surrender, and force the organisation to give up its armed struggle and seek a compromise with Colombo (for more insights, see BBC Hardtalk Interview with Minister Solheim). It goes without saying that this was not a realistically reachable goal, but ‘compromise’ stands as a cornerstone in Norwegian foreign policy with regards to deeply divided societies, armed conflicts and parties entangled in such conflicts.

Malin Abeyatunge maintains that she has not come across any demand to ban the LTTE in Norway. In her article, she stresses the point that Norway provides a safe haven for LTTE activism, even in the post-May 2009 phase. One needs to highlight that although the request came from the Netherlands, it was in Oslo that Nediyavan, a key LTTE leader in the ‘diasporic LTTE’, was recently arrested by Norwegian authorities. Relations between RNG and Sri Lanka’s Rajapaksa administration have entered a new phase, with former Chief Negotiator Minister Erik Solheim himself proclaiming that it is essential for Oslo, and more importantly for the Tamil Diaspora, to work together with the Rajapaksa administration in the post-May 2009 phase. The meeting between President Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg in New York last year, in the presence of senior Sri Lankan and Norwegian officials (including Minister Solheim), which took place despite criticism from the hard-line elements of the Tamil diasproa in Norway and elsewhere, provides ample proof of a new phase of Norway-Sri Lanka diplomatic ties in the making.

Moreover, the RNG is not a member-state of the European Union (EU) and has therefore no obligation to comply by foreign policy decisions made in Brussels. The EU’s decision to ban the LTTE as a terrorist organisation, and similar decisions made by the USA and Canada, can only be read as part of their regular foreign policy routines, where armed terrorist groups across the globe are identified and are classified in their official lists of terrorist outfits. Indeed, such decisions may have been motivated by Colombo’s intense lobbying on the international front, especially during the foreign ministerial tenure of the late Lakshman Kadirgamar. Norway’s neutrality in this respect had a strategic dimension. An example from the Peace Process-period is when Norwegian facilitators were forced to contend only with a peace monitors from non-EU Nordic states in the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) when the EU banned the LTTE. In terms of pre-May 2009 (or pre-December 2005) political dynamics, Norway’s neutrality vis-à-vis Brussels can be read as a fact that enabled Norwegian facilitators to keep the already fragile Sri Lankan Peace Process afloat, when Norwegian facilitators were considerably isolated by key players of the international community, thereby reducing external leverage on both Colombo and the LTTE. Norway’s policy with regards to armed conflicts in deeply divided societies has constantly been, and continues to be, one that focuses on seeking peaceful compromises. It has also been a major exponent of strategies such as back-channel negotiations, or ‘talks before talks’, between adversaries entangled in intractable conflicts. For a small state with an ambitious foreign policy agenda that prioritizes dialogue and reaching peaceful terminations of conflicts, imposing bans on armed groups, despite their degree of violence and atrociousness, is not an advisable strategy to adopt. In terms of foreign policy, it is the RNG’s approach rather conciliatory approach towards the LTTE, read by critics as an endorsement of the Tigers, is an indirect consequence of Norway’s foreign policy priority of allowing adversaries in conflict to express themselves and reach a compromise (whether such a compromise was ever possible in terms of the LTTE is a different matter, and requires a separate article/debate).

If Norway maintained a policy that enabled LTTE activists to show their organisational strength in Oslo better than elsewhere, it is only a demonstration of the civil liberties that Norway provides to its citizens and residents. In the case of the LTTE, it is undeniable that the erstwhile rights such as that of forming associations and promoting a cause, organising protest and fundraising campaigns have been subjected to substantial abuse by LTTE activists in Norway as well as in other Western states. One must also not forget that over a long period of time, such excesses were facilitated by a strong Tamil nationalist discourse, actively promoted by the Tamil diaspora and its support groups, which highlighted continuous and systematic discrimination against Tamils, and violence against their community from Black July to the alleged war crimes allegations in Eelam War IV. In its role as a pays d’accueil, Norway only provided space for activists to engage in promoting their cause, and Tamil diaspora activism in Norway in no way implies a preferential treatment to the Tamils residing in that country.

Malin Abeyatunge further refers to a statement made by Peter Skovholt Gitmark of the opposition Conservative Party, who is also a member of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence at Stortinget, the Norwegian parliament. As mentioned above, the arrest of Nediyavan may have been motivated by Dutch requests, but one must not ignore the fact that it was made by Norwegian public security authorities. Moreover, Girmark’s comments need to be read in the context of parliamentary politics, where the meanderings of realpolitik have it that parliamentary oppositions are apt at loudly voicing issues that bring them political mileage. Equally, it must not be forgotten that the Tamil vote could play a decisive role in electoral politics, prompting opposition parties to court the Norwegian Tamil community (once again, the picture is not so different from that of other Western states with large Tamil communities including Canada, UK and France). Criticism of Norwegian facilitation in Sri Lanka (and elsewhere, especially in the Oslo Process of the Middle East) is nothing new, and some critiques are indeed credible, and provide food for thought concerning third party engagement in intrastate peace processes. Nevertheless, as the arrest of Nediyavan signals albeit in a minor mannerism, a policy change is underway in terms of Norway’s approach to the Sri Lankan question within its borders (i.e. in the realm of national and ‘local’ politics), where Tamil diaspora activism is no longer likely to be perceived in a pacific and receptive perspective by the Norwegian authorities.

Finally, this writer maintains that contrary to the focus of Malin Abeyatunge’s view that the LTTE is Norway’s adoptive child, it is more advisable for the Government of Sri Lanka and the wider Sri Lankan community to avoid seeing the RNG as the culprit, as a vicious pro-terrorist entity that posed a threat to the territorial integrity of Lanka, and sought to save terrorists. Instead, a more critical and comprehensive reading of Norway-Sri Lanka relations in the 1999-2011 period would be a productive venture in terms of foreign policy planning in the post-LTTE phase.

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