I Regret We Could Not Spend More Time With Prabhakaran Says Erick Solheim

Erick Solheim, Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, Prabhakaran and Former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadiragamar

Erik Solheim, the Norwegian peace mediator in the 30-year-long Sri Lanka civil war, breaks his silence on his controversial role in a conversation with WION’s Padma Rao Sundarji.

Padma Rao Sundarji: How and when did the government of Norway decide to mediate in Sri Lanka and why did they pick you?

Erik Solheim: We were invited in absolute secrecy by the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga. At the time, only two people in Colombo knew, then President Chandrika and foreign minister Lakshman Kadiragamar. It stayed like that for one-and-a-half years. Only later, it became public. I believe we were invited because we could potentially be acceptable to India as a small nation. We were invited because we had, at that time, seen some successes in the Middle East. They were small successes. But as a small, faraway nation it was felt that we could not really mess up Sri Lanka and could be acceptable to both the Tigers and the government of Sri Lanka at the same time.


Q: Were you acceptable to New Delhi too? India is, after all, the biggest immediate neighbour with close cultural, religious and linguistic ties to Sri Lanka.

A: There was a lot of skepticism in Delhi. What will these pink, Christian Europeans with no real knowledge of South Asia make of problems on this continent? But at the end, we were not only acceptable to India, we had the closest relationship. After every visit to Sri Lanka, I went to New Delhi to inform the political leadership and the Indian intelligence about what I had achieved or not achieved.


Q: Take us back to your first and earliest effort at peace mediation in Sri Lanka. When was that and what was the result?

A: It was when I went to meet Prabhakaran for the first time. Again, that was not known to anyone in Sri Lanka; not even the PM was aware that we were allowed to go there by the President. We met him in an area controlled by the Tigers. We went by helicopter. Flying low over the fields and up again if it was mountains, it was kind of scary. Because neither the army nor the LTTE cadres on the ground knew we were there, they could have easily shot us down. Then we met with Prabhakaran. It was a good meeting. They confirmed their interest in the peace process. But it was a little bit difficult to understand how Prabhakaran got this enormous standing among Tamils, how he could be seen as their god, creator, and saviour at the time. He had this huge following. But we couldn’t really understand why people were following him like that.


Q: What proved to be the biggest hurdles during all the years of peace mediation?

A: The first of two main hurdles was the fact that Sri Lanka’s Sinhala community was divided into two main parties, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP). From independence, these two parties fought for power and both were much more consumed by the power struggle than with outreach to the Tamil community. Whenever one party was in power, the other party would oppose whatever the rival party did. Then the power would shift and so would positions. That was a huge problem. The Tamil community could not really place any confidence in any single offer from the Sinhala leaders because they did not know whether it would last. Then the more important issue: everyone knew that the only solution would be not a separate state but a federal organisation of Sri Lanka. In which the Tamils would have a lot of say and self-rule in the Tamil-dominated area but within one Sri Lankan state. Was Prabhakaran really ready for anything but a separate state? Could he embrace federalism?  The LTTE did that in one meeting in Oslo in 2002. But Prabhakaran was not consistent on acceptance of federalism. Still, we do not know whether he would have later accepted it. So working with that was difficult. These were the two main difficulties.


Q: There are a lot of allegations against the Norwegian mediators. One is that even though the LTTE, within years of the struggle, were acknowledged to be an armed separatist group, the Norwegians turned a blind eye to that fact. The Norwegians to date maintain contacts with many overseas ex-LTTE groups like the Transnational government of Tamil Eelam that sprung up even after the war ended. Could you address some of those allegations?

A: Remember that during our many years in Sri Lanka, we never ever did anything which we were not asked to do by the government of Sri Lanka. We worked with the government and the Tamil Tigers. We did not come with a lot of Norwegian opinions because we realised that our knowledge of Sri Lanka is limited. I don’t speak Tamil, I don’t speak Sinhala. I am not a Buddhist, I am not a Hindu, how can I really understand Sri Lanka? So what we could do is to see what the government wants, what the Tigers want and bring that together. That was our role.


Q: Since you mention it, the leadership of the LTTE was Christian…

A: Yes but the LTTE leadership was not really religious and those who were religious were Hindus. But I don’t think religion was important to them. The driving energy for Prabhakaran was his Tamil national view. He took the names of the Tigers from historical Tamil kings. And they really adored the Tamil language. Some of his advisors would often say that all the southern Indian languages be it Kannada, Malayalam or Telugu, were all versions of Tamil. So it was a very strong Tamil nationalism. Of course, it was also based on the fact that Tamils have been enormously successful. The Tamil Diaspora is the most successful anywhere in the world, stockbrokers, doctors, lawyers, they do very well. Even in India, the state of Tamil Nadu is doing better than others. So the Tamils have a lot to be proud of and that was the driving energy for Prabhakaran and the LTTE, not a religion.


