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I see light at the end of the tunnel" - President
[
September 08, 2004]

President Kumaratunga met the Colombo based foreign journalists for a discussion on Friday September 3, 2004. She told them her new Government’s top priorities are economic development for the entire country and a negotiated resolution for the North East conflict. 

In her opening remarks on the current state of the peace process she said,

As for rehabilitation in the North and East there were lot of complaints and nothing was happening under the last regime this has been corrected by the Ministry of Triple R.

As for our second major objective - the peace process - I don’t suppose I need to tell you everything from the beginning for you know most of it.  At present I will only explain to you some of the major areas which are relevant today.   The Norwegian facilitators have been trying for one and a half years to bring the LTTE back to the table. They walked away from negotiations in April last year during the United National Front Government.  We took over exactly one year later and still - no talks.

In April this year once again we invited the LTTE to come for talks.  They kept reiterating that they are committed to the ceasefire and that they are committed to a negotiated settlement but they have still not agreed to come to the table. In my opinion, minor issues such as what should be discussed and the agenda need to be addressed. What is important here is… and I need to tell you….. The position of this Government at the beginning was that the agenda should consist of the interim administration agreement (or by whatever name it may be called – ‘the interim council’ as we call it) and definitely that, as well as the final settlement to the ethnic problem. The LTTE’s position and our position was that we are willing to discuss both parallely. Once an agreement is reached on both… and is signed, the Government was willing to set up an interim arrangement first because we accepted there is a lot of distrust on both sides. Not only with the LTTE but also all the Tamil people who are for LTTE and not for LTTE do state that all the successive Governments of Sri Lanka have promised them certain things and not given them. We accept that this has caused a lot of distrust on their side.  On the side of the Government there are many reasons to distrust the LTTE because they also have reneged on a lot of promises. There are indications that they have done this to various governments. So there was this distrust and we accept therefore once an agreement is reached on both matters the Government will set up the interim arrangement first and let it function for an agreed number of years, while looking at how to set up and bring into fruition the final settlement that we would have agreed on by the time we sign for both. That was our position. The LTTE’s position is very simple –‘no we refuse talk about any final solution; we will only talk about the Interim Agreement; you have to set it up; it has to be operational; once that happens we will begin to discuss about the final solution’. 

Now the Government, in order to come to some agreement (and we believe it is for a Government also to make concessions… but within… certainly very definite parameters we as Government  set for ourselves) which is within the framework for united Sri Lanka without damaging the sovereignty of the state and all that it entails, the security of the nation, of the land and the people, we are willing to agree to certain compromises. What I described to you was the position was at the time that the Government came into power. 

We have gone a long way.  I would say we have gone, the Government has gone 75%  of the way to meet the LTTE but they are not willing to  travel the rest of the way to meet the Government’s position, we have now changed from the earlier position which I have just described… to say ‘OK ..we are willing to talk only of the interim council or the interim arrangement or what ever it may be called and once we come to an arrangement which will satisfy ‘us’ within our parameters (‘us’ meaning not the two of us but the country and all the representatives of the entire country), once we are satisfied… and the LTTE could come to a satisfactory arrangement which would satisfy both sides.  Then we sign for that and we will give ourselves a limited time target to set it up, in order to give confidence to the Tamil people and the LTTE.  We are not going to renege from our promise, say a three-month interim council agreement once we reach an agreement on that. 

The crucial point is that we will only sign when we are also satisfied with what is being agreed to, then once we are in the process of setting it up and making it operational in that three months or whatever agreed time, the LTTE and we must sit down and start talking of the final solution.

So that is coming a long way from the position we set first, which is we will discuss both issues and sign first.  The LTTE is very intransigent they will not agree even to that…. so that is where we stand.

But they keep on repeating that they are committed to the ceasefire as well as to a negotiated settlement. We are still trying to discuss, in the meantime we have also promised the country, as we have done during the  previous PA Government that all peace processes that I undertake and Governments for which I am responsible for undertake will be transparent processes – and democratic. We do not have dealings under the table with anybody.  We will do what is best for the country in the full knowledge of the country and its representatives.

Therefore, we have worked out a system where we will have a regular consultation with all party represented in Parliament. It will be a consultative forum.  We call it a National Advisory Council for Peace and Reconciliation.   All the parties in Parliament will be invited.  Obviously the main opposition party will play a major role in that.

