Colombo Telegraph

Solheim Summarizes Sri Lanka In His Autobiography

By Johan Mikaelsson

Johan Mikaelsson

A handful of books published in 2013 increase the understanding of Sri Lanka. Norwegian peace broker Erik Solheim’s autobiography is highly interesting in this context. For ten years Solheim was in the middle of the quest for peace in Sri Lanka, which was shot in shreds.

Erik Solheim is a guest in the highly popular Friday evening talk show “Skavlan”, broadcasted in both Norway and Sweden. Solheim tells the story about his unexpected career shift to talk show host Fredrik Skavlan—how he hastily and less amusingly left politics when he was not given a new ministerial post when the government was reorganized early 2012.

His son eventually said something which made the recent events sink in.

– Dad, you did a great job, but they are the ones deciding.

After having violated all the usual norms in Norwegian politics and openly expressed dissatisfaction over the dismissal, Erik Solheim now seems to be in full harmony. Since January 1, 2013 he is the Chair of OECD DAC, one of 250 committees in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. OECD is an organization with 34 member countries, all democratic and industrialised. The Committee which Solheim handles work to improve the co-ordination of international aid efforts.

He laughs, makes jokes and gives quick answers to all questions.

Eventually, Sri Lanka is brought up. When Skavlan pronounces the name of the island nation, Solheim’s face turns all serious. From now on he doesn’t smile.

I remember the appearance when I six months later read Solheim’s autobiography, called “Politics means wanting” (“Politikk er å ville”). In the book, Solheim describes his political career, the 20 years with the Socialistisk Venstre (Socialist Left). The party had relatively large influence in Norwegian governments and Solheim held ministerial posts, including Minister for Environment and Minister for International Development.

Much in the autobiography, with as Solheim writes, “the title of the book stolen” from the former Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme’s “Politics means wanting”, is about Solheim’s dreams and visions of a more red and green mark on the future, not only in Norway but in the whole world. He is driven by influencing environmental policy and eager to slow the effects of the acute environmental problems and to work for poverty alleviation by allocating resources in the world in a different way than what is being done today—and to stop and prevent conflicts. In the OECD, he can influence in these particular areas, but he has also opened for a future re-entry into politics—in the Social Democratic Party.

The meeting with the island and the islanders have made deep impact. Having glanced  at the preface I turn the pages to the chapter called “War and Peace”. Sri Lanka is assigned a separate section of the chapter under the headline “A White Flag on the National Day”. The title describes the events of May 17 2009. Solheim is participating in the celebrations. His thoughts are far away. One of the two sides to the conflict are being destroyed. All he has worked for is now definitely over. The peace he wanted between the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the guerilla movement which since the 1970’s fought for Tamil autonomy in the north and east of the island, never materialized.

Soon stories, pictures and movies about what took place in the final phase are being spread on the Internet. Many of those who already realised what had happened to the people caught in the war zone felt sad and sick.

Everything pointed, then as well as now, to the fact that that the government was guilty of the killing of civilians by intensive shelling and mass executions of surrendering LTTE leaders and soldiers. Even today, it is unclear how many people died during the last five months of the war; “tens of thousands”, Solheim writes. He is quite certain about one thing:

“Sooner or later these war crimes will face the courts.”

Norway has in recent decades put a lot of energy into peace efforts around the world. Oil money has opened up for peace work and the country has its traditions. The Nobel Peace Prize awarded in Oslo, December 9th, every year is one of the world’s most famous as well as prestigious awards.

Solheim describes the role as peacemaker or mediator, not facilitator, which used to be the most common description. It does not prevent outsiders to regard Norway as being able meeting organizers, but weak when it came to stopping the violence which posed serious threats and finally led to renewed war and the end of the peace process.

Peace and conflict researchers will keep on analyzing whether errors by the peacemakers, or their lack of firm action during the critical years, led to the outbreak of war. In order to learn from mistakes and to write history, a further critical examination is required. Many have opinions about the performance, true or false, but the re-start of war can’t be attributed to Norway.

On the occasions I met and interviewed Solheim and observed him during the peace talks in Oslo in December 2002 and in Berlin in early 2003, the impression was that he and his fellow co-workers in the Norwegian team worked with great dedication. They wanted to achieve success—a peace agreement between the two sides. From February 2001, when I first interviewed Erik Solheim in Oslo, I also got to know him as an unusually open politician.

He was always willing to communicate and it’s easy to understand that his simple and honest ways made him win the confidence of the leaders of the Sri Lankan government as well as the LTTE guerilla leadership.

