Another week …and yet again the need to counter a particularly fatuous ‘review’ of my Sri Lanka book that featured on the pages of The Island newspaper last week, claiming that in reality I ghost wrote the whole thing on Erik Solheim’s commission and to his political specifications. Forgive any grammatical infelicities detected – this was written in something of a hurry. The main points, however, stand firm I hope!

Misery, Kamal Wickremasinghe Style

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Mark Salter addressing a gathering at ICES, Colombo at the launch of To End a Civl War recently. From (L-R). Jehan Perera, Dr. Dayan Jayatilleke, Dr. Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu and Salter.

In what is starting to become something of a weekly ritual I find myself again responding to an article that takes my recent book, To End A Civil War: Norway’s Peace Engagement in Sri Lanka as its point of departure. In this case, a splenetic diatribe by Kamal Wickremasinghe, dramatically titled ‘To end Solheim’s misery’ (The Island, 12 April 2016) which, among its various ambitions purports to be a ‘review’ of my book.

The ‘review’ gets off to a distinctly unpromising start: at the end of his first paragraph Wickramasinghe informs us that he is in fact talking about ‘the latest offering by Erik Solheim’ – and leaves matters at that. Following this extraordinary salvo we – and in particular I, as the actual author of the book – are then given a paragraph in which to compose ourselves before we are informed at the beginning of the following one that in fact Solheim commissioned the book, rather than actually wrote it, chiefly in order to ‘‘settle a few scores’ with people such as Lakshman Kadirgamar and Mihinda Rajapaksa’’.

By this stage Wickremasinghe has already made no less than three major, and demonstrably false assertions: that my book in some way constitutes an Erik Solheim ‘offering’; that Solheim commissioned it; and that his – and thus the book’s – aim was to settle some old Sri Lankan scores. First, the book was written by me, and me alone, on the basis that it would seek to provide an objective and impartial account of the Norwegian engagement in Sri Lanka as official peace facilitators, a mission undertaken at the joint behest of the GoSL and the LTTE. In that context, I interviewed a very wide range of people involved in one way or the other in the peace process in Sri Lanka, India, the USA, EU, UN and of course Norway – as Wickremasinghe would have registered had he taken the trouble to consult the book’s Appendices, where I list all of them.

While it is indeed true that Erik Solheim, along with Vidar Helgesen were key sources for the book, this was simply by virtue of their having been the two frontline figures in the Norwegian peace facilitation effort. Moreover, even a superficial reading of the book would have revealed to Wickremasinghe that in its pages, alongside more favourable mentions, Solheim comes in for plenty of criticism – both from Norwegian colleagues and a number of international figures.

Moreover, Solheim did not in any sense ‘commission’ the book – I submitted an initial proposal to the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which was eventually accepted. As to the score settling charge, I can state categorically that this assertion is complete and utter nonsense. Criticism of individuals such as Kadirgamar and Rajapaksa – which by the way is certainly not confined to Solheim – there most certainly is in the book. But this cannot and should not be confused or otherwise conflated with suggestions of the narrative being guided by predefined vendettas, supposedly entertained by one of its prime subjects.

But things go from bad to worse hereafter. Here in all its glory is Wickremasigne’s next paragraph of purple prose

No one should be under the illusion that the former NGO wallah Mark Salter is the real author of TECW: it is ghost-written to evade the impact of Solheim’s unsavoury reputation on the credibility of the exercise. I think Salter’s claim that he wrote the book as an objective observer is undiluted hogwash in the absence of an explanation as to why Solheim would fund a ‘fishing expedition’ by him on a set of events that have been buried for nearly a decade. Solheim’s prominence at the launch of the book in Oslo, London and the US, and the lead role he played in panel discussions, with Salter playing a subsidiary role, portrayed Solheim as the real instigator.

Here we have it then: the ‘real’ story of how this, my latest book came to be written by a ‘former NGO wallah’ (I haven’t worked for an NGO for over 20 years). Except hold on there! Now it seems I’m not really the book’s author! Or to be more precise, that I ‘ghost-wrote’ it as part of a plot engineered by Erik Solheim to try and shield the book’s reception from the negative impact of his own ‘unsavoury reputation’.

But now, thankfully, the heinous plot has been unmasked by our intrepid columnist. And in this context, moreover, Wickremasinghe can also now ‘reveal’ my claim to have written the book as an ‘objective observer’ for what it really is: ‘undiluted hogwash’ – unless, that is, an explanation can be provided as to why Solheim would have wanted to fund the whole exercise. (Spoiler alert: as explained earlier, he didn’t fund the book). In support of his argument, Wickremasinghe points to Solheim’s alleged prominence at the book launch events held in ‘Oslo, London and the US’ (for some reason he omits to mention those held in Canada, and most recently in Delhi, Chennai and Colombo), with me apparently playing no more than a ‘subsidiary’ role.

