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- Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Sri Lanka - LTTE Talks: 1989/90

A report by Bradman Weerakone, 
Adviser to Sri Lanka President Premadasa

[see also 1. Texts of Letters Exchanged between Sri Lanka President Premadasa and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi June to  July 1989;
2. Rendering Unto Caesar: Memoirs of a Sinhalese Bureaucrat - Bradman Weerakoon - Book Review by Sachi Sri Kantha and
3. What went wrong between the Tigers and Premadasa - Dharmaretnam Sivaram]

"...There was also the practical problem of how free elections could be held at all in the North East even if the NEPC was dissolved but this was never a matter of serious discussion between the two parties. Why were these critical political issues left to drift and not addressed in the decisive and speedy manner that was one of Premadasa's characteristics? I am now increasingly inclined to the view that he simply did not want to do so. ...His (President Premadasa's)  fourth and final option could have been straight out of Machiavelli or more likely Kautilya. That was that after the IPKF was out of the country he would turn the refreshed and renewed Sri Lankan forces on the weak LTTE, rout them completely, eliminate Prabhakaran and reestablish law and order, good governance, peace and prosperity over the North East and the whole of Sri Lanka. I am inclined to think that in his final grand design this last option would have been very appealing..."

The Context | Confidence building; creating the environment for a trusting relationship | Analysis of the Agenda for the Talks | Venues and Participants at the Talks | Lessons to be learnt | End Notes


1. The Context

Mr. Premadasa ( UNP) who narrowly defeated Mrs Bandaranaike (SLFP) at the Presidential Elections of December 19th 1988 receiving 50.43 % of the vote assumed office as President of Sri Lanka on 2nd January 1989. The Elections were conducted in extraordinarily disturbed circumstances under a State of Emergency which covered the entire country. In the Northern and Eastern Provinces the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IKPF' dominated the towns but the LTTE ambushes and hit- and- run raids continued in much of the countryside."

After their eviction from the Jaffna Peninsula in October 1987 the LTTE had established a complex of bases in the mainland (Wanni) ungles from which they operated, virtually without hindrance I. The Sri Lanka security forces, such as there were in the North and East had been 'confined to barracks' in terms of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord and had played no active adversarial role against the LTTE since July 1987.

In the South, the JVP which had commenced its campaign of destablizing the government, especially aider the signing of the Accord was active particularly in the Southern, Central and North Central Provinces attacking Police Stations, destroying public property and indulging in selected assassinations of political leaders and activists of the major parties.

The two anti-systemmic insurgencies, of the LTTE in the North and the JVP in the South, at the time that saw Premadasa assume the Presidency, although unconnected to each other, had at least two common goals. One was their virulent opposition to the presence of the IPKF on Sri Lankan soil. The other, their strong antipathy to the J.R.Jayewardene UNP which from the viewpoint of the LTTE had brokered the Indian army into the North, assisted the EPRLF to form the administration in the North East Provincial Council (NEPC) and had initiated the 1983 pogrom against the Tamils throughout the country. From the viewpoint of the JVP, it was the UNP (J.R.Jayewardene) that had proscribed the party since 1983, persecuted and hunted down its members since then and had permitted the violation of Sri Lanka's sovereignty through its tame accession to the one- sided Indo-Lanka accord.

In the face of these compulsions, which had a certain resonance among large sections of the electorate and faced with a reinvigorated political Opposition --he had much less than the four-fifths parliamentary majority which his predecessor JRJ had had for 11 years--- and uncertain support from India, ( Premadasa had openly opposed the Indo -Sri Lanka Pact ) Premadasa found he had to act creatively, with great imagination and resourcefulness.