On September 9, 2013, Election Day in Norway, Solheim writes: “We need more determination and pragmatism in Norwegian politics. Human beings are capable of doing amazing things. But we also have an inherent capacity for evil. Evil must be kept in check, and the main instrument for it is politics.”

The western neighbor to Sweden has a language we Swedes understand and a way of thinking which is very similar to ours. The divorce with Norway was conducted in peaceful ways in 1905 with the consent of the Swedish political leaders.

In Sri Lanka’s post-colonial history from 1948 onwards, government policy focused on uniting the island under one religion and one language. Now, after the war, the island is under an autocratic rule. The separatists failed to achieve their goal, first politically and then militarily.

There are many factors and explanations as to why the Sri Lankan peace process which began in 2002 started to fail, and saw the parties returning to the use of violent methods. In late 2008 it became obvious that the Tigers could not hold their territory and that they were losing not only battles, but the war.

Norway made a plan for the Tigers to surrender. Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran refused to give up, arguing that the government should stop the offensive. At the same time the Sri Lankan government wanted to finish as many of the “hard core terrorists” as possible, when their troops had the momentum on the battlefield.

The Tamil civilians found themselves, after the LTTE’s main stronghold Kilinochchi fell on January 2, 2009, trapped in a shrinking war zone.

So-called No Fire Zones were designated by the Government for the fleeing civilians to put up tents in. They came under artillery bombardment from the government side, which international UN staff were witnesses to. Civilians who tried to escape over to the government side were risking their lives. The Tigers would not let the civilians go and even fired their rifles, shooting at them when they tried to cross over to army controlled areas. In the prolongation of the war the civilians were the Tigers’ last hope for achieving the dream of Tamil Eelam.

The intervention of the international community, which the Tiger leadership was waiting for never came. The government was supported by the international community when it said that the LTTE held civilians as “human shields” and proceeded to bomb their residents. “Not a single civilian was killed by our forces during the humanitarian operation”, claimed President Mahinda Rajapakse.

On January 8, a week after Kilinochchi was taken by the Sri Lanka army, Sunday Leader editor, Lasantha Wickrematunge, was assassinated in Colombo. The editor was advocating a ceasefire and a political solution, in contrast to the Rajapakse administration’s all-out war.

Solheim points out that Norway alone could not bring peace. None, according to Solheim, put the blame on Norway because there were no peaceful solution. He does not go into any deeper introspection. Could something have been handled differently? The question does not get many answers in Solheim’s book.

Well, Norway admits that more efforts should have been put in when it came to making the Buddhist monks share in the dream for a negotiated settlement to once and for all end the war, instead of having more bloodshed on the island.

Solheim, of course, has unique insight into the last peace process in the war between the government and the LTTE. The section on Sri Lanka gives even those who have not followed Norway’s role as peace brokers in Sri Lanka, an interesting insight. Those who know a Scandinavian language that is. A translation into English would be valuable.

It can be read between the lines that Solheim thought the Tigers were more honest and clear in their quest for a political solution. The Sinhalese side with two large competing parties was more difficult to handle. Solheim writes that participants in the negotiations had explained  “look how good I am, we have been negotiating for several days and I have not given anything.” It does not say which side they represented, but it’s not too wild a guess to say that these were quotes from negotiators on the government side.

Alongside Solheim’s book, a handful of fresh contemplations in book form over Sri Lanka’s fate were published during 2012 and 2013. The analysis of the Norwegian aid agency Norad’s peace efforts in Sri Lanka 1997-2009 is also interesting for those who want to study details.

Those who came close to Sri Lanka and witnessed the war have intractable memories. It can be seen in Erik Solheim’s eyes. For ten years he got to know everyone involved. When the war started again, many of the people he had talked to in order to achieve a negotiated solution to the ethnic conflict had died. He returns to Sri Lanka in various places in his book. The last sentence in the chapter on Sri Lanka houses a sadness over people who were killed. Solheim must also grieve the crushed dream of a peaceful settlement, a dream he shared with many.

“You learn to live with it professionally. But I would be lying if I said I haven’t been touched.”

*Johan Mikaelsson is a Swedish journalist who has been writing about Sri Lanka in Swedish dailies, news agencies, magazines and journals since 1997, with a focus on the conflict, human rights and the situation for journalists. In 1999 he wrote a master thesis in journalism, about internal war reporting in Sri Lanka, based on interviews with reporters and editors in Sri Lanka. In 2002 he recorded a television documentary called “2002, The Year of Peace in Sri Lanka” together with photographer Olle Melkerhed. Swedish language version of this article can be read on online journal Sydasien.

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