Presentation prepared by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha at the Oslo Debate on
Whether or not to engage with extremists
Held on June 18th at the Oslo Forum 2014
(Delivered after the presentation of M A Sumanthiran, MP)

When I was first invited to participate in this debate, I was told it was about talking to terrorists. I thought then that I would like to speak in favour of doing this. This was in line with a position I took up a quarter of a century ago, at one of the early seminars when the Liberal Party proposed a programme of far-reaching constitutional reforms.

We were faced then by two terrorist movements, one in the North, the other in the South. I had been strongly critical of some appalling terrorist activity that had taken place recently, and was challenged by one of my former students about my condemnation of those he saw rather as freedom fighters – and I think he referred then to both groups. My response was that I did not think it correct to refer to people as terrorists, though this did not detract from the moral obligation to stand foursquare against terrorist activity.

This was perhaps a naïve view, and needs fine-tuning. But I do still think that those who turn to terrorist activity may have reasons for this that the authorities they challenge need to understand and also respond to. Engaging with them then is a necessity, though it must be done with care, and based on principles that make clear that violence is not acceptable, and certainly not acceptable against individuals who have no responsibility themselves for oppression and abuse that is intolerable. But we need to distinguish actions which are reprehensible from motives that may arise from unacceptable situations for which we too are responsible.

The situation is very different with extremists, who are now the subject of our debate. This makes it much easier for me to oppose keenly and anxiously the suggestion that we need to engage with them. Though I believe we need to understand their position, I see no reason to respond positively to extremist agendas. Indeed I believe that intolerable damage has been done by what I see as the total cynicism with which some governments, and in particular those of the United States, have engaged with extremists. They were obviously not at all interested in responding to the actual agendas of those extremists, but were rather seeking to use them to achieve their own, I fear in many cases nefarious, ends. The horrors, as I write this, of what has just happened in Karachi and Mosul, the continuing confusion in Libya, with disruptive spillovers into Algeria and Tunisia and Mali, the continuing destruction of centres of human civilization in Syria, all bear witness to the enormity of a Western cynicism I find deeply loathsome.

Unfortunately the great defenders of Western culture do not I think understand the principles of Christian ethics, the warnings against treating means as ends, people as commodities. C S Lewis explains graphically in That Hideous Strength the danger of machines that take over their creators, but I don’t suppose Ronald Reagan or Donald Rumsfeld read the Bible except mechanically, let alone any serious exposition of its ideals. So extremism will I fear dominate international relations for the next few decades, and give rise to converse extremisms until all ends in a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party – with Angela Merkel perhaps playing Alice, her every move known in advance through increasingly intrusive technology.

But enough of speculation about the horrors still in store for us through international maneuvers to promote intransigence, Jinnah in Pakistan, Savimbi in Angola, Netanyahu in Israel, ignoring the efforts at conciliation of a Rabin or a Gandhi, both victims of extremists, representing action and reaction respectively. I have mentioned these because they are all germane to the concept paper we were sent, with its references to Islamic extremism, encouraged by the West as a counterweight to the socialism they feared, in the India of Gandhi and Nehru, in the nationalism of Mossadegh and Nasser, in the dictatorships that nevertheless encouraged equity for women – which I use as one of the principal indicators in assessing the potential for freedom and development in any nation – in Syria and Lybia and Afghanistan before the Taleban took over. The techniques recently used by Boko Haram to advance an exclusivist agenda exemplify the distinction which I indicated in my introductory remarks.

This distinction characterizes the phenomenon which I presume I am supposed to deal with for the most part, namely the talks with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which were brokered by the Norwegians. I was throughout in favour of discussions with them, and indeed tried very hard when I took over as Head of the Peace Secretariat in 2007 to resume discussions with the LTTE Peace Secretariat in the North. I called several times but was not put through to my counterpart. Later I sent messages through the Norwegian head of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, who called back excitedly once, when he visited Kilinochchi to tell me that he thought they were ready to talk. But that came to nothing, I think precisely because by then the extremists had taken over, those who did not want to reach an agreement that would satisfy some of the difficulties the Tamils had faced, but who rather wanted only to achieve a state of their own in which they controlled everything.

