USA-Lanka, 2007, TWO: Steven Mann’s Review of the Sri Lankan Political Situation in August 2007

Steven Mann’s Statement before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, Washington, DC, 1 August 2007, entitled “Political Crises in South Asia: Recent Developments in Nepal and Sri Lanka,” … [Nepal section omitted here]

US_House_Committee US Congress, Foreign Affairs Committee  in session —

Turning to Sri Lanka: Sri Lanka’s long-standing ethnic conflict, fragile peace process, and deteriorating human rights conditions continue to cause concern for the United States and the international community. The conflict between the Sri Lankan Government and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam entered a phase of intensified fighting during President Rajapaksa’s administration. In recent months, fighting has been steady in the Tamil Tiger-controlled East as Government forces attempted to re-take areas held by the Tigers under the terms of the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement. On July 11, 2007, the Sri Lankan military announced it had taken Thoppigala, the last remaining Tamil Tiger stronghold in the East, bringing the entire Eastern Province under government control. The costs of war have taken a heavy toll on the economy: inflation currently stands at 20% and tourism – one of Sri Lanka’s main industries – has plummeted by 40-60% since last year.

Fighting continues in the North and there is a continued Tiger presence in the East. Just five days after the government announced it was in control of the East, suspected Tiger gunmen shot and killed a senior provincial administrator. The Tigers remain a considerable fighting force and are capable of launching attacks across the island. On July 25, the Tigers detonated a claymore mine in the North, killing 11 soldiers and wounding eight others.

Furthermore, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam are regarded as one of the world’s best funded guerrilla groups, with an estimate reported $200 to $300 million in annual revenues. Ample funding allows them to purchase weapons, to operate a maritime force- the Sea Tigers, and to maintain a small air capability. Tiger aircraft attacked military facilities co-located with Colombo’s international airport, as well as fuel installations outside Colombo in April 2007. The Tigers have publicly expressed their intention to continue attacking military, government and economic targets. The Tigers do not target U.S. citizens or assets. Rather, they limit their attacks to Sri Lankan security forces, political figures, civilians, and businesses. Their innovations such as explosive vests and waterborne suicide attacks have been copied by other terrorist groups.

The Tamil Tigers have demonstrated little interest in a peaceful settlement. They have not renounced their stated goal of an independent homeland. Claymore mine attacks and political assassinations attributed to the Tigers in the past months further signal their intention to continue the conflict. The Tigers are insisting the Government of Sri Lanka abide by the terms of the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement as a condition for talks. The Sri Lankan Government is unlikely to agree to these terms, however, as it would require ceding the East back to Tiger control.

Prospects for peace are currently focused on an effort by the President’s party, the major opposition parties, and other parties to finalize a proposal which would reform the constitution to create a system devolving certain powers to Tamil and other minority areas. The peace process in Sri Lanka has collapsed repeatedly in part due to a lack of political consensus over how to satisfy the rights and aspirations of the majority Sinhala and minority Tamil populations. It is critical that the country’s political leadership engage fully and in good faith in the current debate over devolution of power and place the best interests of the country ahead of partisan politics. I must flag the fact that the Tamil Tigers share the responsibility for the negotiation impasse. It is important to note as well that although the Tigers are a party to the negotiations, they cannot be considered to be the representatives of all Sri Lankan Tamils.

Our top policy priorities for Sri Lanka remain restoration of good governance and respect for human rights leading to an eventual negotiated settlement. We believe that finalizing a credible devolution of power proposal, together with ending human rights violations and improving government accountability, are essential steps towards a lasting peace. The Government of Sri Lanka must do more to provide security and equitable treatment for its citizens, including taking seriously the plight of internally displaced persons, creating the conditions to allow economic opportunities to return across the island, and ensuring fair treatment at the hands of the police and security forces. These issues cannot be stably resolved through military means alone.

We are supporting the pursuit of a political settlement in Sri Lanka in several ways.

As a member of the Co-Chairs of the Tokyo Donors Conference, the United States participates along with the European Union, Japan, and Norway in the only international mechanism solely dedicated to peace in Sri Lanka. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard A. Boucher led the U.S. delegation at the Co-Chairs most recent meeting in June in Oslo. The Co-Chairs discussed ways forward for the peace process as well as current challenges on the ground in Sri Lanka, including deteriorating human rights conditions and difficulties with humanitarian access. The Co-Chairs continue to pursue openings to return both sides to negotiations. After the Oslo meeting, the Norwegian Ambassador in Colombo was permitted to travel north to meet with Tiger leadership for the first time in six months.

