Daily Archives: December 27, 2006
By Walter Jayawardhana
India’s External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee is scheduled to visit Sri Lanka next month amidst reports that the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) insurgents are getting an upper hand over India’s sea routes when there is increasing pressure on New Delhi not to help the Sri Lankan government to crush them.
Recently, breaking tradition an ‘expedient’ Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh met the proxy party of the LTTE, for the first time since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by a suicide bomber of the same group. But immediately after the New Delhi meeting, the marine wing of the LTTE, known as Sea Tigers attacked a merchant vessel carrying 14,000 tons of rice from India in an act of piracy after India has publicly refused to patrol the relevant sea routes jointly with the Sri Lanka navy.
Man Mohan’s act of meeting the proxy party led critics like Dr. Subramanian Swami to call the Indian Prime Minister’s act as ‘traitorous’ and ‘unpatriotic’. But in a balancing act External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee said there is no change in India’s Sri Lanka policy and rejected LTTE’s call for a separatist state in the country’s Northern and Eastern Provinces. By military action the Sri Lanka government has severely restrained the LTTE to small enclaves in the Northern Province and extremely small enclave at Vakarai in the Eastern Province.
Meanwhile the Sri Lankan defense sector has alleged that Tamil Nadu is increasingly becoming a safe haven for the LTTE to smuggle in weapons and ammunition from India, only separated by a narrow strait from Sri Lanka. A handful of extremist parties openly help the LTTE for a separate state and the Chief Minister of the state M. Karunanidhi as an act of solidarity arranged for a meeting for the LTTE proxy party with Prime minister Man Mohan Singh.
According to diplomatic sources, India’s External Affairs Minister Mukherjee is to travel to Sri Lanka January 8 to primarily to invite President Mahinda Rajapaksa for the 14th SAARC summit scheduled to be held in New Delhi in April.
But diplomatic sources said Sri Lanka would definitely discuss the new situation arisen out of the LTTE attack of piracy on a ship carrying Indian cargo of rice to South Africa. The Sri Lanka Navy has said it would mount an operation to salvage the ship which is grounded in sand 1500 meters away from Mulativu due to LTTE pirates forcing the crew to raise the anchor after looting the ship.
Sri Lanka government would show the Indian External Affairs Minister the country has done everything possible to supply food to the Jaffna peninsula even to the delight of the Catholic Bishop of Jaffna Savundranayagam, sympathetic to the Tamil Tigers. The proxy party while raising the matter with the Indian Prime Minister has endorsed all actions of the LTTE that contributed to certain shortages there, the government has alleged
Mukherjee has already traveled to Nepal and Bhutan to invite those nations for the SAARC summit and after the Sri Lanka visit will travel to Pakistan January 13, diplomatic sources said.
Dr Kumar Rupesinghe, the controversial one time head of International Alert, and presently the head of the Foundation for Co-Existence and the Anti-War Front, speaks to C. A.Chandraprema on peace activism, the LTTE and the NGO sector in Sri Lanka:
Q: Can you tell us briefly why you became a peace activist? People in Sri Lanka would remember you more as politician than a peace activist. What brought about the change?
A: Let’s start with this word ‘politician’. I have never really been a politician as such in the traditional sense, with the usual aspiration of entering Parliament. What I tried to do with the Janavegaya group in the early 1970s was to try and influence the direction of policy of the then United Front government, and be a voice within the United Front government for progressive changes in policy. At that time, one of the key issues that did come up was the release of the 20,000 political prisoners, for which we campaigned. We also campaigned for the implementation of land reform. At no point I must say, was I ever a traditional politician. I was basically a political activist working for fundamental changes in social policy. How I became a peace activist was because of an incident during my childhood, I had witnessed the death of a dear friend of mine, a Tamil, in 1958, due to the ethnic riots. I was cycling along the road on the day of the riot and I saw people being dragged out of their cars and the cars being set alight. When I rushed over to see what would have happened to my Tamil friend, I found that the entire family had jumped into a well along with my friend, and committed suicide. Their house was also on fire. The question that I asked myself was, why should this happen to my friend and my country?
Since that day, I have been trying to find an answer as to why we continue to have problems with the Tamil people. My entire life has been to find out, as to why Sri Lanka had to go to war and destroy itself. My international career over the past twenty five years was to seek an answer to the question of war and peace. I spent ten years at the International Peace Research Institute. For the next ten years, I was invited by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and others to join International Alert, where I actually got the opportunity to work in the field in war torn societies and to see how to bring warring parties together and to resolve such conflicts. The significant contribution that I made at that time was to operationalise conflict resolution. And also to build up a policy focused on conflict prevention.
