Chennai Book Launch

Chennai Book Launch (8 March)


Good turnout and strong panel contributions from Erik Solheim, N. Ram (Editor in Chief, The Hindu) and Gopalkrishna Gandhi (Ex-W. Bengal Governor). Vigorous debate focusing on India’s role in Sri Lanka the result at yesterday’s Chennai book launch event.

Many thanks to the Madras Book Club for organizing and the Asian College of Journalism for hosting the event.

Colombo book launch


3 March book launch at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) in Colombo. Full house, stimulating panel, and a  feisty discussion!

Continuing need for international presence in Sri Lanka

Thoughtful coverage of the recent Colombo launch of my Sri Lanka book from event panelist Jehan Perera of the National Peace Council. It comes in his weekly column for The Island newspaper.

The context in which Jehan places it – Sarath Fonseka’s recent parliamentary pronouncements on the role of international observers in Sri Lanka – is, however, rather more controversial.


The continuing need for international presence

The Island, March 14, 2016, Jehan Perera

The issue of international participation in Sri Lanka’s transition process continues to remain a matter of speculation with different pronouncements being made by different members of the government. However, support for an international role in ascertaining the truth of what happened in the last phase of the war has received a boost due to the maiden speech in parliament made by former army commander Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka.

His credentials as a champion of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and unity as a state cannot be denied even by his political opponents. It was he who turned round the military debacles of an earlier period and achieved military success by leading from the front. Speaking in Parliament the former army commander said that Sri Lanka should permit foreign observers to participate in any inquiry on whether war crimes had been committed in the last phase of the country’s war.

During the period of the last government, the former army commander was victimised by its leaders who saw him as a potential threat to their monopoly of power. After the election of President Maithripala Sirisena the former army commander was compensated for the political victimisation he suffered and was also promoted from the rank of General of the army to that of Field Marshal.

After the general election that saw the formation of a government of national unity, he was also appointed to parliament on the national list and thereafter made a cabinet minister. He disclosed that government decision makers during the final period of the war had asked him to get out from operational duties and assigned the political authorities to handle the military operations. In his maiden speech in Parliament that “If there are any who violated the laws then inquiries should be held and punitive actions taken against them.”

Since the end of the war in May 2009 there has been intense pressure on the government to investigate whether war crimes took place in the closing stages of the war due to indiscriminate and mass killing of civilians and also whether there was targeted killing of LTTE leaders and their families who surrendered to the Sri Lankan military. There has been strong opposition to the issue of international participation agreed to in the Geneva Resolution that was co-sponsored by the government.

In his speech, Field Marshal Fonseka said that under his leadership the military “had waged the war in accordance with international law.” But he also said that “Inquiries should be made open to international observers who can observe whether there were any violations of international law.” It is significant that Field Marshal Fonseka spoke of international observers at the inquiry, and not foreign judges or prosecutors which is more controversial.


Field Marshal Fonseka also said in the course of his speech in parliament that he would reveal the truth about the final stages of the war, and in particular the “White Flag” issue, in which LTTE leaders surrendered to the Sri Lankan military after having been in touch with leaders of foreign countries that had been supporting Sri Lanka’s peace process. He said that he was in the process of writing a book in which there would be more facts emerging as to how the government conducted the war in the last stages, often with the knowledge and partnership of sections of the international community. Sometimes historians and those actors who write about their personal experiences are the custodians of a country’s history and their views give a more complete picture of the situation as it existed with all its real life complexities.

In this context it is interesting that a book that gives the international perspective of the last stages of the war which formed the centrepiece of the former Army Commander’s maiden speech in parliament has recently been published with the Sri Lankan book launch taking place earlier this month. It is an account of Norway’s peace engagement in Sri Lanka titled “To end a civil war” and is authored by Mark Salter, a former BBC journalist and later a research scholar working in an international peace building organisation, International IDEA, based in Sweden.

This book of 550 pages provides a meticulously documented account of how Norway came to be involved in Sri Lanka’s last and most promising peace process. It also addresses the issues that arose at the last stages of the war, including the White Flag case. It has a large number of interviews with those who played a front line role during those days.

Japan’s peace envoy to Sri Lanka, Yasushi Akashi, who made more than twenty visits to Sri Lanka both during and after the war to support the reconciliation and negotiation process, comments on Mark Salter’s book saying “The sobering lesson we should all learn from these intractable experiences is that the final outcome of these efforts depends ultimately on political circumstances that are beyond the control of peace makers.”

But Norway’s peace facilitation in Sri Lanka has had a lasting impact that outlived the collapse of the Ceasefire Agreement in 2006. The Norwegian-facilitated peace effort was supported by influential members of the international community, with the United States, Japan and European Union becoming co-chairs. This legacy of constructive international involvement brought to the fore during the period of the Ceasefire Agreement continued to the end of the war and persists to this day.


