The United States’ Role in Sri Lanka’s Peace Process: 2002-2006

Image result for Amb Jeffrey Lunstead Middleburyby Jeffrey Lunstead, Asia Foundation, 2007

A Supplementary Study to the Sri Lanka Strategic Conflict Assessment 2005

Lunstead US Role in SL Peace Process 2002-2006

About the Author
Executive Summary
1. Introduction
2. U.S. Interests and Engagement in Sri Lanka
3. Enhanced U.S. Engagement
3.1 Enhanced U.S. Interest
3.2 U.S. Relations with the LTTE
3.3 Military Relations
3.4 Development Assistance
4. Relations with other Countries
4.1 Co-Chairs and Donor Group
4.2 India
5. Economics
6. Domestic Politics
6.1 Political Fault Lines
6.2 The Wickremesinghe-Kumaratunga Rivalry
6.3 Outliers and Spoilers
7. Peace Process Deteriorates – U.S. Interest Wanes
7.1 New Administration in Washington
7.2 Declining Resources
8. Looking Back and Looking Forward: Lessons from the Past and Projections for the Future
8.1 Lessons from the Past
8.2 Role Differentiation among International Players and U.S. Hard Line Toward the LTTE
8.3 Projections for the Future

Executive Summary

The United States has been deeply involved in the
current phase of the Sri Lanka peace process since it
began in late 2001. This is in distinct contrast to U.S.
engagement in earlier phases of Sri Lanka’s ethnic
conflict since it erupted into armed conflict in 1983.

While the U.S. was supportive of peacemaking efforts in
the 1980s and 1990s, it played a relatively low-key role,
deferring to India as the lead outside actor. With the end
of the Cold War, U.S. interest in Sri Lanka waned. As
recently as 2000, the United States Agency for
International Development (USAID) was planning for
significantly reduced development assistance levels.

The enhanced engagement that commenced in 2001
occurred despite the absence of significant U.S. strategic
interests in Sri Lanka. Political-military interests are not
high, and the U.S. has no interest in military bases in Sri
Lanka. From an economic and commercial standpoint,
Sri Lanka is unlikely to be a major U.S. trading partner
in the near future. There is not a large enough Sri
Lankan-origin community in the U.S. to have an impact
on U.S. domestic politics. The main U.S. strategic
interest in Sri Lanka is in ensuring that a terrorist
organization does not obtain its goals through the use
of terror.

Heightened U.S. interest in Sri Lanka from 2001
onwards was largely driven by then-Deputy Secretary of
State Richard Armitage. The enhanced interest was
largely based on a belief that Sri Lanka was engaged in a
process which, if successful, would resolve a conflict
marked by terrorism through peaceful political means—
assisted by the international community. This would be
a model for the region and, indeed, for the world. It
would show that a seemingly intractable problem could
be solved peacefully when the internal actors were
willing, and that the international community could
play a major role in assisting them.

U.S. enthusiasm was bolstered by the policies of the
Ranil Wickremesinghe government that was elected in
December 2001. In addition to its willingness to engage
in a risky peace process; that government was generally
friendly to the U.S., in favor of market-oriented
economic reform, and pro-free trade and globalization.

While the U.S. clearly supported the Wickremesinghe
government, it attempted to maintain productive
relationships with both Prime Minister Wickremesinghe
and President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga.

The U.S. did not, however, attempt to act as a mediator
between them. The U.S. adopted a bipolar approach,
concentrating its attention on the government and the
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE); but also tried
to work with outliers and potential spoilers. Exchanges
with potential spoilers such as the radical
Sinhalese/Marxist Janatha Vimukta Peramuna (JVP) and
the Buddhist monk-based Jatika Hela Urumaya (JHU)
were cordial but did not produce any changes in
attitude. Efforts to encourage the involvement of other
internal parties depended on progress in the peace
process. As the process stalled and then moved
backwards, such efforts diminished.

The U.S. worked closely with other members of the
international community—other countries involved in
peace negotiations (Japan, EU members, and Norway);
the larger donor group; the multilateral development
banks (MDBs); and UN agencies. A differentiation of
roles developed, more through natural evolution than by
plan. With this differentiation, the U.S. took a harder
line than its international partners toward the LTTE.
U.S. interaction with the LTTE was constrained both by
law and by policy, especially after September 11, 2001.

Legal restraints derived from the U.S. designation of the
LTTE since 1997 as a Foreign Terrorist Organization
(FTO), and subsequent anti-terrorism legislation. In
addition to these legal restraints directed against the
LTTE, U.S. policy also differed from most other
international players1 in its willingness to provide
security assistance to the Government of Sri Lanka
(GSL). This security assistance was not large in absolute
terms, but was intended to send a message to the LTTE
that a return to war would not yield benefits. The U.S
also tried to make clear to the LTTE that its position
regarding the LTTE was open to change if LTTE
behavior changed and the LTTE gave up terrorism “in
word and deed.” At the same time, the U.S. tried to
make clear to the GSL that U.S. support, including
military support, was not an encouragement to seek a
military solution. Quite the opposite, as the U.S. stated
clearly that it believed there was no military solution to
the conflict and that the GSL needed to develop a
political strategy which included substantial devolution
of power.

While this differentiation of roles among international
players clearly existed, it is too simplistic to view the
U.S. as the “bad cop” and other players the “good cops,”
since at least in theory U.S. policy was more nuanced.