One of our problems in the course of discussion was the failure to assert principles that should not have been the subject of negotiation. It is not well known, because of the failure of our communication skills as a government, as opposed to the brilliant propaganda machine of the LTTE, that they broke off talks in 2003 and again in 2006. On the first occasion it was after their chief negotiator, Mr Balasingham, had agreed to the outlines of a solution with a united Sri Lanka, which his leader found unacceptable. Mr Balasingham was put in cold storage after that, as it were, but there was a positive result for the Sri Lankan state from our willingness then to attempt compromise. The best military commander of the LTTE, Karuna as he was called, decided that the LTTE leadership was not interested in negotiations, and he therefore began to express dissatisfaction with the regime. He was summoned then to Kilinochchi, but avoided the fate that had befallen a previous negotiator, Mahattaya, who was tortured and killed because he had attempted to compromise way back in the early nineties. Karuna disobeyed orders and instead broke away with many of the Eastern cadres, whom he said had been sacrificed by the Northern command, with no consultation of their views or needs. His support and advice played no small part in the military victory the Sri Lankan forces were able to achieve over a force deemed invincible before.

The second time the Tigers broke off talks was in 2006, when they went to Norway but refused to speak. One reason for this was I think the forthright approach of the Norwegian ambassador to Sri Lanka at the time, Mr Brattskar, who like all his successors was a man of principle. Reading the notes on his meeting with the LTTE at the time, I saw that he had rejected their assertion that there should be no discussion of their continuing recruitment of child soldiers. I think the stand he took, and that of the then Sri Lankan negotiating team, that this was a significant matter, was admirable. It was in marked contrast with the approach of the then Head of UNICEF, who had the temerity to tell me that the Tigers had a problem about stopping recruitment of 17 year olds, because that would require a change in their legislation.

This was a lady called Joanna van Gerpen, who had handed over a million dollars to the Tigers for rehabilitation of child soldiers, and then failed to ensure that they used the money for the stated purpose – even though a UN sponsored report at the time made clear that nothing was being done in this regard. Her successor, who was a much more capable man, responded to my complaints and had an audit done, though he could not share this with me. He did grant that he could not understand why the matter had been neglected.

I suspect one problem was the failure of at least some international actors to understand the distinction I made, and to stand on principle. Though at the time I got involved in public life the lead players, the Norwegian embassy, the heads of UNDP and UNICEF and UNHCR, were capable and principled individuals – for which they have suffered in the attack on the UN system perpetrated by the Petrie Report – some of their predecessors were carried away by sympathy for the Tamils (which is quite understandable) and hence adulation of the Tigers, which was quite unacceptable. I think this was true of Jon Westborg, the Norwegian ambassador at the time the negotiatons began, who had worked for an NGO in Sri Lanka in the eighties, when the then government had connived at, or at least not discouraged, attacks on Tamils in the rest of the country.

He therefore seemed to subscribe to the myth that the Tigers, who during that decade destroyed the leadership of all other Tamil groups, were the sole representatives of the Tamil people. Thus the Accord had no provision for the other Tamil groups to complain to the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, even though the Tigers took advantage of the CeaseFire to wreak revenge on the brave Tamils who had stood up against them in the preceding decade. Just after I took over at SCOPP I saw a list of members of the People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam who had been killed, and I asked their leader why he had not brought this to the attention of the SLMM. He pointed out that he had no status to complain, and sadly the then Sri Lankan government, which hoped for peace at any price, ignored the plight of those Tamils.

My point then is that I think we were correct to talk at the time, and as a result of this I believe many of those who followed the proceedings realized that they were dealing with an extremist who would agree to nothing except total power for himself. Hence perhaps the decision of many countries to proscribe the LTTE during this period. As a coda to this, I should note that much earlier the leadership of the main Tamil political party had suddenly reneged on the agreement drawn up by the then government and its principal negotiator, Neelan Tiruchelvam. The LTTE had killed him because of this, and I thought then that Mr Sambandan, the leader at the time who is still with us, and whom I found a positive presence at the time I was in the team that negotiated with the TNA, had been foolish in refusing to support the measures in Parliament. But I found a couple of years back that, despite his best efforts, he had been forced to abandon the agreement, because by then the LTTE controlled most of his fellows in the party. His recriminations on that point , made more than a decade letter, still reverberate in my mind.

Discussion then with those fighting a cause different from one’s own can be helpful, and lead to solutions beneficial to all. But discussions cannot take place with extremists who are not interested in solving problems but rather use discussions to buy time to strengthen themselves to achieve an absolutist agenda. And those who talk with extremists to pursue their own agendas will find that, what they gain in the short term, will lead to further suffering, if not for themselves, for they are above such suffering , for those they hypocritically claim to serve.