Q: Indeed, that is another allegation. That there is a sizable Norwegian population of Sri Lankan Tamils in Norway and that they are the reason why the Norwegian government, and Erik Solheim, got involved in Sri Lanka. After all, you have been a politician in your country too.

A: We kept a very limited contact with the Tamil community in Norway for this very reason. Also because our main point of contact with the LTTE was their chief political advisor Anton Balasingham in London, whom I met every week. Simultaneously, our ambassador in Colombo would meet Chandrika Kumaratunga, Lakshman Kadirgamar and later Ranil Wickremesinghe every week too. Balasingham did not want us to involve the Tamil expat community. So the Tamil community neither had any influence on the peace process nor was kept in the loop. Indian leaders were -I went to Delhi all the time. But we did not inform the Tamil community in Norway for this reason.


Q: I remember speaking to your successor, Jon Hanssen-Bauer, the evening the Norwegians decided to pack their bags and leave the peace process. What was the last straw for the Norwegians? When you finally threw up your hands and said look we’re not touching this anymore…

A: We actually never did that. We said until the last day that if we can be useful to the government of Sri Lanka, to the Tamil Tigers, we are there for you. We were being criticised for that attitude. People were telling us you should have stayed, you should have done more, and that we had the wrong attitude. Here is a small nation, trying to assist two communities, the Tamils and the Sinhalese, in a country where thousands are dying every month and every year, there is no way you can give up, you mustn’t give up, as long as they want your support, you should support them. That was the one constant message from Delhi and from Washington (but Delhi was more important to us), ‘please don’t give up, please continue, never give up. Even if you can’t do anything big, if you can do something small, please continue’. I remember during my first visit to Delhi. Jaswant Singh was the foreign minister. After a long chat, he said: I have only one question. Are you patient?  I said, no, no, I’m not patient, how can we be when people are dying in Sri Lanka every month? Mothers are crying, children are dying, how can we be patient? To that, Singh said: do you know the way to Indira Gandhi International Airport? Go. Buy a ticket, making sure it’s a one-way ticket to Europe. Because if you’re not patient, you’ll only run into problems. If you take a 10-15 year perspective on the Sri Lankan conflict, then you may do something good. Of course, he was right, I was wrong. We learned our lessons and became patient. But still, the fundamental issues in Sri Lanka, the status of Tamils, and the influence of Tamils within the state of Sri Lanka are not resolved.


Q: Tell us more about your relationship with LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran. I remember you told me once that you went fishing together. Was it a friendship or more of a business relationship?

A: What I regret with the benefit of hindsight is that we could not spend more time with him. I met him more often than any other foreigner did in the world because basically he just met Tamils, only once met a Muslim delegation in Sri Lanka, met with a few Sinhalese but nearly always just met with Tamils. If we had spent more time with him, we would probably be able to influence him more. We did try to establish a more personal relationship with him by speaking about issues he really cared about, he was interested in films for sure, in food, he was known to be a good cook himself, he took some interest in nature. But it was hard to build a personal relationship because we had limited time and were not allowed to go up to the warring North by the Sri Lankan government too often. Then there was also a language barrier – his speaking in Tamil meant we needed an interpreter. Finally, he was the kind of a character who was not obviously open but charismatic, more closed and cautious.


Q: But didn’t the fact that the LTTE used child soldiers, practically invented the suicide bomb, didn’t these facts disturb you while you were negotiating with him? After all, you come from the European/ Scandinavian tradition which is so firmly embedded in human rights?

A: Absolutely. But we also negotiated with people on the Sri Lankan government’s side who committed huge war crimes and evil acts. Despite all that I used to just ask myself one question: what do the victims of the crimes want us to do? I came to the conclusion that what the victims really wanted was for us to speak to these guys and put a stop to this war. So, more important than my feelings was the impact on the victims Tens of thousands of Sri Lankans died, thousands of young Tiger cadres but also young soldiers from southern Sri Lankan villages and, towards the end of the war, tens of thousands of Tamil civilian victims. So, what did the victims want? I feel that peace negotiators in Yemen, Syria and other parts of the world must also focus on that, what the victims expect of us, how we can put a stop to the war.


