Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Sri Lanka: Contrary to conventional wisdom, Sri Lanka is not a post-conflict environment.

Government of the United States of America - Sri Lanka stands at a critical juncture in its efforts to secure a lasting peace. After almost three decades of separatist war, on May 17, 2009, the terrorist Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE or Tamil Tigers) officially conceded defeat.

Two days later, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa declared total victory after government soldiers killed the Tamil Tigers' leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, and took control of the entire country for the first time since 1983. With an estimated 70,000 casualties over the years, it was a bitter and hard-fought victory, one of the few instances in modern history in which a terrorist group had been defeated militarily. President Rajapaksa framed the victory as part of the global fight against terrorism, declaring in a May 19 speech before Parliament, ''Ending terrorism in Sri Lanka means a victory for democracy in the world. Sri Lanka has now given a beginning to the ending of terrorism in the world.''

The war in Sri Lanka may be over, but the underlying conflict still simmers. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Sri Lanka is not a post-conflict environment. While the fighting between the Government and the LTTE may have ended, the reasons for the political and social conflict (that also gave rise to youth militancy and armed clash in the 1970s and 1980s) will take time to address.

Those root causes must be tackled soon and with a sense of urgency to prevent the country from backsliding. Thirty years of violence have taken a toll on the majority Sinhalese population, giving rise to a siege mentality toward the ethnic Tamil minority.

For their part, Tamil leaders have not yet made anticipated conciliatory gestures that might ease government concerns and foster a genuine dialogue. Some Tamils are wary about the long-term significance of post-war Sinhalese ''triumphalism'' and fear that they may be marginalized in the unified country of Sri Lanka. The Tamil middle class has been devastated, many having emigrated years ago, leaving behind few mainstream leaders to represent more moderate views. The situation is particularly dire for Tamils in the North, who are trapped between living in government-run camps and returning to homes destroyed in the war.

Real peace will not come overnight to Sri Lanka and cannot be imposed from the outside. The country has endured decades of trauma, and a generation of politicians and laymen know little aside fromwar and conflict as the norm. It will take time for the country to make the transition to a post-conflict environment amid ongoing political and economic challenges. The country's economy remains fragile, requiring the International Monetary Fund to provide a $2.6 billion loan to bolster Sri Lanka's reserves. Government officials have been under additional pressure as a result of the European Union's deliberations to suspend special trade preferences with Sri Lanka, known as ''GSP Plus,'' unless progress is made on human rights and political freedoms.

The political environment in Sri Lanka is not as black and white as many outside observers believe. Despite ongoing allegations of war crimes and human rights abuses, the Rajapaksa Goverment has taken some positive steps to ease the humanitarian crisis in the North, develop the East, and reduce the number of child soldiers.

Its recent announcement to allow increased freedom of movement in the government-run camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) starting December 1, 2009, and shut down the camps by January 31, 2010, is positive and welcome. The Government still faces many legitimate obstacles in the North—such as removing the extensive mines left by years of warfare—where the international community can be an active partner in promoting faster resettlement.

Serious questions remain about the Sri Lankan Goverment's ability to address pressing reconstruction and development needs for Tamils and Muslims. The Government's prolonged application of emergency laws, lack of transparency in developing a strategy for reconstruction and resettlement, questionable conduct during the war, and clampdown on press freedom have undermined trust and the prospects for greater partnership with international donors.

Though the war is over, a culture of fear and paranoia permeates society, especially for journalists, which further erodes Sri Lanka's standing in the international community and hampers its prospects for genuine peace.

The final stages of the war captured the attention of governments around the world, particularly the United States. The Obama administration has been focusing on the humanitarian crisis in the North and pressing the Sri Lankan Government to take meaningful steps toward political reconciliation and press freedom.

The United States is one of the largest donors of humanitarian aid to Sri Lanka, including food aid and de-mining assistance. Yet, in Colombo, the Goverment considers the bilateral relationship with Washington to be on a downward trajectory. Most U.S. criticisms of Sri Lankan actions at the end of the war and treatment of IDPs have fallen on deaf ears, with Sri Lankan authorities dismissing the U.S. posture as ''no carrots and all sticks.'' U.S. assistance to Sri Lanka, although delivered in grants and not loans, has attracted criticism from the Rajapaksa Goverment for its emphasis on political reform. This growing rift in U.S.-Sri Lanka relations can be seen in Colombo's realignment toward non-Western countries, who offer an alternative model of development that places greater value on security over freedoms.

Indeed, Sri Lanka's geopolitical position has evolved considerably. As Western countries became increasingly critical of the Sri Lankan Government's handling of the war and human rights record, the Rajapaksa leadership cultivated ties with such countries as Burma, China, Iran, and Libya. The Chinese have invested billions of dollars in Sri Lanka through military loans, infrastructure loans, and port development, with none of the strings attached by Western nations. While the United States shares with the Indians and the Chinese a common interest in securing maritime trade routes through the Indian Ocean, the U.S. Government has invested relatively little in the economy or the security sector in Sri Lanka, instead focusing more on IDPs and civil society. As a result, Sri Lanka has grown politically and economically isolated from the West.

This strategic drift will have consequences for U.S. interests in the region. Along with our legitimate humanitarian and political concerns, U.S. policymakers have tended to underestimate Sri Lanka's geostrategic importance for American interests. Sri Lanka is located at the nexus of crucial maritime trading routes in the Indian Ocean connecting Europe and the Middle East to China and the rest of Asia. The United States, India, and China all share an interest in deterring terrorist activity and curbing piracy that could disrupt maritime trade. Security considerations extend beyond sea-lanes to the stability of India, the world's largest democracy. Communal tensions in Sri Lanka have the potential to undermine stability in India, particularly in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, home to 60 million Tamils. All of these concerns should be part of our bilateral relationship.

The United States cannot afford to ''lose'' Sri Lanka. This does not mean changing the relationship overnight or ignoring the real concerns about Sri Lanka's political and humanitarian record. It does mean, however, considering a new approach that increases U.S. leverage vis-a-vis Sri Lanka by expanding the number of tools at our disposal. A more multifaceted U.S. strategy would capitalize on the economic, trade, and security aspects of the relationship.

This approach in turn could catalyze much-needed political reforms that will ultimately help secure longer term U.S. strategic interests in the Indian Ocean. U.S. strategy should also invest in Sinhalese parts of the country, instead of just focusing aid on the Tamil-dominated North and East.

The Obama administration is currently weighing a new strategy for relations with Sri Lanka. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has closely followed events on the ground this year, including a hearing in February and a staff trip to Sri Lanka in November.

In an effort to stimulate a larger debate on U.S. policy toward Sri Lanka, the committee staff prepared this bipartisan report examining recent developments and proposing recommendations for U.S. policy towards Sri Lanka. The recommendations include a broader and more robust U.S. approach to Sri Lanka that appreciates new political and economic realities in Sri Lanka and U.S. geostrategic interests; continuation of de-mining efforts in the North; and promotion of people-to-people reconciliation programs throughout the country.

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