Restoration of Peace through the '3Cs' -consultation, consensus and compromise was a major plank of Premadasa’s election Manifesto and in his inaugural Presidential Address In Kandy on 2nd January 1989 he called upon all those-(the LTTE and the JVP) who were still outside the democratic process to join the mainstream. He addressed himself to both militant groups and said he divas "available for any discussion in order to arrive at constructive solutions". He moved early to placate the JVP. Against the wishes of his Cabinet and security advisors he lifted the countrywide Emergency on January 12th and ordered the release of some 1800 JVP cadres who were in detention. But after a short lull the JVP were back at insurgency fuelled by the continuing presence of the IPKF in the country.

The frequent curfews called by the JVP --'the little government' have been described in the following terms;

The DJV had posters pasted and leaflets distributed requesting the public not to go out of their houses.... Once again schools and workplaces were to be boycotted, no people were to walk or drive on the roads, all lights, radio sets and television sets were to be turned off ....there were less than one per cent of Sri Lanka's bus fleets operating in most of the areas.

On April 12th 1989 to coincide the Sinhala and Tamil New Year Premadasa announced an unilateral temporary cease-fire by the Lankan Security Forces throughout the country. The IPKF with persuasion from the President also announced that its forces would observe the cease-fire in areas under their control. The LTTE responded with an open letter to the President in which they maintained that there would be no cease-fire on their side until The invading Indian army withdraws''. I have commented as follows on this episode in my book ‘Premadasa of Sri Lanka: A Political Biography’

The letter was generally hostile in content. But at least it provided a first opening. Ranjan Wijeratne the State Minister for Defence on behalf of the government issued a statement inviting the leadership of theLTTE to talks. On the 15th April the LTTE headquarters in London responded by a fax addressed to the President accepting the invitation and hoping that the necessary arrangements would be made to facilitate a dialogue. (page 65)


2. Confidence building; creating the environment for a trusting relationship.

Premadasa's peremptory demand that India withdraw the IPKF completely in 3 months, which he made at a temple function on the outskirts of Colombo in April, 1989, was seen as a positive step by the LTTE. Subsequently his 'directions ' to the Indian High Commissioner, Lakhen Mehotra and his letters to Prime Minister Rajiv Ghandi to expedite the process of withdrawal/deinduction of the IPKF from Sri Lanka were similarly very much appreciated by them.

Arrangements were also made for Anton Balasingham the chief LTTE ideologue and his wife Adele, to fly Air Lanka from London, and after a few days in Colombo, to be helicoptered to the Mullaitivu jungle hideouts for discussions with the LTTE leader.

Prabhakaran's wife and two children who had taken refuge in Europe (Norway ?) were provided security and facilities to return to Sri Lanka and join Prabhakaran in the Wanni.

The arrangements made to ensure security for the LTTE delegation during their stays in Colombo were of the highest order. The seventh floor of the Hilton Hotel seemed particularly logical. In May 1989, all the country's Hotels were virtually end owing to the troubled law and order situation.

(The image of Tamil boys frown the Bush' in their combat fatigues having a ball in a five star Hotel was too much for the Colombo press to take. The Press literally went to town in highly coloured and imaginative accounts of the LTTE team indulging themselves in five- star comfort. In fact this rather deliberate attempt to denigrate the process --it is not unusual to have people sneer when the Hilton Talks are referred to even today precisely because the first three sessions were held at the Hilton-- has been a pervasive characteristic of the Sri Lanka mainline Press in reporting any attempt at a negotiated solution and deserves serious study as being part of the problem.)

The LTTE reciprocated for their part in a formal declaration of a cease-fire with the Sri Lanka Security Forces which was immediately responded to in an official statement. This made for a formal state of cease-fire between the two parties, the LTTE and the Sri Lanka Government when the talks in Colombo commenced. However, there was no cease-fire between the LATE and the IPKF at that time and this unusual circumstance led to some bizarre situations on the ground.


3. Analysis of the Agenda for the Talks

There was agreement at the first meeting between the two sides which took place with President Premadasa in the Chair at Sucharita, his personal residence, at 5.0 p.m. on 4th May, that the modalities and the issues would be identified in the first stage of the talks which would begin the next day.

