In a rare interview on the recent Sri Lankan conflict, the Japanese govt’s envoy Yasushi Akashi speaks of his unique experience parleying between the govt and the LTTE

Yasushi Akashi was the representative of the Japanese government for Peace-Building, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction in Sri Lanka. He was actively involved in mediating between the Sri Lankan government and the international community and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) from 2002 to 2009, in which year the terrorist organisation was defeated militarily.

As peace envoy, he visited the country at least 30 times, and even after the war, he visited Sri Lanka to push for reconciliation. Prior to his mission in Sri Lanka, Akashi, at the headquarters of the United Nations Secretariat in New York, held positions as Under-Secretary-General of Public Information, Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs and Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator.

Among many other additional assignments, he was the Secretary-General’s Personal Representative for the war in the former Yugoslavia. He also supervised the Cambodian peace negotiations and subsequent elections in 1993. Akashi is the current Chairman of the International House of Japan.

The Daily News caught up with him on November 7, to discuss the Sri Lankan conflict and his experience in it after all these years.

Excerpts of the interview:

Q: What were your priorities when you took over duties as the representative of the Government of Japan for Peace-Building, Reconciliation and Reconstruction in Sri Lanka?

A: I started my mission of peace-building and reconciliation in Sri Lanka in 2002. We had a good agreement with the Norwegians who were already there. The special interest of Japan was to contribute to promoting and consolidating peace in Sri Lanka with Japan’s special competence and experience on the development side. In 2003, we convened the Tokyo conference to support rehabilitation and development in Sri Lanka. And 51 governments and more than 20 international organisations, including the UN, participated in that conference.

We adopted a declaration on peace in Sri Lanka by consensus, and I remember the Prime Minister at that time – Ranil Wickremesinghe – was in tears when I announced the total sum of US$ 4.5 billion which was committed for the purpose of rehabilitation and consolidating of peace in Sri Lanka, by the international community.

We wanted to show all parties in Sri Lanka that the international community was solidly behind their efforts for peace. But the LTTE did not see fit to come to Tokyo and participate in that conference.

The international community was prepared to go beyond even the US$ 4.5 billion if the relevant parties in Sri Lanka agreed to make further progress towards real peace.

Q: But just before the Tokyo conference, both the LTTE and a team from the Sri Lankan government held talks in Japan, isn’t it?

A: Yes, just before the Tokyo conference we had the sixth session of negotiations with the government and the LTTE which took place in Hakone in Japan. Anton Balasingham from the LTTE, and Minister G.L. Peiris and the delegation from the Sri Lankan government, and also Norwegian representatives took part. There was great hope at that time but things began to deteriorate later.

Q: You also had talks with the LTTE leader?

A: I had one opportunity to meet LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. That was in Kilinochchi in 2003 and it was a long meeting. We had a lengthy discussion about the prospects of peace and our expectations from the LTTE to accept peaceful negotiations with the government. I strongly urged Prabhakaran to use the opportunity. But I later realised that Prabhakaran was not inclined to accept peaceful negotiations. After our discussion in the morning, we had lunch together and after lunch, he relaxed a bit. The morning talks were very formal and intensive.

After lunch, it was more of an informal chat. During that time, Prabhakaran spoke about his son, family, and his hopes. He opened up in the afternoon. He had a good image of Japan. He said he longed for the day when Sri Lanka became a peaceful and developed country like Japan. I saw two different faces of Prabhakaran. I like to believe his afternoon face more than his morning face.

I profoundly regret that he missed all the opportunities given to him. The Tokyo conference was a great opportunity, and after the Indian Ocean tsunami, then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga came up with a rebuilding programme in which the LTTE was invited to participate. But he shut the door at that time as well. There were other occasions where Prabhakaran told Northern Tamils not to participate in elections. He lost so many opportunities for peace and peaceful negotiations.

Q: Did the LTTE leadership contact you during the last stages of the war?

A: A few days before the end of the war, I was contacted by the LTTE at my hotel in Colombo. It was an attempt by the LTTE for some kind of ceasefire and they were seeking my help. The person who called me was the political director of the LTTE. I told him a mere ceasefire will not suffice, and it must be accompanied with offers such as laying down arms and releasing civilians. So he said he will go back to Prabhakaran and convey my thoughts about more comprehensive and serious efforts. He never called back.

Q: Do you think Prabhakaran would have ever agreed to a negotiated political solution?

