Feature Article

US Senate Committee evaluation pushes aside political solution to Tamils

[TamilNet, Wednesday, 09 December 2009, 07:32 GMT]
US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, recommending Monday on ‘recharting’ US strategy on Sri Lanka, said the US should focus on economy and security of the island instead of humanitarian considerations, IDPs and civil society; should also invest in Sinhalese parts of the country instead of just focussing on North and East; should resume training of Sri Lankan military officials to ensure human rights in future operations as well as to build critical relationships and implied that US should not emphasise on political reform as a condition to assistance, bringing rift in US- Sri Lanka relations making the latter to align with countries of alternative model of development. While the report based on evaluation by two staffers, one of whom a US Sinhalese, is viewed by Tamil circles as an open insult to their struggle, it is also seen as an election ‘manifesto’ to woo Sinhalese votes.

The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations chaired by John F. Kerry assigned the task of evaluation to two of its staff members, Malaysian born, Fatema Z. Sumar and Nilmini Gunaratne Rubin, a US Sinhalese, who travelled to Sri Lanka in November with the extensive support of the American Embassy in Colombo and Sri Lankan Embassy in Washington to collect material for the evaluation.

The earlier US policy that was verbally giving precedence to political solution than military solution, later becoming adamant abetment to military solution and now altogether isolating the Tamil national struggle as a non-entity in its geopolitical considerations, should be an eye-opener to sections that look upon to the US in evolving Tamil polity, diaspora circles said adding that the report will have an adverse effect on Tamil-US relationship all over the world.

No ‘moderate’ leadership desired by the Senate Committee may able to emerge if US fails to accept a national question as a national question and comes out with an appropriate formula, Tamil circles said.

The Sinhala state after blackmailing India for decades is successful now in blackmailing the US too, by foul playing the card of ethnic majority in the island of geopolitical importance, commented a political observer reading the committee report in between the lines.

In contrast, Tamil Nadu has failed to demonstrate its geopolitical importance to the benefit of Tamils and to the true national benefit of India, Tamil circles said, adding that at least now the politicians and elite in Tamil Nadu should be awakened to the reality.

As owners of one third of the island, without asserting to their own geopolitical importance, Tamils will not get anything. It is exactly for this reason any Eezham Tamil political organisation now in the making should uphold independence and sovereignty of Tamil Eelam. It is important more than ever now, Tamil diaspora circles said.

The US Senate report that brushes aside the possibility of political solution coming from outside and at the same time sceptical of political solution coming from within anywhere in the near future, just harps on first creating a ‘post-conflict’ situation from a ‘post-war’ situation. But it has no vision on any interim international arrangement to achieve any of what it envisages other than handing over everything to the genocidal state of Sri Lanka, in return to geopolitical benefits offered by Colombo. Contrary to all what some US politicians said in the past, the Senate Committee doesn’t want to see Eezham Tamils as a nation or their struggle a national struggle, Tamil circles point out.

The Senate report carries mischievous statements on Tamil struggle, says Tamil political circles, especially pointing to the following line: “After almost three decades of separatist war, on May 17, 2009, the terrorist Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE or Tamil Tigers) officially conceded defeat.”

Commenting on the line political circles said, “Anyone could see this is an open lie. Shamefully, neither the international terrorist-buster nor any other power that called for the surrender of the LTTE could even save the lives of the few individuals whom the US is now misleadingly citing to its credit as the organization that ‘officially conceded defeat’.”

The report’s estimate of casualties is put at 70,000 for the three decades. This figure was quoted as casualty even before the last war. The report didn’t add the present figures. The last official account of the population of Vanni was 365,000. Of them only 290,000 reached the camps. 75,000 people remain unaccounted in the last war alone, and the US report tries to down play the casualty, say people who have come from Vanni after the war.

The Senate Committee report says, “Government soldiers killed the Tamil Tigers’ leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and took control of the entire country for the first time since 1983.” The Committee making it as its own statement should have had the transparency of telling the world the evidence and circumstances of events involving a personality who for the first time in world history stood alone against all the powers that failed to achieve any human moral in the victory.

The report in a nuanced way discouraged the GSP + restrictions imposed by EU on Sri Lanka.

Excerpts from the recommendations:

Along with our legitimate humanitarian and political concerns, U.S. policymakers have tended to underestimate Sri Lanka’s geostrategic importance for American interests.

Sri Lanka is strategically located at the nexus of maritime trading routes connecting Europe and the Middle East to China and the rest of Asia. It is directly in the middle of the ‘‘Old World,’’ where an estimated half of the world’s container ships transit the Indian Ocean.

These interests are also important to one of America’s strategic partners, Japan, who is almost totally dependent on energy supplies transiting the Indian Ocean. The three major threats in the Indian Ocean come from terrorism, interstate conflict, and piracy. There have been some reports of pirate activity in the atoll islands near Sri Lanka.

The Obama administration is currently weighing a new strategy for relations with Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is not a post-conflict environment.

