The United States and the Sri Lankan Peace Process
The United States, for better or worse for the
peace process itself, edged closer to the peace politics of Sri Lanka
than ever before when it hosted a one-day seminar in Washington DC on
the Sri Lankan issue on Monday, April 14.
The seminar was dubbed as a prelude to the larger international
aid conference scheduled to take place in Japan.
US had earlier indicated that it expects to pledge significant
support at the Japan aid conference as long as the parities to the
conflict continue to make progress at the peace talks. It is reported
that the conference was attended by nearly twenty five countries and
more than a dozen international aid organizations.
Sri Lankan government was represented by a high level delegation
lead by Minister Milinda Moragoda. Noticeably, the other party to the
Sri Lankan conflict, the LTTE, was absent. As this is only a prelude to
the June aid conference in Japan, this conference did not have the
excitement that was received for the first conference held in Oslo.
However tensions arose due to the absence of the LTTE at this
seminar, and the LTTE’s protest at its exclusion.
US has been an ally of the Government of Sri Lanka
for years and has taken the side of the Sri Lankan government by
providing monetary support and also by providing arms and training to
Sri Lankan armed forces during the long civil war in Sri Lanka. Despite
support from US and other western countries, the oppressive Sri Lankan
security forces not only could not defeat the LTTE, but also were
loosing ground to LTTE forces. It is the realization of the Ranil Government that the war
cannot be won militarily that brought about the ceasefire and the
subsequent peace talks. It
is also to be noted that the United States, as well as other western
powers, put pressure on the Sri Lankans, the government of Chandrika
Kumaratunga in particular, to engage in peace dialogue with the LTTE.
In this context, the fact the US is in the
forefront advocating and encouraging other nations and international aid
agencies to help Sri Lanka rebuild itself is a positive trend.
The importance that the US attaches to the peace process in Sri
Lanka is apparent from the fact that the State Department’s number two
person, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was hosting this
seminar just as the United States is kicking off the rebuilding or
nation building in Iraq. Armitage’s
memory of Chavakacheri from his last summer visit perhaps is very vivid
to him. He described Sri Lanka to the attendees of the conference as,
“a nation stunted by war with a populace weary to the bones of bearing
the cost of fighting, and a territory that is, in places, nearly as
desolate as a moonscape”. Given the geopolitical issues and the level
of strategic interest, the keen interest shown by Mr. Armitage and the
US State Department towards the Sri Lankan peace process is noteworthy.
If the absence of LTTE at the seminar is
conspicuous, then so is the presence of the Indian delegation.
India, like the US, has proscribed the LTTE as a terrorist
organization, and shunned participation in the first aid conference held
last December in Oslo. At that conference the US was represented by the
high ranking official, Mr. Armitage.
At the Washington conference the attendance of the Indian
delegation included the Indian ambassador to the US, Lalit Mansingh.
Is this an indication that the Indian government is willingly or
unwillingly compelled to support the peace process? Or is she realizing
that by being indifferent to the changing situations in Sri Lanka, she
is loosing her geopolitical interest and her hegemony in the Indian
subcontinent? Or, is it to merely show that she will not sit with the
LTTE? We will probably know by the end of the June aid conference.
LTTE is understandably angry at its exclusion from
the seminar. LTTE was the
first to declare a unilateral ceasefire - long before the GOSL - and the
LTTE was a willing signer of the MoU last year. In a series of talks
with the GOSL, LTTE has made remarkable compromises and has exhibited to
the world at large that it is sincere in its quest for a peaceful
solution to the civil war. To
date, nearly fourteen months since signing the MoU, the GOSL and its
armed forces have yet to fulfill their promises outlined in the MoU.
Despite this, the LTTE continues to talk peace.
In this context, the LTTE has every reason to expect the GOSL and
Norway as the facilitator to steer the talks in the right direction. Any
international forums related to talks should be such that the LTTE and
the GOSL are treated as equal partners in the peace process.
It should be emphasized that the LTTE protested its exclusion by
faulting not the US for not inviting them, but the GOSL and Norway for
allowing such a situation. In fact, during his opening speech Richard
Armitage recognized that the LTTE is unhappy about its exclusion and
went on to explain that the members of the organization cannot be issued
visas under the laws governing the proscription.
He was quick to point out that it is up to the LTTE to change the
situation. By which he
meant the US stand on the LTTE ban will be changed only after the LTTE
It is no secret that Ranil government’s approach
of the ethnic conflict is that the conflict can be resolved by improving
the economic conditions of the country.
When Minister Morogoda pleads for economic assistance to Sri
Lanka to give a leg up the peace process, one wonders whether the
economy is for peace or peace is for the economy.
The stagnation at the talks, which was evident at the last round
of talks - where there were no significant breakthrough, - and the
apparent emphasis of the Ranil government on securing aid packages from
abroad, despite the continued acceptance of the government with the Sri
Lankan armed forces that refuses to vacate schools, temples and other
areas of civilian habitation, all indicates that the GOSL’s commitment
to a negotiated political settlement is waning.
This is where the US should play its cards.
Unfortunately, by insisting that the ban on LTTE can be removed
only after it renounces violence, the US is placing itself into a
position where it can only be partisan in its support of the peace
process. The GOSL and, to
even to a greater extent, the LTTE have recognized and have made
compromises at the negotiating table.
Both have signed a document in the presence of Norway that they
are to cease violence. It
is very important for the success of the peace process for countries
such as the US to not only enable aid funds to flow into Sri Lanka, but
also to recognize the LTTE for the steps it has taken thus far and for
its continued commitment to the peace process. The US should
de-proscribe the LTTE from the list of foreign terrorist organizations
during this crucial phase of the peace talks, not after a negotiated
settlement is reached.
The LTTE was and never will be a threat to the
United States. By being partisan and supporting only the side of the Sri
Lankan government, the US, unwittingly or not, will undoubtedly allow
the Sri Lankan government to become more intransigent and hence increase
the chances of collapse of the peace process. The humanitarian needs of
the Tamil people in the North and East of Sri Lanka may be the immediate
need, but without granting the political rights to the Tamils, the
conflict may never be resolved, peacefully or not.
As the analysts and the diplomats have often indicated, this is probably the best chance for peace in Sri Lanka. While assisting the rebuilding of Sri Lanka, the US also should strengthen the process and increase the chances of success by recognizing the LTTE for what it is - that is the representatives of an oppressed people who took up arms as the last resort to defend their freedom. Demanding renunciation of violence even before substantial political matters are discussed at the talks does not help. A change in US policy on the LTTE is needed.
Sangu editorial, April, 2003