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 renounces violence. 

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