A: On the advice of people like Anton Balasingham, Thamilselvan and others who had experience and knowledge about conflict situations, the LTTE had examined what possibilities there were for a negotiated settlement. But my impression in hindsight was that Prabhakaran was intoxicated with military victories and became overconfident in his own power.

His mind was probably that of a terrorist in the end and he antagonised not only Sinhala and other people, but he also killed some of his own colleagues and political leaders like Lakshman Kadirgamar, Rajiv Gandhi, R. Premadasa, Gamini Dissanayake and so on. His supporters left him one by one. So in the end, he was his own enemy.

Q: You came to Sri Lanka in the immediate aftermath of the war?

A: I think after the end of the conflict, heroic efforts were made on the part of the government to enable refugees to be taken care of. The war ended with a lot of bloodshed and tragedy, but I had the impression that sections of the international community did not see the facts in Sri Lanka as they were, but wanted to pick up some developments and criticise the government.

After the end of war in 2009, Sri Lanka has been trying hard to achieve real peace, reconciliation and more secure democratic progress. But it seems with the recent political events in the last few days, democracy in Sri Lanka faces another challenge.

Q: What are your thoughts on the reaction of the international community to the UN Expert Panel report on the Sri Lankan war, which was later dubbed the ‘Darusman Report’?

A: It is a long and complex report which deals with many different aspects in relation to the final showdown and even the aftermath of the war. There were several passages of oversimplification in that report. That is why this report should be read and interpreted as a whole, not just some parts, while ignoring other parts. I was not pleased with interpretations of that report by some sections of the international community.

Q: What about the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC)?

A: I think many constructive measures were proposed by the LLRC to foster a process of lasting peace and reconciliation. Proposals such as the investigation of cases of disappearances and abductions, promotion of a trilingual policy, reduction of high security zones, return of private lands by the military and demilitarisation are praiseworthy. Further, the LLRC recommended speedy resettlement and genuine reconciliation and restoration of normal civilian life in affected areas.

Q: Are you satisfied with the efforts taken to practically implement the above measures?

A: We always have big dreams, but we have to start with small steps. I think Sri Lanka made a serious attempt to learn from similar conflicts in other countries. I think it is important to learn from other examples where serious efforts were made for reconciliation after major conflicts.

However, not all cases are identical; therefore, Sri Lanka has to make its own discoveries and experimentations. The Office of Missing Persons, the Reparations Bill and other similar efforts undertaken are steps in the right direction. These are significant steps towards healing of the wounds and coming together of all Sri Lankans.

Q: Can you elaborate on your role in peace-building and reconciliation?

A: My efforts were over several years. I negotiated and spoke with the UN, UNHRC and many other organisations and countries. I wanted to avoid oversimplification of the complexity of the conflict. I felt that the Sri Lankan government was unfairly depicted as not wanting a peaceful solution, which is not correct. Also I had discussions with government leaders to show the international community that Sri Lankan leaders’ minds are not closed to a peaceful solution. In my opinion, there are many different ways you can negotiate and many different ways to alleviate the situation.

Q: Do you think you were able to fully accomplish your mission?

A: I regret one promise I made on the occasion when I undertook my mission for peace-building and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. During my first visit, I was invited to visit artistic and historical sites in Sri Lanka and I said that I would very much like to visit these sites. However, I said I would visit these places after I accomplished my mission of peace. So when Ranil Wickremesinghe was the Prime Minister in 2002, for the first time, he took me to see some of these historical sites which were impressive, but I declined to spend more time visiting them until I had accomplished my mission. That moment of complete accomplishment never came. Much has been achieved and lots of efforts have been undertaken by Sri Lanka since ending the war during the tenure of President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2009, to make peace an actual reality. But still there is more to do. So I wonder at what moment I will realise my dream.

Q: If there is an invitation to come back here again and help Sri Lanka consolidate peace and reconciliation, will you accept it?

A: I have had many meetings with people belonging to different religions and ethnic groups all over Sri Lanka. I think all Sri Lankans are at heart peaceful. I am of the belief that we have all kinds of beliefs and behaviour patterns. But we are basically in search of the same dreams and desires. I have dealt with other conflicts in Cambodia and in Yugoslavia. Even today, some conflicts are continuing.

I have profound respect and friendship for Sri Lankan leaders. Although political lines are drawn at times, I believe all of them are committed to peace, reconciliation and development. We Japanese have deep respect and love for Sri Lankans and the friendly ties between the two nations have strengthened over the years. I always like to see Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans doing well.

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