My commitment to peace also comes from the human rights tradition and humanitarian law where the issue of the protection of civilians is paramount even when there is a war. Mahatma Gandhi is my prime inspiration. Nelson Mandela whom I had the privilege of being associated with, was my living example of a person who turned hatred into goodwill and transformed South Africa peacefully.
Q: But Prabhakaran is not a Mandela.
A: No. I have had the opportunity of talking to many leaders of guerrilla movements the world over. All of them had blood on their hands. But at the same time, under international law, the issue of non-state actors as a party to a conflict, has to be taken seriously. And the international community does take that seriously. On that premise there are obligations by non-state actors to adhere to human rights in the same way that state actors are required to do. On one occasion when I met a guerrilla leader in Africa, he told me that the reason why he took up arms was to fight for social justice, but in the process of the struggle, they had used such atrocious methods that the very ideal that they aspired to had got lost on the way. All that remained was an enormous amount of carnage. This individual later became President of Liberia. Coming back to Prabhakaran, I would say that there are two aspects to any guerrilla leader including Prabhakaran. On the one hand the Tamil militant movement including Prabhakaran, aspired to self-determination, as a means of seeking freedom for their people. Therefore, they called themselves freedom fighters. On the other hand, some of the methods that they have used, as a response to state terror, has changed the character of that struggle. In that process it may undermine the very vision of freedom that they aspired to. Their methods – what I mean by ‘methods’ is the intolerance towards other Tamil political parties, the intolerance they show towards the right of self-determination of the Muslims, and thirdly, the use of political killings, child abductions, and attacks on civilians make that issue of the aspiration to freedom problematic. This is the problem that the international community is faced with. On the one hand, they are a party to the conflict, recognised by law, the government has signed an agreement with them as a party to a conflict. Then there are these methods that are being used and counter measures adopted by the government, which actually negate that very principle. I see this as a problem.
Q: The LTTE has been declared to be a terrorist movement by the USA, Britain, Canada, India and now Australia is considering a similar move. Would you characterise the LTTE as a terrorist organization?
A: The LTTE was at one time, supported by the international community. They should seriously consider why they have now been banned by that same international community. I have always said that the bottom line for me, is how the Sri Lankan government characterises the LTTE. As long as the government of Sri Lanka wishes to negotiate with them, as a party to the conflict, I would continue to say that they are ‘a party to the conflict’. The day the LTTE is banned, by the government, then it’s a different matter. The reason why the government did not ban the LTTE, under immense pressure from extremist forces, is because the President did not want to close the door to negotiations. In the same way, I must say that as a person who is operating on the ground in the Eastern Province, and working with the three communities, we have to have access to the government, to the military, the LTTE and other armed groups. In that situation, I want to keep that option open. It is only through the process of dialogue that you can engage them to bring them into the democratic process. As a person who believes in peace, I want to keep that door open.
Q: Basically, what you are saying is that you are unwilling to characterise the LTTE as a terrorist organization.
A: Yes, I am quite reluctant to do that. Even in 1971, when the JVP used terrorist methods, in an attempt to overthrow a democratically elected government within nine months of having come into power, I refused to label them as terrorists. At that time also, I called for dialogue with the JVP leadership and when the insurgency ended with their defeat, I agitated for the release of the 20,000 who were incarcerated, and eventually through my good offices, I was able to influence the release of these young people, because I felt they were misled by the political leadership. In 1987-89, when the JVP again used enormous terror and killed large numbers of people, International Alert sent a fact finding mission here and we wrote a report on the terror. We documented both the terror of the JVP and the also the counter-terror of the government. Name calling was not going to be very useful for our organization who had to basically look at ways and means of overcoming that situation. We are not in the business of affixing labels on people. In peace making the situation is not black and white. That applies to the LTTE as well. I don’t understand why some people place so much emphasis on these labels. Affixing labels is not going to defeat an armed organization.
Q: When you refuse to label an organization, outsiders think you are helping them. The very refusal to label them being a kind of help in the present international context, which helps to take the pressure off them.
