Peace at whatever price: The Norwegian connection

Chanaka Talpahewa, Peaceful Intervention in Intra-State Conflicts: Norwegian Involvement in the Sri Lankan Peace Process (Routledge, 2016, 289 pp., £ 96)

Frank, forthright, and full of wit, Chanaka Talpahewa lives and breathes diplomacy. Bred and battered in the Foreign Service, one nevertheless feels his potential hasn’t been as used as it should have been there. This book, in that sense, was a long time coming: it brings together the theorist and the practitioner, the scholar and the pragmatist, in him. Covering 10 years, from 1997 to 2008, it goes backward and lunges forward in time, offering us a prelude and a postscript to perhaps one of the most spectacular failures of third party intervention in a conflict zone.

What went wrong with Norway’s peace process, which lasted a decade, a ceasefire agreement, and a controversial administrative arrangement with the world’s most feared terrorist outfit following one of South Asia’s biggest natural disasters? What contributed to its unravelling and unfolding, and what have those whose involvement with it led to its unravelling have to say about it now?

To Dr Talpahewa’s credit, he doesn’t provide easy answers; he lets us find them, though he interjects his own views. From the start, he criticises those who take a purely historical approach to the issue, for two principal reasons: because Norway’s intervention in Sri Lanka was exceptional, and because Sri Lanka’s conflict did not fit the mould of most if not many case studies that the Norwegian model of peace and conflict resolution was deployed for. Adopting a “process-tracing methodology” instead, he relies on interviews, archive reports, and observations. Perceptions are what count there, and Dr Talpahewa gives us plenty of them.

From what I could gather reading through Peaceful Intervention in Intra-State Conflicts, one can list down six broad reasons for Norway’s failure to bring the government and the LTTE to the negotiating table.

First and foremost, there was the interpretation made of the conflict. In reality, there were two interpretations made, and though the book doesn’t delve into them they are worth reiterating: firstly, that the war remained in its essential form a civilisational conflict, and secondly, that the best model for resolving it was the Good Friday Agreement between the Irish and the British. If you caved into the former line, you automatically conceded to the latter line as well.

But as both Asoka Bandarage and Dayan Jayatilleka have pointed out, these ignored the specificities of the Sri Lankan war, not least of all the difference between the quasi-democratic framework within which the IRA and Sinn Fein operated and the “classically fascist” structures within which the LTTE did; as Dr Jayatilleka has observed only too correctly, Sri Lanka’s equivalents of minority moderates are dead, and not a single one at the hands of the Sri Lankan government.

Compounding this were the perceptions which influenced the peace process itself. Here Dr Talpahewa lays the blame on both parties, though overwhelmingly on the LTTE. Yet the issue wasn’t so much the apportionment of blame between governments on the defensive and terrorists on the offensive as who was doing the apportioning and to what degree. The Norwegians, the author tells us, teetered between getting both parties to the table while going out of the way to communicate with the Tigers: a treatment the government considered to be skewed against it.

To that difference in treatment one can add another: between the two parties in power at the time. As the book makes it clear, at the end of the first Chandrika Kumaratunga government the Norwegians made every effort to keep both government and opposition informed.

Yet after Ranil Wickremesinghe became Prime Minister in a government headed by an SLFP president, they did a volte-face, keeping the UNP (and Wickremesinghe especially) in the loop while excluding the President. No matter how justified the Norwegians may have been — they trot out the excuse that Kumaratunga was difficult to engage with — this selectivity contributed to the talks breaking down during the ceasefire; what made such a confusing state of affairs even more confusing was that before it won general elections in 2001, the UNP under Ranil Wickremesinghe had opposed Norwegian involvement.

The lopsided character of the ceasefire agreement and the duplicity of the LTTE also contributed to the breakdown of the talks. Dr Talpahewa digs deep here, giving us interviews with key personnel who saw the CFA for what it was (and was not), from foreign officials who defend it to anti-LTTE Tamil politicians who condemn it. In a word, it was asymmetric: it disarmed Tamil groups which had come into the democratic mainstream while granting a strategic advantage to the Tigers twice over: de-proscription plus autonomy.

More fascist than terrorist (it idealised the Nazi salute), the LTTE holds the distinction of being appeased by more individuals than has been the case with similar terror outfits. That this continued to be the defining thrust of the peace process and the ceasefire agreement, even after 9/11, is probably the biggest indictment one can make of both.