We hope to start – we’ll kick that off very soon within the next month or so. That is the consultative process and the meantime we have kept the country in formed.  I have kept the Cabinet briefed and all the parties in Government.  The Opposition is kept briefed fully by the Norwegian Facilitators not semi-briefed as we were in the last two years and even as the President.  We will, through the consultative process, institutionalize the briefing process and the information and will get the feed back from the other parties.

The Peace Secretariat has been strengthened.   It has been made more professional more for active and it is carrying on its work - as you are aware.  The development work which is the one of the axes of peace which was handled by 5 different Ministries including the former Prime Minister’s Office and by 16 different institutions under 5 different Ministries has been brought under one Ministry and is streamlined.  The Ministry of triple R is under the President and it is coordinating all the work.

The peace process is handled clearly and quite definitely by the President in full consultation with my Prime Minister and other important Ministers    concerned and in consultation with all the parties which form the Alliance.

The last Government undertook several confidence building measures when they signed the ceasefire agreement and thereafter… some of which were very successful… we have continued on that path.  We, as a Government, are committed totally to the ceasefire and to ensure that there is no war in this country again. We will not get pushed into any military conflict.  We feel that we are stronger now… than we were before in order to ensure that and there is a definitely a happy situation, while obviously LTTE is playing its usual games and saying that there committed to something other than separate state. They are definitely trying to get what they want… but at the same time I think that the LTTE also has moved a long way.  Away from  the exclusive politics of terror   – perhaps looking at a another path other than the separate state and these are happy situations and the Government as well is totally committed to ensuring that the LTTE and the Government ... stay on this path and do not deviate from it .

There are many issues related to the ceasefire where the LTTE has been known to violate the ceasefire, from the time they signed 2 and half years ago more so after the Karuna issue… apart from that until that began to flare up there were lesser number of violations of ceasefire agreement after the change of Government than there was before. Child proscription reduced…  in April , May and June it has begun again in the last two months not as intensely as it did in the year 2002 and part of 2003. Ceasefire violations have begun once again, because of the internecine fighting within two groups of the LTTE.  They have begun to kill each other as you know…. we are doing our best to contain it… but it is rather difficult because of some very unsatisfactory conditions which have been signed into the ceasefire agreement signed by the last Government which is that no Government troops can go any where into so called LTTE controlled areas, whereas the LTTE is permitted to move around with great facility in the whole country, Government controlled areas as well as entire country. Also the LTTE has been given many facilities, without the related facilities for the military in order to maintain law and order.  In fact for example when the LTTE was complaining that the Karuna faction was killing off the Prabhakaran faction in Batticaloa… we suggested that if they wanted it contained… we will flush Batticaloa Town against ceasefire violators, strictly against the ceasefire violators,  within margins with a much larger number of security forces people  and Police in order to, at least ensure that in the Batticaloa town area which is under the Government, people will not allowed to move  around with arms and we’ll arrest any body with arms ,..... They may be Karuna or Prabhakaran faction.

And we suggested that the Government forces in a limited way will be willing to come into the so called LTTE areas not which I have not even been defined.  The Government signs an agreement saying that Government forces cannot go into so called LTTE areas and the areas that are suppose to be LTTE or Government controlled will be defined by the facilitators sorry the monitors ..And the monitors have left aside large areas of land without defining them to be either Government or LTTE - leaving very big problems. They are refusing to define this… So we suggested that they have this problem…. they keep on the accusing the Government is helping one faction or the other. The Government is willing to come into those areas…. not flush it out…. but to ensure in a limited way that nobody goes around with arms in those areas - so that killings can be controlled. But the LTTE is not very happy about that, so we couldn’t do anything more about it. 

This was not a problem that began yesterday as you know there have been a lot of tensions between Batticaloa LTTE wing and the Northern LTTE wing- reasons that are known – which I will not spent time in defining now. At the same time various reasons grew with LTTE’s Command of its military forces, the Chief Commander breaking away from Mr. Prabhakaran…. Chief Commander Mr.Karuna. This is not the first time this has happened in the LTTE. Almost all of Mr.Prabhakaran second in command and other major lieutenants who have had problems with Prabhakaran have been killed in the last 20 years. But here it expressed itself in a different way before Mr. Karuna could be killed off, he broke away and so as therefore it presented itself in a different way as up to now.

