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Solheim to visit Sri Lanka — to mend fences

By M.R. Narayan Swamy, IANS,

New Delhi : Norwegian Minister Erik Solheim plans to visit Colombo in a bid to mend troubled ties with Sri Lanka, where many had come to see him and his country as sympathisers of the Tamil Tigers.

Having rubbed the current Sri Lankan leadership the wrong way despite a tightrope walking at the height of the war against the Tigers, Solheim had a fruitful meeting with President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the UN recently.

As a follow-up, Solheim will travel to Sri Lanka early next year for meetings with President Rajapaksa and other senior figures in Colombo and perhaps go to other parts of the island, informed sources told IANS.

It would be Solheim’s first visit to Sri Lanka when his discussions would not include the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which was militarily crushed last year.

According to the sources, President Rajapaksa is keen to let bygones be bygones. He also wants to forge a new relationship with Norway, one of the richest countries in the world.

Solheim — the minister of environment and international development – became a household name in Sri Lanka ever since he was named the Norwegian peace facilitator in the dragging ethnic conflict.

But in keeping with the country’s ethnic divide, varying sections of the population came to see him differently.

He flew to Sri Lanka numerous times since his first visit a decade ago led him to the Tamil Tiger lair where he met LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, who was killed in May 2009.

Solheim was widely credited for the path-breaking ceasefire agreement Colombo and the LTTE signed in February 2002, bringing the longest spell of peace in Sri Lanka since the ethnic conflict erupted in 1983.

But as fighting erupted from December 2005 and the war reached horrific proportions, Solheim became a hated figure in the eyes of Sinhalese nationalists who frequently vented their anger against him and Norway.

Even Tamils opposed to the Tigers were not enamoured of him, calling him biased.

And while the Tigers seemed to be pleased with Norway’s role, that too changed as it became clear that Oslo had no intention of backing the LTTE demand for an independent Tamil Eelam state.

At one time, Sri Lanka’s state-run media made personal attacks on the Norwegian minister. So did the LTTE’s ex-regional commander V. Muralitharan alias Karuna after he teamed up with Colombo to wage war against the Tigers.

Solheim also frequently travelled to India to consult officials in New Delhi about possible peace moves.

Those who interacted with him knew that the Norwegian minister, with a leftwing background, was a man of strong views but who knew where to draw the line vis-a-vis the LTTE.

But his numerous and extensive interactions with LTTE leaders — he met the now dead London-based LTTE ideologue Anton Balasingham over 100 times — gave the impression that he was enamoured of the Tigers.

It took a long time for many to realise that that was not the case.

(M.R. Narayan Swamy can be contacted at [email protected])