Members of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament,
I am pleased to be here with you today, and at the outset let me thank you Mr Chairman and members of the Foreign Relations Committee of the European Union for giving me the opportunity to address you. I am here at a time when many positive developments are taking place in my country especially in relation to the peace process. The Government has just concluded a round of talks with the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Geneva after a lapse of nearly three years, and the next round of talks are scheduled for late April.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Since the signing of the Ceasefire Agreement in February 2002, there have been continued Ceasefire violations. The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) has ruled that 3519 violations against the LTTE, which include child abductions, political assassinations, collection of illegal taxes and other violations. This is as opposed to 163 violations attributed to the Government of Sri Lanka as at 31st January 2006. It is no secret that the LTTE has continued to use the Ceasefire Agreement as a convenient cover for strengthening of its military capability. For instance they have constructed an airstrip and have now acquired aviation assets.
Following the assassination of my predecessor, the late minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, the Government reiterated the necessity for "an urgent meeting between the Government and the LTTE to review the practical functioning of the ceasefire with a view to preventing further killings and other violations." In the face of international condemnation of the Kadirgamar assassination, the LTTE agreed to the talks, but an agreement on a venue proved to be more difficult to achieve.
Immediately upon assuming office in November 2005, President Mahinda Rajapaksa called for the commencement of direct negotiations with the LTTE based on the principles of democracy, human rights, transparency and pragmatism. President Rajapaksa also emphasized the importance of observing the Ceasefire and conveyed to the LTTE through the Norwegian facilitators on the need for a meaningful ceasefire.
A mere ten days after President Rajapaksa assumed office in November last year, the LTTE initiated a series of provocative attacks targeting Security Forces personnel. Between 4th December 2005 and 22nd January 2006, the LTTE carried out nine major attacks claiming the lives of 77 Security Forces and 09 Police personnel. The major attacks included claymore mine explosions on vehicular convoys, firing at an airborne helicopter that was en route to transport the Deputy Foreign Minister of Italy, Mrs. Margherita Boniver, an attack on a Navy dingy and a suicide attack on a Navy Fast Attack Craft. These attacks were carried out with surgical precision, leaving no room for doubt about the LTTE’s involvement despite their claims to the contrary. The SLMM stated [and I quote] “the LTTE claims that the people are behind the attacks on the military. The SLMM finds this explanation unacceptable. It is also safe to say that the LTTE involvement cannot be ruled out and we find the LTTE indifference to these attacks worrying” [unquote].
Despite such severe provocations, President Mahinda Rajapaksa displayed great restraint and patience confounding many critics who tried to portray the President as a ‘Hawk’ or ‘Hardliner’ in the run up to the November election.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
On the issue of a venue, the Government showed flexibility on five occasions. The Government’s initial offer to hold talks in Colombo and the second offer of Omanthai in the Zone of Separation were rejected outright by the LTTE. The proposal of Bandaranaike International Airport in Sri Lanka as a venue, suggested by the Norwegians, was also met with the disapproval of the LTTE. Then the Government proposed an Asian venue, and further to this Japan offered to host talks. The LTTE rejected both these proposals as well.
The EU declaration in September last year imposing travel restrictions and expressing active consideration of listing the LTTE had a compelling effect on them to demonstrate a level of flexibility and agree to the resumption of talks. However they continued to use the venue as an issue of contention. In fact the delaying tactics adopted by the LTTE, prompted the Co-chairs to issue a statement from Brussels on 19th December warning them of “serious consequences” if the LTTE did not resume negotiations immediately. This was followed a strong message made by the US Under Secretary for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns during his visit to Colombo in January this year [I quote]
“ The government is democratic, the government is composed of people who are responsible…. Our major concern is with the LTTE. There is no moral comparison, no moral equivalency, that we see between the government and the LTTE, and we think the major part of the burden for peace rests on that organization.”
Mounting criticism by the international community on the intransigent conduct of the LTTE was instrumental in changing their disposition towards talks. In late January when the Norwegian International Development Cooperation Minister Erik Solheim met the LTTE, they expressed their willingness to resume talks and agreed to Geneva as the venue.