Q: Why are Scandinavians and Europeans, and you all have constitutions embedded in the protection of human rights, so concerned about violations by the armies of other sovereign countries?  In the case of Sri Lanka, there were certainly alleged violations of human rights by the Sri Lankan armed forces and they are still being investigated by the Sri Lankan army. But what about the wars that western nations are themselves involved in, like in the Middle East, in Iraq, Syria where there are hundreds and thousands of human rights violations by your troops taking place on a daily basis? Why do they go unnoticed? Why do they not evoke that great interest? Is it because these nations, like NATO states, for instance, are involved in those wars themselves?


A: If one has that perspective, it is obviously completely wrong. I went into politics to a large extent because of the war in Vietnam, a war where the US committed enormous crimes. A completely unnecessary war which achieved nothing. It merely killed 2-3 million Vietnamese, 55 thousand Americans. Of course today, Vietnam is a blossoming nation, rapidly moving economically – and – best friends with the United States! So at the end of the day, all those millions suffered or died for nothing. If the Americans had left Vietnam alone, this would not have happened. War crimes and all unnecessary wars by all sides should obviously be condemned and we should focus on the conflict entrepreneurs who start wars. The United States has started a number of unnecessary wars. Very few people today believe it was a good idea to attack Iraq. Even if Saddam Hussein was a most despicable, horrible dictator, the US war has created so many problems. If it weren’t for that war, we would probably not have the Islamic State today. So let’s keep an equal focus on western and non-western wars and on terrorists and armies.


Q: But I will persist. The EU and the US initially looked upon the separatist war in Sri Lanka as a ‘freedom struggle’. They offered refuge to many thousands of LTTE cadres. These overseas Tiger sympathisers armed and funded the LTTE. K. Pathmanathan, their chief financier, told me this in an interview with WION earlier this year. Why do western countries sometimes live in ‘La- La’ land as far as faraway conflicts are concerned? Hasn’t the West made a mistake in nurturing and harbouring these groups?

A: Let’s accept that the public in many western countries has limited knowledge about other parts of the world and quite often make mistakes. For many years, I was in Myanmar. The western world kept up a boycott, sanctions on Myanmar which did not work. When I spoke to westerners, they said yes, we know sanctions do not work but we will still continue with them. So this ignorance, or lack of real concern, is definitely there. The answer to that is to try to understand more. We should obviously find an amicable peaceful solution to any conflict. If the Sinhalese and the Tamil leaders had been able to do that in the 50s or 70s, the conflict would not have come. Of course, fighting for Tamil rights, I have a lot of sympathy with that but, I have no sympathy with suicide bombing or, killing Rajiv Gandhi or, planting bus bombs or attacking the holy temple of Sinhala Buddhism in Kandy. Tamil Tigers made such horrible decisions, killing people. But we should all have some sympathy with the Tamils in Sri Lanka. If you are a Tamil there and you want to go to the police, the police just speak Sinhala so you cannot understand, that’s not easy.


Q: There are Eelam separatist organisations regrouping within Europe, they frequently raise the LTTE flag and that flag symbolises separatism, not merely Tamil rights. Why are your governments allowing this?

A: European countries allow basic freedom of expression, some find that positive, others not so. But I agree with you. Part of it is naiveté about what different groups want to do and that naiveté must stop. But when we worked in Sri Lanka, we were constantly doing everything on the basis of what the Sri Lankan government wanted and what the LTTE wanted, we were concentrated within that and aware that our knowledge was limited. That’s why we consulted India all the time because Indian intelligence had much more information about what was actually happening on the ground in Sri Lanka than I could possess. So it was useful to tap into their deep knowledge of the conflict.


Q: The most controversial aspect of your involvement in Sri Lanka remains shrouded in mystery to most people. I remember you spoke to me about it briefly at the time but the details remain largely shrouded. Would you care to tell us about the ‘White Flag’ incident involving the killing of LTTE top brass Puleedevan, Nadesan and others, despite their willingness to surrender? The allegation that will not go away that you personally tried to save LTTE chief Prabhakaran and his family?

A: It was on the 17th of May. It is also Norwegian national day so I remember it since I was on my way to our parade in Oslo. I received a call from Puleedevan, he was one of the nicest members of the Tigers. He was the chief of the LTTE’s political wing. He told us they wanted to surrender to the Sri Lankan army and whether we could assist him. I did not speak to him directly but a Norwegian colleague told him that it was too late for us to intervene because the end of the war was very close. We pointed out that we had offered them opportunities in the past to give up the struggle at a time when it was still possible for us to intervene. But that it was too late now. But what we can ask you, we told him, is to hoist a big white flag, that’s why it’s called the White Flag incident, and through loudspeakers and whatever means you have, make your intentions known to the Sri Lankan armed forces. We, on our part, will inform Sri Lankan leaders of your intention to surrender.


Q: Did you inform the Sri Lankan leaders?