We are also working towards peace in Sri Lanka through consistent senior-level bilateral engagement and high-level visits, in which we deliver to the Government of Sri Lanka a consistent message that the only lasting solution to this conflict is through negotiation. Assistant Secretary Boucher visited Colombo and Jaffna in May 2007 and delivered a tough message to all parties on the need for dialogue, a serious devolution of power proposal, equality among all Sri Lankans, and respect for human rights. Assistant Secretary Boucher stressed that a credible power-sharing proposal that addresses legitimate Tamil grievances and preserves a political, social, and economic role for the Tamil and other communities in a post-conflict Sri Lanka could help re-energize the peace process and begin the process of national reconciliation.

In addition, we support peace efforts in Sri Lanka through U.S. Agency for International Development projects promoting dialogue between ethnic communities, developing citizenship skills, and improving governance. Our programs are focused on laying a foundation for peace in many ways, including providing technical assistance to develop a political framework to resolve the ethnic conflict, targeting corruption, training local government officials in management and budgeting, building the capacity of human rights institutions, and stimulating economic development. We are also interested in supporting programs that work with judges and bar associations and provide training for human rights groups to help provide legal aid to citizens in the North and East.

The United States is committed to help foster a lasting peace in Sri Lanka and to improve human rights conditions for all Sri Lankans. Ultimately, however, it is the Sri Lankan Government’s responsibility to the Sri Lankan people to provide the conditions of safety and security that will lead to a more peaceful and prosperous future. Reaching consensus on a devolution proposal is a critical first step towards peace, but it is a domestic political issue in which the United States should not take sides. The United States’ interest is in keeping the political process on devolution moving forward, rather than prescribing particular solutions to the Sri Lankans. We therefore continue to see no role for a Special Envoy to Sri Lanka at this time. We have, moreover, a highly capable envoy already on the job – his name is Robert Blake and he is our U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka.

The only lasting and stable solution to this conflict will be one that is reached through negotiations. Our military assistance does not support efforts to expand the conflict. Our modest assistance focuses on improving maritime capabilities such as weapons interdiction and surveillance. We support Sri Lanka’s efforts to defend itself against terrorism and have demonstrated our commitment over the last year by arresting 15 individuals in the United States and Guam on material support charges, including an alleged leader of the Tamil Tigers in the United States who was arrested in April 2007. We refuse to allow the Tamil Tigers and their supporters to use the United States as a source of supply for weapons, technology, and financial resources.

Another key U.S. policy concern in Sri Lanka is the deterioration in human rights conditions. As the State Department’s most recent Country Report on Human Rights practices indicated, human rights conditions across Sri Lanka have deteriorated significantly in the past year. We are deeply concerned by continuing reports of disappearances, abductions, torture, and the rise in extrajudicial killings, with eight extra-judicial killings reported over a three day period in July on the Jaffna peninsula. Human rights conditions are worst in Tiger-controlled areas, where there is no rule of law to protect Sri Lankans’ civil liberties. The Tigers’ recruitment of child soldiers is singularly deplorable.

The intimidation of civil society through such incidents as the April 29 killing of Tamil journalist Selvarajah Rajivarman and the July 23 murder of Mariyanayagam Aloysius, a Tamil employee of the Danish Refugee Council, is an additional area of concern. We are encouraging the Government of Sri Lanka to improve its accountability and rein in the paramilitaries that reportedly operate openly in government-controlled Tamil areas and have been accused of serious human rights abuses, including the recruitment of child soldiers. We are also working with the government to improve human rights conditions through the human rights Commission of Inquiry and the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons. Our representative to the Group, former Department of State Assistant Secretary Arthur E. “Gene” Dewey was in Sri Lanka in July 2007, and will return in mid-August for the Group’s next plenary meeting. While it is important that the Government investigate abuses, our message has consistently stressed the need for the Government to improve accountability writ large – this means not limiting its response to investigations that could take years, but taking immediate measures to hold the security forces accountable for order and discipline.

We are also engaged fully in humanitarian relief efforts to address the critical needs of Sri Lanka’s more than 500,000 internally displaced persons. To date, in Fiscal Year 2007 alone, the United States has given $10.6 million in humanitarian assistance to Sri Lanka. This includes funding for Save the Children and UN Children’s Fund programs providing protection, emergency relief supplies, nutrition, water, and sanitation and hygiene services. It also includes World Food Program funding for emergency food assistance, as well as International Committee of the Red Cross funding for emergency relief such as health services and shelter. In addition, the U.S. also supports the efforts of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees through regional funding.

Mr. Chairman, we are deeply committed to achieving lasting peace and stability in Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the South Asia region. We will continue to work on the ground in that region with our friends and allies, through international fora such as the Co-Chairs group in Sri Lanka, and through the extensive outreach programs of our Embassies in Kathmandu and Colombo, to help the Nepalese and Sri Lankan people overcome the considerable obstacles before them on their path to peace and prosperity.

Thank you again for the opportunity to appear before you. I would be pleased to answer your questions.


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3 responses to “USA-Lanka, 2007, TWO: Steven Mann’s Review of the Sri Lankan Political Situation in August 2007

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