2 March, 2024


History Undone: A Response To Dayan Jayatilleka

By Mark  Salter

Mark Salter

Grandiloquent as ever, Dayan Jayatilleka huffs and puffs. But in this instance at least, he fails to blow the house down. 

Much of the puff is historical so it is on the history – not the present politics – that this reply focuses. Let’s start with the older stuff, specifically an issue on which I happen to possess a modest amount of knowledge – the Sri Lankan peace process. In this respect Jayatilleka’s response to me is peppered with a mixture of factual curios, dubious interpretations and the occasional plain inaccuracy. 

For starters, the CFA is depicted as ’wartime appeasement’ of the LTTE. In reality, however, it was an agreement that concluded a complex process of negotiation initiated by President Kumaratunga (CBK) and Jayatilleka’s professed favourite Lakshman Kadirgamar via the Norwegians, whose role in renewed peace attempts CBK announced to a mostly unsuspecting world in a BBC interview given from her hospital bed immediately following the Tiger’s failed attempt to assassinate her in the run-up to the November 1999 presidential elections. 

As Jayatilleka well knows – including from having participated in a 2017 Colombo panel discussion for the launch of my book on the Norwegian role in Sri Lanka – the CFA’s provisions were the outcome of a tortuous process of (Oslo-facilitated) negotiation between the GoSL and the LTTE leadership. While I can appreciate that dubbing this ’wartime appeasement’ plays well with the nationalist gallery, the depiction is both factually untrue and – no less importantly – politically unhelpful. Unhelpful specifically in this sense that it lends support to the kind of zero-sum, Manichean view of the Sri Lankan conflict as an epic struggle between black and white, good and evil – story, end of. In reality, however, I would suggest that this interpretation of the war is precisely part of the core, still remaining post-independence Lankan problèmatique, not its solution.

A similar animus guides a number of other assertions on historical matters. What is somewhat awkwardly dubbed the ’Chandrika-Ranil-Mangala paradigm’ (could there be any three Lankan leaders more different in temperament, style and political outlook?) is alleged to have ’dammed itself’ by having allegedly failed to ’save the state and country from separatist terrorism, foreign interference (Norway/CFA, Geneva 2015 and jihadi terrorism)’. 

Here again the spectre of historical fantasy haunts the argument. In what possible sense can an effectively joint the GoSL – LTTE invitation to initiate peace facilitation efforts and that invitation’s first major fruits, aka the CFA, be construed as ’foreign interference’ from Oslo? Guests by invitation with no colonial history in the country, no obvious strategic interests in it, a smallish, faraway Nordic nation, a ‘lightweight facilitator’ – Kadirgamar’s precise description of the basis on which Norway had been selected to facilitate renewed peace soundings in Sri Lanka: hardly a prima face example of external political interference!

Further, to note another related claim made regarding the CFA. No one I have interviewed on the subject has ever claimed the CFA was perfect– like most such interim agreements it was of practical necessity a compromise document. Subsequent to its signing in spring 2002, accusations of ’lopsidedness’ were indeed aired by both sides, particularly once the spirit of willingness to begin talking to each other, initially regarding modalities for a de-escalation of hostilities and in time leading – such at least was the hope – to substantive negotiations on a political settlement to the conflict – began to wear off into 2003-2004. 

It was nonetheless a bilateral agreement – the most significant such entente reached during the entire conflict, whose existence in turn helped ensure that many combatant and civilian lives were saved, the borders of LTTE-controlled territory were (partially) opened up, donor willingness to support reconstruction efforts was revived and briefly – all too briefly, as it turned out – peace seemed at least possible. And it is on such terms, no less than its casual after-the-event dismissal à la Jayatilleka, that the CFA surely needs to be evaluated: an imperfect, but hopeful pointer to the future in an imperfect, briefly hopeful Lanka.

Perhaps the most egregious historical misnomer concerns the Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure (P-TOMS) agreement, reached following very difficult discussions between the GoSL and LTTE on the back of a Herculanean Norwegian facilitation effort, notably by Ambassador Hans Brattskar. Here – and irrespective of what Jayatilleka may have been told at the US diplomatic high table – the crucial point is surely that with the P-TOMS agreement, for the first time ever the LTTE accepted to be part of an administrative structure co-ordinated by the GoSL. From this perspective the Norwegian facilitators argue that if its implementation had been pursued in practice, the P-TOMS could have constituted a significant political milestone in efforts to end the conflict. 