Accordingly at the first formal meeting on 5th May 1989 at the Hilton Hotel at which Honble ACS Hameed led the Sri Lanka team ( for composition of the teams see Section 4), the following specific issues were identified for further discussion.

These issues for discussion were recorded in the Press Releases which were regularly issued by the Conference Secretariat headed by Mr. Felix Dias Abeysinghe, former Commissioner of Elections and a respected retired public servant. The Press Release was in the nature of a joint communique and was prepared after each meeting by Mr Dias Abeysinghe and Dr Anton Balasingham sitting down together and formulating a non controversial document which recorded the names of the participants, the matters reviewed but said virtually nothing about the content or how the discussions had gone.

The President who was intensely interested in how the discussions were proceeding was given a detailed briefing each day by the leader of the Sri Lankan side Minister Hameed. The President, as was his wont, also had other contacts from within the team from whom he could check as to what had transpired.

The leadership of Mr Hameed was recognized by all the Sri Lankan Ministers who from time to time made up the team. The fact that he was proficient in Tamil-(he is actually trilingual) was invaluable in establishing rapport with especially the younger members of the LTTE team. Moreover his ability to catch the nuances of the asides among the opposing team was a great asset to the Government team.

It is worthy of mention that the two Cabinet Ministers Mr Gamini Disanayake and Mr Lalith Athulathmudali who were centrally involved in the negotiations preceding the Indo Lanka Agreement of July 1987 did not participate at any stage in the present round of discussions.

Considering the sensitive nature of the negotiations and the risks that were subsequently taken with the handing over of weapons to the LTTE. and the later behaviour of the two Ministers in the Impeachment Motion against the President, it is clear that Premadasa wanted in the negotiating teams only those he could trust implicitly and those would not thwart either covertly or openly by counter arguments, his plan of action and ultimate design.

The negotiations between the (government and the LTTE in the 14 month period April 89 to June 90 took place at different times, at different levels and with different sets of personalities. Orchestrating the whole process and controlling each move was the President himself. Not all the members of all the groups ever knew the whole of what was happening. This was probably true of the other side too with Prabhakaran, although never present, being kept fully informed of every move and counter move.

The dates of the specific meetings mentioned in Section 4 indicate that there were at least three rounds of talks. Some rounds lasting as long as two weeks. The Agenda for these was allowed to develop with the evolving circumstances. Since discussions on the shape and form of the political solution to the Tamil ethnic problem were contingent on the withdrawal of the IPKF, it was agreed that the principle of first things first, be followed. The Agenda therefore in the initial stages of the Talks was dominated by the issue of having the IPKF withdrawn at the earliest opportunity.

The modus operandi for achieving this goal was two fold. Firstly intensive diplomatic (and not so diplomatic) activity to impress on the Indian government that the IPKF was now unwelcome in Sri Lanka and were an impediment to the reaching of a solution.

The exchange of letters between Premadasa and Rajiv Gandhi and their increasing acerbity reflect the strength of feeling on the matter and the extent of the deterioration in relations between the two countries. In the event it was only the change of government in India at the end of 1989 and the emergence of the V.P. Singh administration that ensured that the withdrawal of the IPKF eventually took place. President Premadasa was absolutely convinced that the IPKF was there to stay for ever, or at least until the Accord, particularly in as far as it applied to the devolution of power and the establishment of the EPRLF as the dominant popover in the North-East Province, was a reality.

The second thrust of the strategy to force out the IPKF, and with it the Indian influence over Sri Lanka, was to strengthen the LTTE fighting forces so that they would firstly survive, and secondly, and as a corollary, be able to cause maximum damage to the IPKF and thus hasten their departure from Sri Lanka. One of the early requests of the LTTE from Premadasa would therefore obviously have been for military equipment to be used against the IPKF. Such a high risk issue could clearly not have been made in the official rounds of talks or have appeared in the agenda of the Press Releases.