The outcome of the Geneva talks is reflected in the joint statement issued by the Government and the LTTE, as well as through a number of other factors, perhaps not reflected in the statement. For instance [Ladies and Gentlemen],
• There was an immediate de-escalation of violence following the announcement of the dates for talks, which continues to date.
• Even before the commencement of talks, a number of technical issues were addressed amicably in Geneva. For instance, sequencing of speakers, subjects for discussion, and numbers on delegations were all successfully resolved with our facilitators.
• While the opening statements made by the Government and the LTTE raised a number of issues of concern, only two issues were discussed at some length during the talks:
I) Child conscription and
II) Killings, attacks on security forces and armed groups.
We are confident that the initial talks will provide a firm foundation for further discussion on these two issues as well as others.
• As mentioned in the final statement, the Government and the LTTE agreed to continue talking and fixed dates for the next round of talks in April.
As a new government negotiating with the LTTE for the first time, an agreement to meet again must in itself be seen as a significant achievement. It is also an acknowledgement by both parties for a need for further political engagement. In our view, the talks have established new benchmarks of behavior which can be considered an additional element towards making the ceasefire more meaningful.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
A unique and unprecedented feature of the peace process under President Rajapaksa has been its truly consultative nature. Immediately after assuming office, the President initiated policy talks first with his coalition partners – the JVP, and the JHU, as well as other opposition parties. The outcome of these consultations has been positive with all parties pledging their support to the President’s peace effort.
Prior to and following the Geneva talks, the President convened All Party Conferences to build a national consensus on the peace process. This forum has provided an opportunity to inform all political parties represented in Parliament on the progress made at the talks as well as providing them an opportunity to express their views and concerns.
The Government strongly believes that seeking consensus amongst the “democratic polity” is a pre-requisite to any lasting solution. To quote President Rajapaksa [I quote]
“peace must be built on commitments that can be delivered in full. It is towards this end that I build consensus within the political landscape, so that the agreements that we reach at peace talks are fully deliverable.” [Unquote]
The President, ladies and gentleman, will continue to engage all political parties, religious leaders and civil society on matters concerning the peace process. The government takes pride in the fact that the Government’s participation at the talks was with the consent and support of all political parties in Sri Lanka. This is a delicate process and that is why the international community must be extremely sensitive to the nuances and complexities of the Sri Lankan political landscape when dealing with the LTTE during this critical period. The international community must therefore be mindful of such sensitivities. Any over enthusiastic patronage of the LTTE even before they have renounced violence not even by word will create unnecessary perception problems within the Sri Lankan polity. The international community must continue with its “velvet glove” policy, firm but polite, to ensure that the LTTE enters the democratic mainstream. Just as the Government has been dealing with them in a spirit of flexibility and compromise, the LTTE too must be told in no uncertain terms they must respond in the same spirit.I would like to take this opportunity thank the international community for the interest and support extended by them for our peace building efforts and for being friends of Sri Lanka’s peace process. A special word of thanks is due to the European Union, which has played a significant role in this regard as a member of the Co-Chair group together with the United States, Norway and Japan. We also appreciate India’s involvement with the Co-chairs in an exchange of views at the recent Co-chairs meeting in Brussels.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The challenge now is to ensure the continuity of the talks and to engage the LTTE in discussions until such time we reach a lasting solution to the present conflict. Since 1985, as you know, from Thimpu onwards, each time the Government tried to negotiate, the LTTE has played truant, and left the negotiating table on some flimsy excuse. Now, the international community must impress upon them that such excuses would no longer be tolerated and whatever problems that may arise in the days ahead, the best forum to solve such differences is at the negotiating table with the powers of persuasion and not in the jungles of Vanni with guns and bullets
As Sri Lanka prepares for local government election, it is time to reflect on the fact that democratic rights enjoyed by the citizens of Asia’s oldest democracy, Sri Lanka received universal franchise in 1931, are no longer available to the average Tamil person living in the North & the East. Without ever having directly participated in any of Sri Lanka's elections, the LTTE has, over the past two decades, attempted to influence the outcome of every presidential or parliamentary election in the country by killing candidates and intimidating voters in the North-East even enforcing a boycott. The LTTE has systematically killed more than 70 Tamil politicians from Alfred Duraiappa, mayor of Jaffna in 1975, to Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in 2005, who dared to voice their support for devolution of power and a non-separatist solution to the conflict. Even the leader of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), one of the largest democratic Tamil political parties, Mr. Anandasagaree, who is here in the audience today, is unable to return to visit his constituents in the North due to LTTE death threats.