This differentiation of roles is viewed by most other
international players as generally positive in terms of the
peace process, as it offered an incentive to the LTTE to
move in a positive direction. There are questions,
however, as to how this worked in practice. Did the
LTTE understand the U.S. message and believe that a
change in their status was possible? Or did they feel
hemmed in and isolated, if not threatened? Did the GSL
understand the U.S. message? Or did at least some in
the government feel encouraged to put greater military
pressure on the LTTE? The U.S. decision to avoid all
contact with the LTTE made it more difficult to convey
the nuances of its position. At a minimum, a one-time
meeting with the LTTE to ensure that the U.S. position
was understood clearly and to allow some dialogue could
have been useful.

USAID development assistance to Sri Lanka increased
markedly as a result of the peace process, although it was
not large in absolute or relative terms. None of this
assistance was delivered through the GSL, but instead
through various nongovernmental organizations
(NGOs). A substantial portion of this assistance was
intended to address root causes of the conflict. The U.S.
also provided assistance in other areas, including
demining and police modernization. U.S. selection of
Sri Lanka as eligible for Millennium Challenge
Corporation (MCC) funding was not based on political
grounds and not connected to the peace process. As the
peace process began to fray, planned USAID and other
funding have declined. The U.S. was a strong supporter
of the link between progress on peace and development
assistance laid out in paragraph 18 of the Tokyo
Declaration, but viewed it more as a linkage than a strict
conditionality. The U.S. believed at the time, as did
most other international players, that economic incentives
could help motivate the domestic players to make the
political choices needed to move the peace process

The U.S. enthusiastically embraced the dramatic
economic reform program of Prime Minister
Wickremesinghe’s government in the belief that it would
strengthen, not weaken, Wickremesinghe’s ability to
move the peace process forward—a view shared by some
other international players. This was based in part on
the mistaken assumption that the government and its
program would have a full five-year term to show results.

The U.S. and others did not have to push the
Wickremesinghe government to implement radical
economic reforms, as this was already a prime goal of
the new government.

U.S. attention to the Sri Lanka peace process continued
after the departure of Deputy Secretary Armitage at the
beginning of the second Bush Administration, although
not at the same level of engagement. The U.S. has made
it clear that, despite the designation of the LTTE as a
terrorist organization, it believes peace can only be
achieved by a process that involves the LTTE. The U.S.
clearly differentiates between an elected government in a
society with multiple centers of power and channels for
redress of grievances, on the one hand; and an
authoritarian terrorist organization which ruthlessly
suppresses dissent, on the other. However, if the GSL
does not take action to improve an increasingly difficult
human rights situation, and show that it is ready to
make the dramatic political changes necessary to meet
legitimate Tamil grievances, U.S. support may well
diminish. Concern in the U.S. Congress over these
issues is already apparent, and will grow if the human
rights situation continues to deteriorate and the GSL
shows no signs of a serious political strategy.
With an increasingly troubled peace process, and with
competing demands for attention to and resources for
other world problems, it will become even more difficult
to sustain continued U.S. high-level involvement in
Sri Lanka.

In hindsight, a number of questions emerge:

  • Did the “division of labor” among the co-chairs
    of the peace talks specifically, and the
    international players in general, have a positive
    effect on both the LTTE and the GSL? Did the
    hardline U.S. approach to the LTTE have a
    positive effect, motivating the LTTE toward
    better behavior in the hope of gaining legitimacy?
  • Or did it convince the LTTE that it would never
    be accepted as an equal partner in the peace
    process? Did the LTTE understand the U.S.
    message that removal of the terrorist designation
    was possible if LTTE behavior changed? Would
    direct U.S. contact with the LTTE have made
    that position more clear?
  • More specifically, did the U.S. decision not
    to allow the LTTE to attend the April
    2003 Washington Development
    Conference play a major role in LTTE
    withdrawal from the political negotiations,
    or did it simply reinforce a developing
    trend? Was this decision simply used as an
    excuse for an LTTE decision that had been
    already made?
  • Did the inability of the U.S. to conduct
    development projects in LTTE controlled
    areas have a significant negative impact on
    the peace process?
  • Did the supportive U.S. military relationship
    with the Government of Sri Lanka have a positive
    effect by showing the LTTE that a return to
    armed conflict would be more costly? What effect
    did it have on the Government of Sri Lanka?
  • Did U.S. support for Prime Minister
    Wickremesinghe and his government encourage
    him to try to sideline President Kumaratunga?
    Should the U.S. (and other international players)
    have made greater efforts to encourage
    cooperation between the two, and would such
    efforts have been successful?
  • Did U.S. support for Prime Minister
    Wickremesinghe’s economic reform program
    encourage him to move in a direction that
    undermined his ability to move the peace process

There are no clear answers to most of these questions.
However, the conclusions of the first two Strategic
Conflict Analyses that “international actors must
maintain a sense of proportion about their capacity to
engineer complex political and social changes”2 appear
correct. The ability of the U.S. to force internal players
by external pressure is limited, at best. In cases where the
internal player believes the issue is one of existential
consequence—as most of these issues are perceived—
that influence approaches zero. The best approach,
therefore, appears to be one of patient work with all
significant players, while awaiting a constellation of
circumstances that would be favorable for a renewed
political process, such as occurred in late 2001. The
difficulty will be in sustaining both political interest and
commitment of resources at a time of other pressing

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