The visit to Sri Lanka by a senior United Nations official sparked speculation this week that the government in Colombo may be looking for a way to replace the Norwegians in their role as peace facilitators with the UN.
However, UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, in an interview with the BBC this week, denied that the UN was going to replace Norway as facilitator in Sri Lanka’s peace process. The reports are “total rubbish” he told the BBC Tamil Service.
On the other hand, Norway remained tight-lipped on the possibility of the UN playing a part in the peace process with the Norwegian embassy spokeswoman Kjersti Tromsdal saying, “we wish not to comment. That would be the wisest thing to do.”
The LTTE said it is not aware of any move either to replace Norway with the UN as peace facilitator in Sri Lanka or remove the Nordic Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) and install a UN observer team.
''This is exactly what our stupid ancestors did by turning to the Dutch to get rid of the Portuguese''
LTTE media spokesman Daya Master pointed out that such a move would have to have the consent of the LTTE leadership who are an integral part of the conflict and signatories to the current peace agreement, the Daily Mirror reported.
Mr. Brahimi met with Sri Lankan government officials, including President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse, but not with the Liberation Tigers.
He also met with opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and leaders of political parties, including the Tamil national Alliance (TNA) and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC).
Mr. Brahimi is the former Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan and Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (from 3 October 2001 to 31 December 2004).
The speculation came as another senior UN envoy visited Sri Lanka to look at post-tsunami relief efforts.
Eric Schwartz, former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s deputy United Nations special envoy for tsunami recovery, told Reuters he was encouraged by Sri Lanka’s tsunami reconstruction and recovery efforts, but said there was a long road ahead.
He said tens of thousands of Sri Lankan tsunami survivors are still living in basic shelters and shacks over eight months on and frustration is mounting, but rebuilding communities takes time and must not be rushed.
Meanwhile, echoing widely held sentiments about the UN, Sri Lanka’s hardline monks’ party, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) strongly opposed any such moves, noting that it will only give recognition to an LTTE state.
The speculation was sparked by the lead story in the Sunday Times this week.
“Two urgent telephone calls from President Chandrika Kumaratunga to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan seeking an enhanced role for the world body in Sri Lanka’s peace process have triggered the arrival of a senior UN diplomat in Colombo while causing a flurry of activity in diplomatic circles here about Norway’s future status as peace broker,” the paper reported.
''We wish not to comment. That would be the wisest thing to do'' - Norway embassy
The President “sought Mr. Annan’s assistance to urge the United Nations to take a pro-active role” in the Sri Lankan peace process, amidst what the paper called “mounting criticism of the conduct of current facilitator, Norway,” it added.
The Sunday Times suggests the move was inspired by mounting criticism of Norway’s role in the current peace process in the aftermath of the killing of former Foreign Minister Kadirgamar, and President Kumaratunga’s own handling of the situation.
“Several diplomats confirmed they were taken by surprise,” said the paper. “They point out that the earliest indication they got of the government’s disappointment with the Norwegians came when incumbent Foreign Minister Anura Bandaranaike criticised Norway’s poor performance during an interview with The Hindu newspaper’s New Delhi correspondent during his recent visit to India.”
Norway was jointly selected as the preferred peace negotiator by both the Liberation Tigers and the Sri Lanka government in 1999. The Liberation Tigers have not publicly commented on Sri Lanka’s dissatisfaction with the role played by Norway.
“In the southern polity, as opposed to the north and east, the Norwegians have lost credibility almost altogether,” the Sunday Times said in its editorial, echoing a common refrain of the Sinhala right.
Norwegian Embassy spokesperson Kjeish Tromsdal told The Sunday Times that they had been informed about the visit of UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi but did not wish to make further comment.
Mr. Brahimi flew into Colombo Friday night for a five-day visit during which he met Sri Lanka’s President, Prime Minister, opposition leader and leaders of political parties – but not the Liberation Tigers.
Farhan Haq, a UN spokesman in New York, told The Sunday Times that Mr. Annan had asked his Special Advisor Lakhdar Brahimi to visit Sri Lanka and submit a report on the current political, and military situation in the country.
Mr. Haq emphasized that Mr. Brahimi’s current visit was “on a request from the government of Sri Lanka,” and was not on the initiative of the United Nations, said the paper.
“Mr.Brahimi shall assess the situation in the country and subsequently report to the Secretary-General,” the UN spokesman added.
"Nobody asked us and we are not looking for a job" - UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi
Mr. Brahimi, a former Algerian Foreign Minister is considered a specialist on areas of conflict prevention and conflict resolution, and was on a visit to Nepal when he was requested to divert to Colombo before returning back to office, the paper said.
Mr. Annan is quoted as saying that his Special Advisor had served “in the most dangerous places, carrying out the most delicate and difficult assignments with great integrity and true wisdom.”
“He is one of our leading global citizens, whose wise counsel I rely on,” the Secretary-General added.
Sri Lanka has customarily rebuffed UN intervention in the past, most memorably when former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar expressed his anger over UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali’s expressions of concern about the displacement of over 800,000 Tamils by a Sri Lanka Army offensive in 1995.
“We do not intend to permit any outside agencies, including the UN...to carry out independent operations [in Sri Lanka],” Mr Kadirgamar, who was shot dead by a sniper last month, told the world body at the time.
When the present Secretary General attempted earlier this year to visit all the tsunami affected areas in Sri Lanka, including the LTTE-controlled Mullaitivu, the Colombo government prevented Annan from visiting LTTE controlled areas, according to a Reuters report. Kadirgamar was again serving as Foreign Minister.
Indeed, the Sunday Times was this week deeply critical of Kumaratunga’s soliciting a UN role in settling Sri Lanka’s protracted ethnic conflict.
“We still don’t know if all this is just another knee-jerk reaction by the President … or whether her current international advisers, some of who are aspiring for top slots in a future UN, and her political advisers, have nudged her in this direction,” admits the Sunday Times in its editorial.
Pointing out that President Kumaratunga is now “a lame-duck President for all intents and purposes,” the editorial queried what a successor might do.
“The new tendency will be therefore that instead of five countries running the peace process, which is bad enough, we are going to have 150 countries and more doing it,” says the Sunday Times editorial, adding “it’s doubtful that either Presidential candidate will endorse this kind of internationalizing of what is essentially still a domestic dispute.”
Sri Lanka’s nationalist forces have also traditionally opposed intervention by the UN. Monks held protest rallies outside the UN office in Colombo when Mr. Annan issued a statement condeming the killing of the head of the LTTE’s political wing in Batticaloa-Amparai district, E. Kousalyan and his team in the Sri Lanka government-controlled areas earlier this year.
Mr. Annan’s condemnation of the attack, which came a day after the Sri Lankan government’s, had left then Foreign Minister Kadirgamar “incandescent with rage,” TamilNet reported at the time. Kadirgamar had made Annan’s office aware of his government’s “displeasure” over his “unwarranted” comments, the report said.
The Sunday Times protested that “in the last few months, [President Kumaratunga] bowed to both local and foreign pressures and sidelined her late Foreign Minster for his hard-line approach of holding the Norwegians accountable.”
The Sunday Times’ sister paper, the Daily Mirror was even more blunt.
Saying Kumaratunga’s actions were akin to “exactly what our stupid ancestors did by turning to the Dutch to get rid of the Portuguese and so on and so forth,” the paper’s editorial Monday argued: “President Kumaratunga should not muddle things any further in the few remaining days of her presidency by asking the UN to poke its nose into our affairs.”