This, like other more sensitive issues would have been reserved for the higher level discussions which the President regularly had with Balasingham, and later on with Mahattaya when he arrived in Colombo for the third round of Talks about November l989.

On the Government side, issues such as the arms transfer would have been discussed by the President only with persons like Mr Hameed, Mr Ranjan Wijeratne and the Secretary of Defence.

In addition to the two levels of discussion identified above of the formal talks which took place openly and with due publicity in the Colombo Hotels and later in the pavilion of the Army Sports Club and the confidential discussions at Sucharita where the President met the LTTE members, there was another forum which Premadasa structured with the purpose in mind of having the LTTE interact with the rest of the political parties in the country. This was the mechanism of the All Party Conference which he caused to be convened at the BMICH on 12 August 1989 with all the 26 political parties registered in Sri Lanka. (The SLFP came for the first two meetings but left the APC thereafter).

The broad Agenda of the A.P.C. was to deliberate on ways to resolve the crisis the country was facing both in the North and the South. There were 20 critical issues finally selected by the All Party Conference as forming the Agenda. Premadasa regarded the LTTE's presence at the APC -albeit for a limited time and with hardly any participation as a signal achievement in his endeavour to get the LTTE to participate in mainstream politics. (The EROS, Balakumar wing, a close ally of the LTTE was in Parliament and a constituent member of the APC but the LTTEs token participation in the APC was significant as a first attempt to legitimise the LTTE as a political organisation and not merely a militant group. In fact it was Premadasa's insistence that persuaded the LTTE to register itself (for representation at the APC) as a political party-- with the name -the Peoples Front of Liberation Tigers (PFLT) and significantly, without the appellation Tamil Eelam.

High on the political Agenda during the course of the negotiations were two critical concerns which finally became the achilles heel leading to the breakdown of the relationship of trust which Premadasa had been at such pains to construct.

1. The repeal of the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution

2. The dissolution of the North East Provincial Council and the holding of new Elections at which the LTTE/PFLT would be enabled to contest.

Some discussion of these two issues is warranted because in my view it was Premadasa's inability or unwillingness to deliver on these that caused the breakdown in relationships and the final breach in June 1990 after the last of the IPKF had finally left the country on the 19th of March. In the view of the LTTE the inability to deliver agreed political undertakings once again proved the Government's and Premadasa's (this time round) mala fides about any political solution which involved concessions involving territorial autonomy for the Tamils as a people, etc- ( the 4 Thimpu principles)

What were the LTTE seeking through these two basic political demands?

(1) the 6th Amendment to the 1978 Constitution had been promulgated by J.R.Jayewardene in the wake of the 1983 pogrom apparently to further appease the Sinhala electorate that the unitary state would be always safeguarded and separatism eradicated. Article 157A, the amending section provided that,

"No person shall, directly or indirectly, in or outside or Sri Lanka, support, espouse, promore, finance encourage or advocate the establishment of a separate State within the territory of Sri Lanka".

and prescribed extreme disabilities for anyone or any group who contravened this provision such as, loss of civic rights, forfeiture of property, loss of membership of Parliament etc. It also specified that every member of a local authority, Development Council etc (Provincial Councils had not come into existence yet) would also have to subscribe to the oath declaring that they would not support, promote, advocate etc the establishment of a separate State. This would clearly eliminate the LTTE from contesting for elected office in a Provincial Council or Parliament. In fact the 6th Amendment had been one of the reasons that had impelled the TULF, then the leading party in the Opposition with 17 seats, to resign from their seats in Parliament in 1984.

