Colombo, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

Norwegian and British Interventions in the Sri Lankan Conflict: A Sorry Tale of Misinformation and Misunderstanding

Muttukrishna Sarvananthan

I am not sure how and why Norway got involved in the Sri Lankan conflict. However, I have read in couple of academic articles that peacemaking in internal conflicts is a cornerstone of the foreign policy of the Royal Norwegian Government. It has been involved in several peacemaking exercises in Guatemala, Palestine, Sri Lanka and Sudan, inter alia. However, none seem to have borne fruit in a durable manner, except perhaps Guatemala. It is high time for the Norwegian Government and the people to realise why their efforts to make peace around the world have failed? From the experience of Norway in Sri Lanka this article postulates that the diaspora communities and the so-called Norwegian and Scandinavian experts on different conflicts around the world have misinformed the Norwegian people and the Government, and therefore misunderstanding (or misreading) of the conflicts and their key players have become the norm in the Norwegian-brokered peacemaking efforts around the world.

Norway has been vigorously involved in the development process in Sri Lanka since the 1970s through its financial sponsorship of Integrated Rural Development Programmes (IRDPs) in different backward districts of Sri Lanka. IRDPs became vogue in the developing countries by the mid-1970s with the ascendancy of the ‘Basic Needs’ approach to development. Norway has been involved in Northern Sri Lanka even before the IRDPs with the setting up of the CEYNOR foundation to help the fishing community in the Jaffna peninsula. It is important to note that there were no IRDPs in the Eastern and Northern Provinces. Except the CEYNOR project I cannot remember a single project Norway had funded in the Northern Province during the 1970s. In the East I cannot remember a single Norwegian funded project in the 1970s. However, I am aware that Norway had funded resettlement of hill-country Tamils affected by the 1977 ethnic riots in the Vanni through local NGOs such as Gandhiyam.

I have also learnt from academic literature that Norway’s peacemaking role is facilitated by the development work it sponsor’s at the grassroots level through various local NGOs, which gives them access to local information and knowledge. However, in the case of the Sri Lankan conflict I doubt Norway had adequate (a critical mass of) knowledge of the Eastern and Northern Provinces and the problems it faces at the time of the beginning of the armed conflict in the early-1980s. Even afterwards, until today, I doubt Norway has an adequate knowledge of the Tamil community in particular, and the Eastern and Northern Provinces in general.

This applies to varies other international players in the Sri Lankan conflict as well, except of course the Central Government of India. Even in the case of India, not a single Chief Minister or political leader of the Tamilnadu State has ever visited Sri Lanka or the Eastern and Northern Provinces, and therefore lack adequate knowledge of the problems faced by the Tamil people. This is reflected in the often-idiotic statements made by fringe political party leaders of the Tamilnadu state, and at times at the Chief Ministerial level.

To the best of my knowledge Norway’s primary sources of information and knowledge about the Sri Lankan conflict in general, and about the Tamil community and the Eastern and Northern Provinces in particular, are the diaspora communities and the so-called Norwegian experts on Sri Lankan conflict. Both of these sources are dubious. The Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora communities living in western countries (including Norway) are overwhelmingly from Northern Sri Lanka, particularly from the Jaffna peninsula, and are by and large conflict-induced. The so-called Norwegian experts on Sri Lankan conflict in turn largely depend on diaspora communities for information, data, etc. Therefore, what the Norwegian government gets is the peninsular view of the problem of the Eastern and Northern provinces, which is partial and often partisan. Moreover, conflict-induced diaspora communities cannot provide objective, non-emotional, and balanced picture of the nature, causes and effects of the conflict back home. Because of this partial view, Norway fails to understand the diversities and intricacies within the Tamil speaking communities in the Eastern and Northern Provinces, particularly of the Muslims, Vanniars and the Eastern Tamils and the diversities within each of these sub nationals (class, caste, religious, etc).

This partial worldview is a major fallacy in the understanding and study of migrant communities in the Western World. The overwhelming majority of the Bangladeshi migrant community in the UK, for example, is from a particular region called Shylet. The British people’s view of Bangladesh and Bangladeshis is formed on the basis of their knowledge and understanding of Shyletis, whereas the actual Bangladesh is much more diverse and complex. The same fallacy is repeated in the case of other migrant communities and in other countries as well. This fallacious worldview is greater in the case of conflict-induced migrants because of emotional and scarred representation of their tragic experiences back home (real, perceived and contrived), in addition to the useful class, caste, regional origin, and religious representations.

The same Tamil diaspora community also feeds the so-called Norwegian experts on Sri Lanka. The Tamil diaspora community itself fails to realise and understand the changing dynamic of their community back home, over a period of time. Therefore, most of their representation of the home community/region is often dated. The Sri Lankan conflict has gone on for a quarter century and has never been the same and static. The Norwegian experts on Sri Lanka, along with the Norwegian government and the people, fail to realise and understand the outdated representation of the conflict back home. Even when the Norwegian experts seek local knowledge on the conflict in Sri Lanka, it is the diaspora community that refers the local contacts to them. It is important to note here that this author was part of the conflict-induced Tamil diaspora community in the UK for about 13 years during the 1980s and 1990s having earned three postgraduate degrees in three British Universities. Therefore, understands the diaspora communities well. It is also important to note that the entire members of diaspora communities are not part of the ill informed lot. Numerous people within the diaspora communities (the silent majority) are well informed, open-minded and balanced, but are silenced by the goon squads. Similarly, not all Norwegian or Scandinavian experts on Sri Lanka are misinformed or partisan, but the few who are balanced appear to have little influence on Norwegian policy.