This has also caused a certain blockage in the LTTE coming to the negotiation table early.  These are the main points that I explained to you about the peace matter and the positions that the Government has taken and finally once again on that issue I would like to tell you that the government is totally committed to doing all that is within our power to not allow the situation to degrade into military action. 

I think that is all for the moment. You can ask any questions.

I thank you very much for accepting my invitation and to be present here.

Q: The Ceasefire Agreement now in force appears to have some loopholes and is alleged to be flawed in some aspects. Are you considering any amendments to it in the near future?

President: Well, the perfect situation would be, if we can look at certain amendments, but I don’t think present situation is propitious for that… not at the moment.  We are trying to ensure that while the agreement is in place, as I told you; our priorities of national security will be looked after…. speaking practically

Q: One of the main problems in the peace process…going by what the LTTE is saying is that it [LTTE] believes that the Government   is supporting Karuna and other anti-Tiger paramilitaries in the East. I believe earlier this year the Government   spokesman admitted that some members of the military were acting contrary to Government   policy did help Karuna come to Colombo. Can you tell me what you have done to address the issue of individuals in the military or Government   going outside Government   policy and aiding these factions? And can you tell me what you are doing to bridge the gulf of mistrust that there seems to be?

President: The Government   did not help the Karuna faction to do anything as we have said. And under Mr.Ranil Wickremesinghe’s Ceasefire Agreement, even Mr.Prabhakaran can come to Colombo, the same way that Karuna came to Colombo, without anybody knowing it. Well, and a little while later the intelligence will inform us that Mr. Prabhakaran is in Colombo. That is how Karuna had come to Colombo and the Government   had nothing to do with his coming to Colombo. A UNP MP has admitted that he helped Karuna to come to Colombo. A UNP MP, [I think you know who] admitted that he brought Karuna to Colombo and he [the MP] has been dealt with by the UNP … he has been sacked since.  The MP Mr. Moulana was arrested and questioned during my previous Government   (my first one, this is my third) for having dealings with Mr.Karuna at a time when the war was going on and the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) was in operation. But Mr.Moulana was given nomination even after that, to contest from the UNP or he was brought in on the National List into Parliament. So please do not say that the Government   helped.  It was the previous Government that helped Mr. Karuna to come to Colombo.  As you say, ‘what is your Government  doing about individuals?’,     In every institution – even in your ABC if there is an individual who is doing some thing untoward and you do not know who that   individual is how would you put a stop to it? 

All that we could do was to ensure, by giving general orders. And the military obviously is more disciplined and more organized than a civilian organization or the public service [the rest of the public service.] And very clear instructions have been given right down the line by the President and Commander in Chief, to the Commanders of Army that this kind of thing cannot happen. But we do not know who the individual is, no individual has admitted to it; it is only a suspicion.  We don’t even know whether individuals have helped.  It is only a suspicion because LTTE kept saying it was done.  But one must also not forget that this is the first time in its 20-year history that somebody in the LTTE has successfully been able to contest the authority of Mr. Prabhakaran and get away with his life.  So, may be the LTTE also has to make up stories to defend its authoritarian, dictatorial, positions.  I have no evidence, as Minister of Defense and Commander in Chief, if any individual in the armed forces did it.  There was some suspicion especially because the LTTE kept saying “we have evidence”. I have asked the LTTE for that evidence but they have not given me any evidence.  The Peace Secretariat also has asked if they have any evidence at all, even some kind of evidence but they have not been able to come up with it, or they have not yet. So it is only a suspicion, and in case it happened, as it can happen in organisations, we have given all necessary instructions. That is the action we can take. 

Q: What is wrong in helping Karuna?

President: What is right in it?  Karuna is as much a terrorist as Prabhakaran. I don’t believe in any form of terrorism. I believe that all problems can be resolved through negotiations, democratically, and in a humane fashion. I don’t believe in killing, I don’t believe in child conscription. Both these people have been entirely culpable of all these activities. To support one terrorist against another is just continuing the vicious cycle. I do not believe in that.  There were other Governments and other Presidents who believed in that kind of thing ...we had Presidents who gave money and weapons to the LTTE and finally got killed by those very weapons.