The priority given by the LTTE to the repeal of the 6th Amendment is also interesting in that it reflects their intention at that time, of contesting for elections at national and sub-national levels within the framework of the existing political system. Their ultimate goal of the separate State notwithstanding, this willingness to try working within the system is indicative I believe of the degree of trust which Premadasa was able to engender in his initial relationship with the LTTE. It no doubt represents a major concession by the LTTE although the cynical might wish to pass it off as a strategem for the naive. I take the view that it was genuine and was in reciprocation of the enormous political risks that Premadasa was taking by some of his actions, such as the arms transfer.

(2) dissolution of the NEPC. The LTTE laid great emphasis on this issue. Their position was that the EPRLF led administration that had come in with the elections to the NEPC in 1988 did not reflect the will of the electorate and that the EPRLF had only won because of the machinations of the IPKF which had been in control at the time. The LTTE claimed that Varadararaja Perumal, the Chief Minister of the NEPC was a puppet of the Indians. Their request to Premadasa was the Council be dissolved and that fresh elections be called at which point they would demonstrate that they, the LTTE were the peoples choice in the North East. The real political negotiations with regard to the future nature of the Sri Lankan state would take place thereafter, after they had proved to Premadasa that they had the majority support in the North East.

Premadasa accepted the above two propositions and undertook to work on them although I am sure he was aware of how difficult they would be to accomplish. Both issues posed serious legal and political problems.

Regarding the repeal of the 6th Amendment. while JR with his 5/6ths majority in Parliament had done this with ease' Premadasa's government did not have the 2/3rd's majority necessary for a Constitutional change. Much political work would have been necessary within Parliament to secure the 2/3rds. ( I have the feeling that these delicate negotiations would have been left to Mr Hameed who was the principle interlocutor with the political parties, his position as Co- Chairman of the APC being of considerable assistance here.) But would the Sinhala people have been agreeable to give up a major bastion they had constitutionally secured against the break-up of 'their state' was a question that even Premadasa, who represented the core of Sinhala nationalism was not certain about. What he said many times over to the Sinhala people was ‘Trust me, I will never let you down'.

The dissolution of the NEPC also bristled with problems. For one thing, according to the existing law (the Provincial Councils Act of 1987)- the 'central' government could not, without cause, dissolve a Provincial Council. That had been one of the safeguards given to 'devolution of power' to the Provinces, in the discussions leading up to the Indo-Lanka Pact and this principle was sanctified in the Law.

According to the current Act the Chief Minister himself had to recommend a dissolution and in the case of the NEPC it was unthinkable that Varadaraja Perumal would do so. But Varadaraja provided an opportunity which Premadasa could have used, but delayed using until it was too late. This was his 'Unilateral Declaration of Independence’, in late November 1989 which was eagerly pointed out by the LTTE as being sufficient reason for dissolution. It would have yet required an amendment to the law -the Provincial Councils Act - and the government had the majority to pass it in Parliament.

But while the LTTE was pressing for it, there was needless delay and the amending Law enabling the government to dissolve a Council in similar circumstances was passed by Parliament only in July after war had broken out again on the 11th of June 1990. A classic case of, if not too little, certainty of being too late. The erosion of trust which had commenced around the end of 1989 was further deepened by the discussions which the Government (Ranjan Wijeratne) had with the EPRLF in February 1990. There was also the practical problem of how free elections could be held at all in the North East even if the NEPC was dissolved but this was never a matter of serious discussion between the two parties.

Why were these critical political issues left to drift and not addressed in the decisive and speedy manner that was one of Premadasa's characteristics? I am now increasingly inclined to the view that he simply did not want to do so.

Lets examine the options he had before him.

1. Notwithstanding, the legal, political and logistical questions, had he repealed the 6th Amendment and dissolved the NEPC, he would have had to contend with a merged North East Province and a force, the LTTE that would have made the 'traditional homelands' concept and the Tamil nation a reality. Premadasa had opposed this in the past and this could not have been part of his scheme of things for the future.

