4.3 Washington Conference: the assassination plot
On the 18th of March 2003, the LTTE and the GoSL negotiating teams commenced the sixth round of peace talks in Hakone, Japan about 89 KM west of Tokyo. On the same day, ‘The Hindu’ correspondent reported from Washington: “As the clock started ticking on the near-certain showdown with Iraq, the United States military is "promising'' such a massive use of force that the regime of the Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein, will figure out the inevitable end at the outset itself. The fire-power ranged around Iraq is simply awesome over and beyond the 300,000 American and British forces in the theatre of war. There are nearly 1,000 strike aircraft, including the Stealth F-117B Nighthawks that have been added to the arsenal in the last few days... All this is not to forget the heavy duty B-52s and the B-1's which will be unleashing their munitions in the first hours of the military conflict. The idea, in the words of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Richard Myers, is to create "such a shock on the system... The Pentagon has recently tested the 21,000-pound MOAB, nick named the Mother of All Bombs. A "grand-mother" is in the works as well — testing is on for a 30,000-pounder; and with this, the clear impression that irrespective of the test phase, this — code named the Big BLU — could see "action" in Iraq. Daisy Cutters of the Vietnam War era, which levelled vegetation, seem to be a thing of the past, but one that could be back in action.” (http://www.hinduonnet.com/thehindu/2003/03/19/stories/2003031902311400.htm)
After 30 years of bloodshed, by 18th of March 2003, Sri Lanka was on the verge of achieving a permanent peace. But the world stood on the eve of war.
On the day the GoSL and the LTTE peace delegates mutually shook each other’s hand, the co-sponsors of the Sri Lankan peace process – US and Europe – stood literally at the parting of the ways. “U.S. President, George W. Bush's decision to launch a war against Iraq if Saddam Hussein does not step down is a serious decision that jeopardises future methods of peaceful disarmament” said French President Jacques Chirac. “Iraq does not represent today an immediate threat that would justify an immediate war” he added. In a nationally televised statement, the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, said “My question remains: Does the level of threat posed by the Iraqi dictator (President Saddam Hussein) justify war, which will result in the deaths of thousands of innocent men, women and children? My answer remains: No.” (http://www.hinduonnet.com/thehindu /2003/03/19/stories/2003031902301400.htm)
On the 20th of March, U.S. President George W. Bush unleashed a massive war on Iraq with thundering dawn air attacks while Tomahawk cruise missiles rained down on Baghdad. B52 and B-2 stealth bombers that took off from uninhabited island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, about 960 nautical miles South of Sri Lanka, dropped satellite guided bombs on Iraq. “These are opening stages of what will be a broad and concerted campaign” Bush said in his televised address to the nation from the Oval Office. (http://www.latimes.com/ news/nationworld/world/la-fg-iraq03202003-archiveb,0,2635432.story)
But in Hakong, Japan, on 20th march, “ground breaking talks on the core political issues commenced when the Government and LTTE took up the fiscal aspect of power sharing during the morning sessions on the 3rd day of the 6th round of peace talks ” the state owned ‘Daily News’ reported. “We are paying our attention on the matter of the availability of resources to the units, and how well these resources can be raised within various models, government chief negotiator Minister Prof. G. L. Peiris told the media at the conclusion of yesterday's talks. On a preliminary level the parties also touched on the modalities of power sharing at the centre” the report further added. (http://www.dailynews.lk/ 2003/03/21/new12.html)
One of the most important decisions that parties managed to take during the talks, was to hold democratic elections in the war torn north. It was reported that LTTE has given the green light showing its willingness to hold elections in the North of Sri Lanka. Talking to media at the end of the discussions, LTTE’s chief negotiator Dr. Balasingham said “we are keen to impress the international community that we are not only committed to peace but also democratic practices.” Asked if the LTTE would take part at the election Dr. Balasingham said, "we are not a political party but a militant organization, but we will support parties who endorse our views. We will also encourage those who oppose us". (http://www.dailynews.lk/2003/03/22/new02.html)