A: Absolutely for sure. We informed Basil Rajapaksa, the advisor to President Rajapaksa. We were not alone, the Tigers did the same through some key Tamils and also, I think with some Indian interlocutors to send a message to the Sri Lankan leadership. The day after, we were informed that Nadesan and Puleedevan were killed. The exact circumstances of the killing are still not known. I don’t think they were with Prabhakaran at the time but I don’t know this exactly. How Prabhakaran himself was killed, I do not know either. But we have a very very strong suspicion that the 12-year-old son of Prabhakaran was captured by the Sri Lankan army and later executed by them, a completely irresponsible and evil act. Unfortunately for the Sri Lankan armed forces and to put it very, very nicely, there’s a big question mark on these killings, why they did not accept surrender and bring these people into court, rather than killing them.


Q: Are you still in touch with the current Sri Lankan government over these issues because there is an investigation on?

A:  No, I’m only in touch with them over environment issues now. But we now discuss the reconciliation between Tamils and Sinhalese after the war and how I, as a UN official concerned with the environment, can assist on environment issues, setting up investment facilities, working on saving the elephants, water management and suchlike.


Q: You have been environment minister, minister for international development of your country, the peace mediator in Sri Lanka, then the chief of the OECD in Paris and are now the chief of the UNEP. Which of these hats have you enjoyed wearing the most and which has been the most challenging?

A: The most challenging was, of course, the peace process in Sri Lanka. Because that was a matter of life and death for people. We knew that our acts may increase the killings if we did not get it right. During two years, there was not a single political assassination in Sri Lanka, which was considered huge progress at the time. Later, it went out of control and tens of thousands of Tamil civilians were killed. But the challenge to mediate between these two, the Tigers and the Sri Lankan leadership, and also being criticised for whatever we did which is normal in times of both peace and war, that was the biggest challenge.


Q: So you don’t regret playing the role of mediator at all?

A: I have no regrets. The only regret is that we did not succeed, because if we had succeeded, tens of thousands of people, who are now dead, would have been alive. Now when I look into the eyes of the women who lost their husbands or mothers who lost their children, whether they are Sinhalese or Tamil, I always ask myself, could we not have given them more. But if you ask what I enjoy the most, that’s my present position. Because working for the global environment is in my view the defining issue of our time.


Q: Are you planning to return to Sri Lanka in the near future? We hear you’re writing a book on that experience?

A: I’m not writing a book on Sri Lanka. I would be very happy to go back. But I will not go back in any way which is seen as a problem for the peace-makers, the reconciliators in Sri Lanka. I have so many friends there Chandrika, Ranil, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Tamil National Alliance leaders, the Muslim leader Rauff Hakim, I want to see them all. But I will go at a time when it does not create problems for anyone.


Q: Did Sri Lanka become a kind of a second home to you?

A:  Absolutely. It’s a place I care about the most other than my home country.

 (Courtesy WION)


8 Comments for “I Regret We Could Not Spend More Time With Prabhakaran Says Erick Solheim”

  1. Trevor Jayetileke

    Norway,India and now Singapore have a common interest in Sri Lanka .
    Norway has a Total Sovereign Wealth Fund of about a TrillionUS$.
    Singapore has about half a Trillion of US$ in its Total SWF.
    India has no SWF and has reserves of about US$350 Bln. ( 6 months of Imports ), and produces only 25% of its Crude oil requirements.
    So India needs money and oil to propel Growth and Play a role in the Asia Pacific.
    Norway needs to find oil to boost its sagging Crude oil production.
    Singapore has to find a way to circumvent from Sri Lanka grabbing its LIMELIGHT.
    Prabhakaren was the PAWN in this Game of Chess to achieve these objectives.
    The Bible says “What Man Proposes God Disposes” and that is what Happened., like how Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo. Alibaba and his 40 Thieves may be robbers like Robin Hood but Alibaba still has old Magic plus his Spin Doctor.
    Eric Solheim thought if the Tigers won, Norway can find the Oil in the Peninsula, and tried to save him to fight another day but unfortunately both Napoleon and Prabhakaren did not in his wildest dreams expect that there were Divine plans for Britain and Sri Lanka in those two instances using Nature to do the rest.
    For both Rain and Water played Havoc to spoil military strategy in Waterloo and Nanthikadal respectively. Napoleon in defeat escaped back to Paris at DUSK., with 40,000 dead in one afternoon and Praba and his Hard Core could not escape with its Hard Core as the SL Armed Forces NET was so thigh that it could not be penetrated. Prabhakaren died instantly by the Bullet of the 53rd Regiment and the Ardent Buddhist MR the President , and the Commanding Chief of all the Armed Services of Sri Lanka getting down from the plane the next morning from Jordon firstly went on his knees and kissing the tarmac the THANKED mighty GOD for ending the War., and fortunately did not know the Lingua France to Communicate.
    For Sri Lanka Buddhism and Hinduism/Christianity/Islam the two sides of our COIN.
    I thank Sri Lanka’s Triple Relics in our PENTAGON and Relics of the Orient we share with China which are our only which has saved us and Hopes for the Future.
    Martin Luther King Jnr. said “Either we live together as one Family or die as Fools”.
    Sri Lanka has to look at the “Big Picture” in the Dystopian Times we live in. As a Tear Drop ( shape of Crude oil ) we are a “Logistics Power Point” in the Indian Ocean and serve the East and West without Fear or Favor in World Affairs. This is our Calling and we have to RISE UP/ GRASP the NETTLE…God Bless LANKA.

