25th July, 2004  Volume 11, Issue 2

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INTERVIEWS

Patience running out, warns Akashi

Japan’s Special Envoy to Sri Lanka, Ambassador Yasushi Akashi says it is clear the peace process has not made any headway in the last few months but hopes the parties to the conflict will resume negotiations at the earliest.

In an exclusive interview with The Sunday Leader, Ambassador Akashi also pointed out the international community does not have unlimited time for Sri Lanka and that it was important for the parties to act with a sense of urgency in resuming peace negotiations.

He also said the international community expects both parties to honour the Oslo Declaration where the basis of the final solution should be Federal in nature, recognising the right of the Tamil people for internal self-determination within a united Sri Lanka.

Following are excerpts:

By Lasantha Wickrematunge in Tokyo

Q: You have been involved in Sri Lanka’s peace process for quite sometime now. As of today, how would you assess the status of the peace process?

A: I think the peace process has made some tangible gains already. Thanks to the very competent, dedicated work of the Norwegians, the ceasefire agreement was reached and this in effect is monitored by the SLMM and General Furuhovde. I think it is very important to recognise these gains.

Unfortunately, the recent troubles in the east have created a complexity in the relationship between the government and the LTTE. The LTTE seems to be deeply suspicious of the intentions of the government, especially of the armed forces with regard to the so called Karuna factor. I very much hope that these problems can be resolved in a mutually satisfactory manner so that open negotiations can be resumed on the basis of full preparation by both sides in a spirit of give and take. Therefore, we in Japan are basically supportive of the peace process wishing all the best to the parties in the negotiations. Our position has not altered  since the Tokyo conference with regard to the rehabilitation and reconstruction of Sri Lanka. We intend to be a forceful, helpful and interested supporter of the peace process without interfering in the negotiations as such which belongs to the Sri Lankan people and nobody else.

Q: In your view has the peace process progressed or retarded since the April 2 General Election?

A: I think it is clear that progress has not been made in these months because on the side of the government, after the April 2 election, they have to put the house in order. They have to constitute the cabinet, it is a coalition of different political parties and they have to agree on apportionment of cabinet seats. They have to also find agreed areas for negotiations with the LTTE and even before the elections some difference of views between the government’s two coalition parties were not quite clear. But I hope that the policy differences between them can be resolved to the satisfaction of both so that the government can pursue negotiations with a unified viewpoint.

Q: There were reports that just prior to the dissolution of Parliament,when you met the President she had indicated she did not intend dissolving parliament but subsequently she did dissolve. At the subsequent meeting you had, did the President indicate why she dissolved parliament at the time she did?

A: We did not touch on that particular question.

Q: You had a co chairs meeting in Brussels in June and a fairly strong statement was issued with regard to the need for progress in the peace talks with an indication the international community might go elsewhere with the aid pledged for reconstruction since there are other countries too which need urgent attention. Now, since making that statement what follow up action has been taken, if any?

A: That statement made by the four co-chairs in Brussels is as you say pretty strong. Its message is very clear, we are all deeply concerned and the question of negotiations is so far at a standstill. The term used in that statement was ‘drift’ but we know that both the government and the LTTE are aware of the urgency of resuming the talks and are preparing the ground for the resumption with the help of the Norwegians and we have to wait till some of the preliminary obstacles can be cleared up, including the troubles in the east.

Q: How long is the international community prepared to wait till the government and the LTTE sort out these problems and start showing movement in the peace process?

A: I cannot tell you definitely as to how long.

Q: Wouldn’t your statement then be confined to mere words with no real action contemplated and the two sides not compelled to take the statement seriously since there is no follow up action planned for failure to comply?