A: There are some organizations which should quite rightly use pressure to bring them to the negotiating table. There are organizations that focus on the human rights violations of the LTTE and who quite rightly condemns those violations. Human Rights Watch does it. Amnesty International does it. But peace making organizations have to be more careful. They are involved in constructive engagement with the parties to the conflict, and they cannot label organizations. We are in the business of promoting constructive engagement. For example, the atrocities committed against the Muslims was taken up by our foundation at the request of large numbers of Muslim organizations in the north and east who felt that they were being harassed and that there were numbers of killings, that there was extortion of the Muslim community in the eastern province. The Mosque Federation leaders came to see me appealed to me. At that time we helped mediate between the Mosque Federation, who called themselves the North East Muslim Peace Assembly and the LTTE in Batticaloa, and in Trincomalee. We facilitated those meetings out of which came a very positive turn of events. The harassment and ‘taxation’ of Muslims by the LTTE dropped significantly. So did the killings. They created zonal committees comprised or representatives of the LTTE and the Muslims to monitor the progress of the peace moves. We also helped to record the details of the lands lost to the LTTE by the Muslims. We together with the Muslim rights organization undertook a monumental study of all the lands that were lost by the Muslims. The reports went into twenty five volumes. We also documented the lands lost by the Muslims in the North. These reports were handed over to the LTTE, as a result of which, during that period, the LTTE started handing back significant stretches of land.
But unfortunately, this process could not go any further with the defection of Karuna and the subsequent events. So constructive engagement can achieve results.
Q: The people in this country tend to look with suspicion upon any foreign funded organization which engages in peace negotiations. They think all these foreign funded organizations are out to help the LTTE.
A: NGOs do get foreign funding. Some of my most ardent critics one of whom has even written a book on foreign funded NGOs, are also in receipt of foreign funding. I have always argued that in this country, the government itself, and political parties like the JVP and JHU also receive foreign funding. The question is how do these foreign funds affect the mandate of that organization? As far as I an concerned, I am fiercely concerned about the independence of the organization, no foreign funding source can influence the direction of our work, and we stand committed to a negotiated solution. We stand committed to a third party helping the two sides to reach a solution. We stand committed to a power sharing arrangement between the communities. The National Anti-War Front also stands for these principles.
In 1989, there were 32 civil wars in the world. Today, the number of conflicts has been reduced to sixteen. Out of the sixteen eight are in the process of negotiation. So after about two more years, the number of conflicts may go down to about eight. There has been a downward trend in the occurrence of civil wars in the world. And that is because guerrillas and governments have realised that the faster they can negotiate a solution, the faster they can join the train of modernisation. So those remaining eight countries will also have to decide whether they are going to join the mainstream or whether they are going to sink further into chaos.
Q: There is this feeling in the country that peace organisations condemn the killings done by the government but tend to soft pedal the killings perpetrated by the LTTE.
A.: I must make it very clear that we condemn unreservedly, all political killings. The argument that the Anti-War Front favours one side is a canard. We have criticised the LTTE on numerous occasions, and we have criticised the government also on numerous occasions. But you don’t expect the anti war front to make statements and make demonstrations every time an atrocity is committed.
Q: Maybe not a demonstration, but why not a statement? If you do issue a statement every time something happens, the people will respond positively.
A: But then we have done that. When it came to Kebithigollewa, we issued a very strong statement. On the death of Kadiragamar, we issued a statement. When it came to my friend, Ketheesh Loganathan, we issued a statement. When it came to Raviraj, we went beyond issuing a statement, because he was a fellow associate in the Anti-War Front, who had been with us in all the rallies we organised. In that sense, we had to pay them a special tribute as a bridge builder between the North and the South. When Gotabhaya Rajapakse was attacked, we were the first to issue a statement.
Q: If another prominent Tamil who is against the LTTE is killed, will you go out of your way to organise a demonstration against it as you did over the Raviraj killing?
A: We will certainly take action. We condemn all political killings. Of course the scale of the demonstration may not be the same, because Raviraj was a popular politician, and he had his own following, quite apart from the Anti-War Front. How big the demonstration will depend on the popularity of the individual and the security concerns of those attending the funeral/demonstration.
Q: You organised a demonstration over the Raviraj killing, and a lot of Sinhalese participated in that demonstration. Shops in Colombo were closed. That wouldn’t happen if the people here were rabid chauvinists. But still, the LTTE keeps carrying on attacks in Colombo. The attack on Gotabhaya Rajapakse was a carried out after that. Its true that it was a military target, but it is carried out in places where civilians also are to be found.