Q: Madam President, you said that the Government   was willing to talk only within ‘our’ parameters. Would you tell us what these parameters are and has the Government   decided what the maximum it is willing to offer in addressing the North East Problem?

A: Well, You know the maximum we are willing to offer is on paper, it is before Parliament – it was tabled in Parliament on the 3rd of August 2000 and once before in 1997. That is the maximum we have been able to offer without a dialogue with the LTTE, because the LTTE refused to dialogue with us with on the current the Constitution; even at that time when we were offering to dialogue with the LTTE. The LTTE broke off the dialogue in 1995 after an 8 month ceasefire with my previous Government,   when we kept insisting on talking about the final solution.  So we do not still know what their thinking is, about the final solution, but we have said what it is. Obviously when you  have another interlocutor – an opposing interlocutor – who has been a very violent opponent, we have left a lot of a space having said this is what we think, what we can offer, for the LTTE to begin to discuss and then to come to some middle ground.

Q: But is there a maximum line that you will go up to… and nothing more? Or are we just talking about the two possibilities?

President: Well, maximum line is federalism and nothing more.  That is the maximum line if you read the Constitution.  Of course there are various forms of federal states; there are various levels of devolution even within a federal state. Those are to be discussed and that is what has to be discussed between the two interlocutors. And within that there are possibilities of interim councils, interim governing authorities and all kinds of things which we are willing look at, which we offered even in the 2000 draft.  We were the first and the only Government   up to date who have offered an interim governing authority in a legal form in the 2000 Constitutional Draft. Up to date no other Government   or no other political party has offered it.

Q: We have learnt that the Ceylon Workers Congress has today offered your Government unconditional support. Do you see that as another window opening for your efforts at Peace?

President: Well, as you say every support that we get from a new group is another window opened, (it is a very nice term) or many windows opened….. and we welcome it with open arms.

Q: You referred to a consultative process you plan to bring peace, but before you came up with your 2000 Constitutional draft you had a long consultative process with all political parties, what happened?

President: Good Question. I had a very transparent process discussing with all the parties in Parliament in the year 2000. The Leader of the Opposition then shook hands with me at the end of 5 ½ long months of intense discussions, over 100 hours of discussions, (all the other parties had already agreed to our constitutional draft, only the UNP had to agree)… he shook hands with me and said “yes, we will support you in Parliament” But tried to boot me out of Parliament when I presented it in Parliament in August 2000 (I didn’t get booted out though). They tried it a second time with me, when they were in Government, at Cabinet meetings that also didn’t work…….. …(booting me out doesn’t work normally. Democratic discussions may have worked but not booting me out). 

So, it is a very good question, but you see, in Sri Lanka one lives through this and hopes. If one can hope that Mr.Prabhakaran will come into the democratic process; if one has already brought in other formerly violent groups in to the democratic process and into Government and to hold cabinet ministerial posts, I still live and hope that the UNP also will one day be sincere and honest about what they want to do for the country. And we will do our best to try and hope that they will be sincere in their efforts at working for the people and not only for themselves and only for the interest of one or two individual leaders in the UNP.  We may fail, we may succeed, but one has to keep trying. 

You know the myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus?  I was very impressed by it when I was young – so we will keep pushing this rock up the hill and hope it will remain there and not roll back.

Q: Madam President having listened to you .do you see some light at the end of the tunnel?

President: Well, to tell you honestly, I think there is light at the end of the tunnel. Very honestly. Because I have been involved in this process now for 18 years, since 1986 when we were in the opposition (we were a small third party alternative; we were the first Sinhala leaders to go to Madras… or go anywhere and talk with all five militant groups, groups as important as the LTTE; the LTTE was one of them but the LTTE successfully managed to kill off the leadership of all the other 4 groups), from that time I have been deeply and closely involved in this process.  When my husband and I first went and talked with them to come into the democratic process, we managed to persuade 3 ½ out of the 5 groups to come into the democratic process; to register themselves as democratic parties, we were about to sign an alliance with those 3 ½ out of the 5 militant groups, but my husband was killed 4 days before. He was to sign this with them on behalf of our party and all the left parties (the SLFP was not in that alliance then). So, from that time I have been deeply involved. And I can tell you honestly that I see much more apertures of light at the end of the tunnel than ever before……… and I would say that it was a result of what we started, we broke with tradition in 1994 when, for the first time, my Government and  I as head of State accepted that there is a Tamil peoples’ problem and it has to be resolved not through violent means, not through war but by negotiations; that we have to give the Tamil people their rights.