  2. Trevor Jayetileke

    Sorry, Praba did not know English well to Communicate with Solheim, missed in my earlier Comment.
    Mahinda learned his English at Thurstan College Colombo and is fluent as any other., and was a Debater at Thurstan which was his main Forte plus Athletics.
    He was a Maverick at School and it is said only such people have the “IT” Factor., to change things around while others plod with the ‘Status Quo”.

  3. Ikarus

    This HYPOCRITE SNAKE UNDER the GRASS is weeping for the death of the leader of the RUTHLESS TAMIL TERRORIST BUTCHER since his primary interest the DIVISION of Sri Lanka did not materialized. However, he does not have TEARS for the POINT BLANK killing of a type of TERRORIST LEADER Bin Laden by the US soldiers. A great HYPOCRITE the underhand weapons supplier to the RUTHLESS TAMIL TERRORIST BUTCHERS under the guise of a peace maker should never be allowed to step on the Sri Lankan soil again even as a TOURIST.

    • D.T.Harry

      Agree with comments from Ikarus. Apparently,Solheim’s oddacity referring to Puleedevan, as the nicest member of tigers, exposes his soft corner towards the LTTE.On the contrary, he seems to sympathise only the demise of Puleedevan,Nadesan and Master Prabakaran over the many innocent civilians killed, after been held hostage as human shield, during the final moments of the war.

  4. H.L. Vanstraten

    I think that Solheim’s answers in this interview show him as a very honest and peace loving man, of this there can be little doubt. In this interview he identifies the two main obstacles to peace in Sri Lanka as he saw them. First the divisive nature of Sinhala politics in which the party in power will not be given any chance of bringing about any positive change by the opposition which is only interested in wrangling back power for itself. Secondly that the only obvious solution to the Sinhala Tamil conflict was and is a form of federalism of which he was’t sure if Prahbakaran could be persuaded to accept it. He was motivated in his work for peace by the tens of thousands of victims that fell victim to the conflict every day. I’m sure that any thought of Norwegian self interest with an eye on oil or whatever is and was far from his mind. The four comments I herewith read from various persons lead me to the conclusion that after the actual fighting the divisions in this island nation have become rather more entrenched than ever before. So the idea that the war has been successfully brought to an end is really an illusion. It is continuing to this very day be it in another form. This I feel is very sad. Peace is only possible if both hostile parties start to grant justice, security, yes even appreciation to each other. The four comments I read illustrate how far removed the writers of them are from this state of affairs. Alas, most people do not understand that God is neither a Buddhist, nor a Hindu or a Christian or a Muslim, because He would not be partial to any of his sons. He loves them all equally. He does not create strife and divisions, but we, humans do almost all the time. Because of our limited scope we commit the most horrible crimes to our neighbors and keep doing so wrecked by guilt that we feel deep within. That’s the eternal human tragedy. So tens of thousands in Sri Lanka have died in vain and yet the war goes on as our minds are still poisoned. God daily whispers in our ears that there is surely another, better way, but do we wish to listen?

  5. raj

    Please no hypothetical talk of the past. People always are interested in what actually happened in the past rather than this would have happen if they that was so. THIS IS USELESS TALK. IT IS USEFUL ONLY FOR MEDIA

  6. Get lost idiot, You are a joker.

  7. Kumaran

    Solheim and Norway!! Makes me puke. The most corrupt and double-tongued combination ever. Norway “initiated” peace in the Middle East several years ago and see what has happened! IF Norway was truly interested in an unbiased settlement in Sri Lanka, they could have promoted that by harnessing the influence of the E.U and The “West”, during the “Peace Accord” which eventually, just like Solheim was a phony!

    One day, you will pay for the innocent blood of both Sinhalese and Tamils.

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