Interview with Teitur Torkelsson of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission
by Shamindra Ferdinando
In an interview with The Sunday Island, the SLMM spokesperson, Teitur Torkelsson endorsed the governments position on the HSZs issue.
SLMM head Maj. Gen. Tryggve Tellefsen reiterated the missions stance to LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran during a recent meeting in Kilinochchi. Tellefsens predecessor Maj. Gen. Trond Furuhovde was the first to accept government stand, he said, adding that Furuhovde was of the view if HSZs were removed overnight or altered drastically "it would seriously disturb the balance of power."
He said: "It was a part of the government security setup. If drastic alterations were made, troops would feel threatened. They would feel vulnerable." The LTTE would have an upper hand, he said. He is convinced scaling down of security forces presence in the north-east, particularly Jaffna "should be done gradually. In a controlled way."
He emphasised that need to maintain the status quo. He said: "A cease-fire agreement reached in February last year depends on the balance of power. If it changes in a way favourable to either side it would place the truce agreement in danger".
He reminded that there would not have been a truce agreement unless both parties admitted that they were unable to bring the conflict to an end through military means. The agreement, he pointed out, gave an opportunity to the government and the LTTE to seek a final settlement through negotiations.
"The LTTE is not very happy with the SLMM position, still they accept it," he said. The LTTE, he said, has pointed out that the government continued to strengthen its position by acquiring more ships and surveillance aircraft among other equipment. The LTTE was of the view the group should be able to do the same to keep the status quo, he said.
Does Oslo agrees with SLMMs stand? Torkelsson, representing Iceland in the 47-member Nordic mission, expressed the belief that Oslo agreed with Maj. Gen. Furuhovdes argument. He was Oslos first choice as the SLMM head, he said, adding that it was a good argument. Oslo has the authority to name the SLMM head who has the final say regarding interpretation of the agreement, he said.
Initially the SLMM comprised 25-30 persons representing Norway, Iceland, Denmark, Finland and Sweden. But by June last year the mission was strengthened. It comprises 47 representatives including naval monitors. The majority comes from Norway.
It was not correct to identify the SLMM as a Scandinavian operation. "It is Nordic," he said.
Responding to a question, he said that the five countries share the running costs of the mission. Individual countries look after their nominees to the mission.
Commenting on the possibility of the SLMM further increasing its presence here subsequent to a decision taken at the recently concluded round of peace talks in Hakone, Japan, he said "we have been thinking of increasing the number of personnel for some time."
He ruled out the possibility of the SLMM being expanded with the inclusion representatives of any other country. "No. Not for the time being. It would remain Nordic."
The agreement does not bar the LTTE from recruiting fresh cadres if they were not underage. "It does not prohibit bolstering of its manpower."
He said that both sides were dedicated to the peace process. But when incidents take place people express serious doubts over the process. They think the parties would return to war. In the beginning even a minor incident could have led to the outbreak of all out hostilities. But the situation has changed over the past year with both sides continuing to keep their faith in the peace process.
"Every time we overcome problems, obstacles successfully, it gives both parties immense confidence. It strengthens the process."
Even after the recent sinking of an LTTE-owned tanker by the navy off Mullaitivu the truce agreement held, he pointed out. It proved that both parties have faith in the process whatever the differences over the attack on the vessel.
He agreed that the SLMMs ruling on the incident angered both the Sinhalese and the Tamils. The SLMM said that it was unable to blame the either party as it did not have all the information it required. He pointed out that any ruling would have to be based on unquestionable evidence not on hearsay or assumption. Some wanted the SLMM to blame the navy and the others expected the mission to blame the LTTE.
Responding to questions, he said the LTTE did not provide some information sought by the SLMM. Information relating to the sunken ships last port of call and its final destination was not made available, he said. The navy fully co-operated with the investigators. The SLMM in its report on the incident to the government and the LTTE praises the navy for the way it co-operated.
The SLMM is also in the process of discussing with both parties a mechanism to prevent the prolonged detention of soldiers and Tigers apprehended by the other party. Torkelsson said they were keen to have a plan in place on a priority basis in this regard. Explaining the need to reach agreement on this, he pointed out that the situation in the east demands a special mechanism to handle cases of arrests by both parties. Unlike in the north, there were no clear lines of control in the east where the army and the LTTE dispute each others claims of areas under their control. A special mechanism to deal with this issue would definitely further strengthen the peace process, he asserted.
The SLMM also wants both parties to authorise more people on the ground to take decisions. It would be imperative to involve more government and LTTE representatives in the process, he said, adding that the SLMM discussed the issue with both parties. He underscored the need to delegate authority, pointing out that it would not possible for just a few people to take all the decisions. "Choose qualified people, give them the required authority. It would give confidence. And it would strengthened the peace process".
He said that they were able to swiftly act on many issues in Batticaloa as the top commanders from both sides maintain good relations.
On both sides there were hard-liners. People take different views on one issue, he said, expressing confidence that they would be able to press on with the peace process.
Commenting on speculation that there was a likelihood of altering the cease-fire agreement, he stressed that nothing has been altered so far, although various proposals have been discussed. But outside the agreement, they have reached tripartite agreement on issues like the monitoring of the navys maritime patrols.
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