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An appraisal of Norway’s Role in Sri Lanka

Hemantha Dayaratne is Visiting Fellow at Institute for Defene Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • February 03, 2011

    The revelation by former LTTE deputy Muralidhar Karuna that Norway provided funds for the Tigers to purchase lethal weapons has revived the issue of that country’s role in Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict. In addition, some documents released by wikileaks have pointed to Norway’s despatch of high-tech satellite equipment to the LTTE during the same period. Given that LTTE remnants connected to the Tamil Diaspora in Norway are still active, this is an opportune moment to revisit Norway’s role in Sri Lanka.

    Norway was not an uninvited guest in Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict. It had been approached on various occasions by both the Sri Lankan government and LTTE since 1999. Norway was willing to accept the task and was the facilitator of the February 2002 peace agreement. Its willingness to play such a role can be referred to as “niche diplomacy” – an integral part of its foreign policy strategy. It would therefore be a misinterpretation to label the country as a direct supporter of the Tigers. Norway has assumed the role of an international social worker, which it believes is a privilege and the results of which are very rewarding. For, it gives Norway a voice and a presence on the international stage beyond its modest position and assets. The return on this investment is international recognition Norway as a “force of peace.”

    Norway’s assumption of a mediatory role turned what was a dyadic conflict between the Sri Lankan state and the LTTE into a triadic relationship. Resolving the conflict required that each actor achieved a specific set of goals. Norway had to complete the assignment of demonstrating its skills as an effective international peace maker. Sri Lanka and the LTTE together needed to agree upon a common solution by compromising on their unilateral objectives. Sri Lanka climbed down from its position to accept a model that devolved maximum state power, short of ‘Eelam’, which the LTTE too agreed to though only for tactical reasons to avoid being branded as a terrorist group. This was reflected in the LTTE leader V. Prabhakaran’s infamous Heroes’ Day speech of 2005.

    “….we were compelled by unprecedented historical circumstance to participate in peace talks with the Sinhala state, we were compelled to engage in the negotiating process by the intervention of the Indian regional super power at a particular historical period and by the pressure of the international community at a later period….Having liberated the Wanni region and overrun the Elephant Pass military complex, we had firmly established the balance of military power in our favour……”

    The LTTE’s insistence on ‘Eelam’ and the desire to achieve it militarily left the agreement with three different non-negotiable objectives instead of two. This is where all efforts to achieve peace began to unravel. The LTTE derailed the peace process soon after signing the ceasefire agreement and resorted to violence as a tactic to raise more demands in the negotiations. Norway, with no political and military muscle of its own, was a mediator without a ‘stick’, though it held the ‘carrot’ of being the world’s second largest exporter of crude oil. It had enough wealth to give out: the only leverage it possessed to tame the Tigers and get the group back to the negotiating table. The LTTE knew this and took advantage of it. Norway’s dealings with the LTTE should be viewed in this context, though it does not justify the provision of high-tech v-sat transmission equipment to the armed group.

    Realising the growing threat posed by the LTTE given its numerous ceasefire violations, the Sri Lankan government reluctantly returned to war. Everyone knew that this was a decisive moment. Unlike during the 1980s, India adopted a benign policy towards Sri Lanka. There was a worldwide revulsion against terrorism in the aftermath of September 11. China and Pakistan assured supply of lethal weapons to Sri Lanka. Thus, regional and international politics were favourable for the Sri Lankan government. Given the LTTE’s intransigence and the turn around in regional politics, Norway struggled to play its mediatory role. The Norwegian attempt to bring about an accord between the Sri Lankan government and an LTTE that was in its last breath was not meant to support the Tigers, but rather was a desperate attempt by Norway to save its own international prestige. The Sri Lankan government smartly continued to work to keep regional and international politics in its favour and carry out military operations efficiently. When the LTTE was decisively defeated, Norway lost its international role because of reasons that were beyond its control.

    Norway is home to a considerable number of the Tamil diaspora and due to the country’s small population this diaspora is a significant and politically important constituent there. Diaspora Sri Lankan Tamils enjoy equal rights with Norwegian citizens and are influential in the country’s domestic politics and administration. LTTE guerrillas were dispatched to Norway during the peace accord and have by now reorganised their overseas networks. They are taking advantage of Norway’s soft rules on immigration and counter terrorism. Owing to the repercussions of the futile peace effort, and their country’s international diplomacy and the fundamental Christian Lutheran sympathy that Norwegians feel towards the Tamil community, the remaining LTTE cadre are able to rally people on short notice to fly Tiger flags. Moreover, those continuing to showcase Tamil grievances in Norway are merely doing so for fear of deportation with the dawn of peace in Sri Lanka. Most Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in Tamil Nadu are returning home and are finding it safe to do so. Those in the West are still reluctant to leave their greener pastures.

    Norway’s entrance as a mediator in the conflict came at a time when Sri Lanka was desperate in the aftermath of military set backs, political instability and negative economic growth. Hence, Norway has to be commended for its initial role. However, peace has been achieved though in a way that differed from Norway’s original plan. All Tamil mainstream political parties, which had been marginalised during the peace agreement, are currently working with the Sri Lankan government to find a solution for ethnic grievances. Despite the failure of the peace effort, Norway is still a major contributor of development assistance in the war-torn North and East of the island. Thus, Norway still has a role to play – one of consolidating the peace that has been achieved by a small country that has made many sacrifices.