The US Statement Undermines Trust in the Truce

In the past week, the tangible benefits of the permanent ceasefire established three weeks ago between the Liberation Tigers and the Sri Lankan government continued to accrue. The Sri Lankan government ended the despicable practice of registering Tamil residents of Colombo and removed the discriminatory restrictions on the movement of people from the north and east to the south. Fortifications are dismantled to allow civilian access. Formal aspects of the ceasefire agreement the most important of which are the commencement of duties by the international team of monitors and the government’s disarming of Tamil paramilitaries working alongside the Sri Lanka Army continue to be implemented. With tensions easing across the island, the ominous statement on Monday by the United States embassy alleging the ceasefire was being violated understandably created apprehension and alarm.

The US embassy claimed it had “credible reports” that the Liberation Tigers were engaged in actions which could jeopardise the permanent ceasefire accord and went on to warn the LTTE that as a result it risked international isolation and unspecified “harm to the Tamil people.” The US embassy’s statement is notable for several reasons. Firstly, the Sri Lankan government has itself not protested about violations of the permanent ceasefire by the LTTE. On the contrary, anecdotal reports from the war zones indicate a considerable lessening of tensions between combat personnel on both sides and even the Sinhala far right has struggled to find evidence for its scare mongering. Secondly, the proper authority to raise any violations of the ceasefire is the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, whose head, Trond Furuhovede, was last week on a tour of the LTTE held Vanni region. The former Norwegian army chief had a friendly meeting with LTTE leader Velupillai Pirapaharan and senior LTTE officials and truce violations were decidedly not on the agenda. Indeed, until the US embassy’s statement appeared Monday, most Sri Lankans and Mr. Furuhovede’s monitors had little reason to assume the de-escalation of the island’s conflict was not going smoothly and surprisingly quickly.

But perhaps there are other driving factors which could have elicited the US embassy’s pointedly anti-LTTE statement this week. Sri Lankans are well aware that the US Ambassador to Colombo, Mr. Ashley Wills, has inadvertently mired himself in local controversy when weekend before last he hailed the Norwegian brokered permanent ceasefire by toasting the signatories, Mr. Pirapaharan and Sri Lankan Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe. The Sinhala nationalist press has been unforgiving of his albeit shared compliments to the LTTE leader, accusing Mr. Wills and his government of double standards on the matter of terrorism. Mr. Will’s conciliatory and decidedly anti-Tamil letter last Friday to the Sinhala nationalist Island newspaper following the latter’s outraged editorial clearly failed to placate ruffled feathers: the Sunday Times which caustically pointed out Mr. Wills’ sacrilege in the first place, followed with a scathing editorial of its own this week. There is inevitable speculation therefore, that in a bid to extricate Mr. Wills from his predicament, the Embassy has scrambled for a suitable reason to launch a tirade against the LTTE.

But such grandstanding for the Sinhala chauvinists inevitably undermines the United States’ assumed neutrality in Sri Lanka’s racial imbroglio and thereby, the beneficial role the US could play in bringing about a permanent solution to the island’s protracted conflict. Furthermore, partisan criticism of one protagonist in an ethnic conflict can but encourage belligerence in the other, hampering the already arduous effort to arrive at mutually acceptable compromise indeed, the US ambassador’s efforts this week to placate the Sinhala far right does not bode well for even minimal accommodation of Tamil aspirations in a united Sri Lanka. In an immediate sense, however, the objective of the ongoing efforts to de-escalate the conflict and remove tensions is to allay apprehensions on both sides ahead of future negotiations the independent monitoring component has been incorporated into the ceasefire agreement for precisely that purpose. As such, arbitrary and alarmist statements particularly from key international actors will as the US embassy itself put it, “undermine the trust needed to move from a cessation of hostilities to a lasting peace” just as much as any breach of the agreement in itself.

Courtesy: Tamil Guardian [12 March 2002]