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[March 24, 2006]


(English IPS News Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)by Amantha Perera

COLOMBO, Mar. 24, 2006 (IPS/GIN) -- "Norwegians who conspire to divide Sri Lanka, get out," read a large banner carried by a group of 150 saffron-clad, head-shaven Buddhist monks demonstrating in front of Norway's mission here this week.

To dispel any doubts, the monks, grouped under the National Bhikku Front (NBF), presented a memorandum to the mission outlining its misgivings and complaining that, since the February 2002 ceasefire brokered by Norway, there has been a pro-Tiger bias.

A Norwegian-facilitated ceasefire between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), as the Tigers are officially known, has, at least temporarily, halted hostilities that have claimed more than 65,000 lives in two decades of fighting.

Peace talks stalled since April 2003 have also resumed, with the two sides holding discussions in January in Geneva. While the next round of talks is scheduled for mid-April, pro-Sinhala groups have expressed their dissatisfaction.

"We should not be so cowardly as to continue to keep Norway as the facilitator of the peace process while it continues to commit acts of treason against Sri Lanka," Dhambara Amila Thero, president of the NBF, said. The monks' grouping has vowed to continue protests until their demands are heeded.

However, this week's protest did not reach levels seen in the past when anti-Norwegian demonstrators have gathered in front of the embassy by the thousands and burned effigies of special peace envoy Erik Solheim.

One of the largest such protests took place when the government of former President Chandrika Kumaratunga agreed to work with the Tigers to handle tsunami reconstruction and aid distribution.

This week, when no embassy officials failed to accept their petition, the protestors threatened to hold a vigil, but dispersed after Amila spoke to them.

The protest came at an awkward time for President Mahinda Rajapakse. This was the first anti-Norwegian protest since he took office in November and the NBF is closely affiliated to electoral allies who played a vital role in his victory. Even before the NBF protest, the tone was set by the National Patriotic Movement (NPM), which said the Norwegians must go.

Wimal Weeravansha, parliamentary group leader of the People's Liberation Front (PLF) and an active voice in the NPM, reiterated this during a speech in parliament soon after the Geneva talks. He accused the Norwegians of affording a red carpet state welcome to the Tiger delegation when they arrived in Oslo after the Geneva discussions. The PLF was one of Rajapakse's main allies at the November presidential elections in which he narrowly defeated Ranil Wickremasinghe. It was Wickremasinghe who signed the truce in 2002 as prime minister.

The two campaigned on widely divergent approaches to negotiations. While Rajapakse pledged to uphold the unitary nature of the country, Wickremasinghe supported a power-sharing federal structure.

Rajapakse also promised to renegotiate the truce in order to avoid alleged advantages given to the Tigers.

Calls for Norway's removal have been boosted in the past by claims that the dual role of facilitator and peace monitor played by the Nordic state were sometimes in conflict. While few have gone so far as to call for a total removal, most have demanded wider representation at negotiations.

"Government of Sri Lanka must invest significantly in developing a structured peace process guaranteed by an umbrella of states," international terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna told IPS. He has argued that regional heavyweights like India should play a more active role in peace negotiations.

The Tigers, for their part, have flatly refused to renegotiate the truce or consider any alteration to Norway's role. "If Norway is removed as peace facilitator not only the LTTE (Tigers) but no one else will accept this. Throwing out Norway is like throwing out the entire international community," Tiger political head S. P. Tamilselvan said last week.

Despite the very obvious confidence in them on the part of the Tigers and the international community, the Norwegians have been mindful of the criticism. A Swede will take over as head of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) in April and Solheim has newly appointed a deputy to assist him. Critics consider both moves as victories.

Solheim has nevertheless admitted in private conversations that any other nation or organization would find it hard to keep the two sides talking peace. Solheim, in fact, salvaged the process from the brink of collapse in January.

In the preceding month and a half, more than 120 persons including 80 government services personnel and police officers were killed in violence in the north and east.

Prime Minister Rathnasiri Wikremanayake told parliament this week that, since the Geneva meeting, only 10 murders have been reported in the northeast. "This is a good trend and we want it to continue," he said.

However, signs of tension remain. The Tigers have postponed the re-opening of their political offices in government areas in the north and east, saying that they were not satisfied with conditions laid down by government forces.

The Tigers had sought in vain security guarantees that their political cadres would not be targeted by rival Tamil groups, especially an armed breakaway faction led by its former eastern military commander Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan, alias Karuna.

"If delivery of the peace dividend, normalcy and confidence-building are the noble goals of all those who worked hard to make Geneva talks a reality, we are afraid that this posturing of the government of Sri Lanka and its military is not going to be a step in the right direction," the Tigers said in a letter sent to the monitors.

Amila's parting words near the Norwegian mission were menacing: "If we were to come here again then it will be a massive human force and we will not back off this easily."

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