2. Premadasa realized that 'the moment of truth' would arrive when the last of the IPKF soldiers left the North East. Who would fill the law and order gap thereafter? The Sri Lanka army, who had been in barracks for the years since July 1987, or the LTTE 'boys' who had been preparing themselves for the 'liberation of their motherland' There had been no clear thinking about who was to fill the vacuum; the Army, the LTTE or some kind of joint control.

3. His third option could have been to hope, idealistically and optimistically that the LTTE would trust him to be fair in his governance after the IPKF left. That the North East would be economically developed, that devolution to the Pradeshiya Sabha level and decentralisation would proceed apace ( Premadasa often cryptically said that he was prepared to give not Eelam but ellam) and that the LTTE would have a part in the power sharing arrangements at the Centre. (I believe he did not accurately perceive the enormously strong drive of the LATE for territorial autonomy).

4. His fourth and final option could have been straight out of Machiavelli or more likely Kautilya. That was that after the IPKF was out of the country he would turn the refreshed and renewed Sri Lankan forces on the weak LTTE, rout them completely, eliminate Prabhakaran and reestablish law and order, good governance, peace and prosperity over the North East and the whole of Sri Lanka.

I am inclined to think that in his final grand design this last option would have been very appealing. It was certainly vigorously articulated by his Deputy Minister of Defence Mr Ranjan Wijeratne in Parliament soon after the war restarted in June 1990, "No half way house with me", he said, '`Now I am going all out for the LTTE. We will annihilate them.


4. Venues and Participants at the Talks

First Round 4th May to 30th May l989,) Hilton,Galadhari,

Government Team (8)

Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam Team

Second Round of Talks- (16 June to 2 July 1989) Army Sports Club, Pavilion.

Government Team --( in addition to those above)

LTTE Team

Third Round ---(November 1989) Sucharita

Government Team

LTTE Team


5. Lessons to be learnt:

I. The importance of fulfilling ‘undertakings’ especially those given by the government, on which initial hopes are raised and trust built. While some of the undertakings on the Government side were fulfilled, as we have seen 2 important issues were led unresolved until too late.

II. The need for an agreed plan for fixture security and law enforcement after the fighting stops.

III. The need to embody time- frames for fulfilment of ‘promises' and mechanisms to salvage inability to perform as per schedule

IV. The utility of having a mediator who could guarantee to either party the fulfilment of undertakings and facilitate contact between the parties. When the breach was widening there was no third party to help minimise the divide or repair the damage.

V. The need to create mass support, including convincing the media, for the strategies being employed to achieve a durable peace.


End Notes

1. Report of the Commissioner of Elections on the Presidential Elections of 1989.

2. The IPKF in Sri Lanka; Depinder Singh (Trishul Publications)

3 Tigers of Sri Lanka; M.R.Narayan Swamy 1995

4. Sri Lanka: A Lost Revolution; Rohan Guneratne 1990

5. ibid

6. Two incidents stand out. Presidents Premadasa's attempted brow-beating of Indian High Commissioner, Mehotra at a tension packed meeting at Sucharita on the afternoon of 28th July 89. Mehotra refused to be cowed down, inviting Premadasa's praise for Indian diplomacy after the meeting ended. The other occasion was Premadasa's coldness to Lt General Kalkat when he called over to discuss training of the Civilian Volunteer Force in the Eastern Province.

7. The daily Press Releases, later tabled in Parliament give a complete list of the participants- on both sides. It is noteworthy that there were no press releases in regard to the Third Round of talks.

8. The Government delegation was assisted by,

Gen. Sepala Attygalle,Secretary/Defense

Mr. K. H. J. Wijayadasai, Secretary to the President

Mr. Bemard Tilakaratna, Secretary/Foreign Affairs

M/s W. T. Jayasinghe & Ivan Samarawickrema -Cabinet Office

Mr. Bradman Weerakoon, Presidential Adviser, International Relations.

Mr. Felix Dias Abeyesinghe former Commissioner of Elections (Meeting Coordinator and Secretary).

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