The formation of US policy on Sri Lanka under Obama administration -2

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


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 Indi-
ans 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

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 sealanes
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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