Obviously questions of prominence are to some degree a matter of perception. For anyone curious to verify the matter for themselves, however, films of the London and Colombo launches are easily viewable at www.marksalter.org. But I would challenge any fair-minded observer to watch the London launch film and tell me that I play second fiddle to Erik Solheim’s lead role (others, including Vidar Helgesen, feature on the panel). When it comes to the Colombo launch, moreover, the matter becomes even more clear cut, as Solheim was not even present for that occasion – a strange way of demonstrating his ‘prominent’ role in ‘his’ book on its home territory launch!

Adding insult to injury, Wickremasinghe concludes his ‘review’ of the book with the following casual one-liner. “Any analysis of Solheim’s selective account of his claimed ‘services’ to peace in Sri Lanka would be a waste of time.”

So, that’s the level of intellectual engagement a 500 page work, two years in the making and based on interviews with over 70 key figures in the Sri Lankan peace process, merits by way of attention! Much more useful, as Wickremasinghe appears to believe, to proceed to churn out a long, fairly random list of ‘puzzling questions’ regarding Norway’s engagement in Sri Lanka. The list is so rambling, so filled with alternately partisan, ill-informed and fanciful ‘questions (An example of the latter that actually had me laughing: ‘Why did Norway facilitate the training of sea tigers in Thailand?’) that it’s hard to know where to start.

In fact on second thoughts, I don’t propose even to start. If Wickremasinghe seriously considers attempting to produce an informed analysis of my book to be ‘a waste of time’, then I am inclined to feel the same about the rest of his article – the list of ‘puzzling questions’ along with the crude, ill-informed and occasionally down-right slanderous attack on Erik Solheim that sullies the final section included.

Would it be too much to ask, then, for someone to produce a serious, objective and impartial review of my book in these pages? All in all, I’m beginning to think it just might be.

Mark Salter, Writer and researcher

 

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2 thoughts on “Nonsense About Norwegians: The Struggle Continues

    1. A few comments on Elise Fjordbokk’s thoughtful analysis of my book are in or-der.

      First she suggests that I argue that responsibility for the failure of the 2002-2003 peace talks ‘lies solely with the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE’. This is not entirely accurate. The Norwegian facilitators consistently suggested two things in this regard. First that primary responsibility for the peace process’ eventual breakdown rested with the chief parties – the GoSL and the LTTE. Second that Oslo’s room for manoeuvre was limited by the narrow facilitation mandate given it by the parties: one of whom, the GoSL, was careful to emphasize that any over-stepping of this mandate would constitute grounds for stripping Norway of her role in the process.

      At the same time, like others the Norwegian facilitators now recognize that a whole host of other factors – some internal to the dynamics of the peace process, some of an external and/or structural nature – played a role in the process even-tually grinding to a halt. A good example in this respect is the lack of bipartisan political consensus in support of the peace process among the two major Sinha-lese political parties, the UNP and the SLFP.

      The zero sum game effects of the implacable rivalry between the UNP and SLFP leaders, then (as now) Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Chandrike Kumaratunga constantly threatened to derail the peace process from its inception in 2002 onwards. This, however, is something the Norwegian facili-tators admit that they did not fully appreciate the importance at the time, but understand better now armed with the benefits of hindsight.

      Concerning Oslo’s interest in the book, Fjordbokk suggests that I can ‘hardly de-ny the former peace facilitators’ interest in a book that paints ‘a more positive picture of the Norwegian efforts in Sri Lanka’. In this context she is of course ab-solutely right to note both that facilitators Erik Solheim and Vidar Helgesen ‘fea-ture prominently in the book’, and that its research and production was financed by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

      That said, I fail to see how these facts in themselves amount or otherwise con-tribute to a critique of the book. A somewhat depressing feature of a number of critiques in the Sri Lankan media has been the extent to which they have focused almost exclusively on how the book was produced – with Norwegian facilitator involvement and finance etc – as opposed to what it actually has to say. Which I hope an unbiased reader will recognize as a critical, impartial, albeit insider in-formed account of the peace process. All in all it would be nice to feel that Nor-wegian critiques don’t fall into line with their Sri Lankan counterparts in focus-ing on the context of the book’s production at the expense of its actual content.

      Fjordbokk is wrong to suggest that there are no Norwegian sources to the book. It is based on interviews with, among others, some dozens of Norwegians direct-ly involved in the peace facilitation effort in one way or the other. And as I ex-plain on the introduction I was given access to all non-confidential parts of the MFA archives from the period in focus. A a perusal of the footnotes will reveal numerous references to internal MFA reports etc. It is also plain incorrect to as-sert – as, curiously, have other Norwegian academics – that the book contains no reference to the important Pawns of Peace report. An extensive appendix pro-vides a summary overview of that report’s key findings and conclusions.

      Overall, with these corrections and elaborations in mind, Fjordbokk may perhaps be persuaded to reconsider her views on the book’s contribution to ‘setting the record straight’ on Norway’s – ultimately failed – peace facilitation efforts in Sri Lanka.

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