But there was an interesting remark made by LTTE’s negotiator, when he was asked about the LTTE’s position regarding the Iraq war which started just one day before the end of the sixth round of peace talks. He reportedly said: “The warring parties could take an example from the LTTE on how to resolve a conflict by negotiations. We on the other hand are in a stage of peace building after 25 years of war. We know the horrors and realities of violence and war. Now we have renounced violence and pursuing the course of peace. This example can be taken by the countries that are at war". (http://www.dailynews.lk/ 2003/03/22/ new02.html) The well known Indian daily “The Hindu” ran a report titled “Learn from us” - LTTE tells U.S., Iraq” in which they wrote: “The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) today said the United States and Iraq should learn from its example of making peace with the Sri Lankan Government and urged the United Nations to prevail upon the two warring parties to restore normality. “It is regrettable that the U.S. attacked Iraq without proper endorsement of the U.N.” he LTTE's chief negotiator, Anton Balasingham, said.” (http://www. thehindu.com/ 2003/03/22/stories/2003032202941200.htm)
But the US position seemed contradictory. While testifying at a hearing of the House of Representatives International relations Committee's Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific held on March 20 - exactly on the very day that US commenced its massive attacks on Iraq - U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Christina Rocca praised the commitment of both parties but said that the parties “have made significant progress toward a political solution that protects the dignity and security of all Sri Lankans and preserves that country's unity. But the LTTE would need to renounce violence in word and deed.” (http://www. dailynews.lk / 2003/03/24/new01.html)
In less than a week US Embassy in Colombo issued a statement commending the achievements in Japan talks. It stated that the US is encouraged by the substantive and comprehensive nature of the talks, which focused on such issues as federalism and human rights while welcoming the discussions on ways to improve ceasefire modalities. “We hope that these discussions will lead to a cessation of efforts by the LTTE to smuggle arms into Sri Lanka and prevent confrontation” it added. (http://www.island.lk/2003/03/ 26/news07.html)
The war in Iraq was already causing enormous suffering and misery. “After a week of U.S.- U.K. attacks, Iraq's health minister reported on March 27th that 350 Iraqi civilians had died and 3,600 had been injured and the Pentagon reported that 600 Tomahawk cruise missiles, more than 4,300 "precision-guided" bombs had been dropped in the first 6 days of the war”. (http://cursor.org/stories/mythofprecision.html) On 21st March, as quoted by AFP, the German Chancellor called the US decision to launch war against Iraq is a “defeat for politics”. But in Sri Lanka, politics seemed to be winning. But there were clear signs that the geo-politics are going to override the crucial breakthroughs which were achieved internally after painstaking efforts of negotiations.
Meanwhile, on 26th March, in a another prepared statement to the US senate committee on Foreign relations outlining US assistance to South Asia, Assistant Secretary of State Rocca said: “Even as we advance our efforts in the Middle East, South Asia remains at the front-line of the war on terror, and regional stability remains critical. We must remain actively and effectively engaged in this region where our most vital interest are at stake. Several U.S. agencies, including Treasury, Commerce, and Department of Defence, sent assessment teams to Sri Lanka last year to examine how we could most effectively use our bilateral assistance and engagement in support of the peace process. As a result, we are providing demining support, and we plan to establish new programmes to strengthen Sri Lanka’s peacekeeping capability and reform its military institutions.... U.S. support has contributed to substantial progress over the past year and a half.” (http://www.island.lk/2003/03/28/news04.html)
It seemed that the Sinhala nationalist lobby clearly understood the message. They saw a “window of opportunity” can be gained by siding with the US interest in the region. This was well reflected in an article published in “The Island” – the most outspoken promoter of anti-peace mobilisations. “New relationships based on shared threat perceptions appear to be emerging. A new relationship is being forged on our own sub-continent between the US the hyper-power and the emerging regional super-power India, which appears to be cozying up to the US perhaps reluctantly abandoning its old friend Iraq. Japan too is coming out arm in arm with the US from her self imposed isolation to play her natural role in Asia and the world. The Anti-Terror Special Measures Law has helped Japan circumnavigate the restrictions imposed upon her by the Constitution. She can now play a role in the defence of the Asia-Pacific region. Next there is China whose economic presence is being increasingly felt in the region and beyond; it would not be too long before we see her blue water navy in the Indian Ocean. China which has her own problems with terrorists would also forge a new relationship with the US with whom she too would share a threat perception. There is no gainsaying the fact that the US would have a major presence in the region to safeguard her interests. Should we therefore not be realistic put aside our prejudices and think only in terms of our own interests... at the end of the day it would be better to ensure that our powerful friend’s interests and ours converge and that they have a special interest in safeguarding the unity and territorial integrity of this country. This friendship is vital especially at this point of time as the LTTE is not beyond launching a surprise attack taking advantage of the chaotic international situation that would result from the invasion of Iraq to launch its final assault to establish Eelam.” (http://www.island.lk/ 2003/03/23/politi01.html)