The EU in its report on the Presidential election of November 2005 stated that polling in the south proceeded satisfactorily, however voting in the North and the East was marred by violence accompanied by an enforced boycott by the LTTE resulting in extremely low voter participation in many areas.
The Government of Sri Lanka calls on the international community to impress upon on the LTTE on the need to ensure that citizens of the North & East be given an opportunity to exercise their franchise within a framework of democratic pluralism. The LTTE has been permitted to conduct political work in the North and East, and the Government expects that all other political parties will also be able to conduct political activity in these areas. The Government is gravely concerned by the intolerance to any democratic dissent shown by the LTTE even four years after the Ceasefire, and this certainly will be raised for discussion in future Ceasefire talks.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The countries in the West have been a lucrative source of financing to the LTTE. In Europe now we see that the LTTE is advancing to a more sophisticated stage of fixed income generation. All Sri Lankan Tamil families in Europe are being systematically registered and assigned a unique PIN number. The LTTE is collecting information including their family details in Sri Lanka, income status and subscription to LTTE’s satellite television channel. This information is to be used as a form of illegal tax assessment in which each family will be required to make a stipulated monthly contribution.
Citizens of Sri Lankan Tamil origin from European Union countries, visiting areas where there is a predominant LTTE presence have been subject to harassment for the lack of a PIN Number or for not making the stipulated contribution. In an article published in “Le Figaro”, the of 2nd December 2005, a French citizen of Tamil origin described how the LTTE accessed all his personal details at an LTTE check point in Sri Lanka with his PIN number and confiscated his French passport until his family in France agreed to pay up the outstanding amount.
We urge the European Union takes note and end this systematic registration of the Tamil population in Europe in the context of its own regulatory framework on the protection of personal data and in the larger context of financing terrorism. Stopping this process would effectively constrain the harassment of Sri Lankan Tamils in Europe by the LTTE.
On the 15th of March, a ground breaking independent study by a well known organization, the Human Rights Watch has been released, giving a detailed account of the systematic and widespread extortion of funds by the LTTE and its front organizations in Europe and North America.
We request the EU to continue to move forward from its position relating to the LTTE as stated in the EU declaration of 26th September 2005 in progressing towards a sanctions regime within the European Union territory so as to prevent funding, promoting and the incitement of terrorism.
Having said that, ladies and gentlemen, I would like to state that despite the dilemma of having to negotiate with a group who has yet to renounce terrorism and violence, Sri Lanka remains fully committed to a negotiated political solution to achieve durable peace in Sri Lanka. We still believe the LTTE are a part of the Sri Lankan polity. Even for a moment, , ladies and gentlemen, we cannot forget that those underage combatants, with cyanide capsules hanging around their necks, are also children of our land. They have had their childhood and innocence snatched away at an impossibly young age, fighting for a cause most probably they do not even comprehend. The innocent Tamils who are trapped in the North, who can neither afford an air ticket overseas nor have the freedom to move elsewhere in Sri Lanka, are our citizens too. They also must have the opportunity to live in peace and reap the benefits of democracy and freedom that the rest of the country enjoys.
The EU, by itself and as a Co-chair has always been supportive of the peace process and helpful in efforts to resume Talks. Now that the Talks have commenced, , ladies and gentlemen, I have no doubt that the EU and other friends of Sri Lanka will continue to extend support, being mindful of the sensitivity and vulnerability of the delicate efforts the Government to bring back peace to all Sri Lankans living in our country, until it matures into a final solution. We hope that in the not too distant future, the day will come when the LTTE will renounce separatism and violence and embrace the rule of law and democratic pluralism. This will be the day , ladies and gentlemen, when all peace loving Sri Lankans will roll out the red carpet and welcome the LTTE into the multi ethnic, multi cultural family that is Sri Lanka.