A: You see we say we are ready to make a positive contribution to peace through our economic assistance and cooperation. These additional contributions can be expected if prospects for peace become brighter. So we hope to present a brighter future for all Sri Lankans if substantial progress can be achieved for peace and we are in close touch with other governments and international financial institutions like the World Bank, IMF and ADB. I think all Sri Lankans, both the government and the LTTE as well as others are aware of this clear attitude on the part of the international community. We are in close touch with each other and the parties to the conflict so that positions can be prepared and that fruitful negotiations can be resumed as soon as possible.

Q: Do you accept the position that  the peace talks should start from where it stopped at the time the LTTE pulled out of the talks? Now the LTTE says it stopped. Do you agree or do you think that with the advent of a new government it should be a new process that should start?

A: I think that I differentiate between the peace process and the peace negotiations. The peace process is there with very important achievements such as the ceasefire agreement, presence of the SLMM, and the statements of principle as enunciated in Oslo and Tokyo. These are the gains. So when negotiations resume they will not start from zero but they will be based on gains already achieved. The final peace still eludes us and therefore renewed efforts have to be made to reach agreement in the remaining new areas like the interim self-governing authority.

Q: Ambassador, would you not say the LTTE is justified in calling for the resumption of talks based on the ISGA proposals because that is the point at which the talks stalled and the former government and the LTTE started to approach the recommencement of the talks by submitting proposals for an interim administration?

A: Mr Wickrematunge, I do not want to go into the details of the negotiations as you know the preparation of the agenda has caused some discussion. I am confident a commonly acceptable agenda can be adopted by both sides. It is not the agenda but the common meeting ground which is important.

Q: What would you say is the major stumbling block now to restart the peace talks?

A: The developments in the east stemming from the Karuna revolt is a major problem that has to be resolved by both sides. The resumption of suicide bombings in Colombo also casts a cloud over the process and I very much hope both sides renew their commitment to the ceasefire both in spirit and letter so that an atmosphere for genuine negotiations will be created. I know that solving the remaining problems will not be easy. It will take time but as they say a journey of 1000 miles must start with a first step. And already several first steps have been taken and so I hope the present government will be able to pursue fruitful peace talks with the LTTE and be able to solve the problems existing in the east.

Q: You mentioned the situation with regard to Karuna and the suicide bombing in Colombo. In the eyes of the international community given the allegations made by the LTTE that the government is assisting Karuna to destabilise the east and the counter allegations against the LTTE that it continues to recruit child soldiers and use suicide bombers, are both sides responsible for violating the ceasefire and is it in danger of collapse?

A: We are very apprehensive of the implications of the recent incidents. I believe the ceasefire agreement is still in tact but I am afraid the spirit of that agreement has been contested, challenged. But I still like to believe the ceasefire agreement is still valid and constitute the foundation on which the negotiations should commence.

Q: As a key player in the peace process, whilst not commenting on the internal politics of Sri Lanka, would you say one of the reasons that has seen the peace process being stalled is due to the internal contradictions within the United People’s Freedom Alliance government and its inability to come up with a unified position for the resumption of the peace talks?

A: I do not wish to comment on the internal politics of Sri Lanka. We have to maintain our impartiality. With regard to the government’s relationship with the opposition via relationship with the parties in the government, whatever we say may be misconstrued and I have had unfortunate experiences already of my remarks misconstrued in some, not all Sri Lankan press. Our effectiveness depends very much on our impartiality.

Q: Would you say, the government must come up with a set of concrete proposals for negotiations with the LTTE? The previous government submitted a set of proposals and the LTTE submitted its response and that was to be the basis of negotiations. Would it then not help the resumption of talks if the new government also submits its proposals and the two sets — the LTTE’s and that of the new government could form the basis of resuming talks?

A: I am sure the very competent and very efficient Peace Secretariat constituted by President Kumaratunga has been doing a lot of preparations vis a vis the LTTE proposals on the ISGA. As I said, I know my friend Jayantha Dhanapala, I have the highest regard for his ability to analyse the situation and come up with suggestions. I think what complicates the matter is politics rather than a lack of ideas and suggestions. I am sure President Kumaratunga and all those concerned in government will pursue the question of peace with a sense of urgency, which is absolutely necessary.