In the midst of new wars and widespread chaos that seemed to be threatening the strategic stability of South Asia, the upcoming big event which was next on the agenda was the scheduled meeting of the donors in Tokyo. Following the successful initial Oslo talks in November 2002, which focused on challenges on the economic level, it was agreed to hold a second round in Tokyo, in June. Both parties planned to make joint appeals to the international community seeking further support to sustain peace. Speaking to media from Japan at the end of sixth round, the GoSL chief negotiator said “the US was working behind the scenes to make the June 19th donor conference a success. “I will be flying to Washington soon after this session to meet Assistant Secretary of States for the South Asian region Christina Rocca” (http://www.dailynews.lk/ 2003/03/21/new12.html)
On 25th of March 2003, US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage praised the Sri Lankan peace process and said that he looked forward to a very positive outcome of the donors’ conference scheduled to be held in Tokyo in June. On 29th, the European Union formally agreed to become the fourth co-chair at the upcoming Tokyo donor conference. The decision brought in fifteen more nations within the EU determined to support aid for Sri Lanka at a crucial time in the peace process. But the disturbing news followed the good one. On 29th of March, the state owned “Daily News” reported that “in the lead up to the Conference on June 9 and 10 there will be two advance consultative meetings. The first will be on April 14, in Washington Chaired by Richard Armitage... second meeting will be held in Colombo on May 6, where many of the final preparations for the Tokyo meeting will be confirmed.” (http://www.dailynews.lk/2003/03/29/new04.html)
With the announcement of the consultative meeting in Washington, the immediate doubts were raised whether the US would invite the LTTE or not. Since the LTTE was still on the US list of Foreign Terrorists Organizations, all the sceptical views had reasonable grounds. On 30th March, “The Island” newspaper wrote in its lead story: “Speculation is rife about the US inviting the LTTE to take part in a crucial meeting in Washington DC next month despite it being among the groups including Al-Queda proscribed by the Bush administration as a part of its strategy against international terrorism... Diplomatic sources said that India will not sit with Tigers. "India’s position remains the same," the sources said, reminding that New Delhi boycotted an earlier international parley in Oslo... Tamil political sources pointed out that there was no point in having the Washington meeting without the LTTE’s participation. They were of the view that the group’s absence would make the whole exercise purposeless. Critics were of the view a US invitation would give a tremendous propaganda victory for the group.” (http://www.island.lk/2003/03/30/news01.html)
LTTE remained tight lipped without making any statements on the rising speculations. On 28th, a delegation of Political Affairs Committee of the LTTE left Colombo to visit Nordic countries to study aspects of federalism, constitutional frameworks and administrative structures employed in those countries. “The 16 member LTTE committee that left the country consists of 5 females and would be joined by a further 5 members from United Kingdom, Switzerland, Canada and Norway on their arrival first in Norway. Subsequently the LTTE delegations will visit Finland, Denmark, Switzerland before returning home.” (http://www.island.lk/2003/04/01/news18.html)
The Government too maintained the same policy without commenting on the controversial ‘Washington’ issue, and remained focused on other matters. On the 1st of April, both the GoSL and LTTE announced that they are jointly working to formulate a declaration on Human Rights and Humanitarian principles as agreed at the sixth round of peace talks in Japan. “The declaration would reflect the fundamentals of international human rights law and humanitarian standards which both parties are obliged to ensure, pending full entrenchment of human rights standards in the eventual Constitutional arrangements and in federal and local law” the Colombo ‘Daily News” reported. “Workshops and training programs will be held to train government officials, police and prison officials and LTTE cadres on human rights protection. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in relation to the child rights, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in relation to the rights of internally displaced people and International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) will help in human rights education. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights will be invited to coordinate this programme” it further added. (http://www.dailynews.lk/2003/04/01/securitylead.html)
