Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Sri Lanka Background

There seem to have been legitimate reasons for initial flare-up of tensions in Sri Lanka. Although different ethnic groups got along in government, perceived inequities in political representation brought about actual armed conflict. With the armed conflict came a hardening of sides so now mistrust reigns.

Armed conflict has also raise a generation of men who have known nothing but conflict, and have become adept at violence and extortion. This pattern has been repeated around the globe. Young men grow up around violence, and learn no other way to make a living. Similar situations exist in Serbia, Northern Ireland, Sicily, Lebanon and Southern Mexico. Any solution will have to include an outlet for the nihilistic, opportunistic criminals who use ethnic conflict as a cover for their violent organized crime.

The years of hardened positions and well-earned mistrust on all sides have narrowed the possibilities for a peaceful settlement. Since large scale, comprehensive settlements have ended in disaster and betrayal, there seems to be little stomach for this type of settlement now except among the large NGOs. The indigenous parties are much more amenable to incremental approaches that keep the spigots of international funding open. The LTTE wants access to the fundraising and criminal enterprises in Europe, and the Sinhalese parties want continued access to world markets and international capital markets. Small, face-preserving steps towards reconciliation and an end to fighting that satisfy outside observers are the best method to resolving the overall conflict.

Some might object to the go-slow approach, as ineffective. However, large scale, internationally negotiated approaches have proven disastrous. In such an environment, small-scale gestures, even symbolic ones, tend to foster an environment of trust where more substantive steps can be attempted. Another key to the success of a go-slow approach is the patience of all sides. As has been apparent in other insurgencies, the center of gravity is the attitude of the majority population. If the media can be manipulated with showy violence that saps the will of the majority to sustain a reconciliation, then the insurgency will win. Reconciliation is in the best interest of all the Sri Lankan people, but that spirit of reconciliation must be sustained even in the face of terror that is sure to come.

The reality on the ground in Sri Lanka is that sides have become so hardened that there is no more room at present for compromise. In the words of observer Jayadeva Uyangoda, “there is no objective political space at present in Sri Lanka for the two sides to consider any of the following options seriously: de-escalation of war and military disengagement, demilitarisation of the ethnic conflict, ceasefire, and resumption of negotiations with or without a ceasefire.” (Frontline) With the sides hardened for battle and no space left for compromise, President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka offers this stark option: there is “no alternative but to completely eradicate terrorism.” (Bloomburg)

The US government has adopted President Rajapaksa’s assement of the LTTE as a terrorist organization. Consequently, the US has moved to freeze the assets of a Tamil aid group that the US government says supports the LTTE terrorists. The Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) ostensibly raises funds for various Tamil charities but the US government sees that TRO has a different role. A press release from the US embassy in Sri Lanka makes the US policy clear: “In the United States, the TRO has raised funds on behalf of the LTTE through a network of individual representatives. According to sources within the organization, the TRO is the preferred conduit of funds from the United States to the LTTE in Sri Lanka.” (US Embassy)

With LTTE already designated a terrorist organization and with the US losing patience with one of the civilian organizations aligned with LTTE, the US has even less standing to act as an impartial participant. Therefore, the US will have to be a silent, behind the scenes encouragement to the likes of Norway or the Red Cross as they continue to press ahead with reconciliation efforts.

Sri Lanka would be a valuable ally for the United States. Beyond the general desire for peace and stability in the region, the United States would like access to the deep water port of Trincomalee on the east coast of the island. This port is of value for the shelter it provides and the deep water that can accommodate the largest aircraft carriers. China has expressed interest in the port to shelter its ships and to project power into the Indian Ocean. (Bajpayee) The United States cannot afford to let China establish naval bases all over the Indian Ocean without challenge.

United States Ambassador to Sri Lanka Blake made it clear that the United States would not support at separate Tamil State in the North and East. “And while we ourselves do not have contacts with the LTTE, we do support the current Norwegian facilitation effort. But I cannot imagine a circumstance where we would support a separate LTTE state.” (US Government) Nonetheless, the US would prefer to find a way to bolster the democratic government of Sri Lanka, marginalize the terrorist LTTE, and gain access to Sri Lankan ports so as to deny them to China. The US would prefer to accomplish these things with the minimum bloodshed, but the overriding concern to is to address US geo-political interests in Sri Lanka.


Tighe, Paul. “Sri Lankan Aid Group Says U.S. Asset Freeze Will Hurt Tamils” Bloomberg.com 19 November 2007 at http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601087&sid=atJu09r2Rg3g&refer=home accessed 20 November 2007.

US Embassy, Columbo “Tamils Rehabilitation Organization (TRO) Designated under Executive Order 13224” US Embassy Colombo Press Releases November 15, 2007 at http://colombo.usembassy.gov/pr-15nov07.html accessed 20 November 2007.

Uyangoda, Jayadeva. “Beyond Redemption” Frontline Magazine November 24, 2007 at http://www.hinduonnet.com/fline/stories/20071207503403500.htm accessed 20 November 2007.

Bajpaee, Chietigj. “The Emerging Cold War on Asia's High Seas” Power and Interest News Report at http://www.pinr.com/report.php?ac=view_report&report_id=439&language_id=1 accessed 21 November 2007.

US Government. “Ambassador Blake's Interview with Indo Asian News Service” US Embassy Sri Lanka, 23 February 2007 at http://srilanka.usembassy.gov/ians.html accessed 21 November 2007.