But what happened instead? On the back of a nationalist JVP-led backlash the P-TOMS was shot down in the Supreme Court in June 2005. Finding their efforts to accommodate official demands with respect to the P-TOMS rebuffed, efforts made not least in order to try and get badly needed relief supplies into the North and East – and let’s not forget that during the months following the Tsunami almost all relief convoys were forcibly prevented from entering the Vanni on the grounds that supplies could potentially be diverted away from Tamil civilians to LTTE cadre – subsequently, the LTTE’s engagement in the peace process took a nosedive. 

A process, indeed, that had arguably begun 18 months previously as the result of another seemingly offhand official dismissal, this time of the Interim Self-Government Authority (ISGA) tabled by the LTTE in October 2003: an undoubtedly ’maximalist’ document almost certainly intended as an initial negotiating stance but seemingly misread by some in power in Colombo as a final Tiger position statement on the contours of a future national governance structure.

A final point regarding those ’salmon-eating busybodies’ – the supposedly ‘neo-liberal’ Mangala Samaraweera’s delicious description of the Norwegians. Jayatilleka suggests that Oslo ’tilted to the LTTE because of the large Tamil diaspora in Norway’. Tempting stuff – but misleading nonetheless. Currently there are roughly 13,000 Tamils of Sri Lankan origin living in Norway i.e. roughly 0.25% of a total population of around 5.5 million. On the available statistics Norway ranks 15 out of 16 countries around the world with Tamil diasporas over 9,000 (Denmark is last) and in both absolute and relative terms it has nowhere near the size or proportion of Tamil inhabitants of, say, the USA, Canada or Germany. Large? Able to sway official foreign policy? A highly doubtful proposition, on both counts.

Facts aside, the tired old canard of ’Tiger-friendly Vikings’ dusted off by Jayatilleka rests on a fundamental misreading of peace process dynamics. From the start Oslo’s good offices were requested – and used – by Colombo, specifically (though not solely) as a means of communicating with the LTTE. (Remember: by 2000, no one in the Sri Lankan government had ever met Prabakharan: Erik Solheim, Vidar Helgesen et al were the first non-Sri Lankan Tamils to do so in almost 15 years; indeed, on his return to Colombo from their first meeting Solheim was asked by a reportedly excitable CBK whether the LTTE leader existed in reality.) 

Within the Norwegian team, moreover, and in clear agreement with the GoSL, a division of labour was agreed early on in the facilitation process whereby Erik Solheim was tasked with performing the primary liaison role vis-à-vis Killinochchi and Colombo Ambassador Jon Westborg with that of communications with the GoSL. As per his defined role, Solheim went on to become a fairly frequent visitor to the Vanni, and was accordingly photographed next to Prabhakaran, shaking hands with him etc. on several occasions. 

To repeat: talking to Prabakharan and the rest of the LTTE leadership was precisely Solheim’s defined role, as agreed by all parties. As one of the very few non-Tamils seen in public in company with Prabhakaran, however, subsequently it became all too easy for nationalist/ anti-peace process forces to paint him – and by extension, the Norwegians – as Tiger lovers whenever politically convenient. Which as time went on and the peace process began to falter, meant increasingly often. 

Was Nixon a Communist China lover because he travelled to Beijing in 1972 to seek an agreement with Mao Tse-Tung? Should former Finnish Prsident Martti Ahtisaari be dubbed a ardent fan of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) simply because he met regularly with them in the run-up to their landmark 2005 peace agreement with the Indonesian authorities? Extremely doubtful in both cases – and so too for Solheim with respect to the LTTE. 

It is the case, as Solheim is the first to admit, that over time, and as a result of sustained dialogue and discussion with all parties to the conflict, the man developed a degree of understanding, even sympathy for the goal of a negotiated/mutually agreed form of self-determi-nation for the Tamils of Sri Lanka, as enjoyed by other minority populations around the world, and within both federal and non-federal governance structures. But he was – and is – hardly alone in holding that view. Either way, it constitutes extremely shallow grounds for casual dismissal of the Norwegian peace facilitation effort as’pro-LTTE’. 