But ironically, on the same day the US Department of State came out with a report focused on the state of human rights in Sri Lanka, castigating the Tigers and attacking them for maintaining a parallel legal system in the areas under their administration, though it has been a fact that the Sri Lankan government knew quite well for a long time. The report said ‘LTTE has implemented its court system through threat of force and expanded the operations of its court system into areas previously under the government’s judicial system in the North and the East. It states that with the expansion of its court system the LTTE has demanded all Tamil civilians to stop using the government’s judicial system. The report also states that the LTTE judges have no legal training and its courts operate without codified or defined legal authority.” (http://www.island.lk/2003/04/02/)
A day after the report was released, the US Ambassador to Colombo, Ashley Wills stressed: “We have never had in mind inviting the LTTE or any of its associated organisations to the Washington meeting on April 14. Under US law, it is not possible for us to play host to an organisation on our list of Foreign Terrorist Organisations (FTOs). The U.S. listing of the LTTE as a FTO will remain in effect until the group renounces terrorism in word and deed.” (http://www.island.lk/2003/04/03/news01.html) The U.S. stance paved the way for India’s participation at the meeting. But it struck the deadliest blow to the peace process.
Within two days the Tigers issued a statement strongly condemning the decision of the US and the surprising silence of the Government of Sri Lanka. The statement said: “The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is disappointed by its exclusion from the international conference to support reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts in the north and east of Sri Lanka to be hosted by the United States in Washington on April 14. From the outset of the Norwegian-brokered negotiations, the two parties to the conflict, the LTTE and the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL), agreed to equal and joint partnership in efforts to solicit international financial assistance for reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts in the north and east of Sri Lanka. We point out that Sub-Committee on Immediate Humanitarian and Rehabilitation Needs was formed in the context of this equal and joint partnership. It was also in this context that the first international donor conference held in Oslo on November 25, 2002 was successfully staged.... Regrettably, the United States has undermined this joint effort by isolating the LTTE and solely promoting the GoSL at the preliminary meeting on April 14. The exclusion of the LTTE from reconstruction efforts in the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka is against the spirit of the peace process. It also undermines confidence in both the reconstruction initiative and the peace process. The LTTE is therefore dismayed and disappointed by the US action. We call upon the United States and international donors to actively support the Norwegian peace process by endorsing the joint participation of the LTTE and GoSL in reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts in the north and east of Sri Lanka.” (http://www.tamilnet.com/art.html?catid=13&artid=8673)
But the opposition expressed by the LTTE fell on deaf ears. The GoSL remained mum about the controversial US position to exclude the Tigers from an important conference for the first time since the negotiations commenced. The EU and the other members too, maintained a dubious silence about the sudden decision to exclude the Tigers, knowing full well that such a unequal approach in the middle of a successful peace process would obstruct the remarkable and landmark achievements earned through previous six rounds of talks. The US did not respond, implying that they would not change their position of not inviting Tigers or consider a change of venue.
In the early hours on the 7th of April US forces stormed into central Baghdad. An officer from the US Third Infantry Division told Fox News that troops had carried an American flag into the palace. “Saddam Hussein says he owns Baghdad. We own Baghdad. We own his palaces, we own down-town” the officer said.
On the 12th of April the LTTE virtually walked out of peace talks announcing that they would review its decision to participate at the Tokyo Donor's Conference in June in protest against the exclusion of their accredited representatives from the crucial international aid conference in Washington in preparation for the main donor conference in Japan.