Norwegian facilitation, initially at the invitation of President Chandrika Kumaratunga, began in the period prior to the year 2000 and attained its high point in 2002 with the signing of the Ceasefire Agreement by the government and LTTE. This gave the country the best opportunity to arrive at a mutually acceptable solution, the high point of which was the Oslo Declaration in late 2002 in which the government and LTTE agreed to explore a federal solution to address the root causes of the conflict. Even today the contours of a just political solution will need to lie in the domain of the federal arrangements of power sharing in which the numerical preponderance of one community does not become a permanent tyranny of the majority as seen from the perspective of those who are doomed to be a permanent minority in an ethnically plural society.

The issue of international participation in Sri Lanka’s transition process today is one of the outcomes of Norway’s peace engagement in Sri Lanka. It is what continues to give hope to the Tamil minority that there can be a just political solution to their problems. A special opportunity to negotiate a just solution during the government-LTTE pace process was reached with the Oslo Declaration on a power sharing arrangement on the basis of federalism. Public opinion surveys at that time confirmed that a majority of the population, weary of protracted war, were prepared to accept a federal solution if it would end the war. The military power of the LTTE gave the Tamil polity a more equal bargaining strength with that of the Sri Lankan state, which led to the Oslo Declaration.

However, the military defeat of the LTTE has brought into play the asymmetry in political power that a numerical majority has over a numerical minority within a democratic system. It led to a withdrawal from the federal vision and to rearguard action to even maintain what the 13th Amendment to the Constitution has to offer in terms of devolution of power. One of the lessons learnt from the Norwegian experience is the need to have a political framework in place, which is what the government is seeking to do through its constitutional reform process.

At a consultation on the peace process conducted last week with civil society representatives from all parts of the country, the participants were sub-divided into smaller groups for in-depth discussion on issues. The Tamil speaking group consisting mainly of persons from the North and East, expressed private doubts whether the current transition process would be successful. This is to be expected. They have seen previous efforts at reform and reconciliation come to nought. As a permanent numerical minority they need to have other factors that reduce the asymmetry in their bargaining strength.

The issue of international participation should not become or be seen as foreign interference that erodes national sovereignty. On the contrary, it is to strengthen the confidence of the Tamil polity in the transition process. If Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka’s statement on international observers is built upon constructively, it will contribute to greater confidence within the Tamil polity regarding the promise of national reconciliation. …

The Hindu on Chennai Book Launch

The Hindu on Chennai Book Launch

Erik Solheim (left) in conversation with former Governor of West Bengal Gopalkrishna Gandhi (right) at a panel discussion at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai on Tuesday,while author Mark Salter looks on.— Photo: K. Pichumani

They’re coming thick(ish) and fast(ish…. The Hindu‘s report on last week’s Chennai launch of my Sri Lanka book. Very strong panel at this event – and The Hindu’s Editor in Chief N. Ram in particular was highly effusive in his praise for the book. (And now I think of it, followed a close second by ex-Bengal Governor and senior Indian diplomat Gopalkrishna Gandhi).

Not the best photo of yours truly. But Erik S and Gopal G are obviously getting into the swing of things . . .

Sri Lanka ready for peace, says Erik Solheim

With President Maithripala Sirisena at the helm in Sri Lanka, this is the best opportunity to bring about a lasting solution to the country’s ethnic question, Norway’s former special peace envoy Erik Solheim said on Tuesday.

“The strength of Sri Lankan democracy is such that it has removed Mahinda Rajapaksa from the President’s chair. While he assured an inclusive approach post-war to settle the ethnic question, he never acted on the promise of reaching out to Tamils,” the former diplomat said.

Participating in a panel discussion on the newly-launched book To End a Civil War: Norway’s Peace Engagement in Sri Lanka , Mr. Solheim, who played a key role in the peace treaty signed between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE in 2002, said there were two main obstacles to reconciliation in the island nation.

“The two main Sinhala parties — United National Party and Sri Lanka Freedom Party — were never able to work together. When one thought about making a move forward, there was always the apprehension of the other using it as a political tool to gain ground,” he said.

The second was the reliance of V. Prabhakaran, the LTTE chief, on violence. “He genuinely believed that there were military solutions to the political problems. This was political stupidity,” Mr Solheim said and added that the Norwegian peace delegation made it clear time and again to Prabhakaran that killings should stop if he had any hope of proscriptions in different countries being lifted.

Norway’s initiative

On the accusation that by treating LTTE on a par with the Sri Lankan government, Norway ended up giving legitimacy to the ‘terrorist organisation’ and refurbished its image, Mr. Solheim said whatever was achieved would not have been possible without reaching out to the other side. He added that the greatest achievement of the peace process that Norway initiated was the ceasefire, which saved thousands of lives.

