U.S Congressman speaks on Sri Lanka violence

[TamilNet, Sunday, 10 October 2004, 02:06 GMT]
Republican Iowa Congressman James A. Leach, chairman of the Subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific of the House International Relations Committee, expressed concern about the rising level of political violence in Sri Lanka and called for a resumption of the peace talks between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, in a statement before the U.S House of Representatives issued October 7 and distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State.

Following is the text of Leach's statement on "The Situation in Sri Lanka" before the House of Representatives:

James A. Leach "Mr. Speaker, I rise today to express my growing concern at the increasing levels of politically-motivated violence and the rising risks to peace in Sri Lanka.

As my colleagues may know, Sri Lanka (or Serendib, as it was known in older times) is a tear drop shaped island located about 20 miles off the southeastern coast of India. The population of about 20 million is roughly three-quarters Sinhalese and a little less than 20% Tamil. The island was occupied by the Portuguese in the 16th century, the Dutch in the 17th century, and then ceded to the British in 1802. Known as Ceylon it became independent in 1948; the name of the country was changed to Sri Lanka in 1972.

By way of background, tensions between the Sinhalese majority and minority Tamils, which had existed since independence, escalated dramatically in the early 1980s. Devastating anti-Tamil riots, as well as acts of repression and discrimination by the majority Sinhalese, led to the rise of an armed Tamil insurgency. By the mid-1980s, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) emerged as the strongest Tamil separatist force. In a grim harbinger of the Tiger's ruthless reliance on violence (which includes the use of "Black Tiger" suicide squads), the LTTE came to dominate the separatist movement by systematically eliminating all rivals for leadership. The LTTE is currently designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and several other countries.

Originally, LTTE sought an independent homeland for the Tamils, but it eventually dropped that demand and expressed a willingness to negotiate devolution of autonomy under a federal model of governance. Meanwhile, the human and financial toll of the rebellion has been enormous: some 64,000 people have been killed and roughly 800,000 displaced, with commensurate losses to the island's economic growth and development.

In 2002, Norway brokered a ceasefire, which is still in effect today and also acted as a mediator in stalled peace talks. In April 2003, however, the LTTE pulled out of the talks, claiming that it was being marginalized. In late 2003, the situation was further complicated by a political struggle between Sri Lanka's President Chandrika Kumaratunga and then Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe. In April 2004, Kumaratunga's party defeated Wickramasinghe in the general election and an ally of the President became the new prime minister. Although the new coalition government includes a hard-line party that is at best deeply skeptical of continued negotiations with the insurgents, the President has nevertheless remained committed to the peace process and invited Norway to approach the LTTE and to resume mediation.

Prospects for a resumption of dialogue between the government and the LTTE at this time, however, appear bleak.

In the first instance, the LTTE insists that the establishment of an interim administration over the "northeast" -- modeled on the LTTE's proposed Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA) that would give it sweeping powers over law enforcement, tax collection, military affairs, administration of foreign aid and other matters currently in the domain of the central government (GSL) -- is an essential precondition for the resumption of peace negotiations. While at one level this stance might be thought to simply represent a maximalist bargaining position, at another level it might be thought to cast serious doubt on the sincerity of the LTTE's commitment to the peace process.

Even more concerning has been the LTTE's assertion that it is entitled to act as the "sole representative" of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. In practical terms, the LTTE's diktat means that Tamils who dare to advocate democratic change, independently contest elections and speak out against or actively oppose the Tigers will be targeted for assassination.

As noted earlier, this despicable practice of eliminating critics goes back almost to the group's inception. It has once again become acute in the wake of an attempt by a senior LTTE commander named Colonel "Karuna" to break away from the organization. Beginning in March 2004, a new escalation of killings, attacks and abductions of the LTTE's suspected opponents began to take place on almost a daily basis. For its part, the LTTE reportedly suspects the GSL of assisting the Karuna faction. In any case, through mid-August 2004, according to human rights advocates, there have been more than 40 such murders.

As the Indian newspaper The Hindu editorialized on September 30, "It is time for all concerned to acknowledge that the LTTE has done nothing less than unleash a terrorist campaign amounting to a sub-guerrilla war against the very people it claims to represent. From the recruitment of children, which continues unabated despite international outrage, to the harassment of Muslims, the discrimination against eastern Tamils, and the killings of opponents, the LTTE demonstrates on a daily basis that its rule is by fear and terror."

In this troubling circumstance, it is clear that the international community needs to consider additional steps to put pressure on the LTTE to abandon its tactics of terror and prove that its days of violence are over.

It is remarkable, for example, that only four countries -- the U.S., U.K., Australia, and India -- have declared the LTTE to be sponsors of terrorism, frozen their assets and prohibited financial transactions with the Tigers. It is well reported that alongside a finely tuned propaganda campaign, the LTTE also run a sophisticated international fundraising campaign. The majority of financial support comes from the Tamil Diaspora in countries where there is no ban on transactions with the Tigers, including Switzerland, Canada, and the Scandinavian countries. It is my understanding that the LTTE's overseas financing includes investments in real estate, restaurants, stocks, and money market funds. Even film, food festivals, and cultural events may contribute to insurgent income. The U.S. Department of State also reports that expatriate Tamil communities in Europe have been tied to narcotics smuggling, another potential source of funding. In this context, surely the stark record of LTTE terrorism demands a firmer response from our friends and allies abroad.

Likewise, in view of the current stalemate in the peace process and the new campaign of violence by the LTTE, it is appropriate that the U.S. review the adequacy of current levels of security assistance to Colombo. In particular, in view of the mixed operational success of the armed forces of Sri Lanka, the Department of Defense and U.S. Pacific Command may want to consider increasing senior level military exchanges as well as boosting technical assistance. In this regard, I understand that in recent months senior officials with PACOM visited Sri Lanka, including the Jaffna peninsula.

Similarly, given the long and sordid track record of the Tigers -- including continued abductions of child soldiers -- as well as ongoing concerns about disappearances and other abuses in government controlled areas, it is also high time to place on the table an explicit inclusion of human rights and humanitarian considerations in either the current cease-fire agreement or in a separate understanding between the GSL and the LTTE. All parties must promptly take steps to end ongoing grave human rights abuses.

Finally, it is imperative that all parties take steps to work to rebuild trust and schedule the promised talks as soon as possible. In particular, it is incumbent on the LTTE to show that it is committed to a political solution and to peace. Clearly, the ceasefire and a return to negotiations represent the best hope for Sri Lanka's future as a peaceful, prosperous, and unified nation. As the Department of State has made clear, the United States stands ready to implement commitments to aid in Sri Lanka's reconstruction, but this will only be possible through a continuation of the peace process."

 

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