I am very appreciative, that for the first time another Government   came into power – the Cabinet of Mr. Ranil Wickremasinghe and they did not turn away from what I had started……… they continued that. They were able to achieve quite a bit of success not in negotiations but at least in bringing the LTTE to a ceasefire agreement once again, sticking to it and showing the Tamil people that there is another way, continuing on that path. I do think there is a possibility that the LTTE will come to negotiations…….. But thereafter... to say ‘when’ is impossible. With a group as intransigent and as ruthless as the LTTE and as one minded and as focused as Mr. Prabhakaran……. with a leader like that you cannot predict anything.  He is in the habit of telling a lot of things to Governments and going back on his word.  The best example is what he did with President Premadasa. He promised him many things, got arms and money from him and then killed him off because he did not do exactly as the LTTE wanted.   They have done that to many other leaders in the South.  They began to react like that against the leadership of the last UNF Government too.  So one cannot say… but all I can say is that there is hope.  I have not said this, in such a convinced manner before. Also, one must not forget that the LTTE is not just one person; the LTTE is a large number of people. The carders are tired of this ruthless management of affairs – killing off people who don’t agree with their ideas; killing off ordinary Tamil civilians…… (Since the ceasefire agreement the LTTE has killed off over 250 Tamil leadership at the lower levels… because they have killed off every body else at the top level in parties, in groups that do not adhere to the LTTE’s politics of violence). So there is a time when the Tamil people will get tired of this kind of politics and will demand from the LTTE.  I still hope that the LTTE also, like the other militant groups, will agree finally to come in to the democratic stream.  That is our final objective.  We are not interested in bumping off any body.

Q: How would you rate the performance of the Norwegians of late, because they have a tough task to perform? How do you assess their performance at this point of time? Is it satisfactory? Are they showing signs of achieving something?

President: Well, I would say yes and no.  They have achieved a lot, they have taken a lot of effort, spent a lot of money and they have put in a lot into this.  They came in because I invited them but there are points at which they have made mistakes I think and gone off the track.   They have been a very useful bridge and I think the positives certainly outweigh the negatives. No body is perfect in a situation like this where you cannot go to a text book and decide what to do.  Especially in the Sri Lankan situation which is a very complicated situation and which requires sophisticated responses to the problem. 

Q: You say that you feel more hope than you had before in the peace process. But the last time Vidar Helgesen was here, he described the situation in Sri Lanka as a frozen war that was beginning to melt at the edges. The Tamil Tigers have also been saying that the ceasefire is at risk because of the factional fighting. How do you rate the strength of the ceasefire and do you think that this ongoing factional violence in the East is going to have any impact on it?

President: Well, Mr. Vidar Helgesen met me the night before. He did not tell me that he thought that it was melting at the edges. So, I do not know what happened between the time he met us and the next morning. They were concerned but they certainly did not have such strong feelings about the process. And thereafter he went to London the next day and rang us up, rang Mr. Dhanapala and told him that his meeting with Mr. Balasingham was very positive. Well, he did not use those words but gave us very positive signals. So, what happens in between…. when one talks to the press…….. I do not know. Mr. Vidar Helgesen is also a politician so one has to cover himself.

Kadirgamar:  Also may I say this? Sometimes when you use colourful imagery, about freezing and melting at the edges, particularly when it comes from a very cold part of the world, one may tend to produce a few obscurities. So, I think a little bit of leeway for language should be forgiven at all times.

Q: I want to move away from the peace process and ask about the number of women in the Government   which is one of the poorest in the region – less than 4% of the Government   is represented by women. As head of State and as a woman yourself, what are you doing to change this?

President: Well that is not true.  I don’t know if you have looked at all the figures. Are you only looking at the Cabinet of ministers?

Q: No, I referred to the Government in general. 