N. Ram, Chairman of Kasturi and Sons Ltd, said the Indian policy on Sri Lanka was contradictory in the earlier stages. Under Indira Gandhi, the country provided sanctuary and training to the various militant groups. It ended up paying a heavy price by losing former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was assassinated by the LTTE.

However, the positive side of the experience was that since 1991, India has deployed a “hands-off” approach and refused to fall into the trap of the LTTE again. “This was despite pressure from fringe groups in Tamil Nadu and the Tamil diaspora,” he observed.

Squarely blaming the LTTE for derailing the Norway-faciliated peace process, Mr. Ram said while Prabhakaran was a military genius and had committed cadre, at the core, the LTTE was a ‘Pol Potist’ organisation. “Norway and others clearly failed to recognise this. After the death of Rajiv Gandhi, this should have been utterly clear. Norway should not have equated the Sri Lankan state with the LTTE,” he opined.

Mark Salter, the book’s author, said ‘Indian culpability’ in the whole affair also needed some reflection. He said the willingness of the parties involved was a crucial factor for the success of the process. “In the Sri Lankan context, when this willingness decreased, it showed on the results.”

Former West Bengal Governor and former Indian high commissioner in Sri Lanka, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, moderated the discussion.

‘Killing Rajiv Gandhi was the LTTE’s biggest mistake’ – Delhi launch report

Here’s Narayan Swamy’s report from last week’s Delhi book launch. And it’s India & LTTE – not Sri Lanka itself – that are very much in focus . . .

‘Killing Rajiv Gandhi was LTTE’s biggest mistake’

New Delhi, March 10 (IANS) Assassinating former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi was the Tamil Tigers’ biggest mistake, a new book quotes the late LTTE ideologue Anton Balasingham as saying.

Balasingham told Norway’s former Special Envoy to Sri Lanka Erik Solheim that LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and his feared intelligence chief Pottu Amman initially denied their involvement in the killing.

But they admitted the truth to Balasingham “a few weeks” after the May 21, 1991 assassination, says Mark Salter’s book “To End A Civil War” (Hurst & Company, London).

The just released 549-page book is the most exhaustive account of the Norwegian-led peace process that sought to end three decades of conflict in Sri Lanka.

The conflict finally ended when the Sri Lankan military crushed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009, wiping out its entire leadership including Prabhakaran and Pottu Amman.

“Perhaps most controversially, in terms of official LTTE policies, Balasingham conceded that the killing of Rajiv Gandhi was the biggest mistake the LTTE had ever made,” says the book.

The LTTE has never officially admitted to killing Gandhi, who was blown up by a Sri Lankan Tamil woman suicide bomber at an election rally near Chennai.

Privately, Balasingham told the Norwegians that Gandhi’s killing “was a complete disaster”.

According to Solheim, Balasingham put the decision to kill Gandhi to Prabhakaran’s desire for revenge for Tamils killed by Indian troops when they were deployed in Sri Lanka in 1987-90, and a belief that Gandhi may again send the troops to Sri Lanka if he returned to power.

Solheim also says that although Balasingham, who in his final year was based in London and died of cancer in December 2006, wanted to reach out to the US and Europe, his real affinity was with India.

“Thus at the end of his life in 2006, Balasingham went so far as to try and ‘apologize’ to India for this misdeed (assassination).”

After Gandhi’s killing, India outlawed the LTTE – which was earlier based in Tamil Nadu and enjoyed New Delhi’s blessings – and declared Prabhakaran and Pottu Amman proclaimed offenders.

In contrast, Balasingham had no hesitation in admitting that the LTTE assassinated moderate Tamil leader and academic Neelan Tiruchelvam – who was critical of the Tamil Tigers — in July 1999 on a Colombo street.

When the Norwegians, Solheim included, confronted Balasingham on the killing, the book quotes the latter as saying point-blank: “Yes, we killed him and if you listen to me I will tell you why.”

The book quotes Solheim as saying that Balasingham once referred to Prabhakaran as a “warlord” and said the LTTE needed to transform into a political entity.

Balasingham also told Solheim, who is now based in Paris: “You must never underestimate the capacity for violence of these guys (LTTE).”

According to Solheim, Balasingham “was very frank with us, including admitting to the LTTE’s mistakes.

“Over time I came to regard Bala highly and to consider him as a great human being as well as a good friend.”

Chennai Book Launch

Chennai Book Launch

Looking forward to this evening’s book launch here in Chennai with Erik Solheim, The Hindu‘s Editor in Chief Ram Narasimhan, Ex-West Bengal Governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi and Sashi Kumar, Chief of the Asian College of Journalism (ACJ).

Starts 18.00, at the ACJ.