Q: There was a meeting of UPFA constituent party leaders the previous week to discuss the ISGA and due to divergent views of the alliance, it was decided to invite all parties to ascertain their views including that of Opposition Leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe and ask them what should be included in the agenda. Do you think it is a positive step looking to the opposition for the agenda given the divergent views of some parties including the monks? Will a consensus ever be possible in such a situation?

A: If you are asking the question about the possibility of consensus it is highly desirable that such a consensus will emerge. When I met Mr Wickremesinghe during his term as prime minister, I said it will be highly desirable to agree with the President on the outline of the basic position to be taken at the negotiations with the LTTE. I think there are some elements common to both forces.

Within the government, the JVP represents a different view. Here for the past several weeks of the new government we have seen a rapprochement of the positions taken by the leaders in the government and we hope this will be made concrete as the negotiating position of the government. But I think all the major political groupings should continue their dialogue in a true spirit of give and take for the future of Sri Lanka.

If they continue this petty bickering, it is possible the international community might feel that Sri Lankans are not mindful of their vital stakes on the question of peace and national unity.

Q: Considering what you have said, would you say internal politics and the clash of personalities is what is standing in the way of a breakthrough in the peace process and stability in the country?

A: I would put it in a different way. I would say genuine peace in Sri Lanka can always be built on the basis of consensus and agreement for the future of the country by all those concerned who are interested in the peace in Sri Lanka, with the values and the objectives and principles which were enunciated in the Oslo and Tokyo Declarations. As to how to achieve the peace and through what means, it is for the Sri Lankan leaders to decide. Our wish is that the day of final agreement will come very soon rather than taking weeks and months while precious time is being lost.

Q: You mentioned the Oslo and Tokyo Declarations. The Oslo Declaration spoke of a federal solution recognising the rights of the Tamil people for internal self-determination. The Tokyo Declaration set out certain conditions to be honoured by both the government and the LTTE for the disbursement of funds amongst other matters. Is the international community and the co-chairs still firmly of the view that the parties to the conflict must abide by the principles enunciated in those declarations for your continued support? 

A: Absolutely. We are very clear that the principles enunciated in Oslo as well as Tokyo are very important and have to be kept in mind by the negotiators of the peace in Sri Lanka. We are confident it will be honoured. These are well thought out principles taking fully into account the interests and aspirations of the Sri Lankan people as a whole.

Q: So the contours of a final settlement will be a federal structure recognising the rights of the Tamil people and right to internal self-determination as per the Oslo Declaration, and the international community would expect the government to honour it?

A: Yes.

Q: In the backdrop of the strongly worded statement issued by the co-chairs in Brussels, no dates were fixed for a follow up meeting of the co chairs. Is that significant and is that a signal to both parties, the government and the LTTE, that the international community is losing patience and if they do not get their act together you will walk away from Sri Lanka?

A: I simply like to say that the co-chairs of the Tokyo conference are watching the situation closely, analysing and evaluating everything that is going on. Do not think we have lost patience. We are patient and persevering but none of us have unlimited time at our disposal. We have a number of other urgent international issues which call for our attention. Sri Lanka and its peace, its welfare is very close to our hearts, especially to the Japanese heart, but those of us who are fighting to bring aid to Sri Lanka, I have been worried about difficult times to persuade our own people to support and continue to honour our comitment to your country.

Q: Given the present impasse, how long will the international community wait, six months, one year, two?

A: I cannot quantify precise times but I have described in qualitative terms our feelings and our concerns and our expectations.

Q: Isn’t it correct then that the two parties will have no compelling reasons to get back to the table but continue with the cold war since there is no threat of the international community withdrawing its support?

A: I hope that is not the case. I hope everybody will understand our sense of urgency in this matter which is very real and which is very clear.


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