Norway has commissioned very little research studies on the Sri Lankan conflict in general and on the Tamil community in particular, either in Norway or in Sri Lanka, which is publicly known. Whatever little it has (some are publicly known most are not), were undertaken either by Norwegian or Swedish academics. Although most of it is based on fieldwork on the ground, it is with limited local input and partial coverage. This is totally inadequate for a peace facilitator. To the best of my knowledge Norway has tapped very little local expertise either at the national level or at the sub-national level in the conflict region. In fact, there is a tendency to castigate local expertise as polarised and therefore non-objective. It is this kind of paranoia of local and intimate knowledge what makes peacemaking around the world a tale of failures, inter alia.

Norway is not the only country that is relying on diaspora sources and their own academics to investigate and understand the conflict in Sri Lanka. Britain is making the same mistake. The British All Party Parliamentary Group for Tamils is one other ill informed lobby group around the world. The head of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Tamils is Keith Vaz (Labour Party MP for Leicester East) and one of the members is Andrew Pelling (Conservative Party MP for Croydon Central). Keith Vaz was suspended from Parliament for a month on the allegation of financial impropriety few years ago. Coincidentally, the birthday of Keith Vaz and the leader of the LTTE Veluppillai Prabhakaran is the same, i.e. 26th November, though the former was born in 1956 and the later in 1954. Andrew Pelling had a majority of just 75 votes at the last general elections and is fighting to retain his seat at the forthcoming election. Croydon Central constituency has considerable Sri Lankan diaspora population, mostly Tamils. Andrew Pelling was arrested in September 2007 for beating his second wife and suspended from the Conservative Party for the same offence. Both of these MPs (and most likely others in the All Party Committee as well) do not have genuine concern for the Sri Lankan Tamils. Their only concern is getting the emotional votes of the Tamil diaspora communities and perhaps large donations for their electoral campaigns from proxies of a banned organisation. Could such a fraud and a violent person cum opportunist meaningfully and effectively contribute to conflict resolution in Sri Lanka? Most of the champions of the LTTE cause in the British political establishment are of South Asian origin (Keith Vaz, Virendra Sharma (Ealing Southall)), Sadiq Khan (Tooting), et al). Moral and ethical aspects of political party funding in general and by immigrant communities in particular has become a hot topic of debate in Britain recently with a pro-Israel lobbying group donating money to the ruling Labour Party (see an article by Steve O’Brien entitled ‘What the funding scandal tells us about Britain, its Jews and immigrants in general’ in The Economist of 06th December 2007). With the next general elections not too far, British politicians (particularly in the Labour Party) can expect large donations from Tamil diaspora communities to campaign for the cause of the LTTE (largely mobilised through illegal activities). This has become more realistic with the leader of the LTTE in his annual heroes day speech on 27th November 2007 urging the diaspora communities to seek support for a separate state for the Tamils in Sri Lanka in their host countries.

It is not only the foreign governments and politicians who are making this mistake. Even foreign non-governmental organisations involved in conflict transformation efforts and based in Sri Lanka are making the same mistake by bringing experts from their home countries and sometimes hiring from the diaspora community in their home countries. These efforts are self-defeating and cannot make meaningful contribution to conflict resolution or transformation in Sri Lanka. It is high time Norway and other international facilitators of peace in Sri Lanka realise this folly.

Generally, developed countries have played dubious roles in the conflicts in developing countries. Most of the dictators, extremist governments, and violent anti-government movements in the Third World have been protégés of one or the other government of the Western World. France was the protégé of Ayatollah Khomeni who established the Islamic Republic of Iran against which the entire Western World is waging a proxy war today. Saddam Hussein was a protégé of many Western Governments including the USA. The United States was the protégé of the Mujahedin in Afghanistan that created the Taliban regime. All the foregoing extremist governments/forces have bitten the hands that have fed them. Moreover, dubious roles played by Western Governments in other countries’ conflicts have now begun to nurture indigenous extremist/violent forces within their own countries (Britain is a prime example).

In the same way, today many Western Governments are harbouring members of state and anti-state movements who have perpetrated violent acts and crimes against humanity in their home countries. While the perpetrators and instigators of conflicts in their home countries are provided sanctuary, innocent victims of such conflicts who are attempting to flee the violence are castigated as ‘economic migrants’ and barred by iron curtains of Western countries. What justice is this? Several perpetrators of violence and crimes against humanity in the Sri Lankan conflict and their families are provided safe heavens (even diplomatic passports) in many European countries (particularly Britain), Canada and Australia, while innocent victims of the conflict are refused entry to these countries for visiting family/relatives/friends, for studies or migration. Moreover, perpetrators of the Sri Lankan conflict (particularly the LTTE and its proxies) continue to make death threats in public forums in their host countries towards democrats and intellectuals in Sri Lanka (particularly those of their own community), against whom no action is taken by the host countries. It won’t be too long before the extremist/violent forces within the diaspora communities bite the hands that feed them. Let the Western World learn a lesson from India’s role in the Sri Lankan conflict during the 1980s and its consequences. Comment is ours choice is yours!

Muttukrishna Sarvananthan Ph.D. (Wales) is a Development Economist by profession and is the Principal Researcher at the Point Pedro Institute of Development, Point Pedro, Northern Sri Lanka. He is the author of The Economy of the Conflict Region in Sri Lanka: from economic embargo to economic repression published by the East-West Center Washington (forthcoming). Further details about the author and his work can be accessed at