Of necessity, peace negotiations involve talking to everyone whose involvement is necessary to seeking – and hopefully, achieving – a peace agreement: your enemies, not just your friends, included. And at least as I interpret it, that was precisely the basis for the Norwegian engagement in efforts to end the Sri Lankan conflict in general, and to engage the LTTE to that specific, defined end in particular.

Which brings me to my final observation, spilling over from the past into the present. In his reply as in his original article, Jayatilleka spills much ink in delineating the contours of what he sees as a genuine, fit-for-purpose ‘smart patriotism’/moderate nationalism. What I find most striking here, however, is not the customary rhetorical flights with which these are depicted as much as a striking absence, a notable textual omertà, summarized in one word: minorities. (I’ll leave out further consideration of ‘populism’ here, a force my earlier response critiqued as a key contemporary threat to democracy, a critique Jayatilleka’s redeployment of the notion here suggests he has elected to ignore.)

Or to be more specific: where, in all the talk of pluralism, cosmopolitanism, populism, patriotism and nationalism are the roughly 25 per cent of Sri Lanka’s population that make up the country’s ethnic minorities – Tamil, Muslim, Burgher, Vedda and so on? Not once to do they merit a mention in the Jayatilleka’s – unless, that is, you include the approving references to that highly singular Tamil Politian Lakshman Kadirgamar. 

Yet – and here I return to the kind of argument propounded by a man Jayatilleka, however metaphorically, disconcertingly stoops to describing as a ‘neoliberal pig’ – to obtain any genuine traction on reality, I would humbly suggest that contemporary Lankan politicians, and of all stripes, need to summon up the courage, leadership and vision to initiate a necessary – and for some undoubtedly challenging – national shift away from ingrained, majoritarian and/or ‘entitlement’-based habits of thought and action towards a genuinely inclusive, all-embracing articulation of what it means to be Sri Lankan today.

The challenge is there, plainly, for all to see: so to Dayan Jayatilleka I repeat my earlier suggestion cum invitation to engagement in that process. Walk that way and your undoubted intelligence, eloquence and vision would stand to make a truly valuable, lasting contribution to your country’s future trajectory.

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Latest comments

  • 4

    Mr mark CIA Moll salter . We don’t need your interpretations of the Norwegians. Why this sudden interest in Sri Lanka.?

  • 6

    Talking about P-TOM.
    I recall the millions of pounds of Tsunami “aid” raised all over the world.

    I was in London at that time every super market and every pub and socrner shop etc etc were raising money.
    Ordinary people were donating what ever they can from few pennies to few pounds.

    Millions of pounds of donation were raised all over the world for Tsunami affected countries.

    Sri Lanka received fare share of donations/aids form governments and aid agencies and private donors.

    The condition was put that all aids must be routed through the government for efficient and central disbursement!

    A year after a Tsunami I took my family and took my young kids to down south to Piliyandala where the famous train perished with all the passengers except few.

    I was walking along the rail tracks. The train was still there.

    But what struck me was the story of the people I met along the village.

    One year on they didn’t get a single cent in aid and were living under the coconut trees!

    Tsunami Aid was the making of the Rajapaksa’s!

  • 2

    apologies was any typos….late in the night here

  • 5

    Norwegians can’t live without the Jaffna crabs. .

    • 4

      Norwegians have a lot of crabs from frequenting all those w houses

      • 1

        Were you the intermediary?
        The word I avoided starts with a ‘p’.

  • 3

    Norwegian crabs is the best. Ask Sanga or Mahela

    • 1

      What a prelude to a serious discussion!

  • 0

    Dear Dayan

    Apologise in advance for this non related comments.

    Can we have artcile from you and Mark Slater detailing the “job scope” of an Elected Member of Parliament, Municipal Councillors, Mayor, Opposition Leader in a parliament with good examples please. We are missing to educate the public of their expectaions that should result in a markable/quantifiable change in our country. We have had a coup for everything else except the most basic need/foundation of a Democracy and now we are all analysing all kinds of political science when all we need to do is analysis this job scope and its failures historically by all from North to South and East to West. Can you investigate MR Thiagarajah’s life (my Father), Hon Alfred Thuriappas life and work and their deliverables etc and many others too as to how they performed their jobs funtions to serve their people and bench mark the respective “job scope” please. We need a life document that we update and tailor make for our peoples need too please.

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