| Norwegian deputy foreign minister Vidal Helgesen (left) with the ambassador to Sri Lanka, Hans Brattskar, in Colombo. (Reuters)
Colombo, Nov. 14: Norway today added a new dimension to the Sri Lankan crisis by announcing it would put its role as peace broker on hold till President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe resolved the political impasse which has paralysed the peace process.
“The resumption of peace talks is seriously impeded by the political crisis in the south. This has disturbed the peace process and caused serious concerns in the international community,” Vidar Helgessen, deputy foreign minister of Norway and the chief negotiator of the peace process, said at the end of his three-day visit to the island.
He said that the lack of clarity as to who was in charge of the peace process was a serious hindrance to the resumption of talks. After the President took over the defence portfolio from the Wickremesinghe government, the Prime Minister asked the President to take over the negotiations as it was not possible to hold talks without the control of the security forces.
“Until such clarity is re-established, there is no space for further efforts by the Norwegian government to assist the two parties,” Helgesen said.
He warned the political leaders of the dangers ahead: “We call this a very serious situation. Not because the peace process is fragile, but because it may become brittle. We need to make it clear that the ceasefire will be much more difficult to sustain in a political vacuum. If progress in the negotiations is made impossible, the ceasefire will become increasingly more fragile,” Helgessen said.
Norway’s decision rattled Kumaratunga.
Within a few hours of the Norwegian statement announced by Helgesen, Kumaratunga’s office went into overdrive in an effort to halt speculations about her commitment to the peace process. For the moment with the President under pressure, Wickremesinghe is having a hearty laugh after asking her to take over the talks.
In a two-page statement released by the President’s office, Kumaratunga assured the nation that she was not out to scuttle the peace process and respected the terms of the ceasefire agreement with the Tamil Tigers.
She made it a point to assure the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that nothing would change because she had now personally taken over the defence portfolio.
“It was made clear that the ceasefire agreement would be respected and an assurance was also given that the freedom of movement for the LTTE cadre, in areas held by the government, would also be respected. On Kumaratunga’s instructions, the Sri Lankan armed forces are cooperating fully with the personnel monitoring the ceasefire, a statement released by the President’s office said.
Kumaratunga’s prompt action in soothing LTTE chief Vellupillai Prabhakaran’s concerns of security for his cadre is an effort to send the message to both the Lankan people and the international community that she is not going to derail the peace efforts.
However, Kumaratunga made it clear that “last week’s developments over the reshuffling of the three portfolios are entirely in keeping with the Lankan constitution.”
In fact, the unanimous decision of the Supreme Court has made it clear that the functions of the defence forces should be held only by the President of the country,” the statement said.
The two sides are trying to work out a national government which will negotiate unitedly with the LTTE. It is still uncertain whether the bitter political rivals can put their personal interests on hold.
Even if a national government is formed, it will be with a limited purpose.
However, Sri Lankans believe that neither side will compromise and that the island is heading for elections early next year.