President: The first ever woman Supreme Court Judge –was appointed by me, the first ever Vice chancellor of a University, in fact two of them appointed by me. The First ever woman Secretary of a Ministry was appointed by our Government    (now there are several. Some have retired and some have been further appointed), the first ever woman President of the Court of Appeal, which is the second most important organ of the Judiciary was appointed by me, by our Government…. the Secretary General of Parliament is a woman appointed by me, All the women in Parliament on the Government’s side were either Ministers or Deputy Ministers in my first Government.

I can’t help it if people don’t elect women, but well, that is being a bit blasé.  Men do not like very many women to be nominated for elections. The only lacuna here is that we do not have this clause in our Constitution.  The election laws in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan say (I really do not know if Pakistan has it) it is mandatory for a certain percentage of those nominated for Parliamentary elections and other representative bodies have to be women.  We don’t have that. Probably we have to think of that but whoever has been elected has been given their place and as I told you, I have gone out of my way, I was abused right roundly by the UNP and members of the Judiciary who were supposed to be close to the UNP, for having selected a respected woman judicial person to be appointed as a woman judge of the Supreme Court. There were no other women to be appointed at that time.  My problem is that there are very few women who are elected to Parliament and to the Provincial councils, to the regional bodies. Whoever is elected is normally given a place. 

Q: President, how comfortable are you with the JVP when taking forward the peace process?

President: I am not uncomfortable with the JVP in any way, but as you know the JVP had an extreme position on the peace process. They have come a long way since we started discussing with them and we have now come together in the Alliance. They have come a very long way and the JVP is reasonable at present and obviously, the dialogue will have to continue with the JVP while the dialogue goes on with the LTTE. They (JVP) have agreed, as you know (I don’t think I need to repeat it), that a negotiated settlement is the priority, that they are agreeable to power sharing. But the level of power sharing is what has to be finally decided but that also depends on LTTE and what they are willing to discuss.

Once the discussions and the negotiations with the LTTE begin, it would be known. The basic things have been agreed with the JVP.  There is no problem. Now it is up to the LTTE to agree to come to the table and start discussing what level of devolution they expect and then obviously we will have to have a parallel process within the Government, within the consultative forum that I told you about – the National Advisory Council – because we have to get everybody on board.  I think it may be more difficult to get Mr. Ranil Wickremasinghe and his party on board because they have proved to be more difficult before. They have reneged on their promises. 

This is not a big problem though the press is trying to make a big problem of it. I am referring to the pro-opposition press.

Q: Madame President, with the continued stalemate with regard to the resumption of talks, the hard-line positions struck by the LTTE, the JVP and certain other hard-line voices we hear, do you see this all as a situation leading to a build-up where the nation could stumble into war?

President: What situation do you think would make the nation stumble into war?

Q: The protracted delay in resuming negotiations…

President: Not necessarily. Well, both sides will have to handle it very carefully. I don’t think it is very evident that the moment.

Q: What guarantee do you have that the country would not slip back to war?

President: What kind of guarantee do you want? 

Q: You refer to increasing ceasefire violations?

President: No, I didn’t say there were increasing violations. Please don’t say that.  The violations decreased hugely when the Alliance Government came into power but since then it has increased a certain amount. But it has still not reached the level   it had reached during the UNF Government. Please don’t misquote me.   It is not at the level that it was at, before April 2004. The child conscriptions are still at a much lower level than the historical level to which it rose to in 2002 and in beginning of 2003. But all that does not necessarily mean that one will slip into war, if one is careful about the way one handles it. It has to be done very professionally, handled carefully and I don’t think the LTTE at the moment has much to gain by going back to war. The support of the International Community is crucial in this and there is no apparent reduction of that. The International Community is holding very strongly to their position that a negotiated settlement has to be arrived at, that the violations of the ceasefire by the LTTE cannot be tolerated - the child conscriptions, forcible taxation and assassinations. The European Union has issued a very strong statement for the first time on the LTTE’s violations of the ceasefire. So, the LTTE have been informed very clearly that a recommencement of the war or military action will not be tolerated by the International Community. The International Community has shown its support very positively and very definitely by committing itself to large funding. And I think the LTTE is very sensitive to what the World thinks.

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FEATURE: I see light at the end of the tunnel" - President