“In gross violation of the pledges taken at the peace negotiations that the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE should work together and approach the international community in partnership, Sri Lanka has opted to marginalise our organisation at the Washington Conference. This deliberate exclusion of the LTTE from discussions on critical matters affecting the economic and social welfare of the Tamil nation is a grave breach of good faith. We are deeply disappointed that the Sri Lanka Government and Norway, as our facilitator, have failed to ensure the LTTE's participation in this crucial preparatory aid conference by not selecting an appropriate venue” the statement said. “Whilst all of Sri Lanka has suffered from this protracted and bloody conflict, we point out that the north and east are the regions worst affected by the war and decades of underdevelopment, and hence the most urgently in need of international assistance. Apart from the continuing military occupation of Tamil property and buildings there is an unacceptable delay in starting resettlement and reconstruction works in the north and east. In these circumstances, it is only fair and just that the authentic representatives of the Tamil people should have been invited to this major international conference to articulate the interests and aspirations of our people” it further added. (http://www.tamilnet.com/art.html?catid=13&artid=8758)
The “Washington plot” was successfully implemented. The conference went ahead as planned without the most important party to the conflict.
In his opening remarks at the conference, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage reportedly said: “I know the Tigers are unhappy about their exclusion today, but let me explain their absence. The United States placed the LTTE on our list of foreign terrorist organisations back in 1997. That designation carries with it legal restrictions including a prohibition on issuing visas to the members of the organisation for entry into the United States. Therefore our position is crystal clear. The LTTE must unequivocally renounce terrorism in word and deed if we are to consider withdrawing the designation. I think it is fair to say that with the way the current negotiations are going, the United States can see a future for the LTTE as a legitimate political organisation, but it is still up to the LTTE to change the situation. It is upto them to demonstrate that they are capable and worthy of such legitimacy” (http://www.island.lk/2003/04/16/news01.html)
On the 21st of April LTTE Political Advisor and the chief negotiator, Dr. Anton Balasingham wrote to Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasingha informing the organization’s decision to ‘suspend its participation in the negotiations for the time being.’ The letter stated: “You are well aware that the Ceasefire Agreement that has been in force for more than one year and the six rounds of peace negotiations between the principal parties has been successful, irrespective of the occurrence of some violent incidents that endangered the peace process. The stability of the ceasefire and the progress of the peace talks, you will certainly appreciate, are the positive outcome of the sincere and firm determination of the parties to seek a permanent resolution to the ethnic conflict through peaceful means. The cordial inter-relationship, frank and open discussions and the able and wise guidance of the facilitators fostered trust and confidence between the negotiators and helped to advance the talks on substantial levels. The negotiating teams were able to form important sub-committees on the basis of equal and joint partnership.
“The LTTE has acted sincerely and in good faith extending its full co-operation to the government of Sri Lanka to seek international assistance to restore normalcy and to rehabilitate the war affected people of the northeast. The LTTE to date has joined hands with the government and participated in the preparation of joint appeals and programmes. In spite of our goodwill and trust, your government has opted to marginalize our organisation in approaching the international community for economic assistance. We refer to the exclusion of the LTTE from the crucial international donor conference held in Washington on 14 April 2003 in preparation for the major donor conference to be held in Japan in June. We view the exclusion of the LTTE, the principle partner to peace and the authentic representatives of the Tamil people from discussions on critical matters affecting the economic and social welfare of the Tamil nation, as a grave breach of good faith. Your government, as well as our facilitator Norway, are fully aware of the fact that the United States has legal constraints to invite representatives of a proscribed organisation to their country. In these circumstances an appropriate venue could have been selected to facilitate the LTTE to participate in this important preparatory aid conference. But the failure on the part of your government to do so gives cause for suspicion that this omission was deliberate. The exclusion of the LTTE from this conference has severely eroded the confidence of our people in the peace process.
“The exclusion of the LTTE from critical aid conference in Washington, the non-implementation of the terms and conditions enunciated in the truce document, the continuous suffering and hardship experienced by hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Tamils, the aggressive Sinhala military occupation of Tamil cities and civilian settlements, the distortion and marginalisation of the extreme conditions of poverty and deprivation of the Tamils of the northeast in the macro-economic policies and strategies of the government have seriously undermined the confidence of the Tamil people and the LTTE leadership in the negotiating process. Under these circumstances the LTTE leadership has decided to suspend its participation in the negotiations for the time being. We will not be attending the donor conference in Japan in June. While we regret that we were compelled to make this painful decision, we wish to reiterate our commitment to seek a negotiated political solution to the ethnic question.” (http://www.tamilnet.com/art.html?catid=13&artid=8824)
The talks reached an abrupt end. The momentum slipped away. The radiance of hope started to fade. But the worst turbulent times still lay ahead.