By acting the way it did, Norway reduced the war to one between the government and the terrorists (what Talpahewa calls a two-centric view, and Bandarage calls a bipolar conflict model), failing to account for the complexities of politics in the north and east. Indeed, in reducing the potential of non-LTTE combatants AND the Sri Lankan government, Norway did little to assuage fears of it being swayed by the Tigers. That it doubled down on these avoidable differences of treatment with another — between the State and NGOs (NGOs it patronised with copious funds, details of which are given at the back of the book) — certainly didn’t improve its standing in the eyes of its critics.

Chanaka Talpahewa

Here we come to the sixth and last problem, by far the most problematic: the third party itself. Why was Norway NOT the ideal country to go to and negotiate this war over? For Sinhala nationalists, the Norwegians pretty much remain the devil incarnate; for Tamil nationalists allied with the LTTE, on the other hand, they didn’t play that role well enough.

The LTTE was known for reverse salami slicing tactics whenever a third party got involved in negotiations: it would commit itself to negotiations, promise something vague (in the case of the Norway talks, “internal self-determination” as opposed to secession in the so-called Oslo Statement), use what time it had to regroup, then go back on what had been promised earlier (“There was no specific proclamation named the Oslo Declaration,” Anton Balasingham said in 2004). This line had once frustrated India, but Norway seemed to take it a tad too calmly, going as far as to hail the LTTE’s commitment to peace. How so?

Most critiques of the choice of Norway as third party peace broker here centre on two points: the presence of a significant Tamil population in the country, and the contradiction within its political structures between a commitment to peace and an avowal of war.

The latter is easier to deconstruct: from its reputation as a significant exporter of armaments to its constitutional enthronement of Lutheran Christianity despite being a secular State, from its membership of NATO (which, as Johan Galtung informed the author in this book, was in itself a minus point against having Norway) to its adherence to the Washington Consensus, Norway’s involvement in this part of the world has been questioned by critics. These have only cast aspersions on the country’s motives, even the role it played: ostensibly a “facilitator", it soon began taking stances a little too much to the side of one party.

Less easy to decipher is the link between the Tamil Diaspora presence in Norway and perceptions of the country’s “tilt” towards the LTTE. Going by the numbers, not many Tamils reside there: 13,000 in a population of 5.5 million, or barely 0.25 percent.

These numbers are often quoted by those who argue that Norway’s Tamil population didn’t have much of a say, if at all, in that country’s dealings with the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE.

Yet such statistics should not be viewed in isolation: they must be compared with the non-Tamil, specifically Sinhalese, population in these countries. When they are, the obvious becomes clear: those among the Diaspora Tamils allied with the LTTE have been able to outrun their Sinhala counterparts in lobbying their governments for support, funding, and ideological commitment to separatism.

The truth is that in Norway, the LTTE managed to establish an efficient organisational structure, soliciting funds and “convincing” politicians, even having a hand in manipulating elections. For obvious reasons, the link between Disapora Tamil presence in Norway and the Sri Lankan peace talks helped very little with those talks, and in fact contributed to their collapse.

As for those talks, they wrapped up. When? Early January 2008, the government informed the Norwegians that it was withdrawing from the ceasefire agreement. This would be two years after the LTTE’s act of shutting down the sluice gates at Mavil Aru provoked the army to strike back and demonstrate, for the first time in a long while, its capabilities against the Tigers. By then, of course, the deal was off the table. Doomed the moment it was penned, it was never to be revived again.

Dr Talpahewa minces no words and cuts no corners in his book. This is a fine analysis, certainly a scholarly one. My only complaint is that it hasn’t got off the ground as it should have: first published in 2015, Peaceful Intervention in Intra-State Conflicts was never really promoted, never bought, never sold to the Sri Lankan public (much less the foreign public), in the same way other books on the peace process and the conflict were. True, the price isn’t too affordable, but then an inexpensive South Asia edition, or even distribution among libraries, is an option. If the Ministry of Foreign Affairs — and I believe we have one at the moment — is serious about promoting the truth about what happened here in those years to the world at large, it must consider promoting the works of our academics: not those funded from abroad, but those working from home.

In any case, Talpahewa’s book needs to be read. There’s a point where it asks more questions than it gives answers, where it asks us to ponder what went wrong. It’s only right that we find those answers, and ascertain why the world’s most formidable promoter of peace couldn’t stall the world’s most corpulent promoter of war. It’s like what Keyser Söze says in The Usual Suspects: “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” Mr Prabhakaran almost beat the Devil there: he convinced half the world he didn’t want war.

The writer can be reached at

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