For their part, Tamil leaders have not yet made anticipated conciliatory gestures that might ease government concerns and foster a genuine dialogue. Some Tamils are wary about the long-term significance of post-war Sinhalese ‘‘triumphalism’’ and fear that they may be marginalized in the unified country of Sri Lanka.

The political environment in Sri Lanka is not as black and white as many outside observers believe. Despite ongoing allegations of war crimes and human rights abuses, the Rajapaksa Government has taken some positive steps to ease the humanitarian crisis in the North, develop the East, and reduce the number of child soldiers. Its recent announcement to allow increased freedom of movement

As Western countries became increasingly critical of the Sri Lankan Government’s handling of the war and human rights record, the Rajapaksa leadership cultivated ties with such countries as Burma, China, Iran, and Libya. The Chinese have invested billions of dollars in Sri Lanka through military loans, infrastructure loans, and port development, with none of the strings attached by Western nations. While the United States shares with the Indians and the Chinese a common interest in securing maritime trade routes through the Indian Ocean, the U.S. Government has invested relatively little in the economy or security sector in Sri Lanka, instead focusing more on IDPs and civil society. As a result, Sri Lanka has grown politically and economically isolated from the West.

The United States has developed closer ties with India while Sri Lanka moved towards China. India has been very concerned with instability in Sri Lanka and has worked quietly behind the scenes to push for faster resettlement for Tamils.

The Sri Lankan Goverment says American attitudes and military restrictions led it to build relationships with China, Burma, Iran, and Libya. The Minister of Science and Technology and All-Party Representative Committee Chairman Tissa Vitarana Minister told committee staff, ‘‘We have the United States to thank for pushing us closer to China.’’ According to Vitarana, President Rajapaksa was forced to reach out to other countries because the West refused to help Sri Lanka finish the war against the LTTE. These calculations—if left unchecked—threaten long-term U.S. strategic interests in the Indian Ocean.

Sri Lanka’s strategic importance to the United States, China, and India is viewed by some as a key piece in a larger geopolitical dynamic, what has been referred to as a new ‘‘Great Game.’’ While all three countries share an interest in securing maritime trade routes, the United States has invested relatively few economic and security resources in Sri Lanka, preferring to focus instead on the political environment. Sri Lanka’s geostrategic importance to American interests has been neglected as a result.

There is a common view that American influence is waning, in part because of the tone of its messages. As one Western aid official told committee staff: ‘‘Sticks don’t work with the Sri Lankan Government. They need to hear coordinated, constructive messages that give them time to implement change without losing face.’’ There is also concern that Western donors do not invest in projects that are government priorities such as big infrastructure projects and roads, allowing non-traditional donors like the Chinese to fill the vacuum.

A more multifaceted U.S. strategy would capitalize on the economic, trade, and security aspects of the relationship. This approach in turn could catalyze much-needed political reforms that will ultimately help secure longer term U.S. strategic interests in the Indian Ocean.

U.S. strategy should also invest in Sinhalese parts of the country, instead of just focusing aid on the Tamil-dominated North and East

A more multifaceted U.S. strategy would capitalize on the economic, trade, and security aspects of the relationship. This approach in turn could catalyze much-needed political reforms that will ultimately help secure longer term U.S. strategic interests in the Indian Ocean.

Further, many Sinhalese feel Tamils do not appreciate the trauma they suffered under the Tamil Tigers, a group the FBI listed as ‘‘among the most dangerous and deadly extremists in the world’’ and credited for pioneering the use of suicide bombers.

The Goverment of Sri Lanka has made good progress toward eliminating the problem of child soldiers,

At the same time, military and civilian officials stressed to staff that the bulk of the requested increase of about 15 percent in the defense budget is due primarily to the Goverment’s need to pay down military debts incurred during the final stages of the war.

On the economic front, the United States is by far Sri Lanka’s most important trade partner, accounting for more than one-quarter of the country’s total exports

Sri Lanka’s economy grew relatively well throughout the war years, and Sri Lankans hope the end of the war will trigger an economic boom.

Donors have responded to the war’s end by shifting their portfolios to the North and East of Sri Lanka. However, there is a chance that this could breed resentment in the South where there is still much poverty. While some international donors seemed to be artfully calibrating their operations in Sri Lanka so as not to exacerbate underlying tensions, others chose to ignore the conflict outright

The Obama administration should: Take a broader and more robust approach to Sri Lanka that appreciates new political and economic realities in Sri Lanka and U.S. geostrategic interests. Such an approach should be multidimensional so that U.S. policy is not driven solely by short-term humanitarian concerns but rather an integrated strategy that leverages political, economic, and security tools for more effective long-term reforms.

Expand U.S. assistance to include all areas of the country, particularly in the south and central areas so that Sinhalese and other groups also benefit from U.S. assistance programs and reap some ‘‘peace dividend.’’

The U.S. Congress should: Authorize the U.S. military to resume training of Sri Lankan military officials to help ensure that human rights concerns are integrated into future operations and to help build critical relationships.

The international financial institutions should [...] ensure that IMF and development bank financing does not inadvertently exacerbate conflict.


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