A: Basically, I am very glad that large numbers of Sinhalese joined the procession and I am very glad that 90% of the shops were closed – not only Tamil shops, but even Sinhalese and Muslim shops. What does that show? It shows that the people find political killings as a whole abhorrent. Here was an opportunity to come out and voice their feelings. Raviraj’s death was a catalyst to bring people out in protest against all political killings. What people should remember is that this demonstration, took the initiative away from the LTTE. The notion that the Sinhala people were chauvinistic was removed. That demonstration showed that the Sinhala people also care about the Tamil and Muslim people.
Q: In this country, one finds various local voluntary organizations, and then there are the foreign funded NGOs. There is a difference between these two types of organization. Why is it that the organizations that are most vocal on the peace front are always foreign funded? The non-foreign funded voluntary organizations do not appear to be interested in peace to the same extent.
A: I don’t agree with you on that. There are large numbers of voluntary organizations who in their own quiet way, work for peace and promote negotiations.
Q: But why don’t they come out in the same way as the foreign funded organizations?
A: A lot of the demonstrations in Amparai, Batticaloa and Trincomalee which I am very familiar with, come from strong local organizations of the Muslims. Even in Galle and Matara there are such organizations.
Q: How would you see the activities of foreign funded organizations in Sri Lanka?
A: Foreign funded organizations are not above criticism. I have been the first to be very critical of some of these organizations. For example, one of the key questions that I have is that whilst an elected official is accountable to the people, and may have to leave office, NGO leaders often are there for a lifetime. I am very critical of that. In my own experience for the past twenty five years, I have headed about five major organizations and I have always seen to it that I resign after a fixed term. I think that’s very healthy, because it is very important for new leaders to emerge. Increasingly, NGOs are being professionalized. This is one of the largest sectors in the world today, and therefore, there have to be certain governance procedures. The lack of such procedures is one of the reasons for the mistrust that exists with regard to NGOs.There are also deep rooted sociological issues in this. Foreign funded NGOs actually disrupt the traditional power structure in the village. I have this theory that there are three types of young people in a village. The brilliant ones go to university and join the JVP. The A/L qualified people get government jobs. The others remain in the village, and they get jobs with NGOs and create another power structure within the village. They have resources, they have vehicles and this brings about resentment. This is not something limited to just to peace NGOs but to the entire NGO sector.
Q: Isn’t all this mistrust due to the fact that NGOs are not seen to be accountable to anyone except their foreign donors?
A: There is a problem of accountability. How do you overcome this problem of accountability? I would recommend very strongly that NGOs should also become membership organizations, and that the members have a say in the governance structure of the organization. The National Anti-War front wants to do that. We want to become a large broad based membership organization. Members must not be Colombo based. They must represent the broad mass of the people. There should be an ethnic and gender balance. The members should be able to elect the decision making bodies of the organization. If you look at some of these critics of NGOs, who have written books on foreign funded NGOs, they too are lifetime leaders of the NGOs they have formed. If you do a study, you will find that the power structure within NGOs have remained either with one individual, or a family. They have deliberately refrained from expanding membership in order to avert threats to their leadership.
In a vibrant democracy, there have to be voluntary organizations and NGOs. But there must be certain rules and a broad based membership structure in the same way that we are talking about broad basing Lake House (The government owned newspaper Group) I am arguing for that. That is an aspect of democracy. In this country, we tend to have a ruling oligarchy where ever we go. Political parties have one single leader. Some political parties in this country call their main decision making body ‘high command’and have a single leader. So this culture within political parties is also this single leader concept, and they are there for life. Fortunately in the UNP recently, there was an uprising and a reformist tendency wanted to democratise the party, and I think they succeeded in doing so.
Q: Not yet.
A: Whatever it is, there is a dialogue going on. I think that is very very important. That dialogue should happen in the SLFP and in all the other political parties as well. And also with regard to reporting on monies received by political parties. Who has reported to the tax authorities how much money was received in an election campaign? None of these organizations have reported, even though this is provided for by law. We have to go beyond looking at NGOs. We have to look at the whole political structure of this society and find ways and means of improving governance. NGOs are not going to disappear. What we have to do is to regulate them to ensure democracy within the organization.
Q: A final question. Do you have any political aspirations?
A: If you define politics in this narrow way of entering Parliament and becoming a minister, the answer to that question would be an emphatic No. I never wanted that. I was asked by many leaders to join them, I was offered ministries, but I turned them down. I value very much the independence that I have, and I want to lead a balanced life. I like to read, I like to write, I like to be engaged in social service, and also to focus on the peace process. I think that is a full enough life for me. I don’t want to end up with a big belly and become illiterate because of the lack of time to read! —via The Island