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Can Sri Lanka wage war without US support?

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In early May the Asia Foundation published a report reviewing the United States’ role in Sri Lanka’s peace process from 2002-2006. It was written by Jeffrey Lunstead, who served as the US Ambassador to Sri Lanka from August 2003 to July 2006.
In this retrospective analysis, Lunstead, senior State Department official, now retired outlines what he considers the reasons for US involvement in the Norwegian peace process. He also looks at the relationships the US has with the parties to conflict and other countries involved in the peace process.
According to Lunstead, the degree of US involvement in the peace process was disproportionate as the US has little strategic or economic interests in the island.
Contradicting common wisdom, Lunstead dismisses Trincomalee harbour as a strategic location the US would be interested in. He cites the security threat from the LTTE, a lack of facilities and infrastructure and the harbours distance to major sea lanes as drawbacks. He also points out to the negative effect any US interest in Trincomalee would have on America’s growing strategic relationship with India.
US trade with Sri Lanka at a relatively insignificant US$ 2.3 billion per year, US economic interests in Sri Lanka is also limited, he says.
The reasons the US enhanced its engagement in Sri Lanka in 2001, according to Lunstead were the Bush administration’s global war on terror, the pro-West and pro-free market policies of the newly elected Ranil Wickramasighe government and the personal interest of then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.
Whilst the first two elements were considered to be enabling factors the personal interest of Armitage was considered to be the driving factor.
Lunstead says Armitage’s personal interest stemmed from a belief that Sri Lanka’s conflict could be resolved by peaceful political means assisted by the international community.
Essentially the US, he says, saw Sri Lanka as a testbed for a new approach to resolving long-drawn internal conflicts which, if successful, could be applied to other trouble spots around the world.
Lunstead feels the US adopted a nuanced policy in the Norwegian peace process: US offered the possibility of change in the US attitude towards the LTTE if the organisation changed its behaviour and renounced terrorism in ‘word and deed’ whilst encouraging the Government of Sri Lanka to develop a political strategy which included substantial devolution of power to address legitimate Tamil grievances.
Further more, differing from the other Co-Chairs (European Union, Japan and Norway) and taking a hardline position against the LTTE, the US sent a message to LTTE that a return to war would not be acceptable.
This, the US underpinned by strengthening the military capability of Sri Lankan state. However, according to the ambassador, the US also tried to make it clear to the government that the US military support was not an encouragement to seek a military solution.
With hindsight he raises number of questions on the consequence of US approach.
- Did the hard-line US approach to the LTTE have a positive effect, motivating the LTTE toward better behavior in the hope of gaining legitimacy?
- Did it convince the LTTE that it would never be accepted as an equal partner in the peace process?
- Did the LTTE understand the US message that removal of the terrorist designation was possible if LTTE behavior changed?
- Would direct US contact with the LTTE have made that position more clear?
- Did the supportive US military relationship with the Government of Sri Lanka have a positive effect by showing the LTTE that a return to armed conflict would be more costly?
- What effect did it have on the Government of Sri Lanka?
If Sri Lanka’s peace process was to be a testbed, the bloody violence into which Sri Lanka has now descended suggests it was a lesson in how not to do things.
To begin with, the Norwegian peace process was built on delicate military parity between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan armed forces.
If the LTTE was to secure a power-sharing arrangement for the Tamils from the Sri Lankan state, it was paramount it was treated as a legitimate, equal partner during the peace process.
That was why the LTTE insisted Sri Lanka lift its ban on the LTTE before talks.
The US disrupted this parity by rapidly arming the Sri Lankan state during the peace process and also by removing the ‘equal negotiating partner’ status of the LTTE by isolating the organisation through hardline ‘anti-terrorism’ driven policies and actions.
In late 2001, when the LTTE entered the peace process, the organisation took a leap of faith and threw itself into an effort to building international legitimacy.
It attempted to engage with number of international organisations, including the United Nations agencies, to ensure its practices were brought inline with international norms. It also set out programs of change in areas deemed problematic.
Significantly, it stated explicitly it would be prepared to compromise on the demand for independence by agreeing to explore a federal solution.
It should be noted that the Sri Lankan government made the same pledge. And its preparedness to abandon a unitary Sinhala-dominated state was accepted. As President Mahinda Rajapakse is now demonstrating, this was never going to happen.
The LTTE during the peace process period behaved in a manner that should have encouraged the US-led international community. But instead of rewarding the LTTE’s tentative steps, the US simply stepped up efforts to isolate and weaken it.
By not inviting the LTTE to the Washington Development Conference in April 2003 US deliberately humiliated the LTTE (and the Tamils it was supposed to be negotiating on behalf of).
The US-led international community made it clear that the LTTE will never be treated as an equal partner in the process.
It should be noted that at the time of the US snub, the LTTE was engaged in a massive effort to win international acceptance. It had, for over a year, observed ceasefire, avoided belligerence and was eagerly exploring several forms of engagement with international actors.
As there were legal restrictions in LTTE members travelling to the US, would it have been difficult to host the conference in a venue that was acceptable to all for the sake of peace? At the time of the conference, was the LTTE showing any form intransigence for US to take a step that would be seen as hostile and detrimental to the sprit of peace building? Not really.
In the context of the present bloodshed and destruction, what would the cost of relocating that meeting have been?
If, as Lunstead argues, the LTTE used the non-invitation to the Washington Development Conference as an excuse to not attend Tokyo donor conference then US, though crass ignorance of the fundamentals of the conflict, paved the way.
In effect, for the Tamils, the US actions were simply an extension of the Sri Lankan state’s second-class treatment of the Tamils since independence.
Fast forward two years to the time after the December 2004 tsunami.
Despite the Northeast having borne the brunt of the tidal wave, the international community was more inclined to not give the region its aid than accept having to direct rehabilitation funds through the LTTE.
Having withheld the desperately needed funds for months, no sooner had the LTTE signed the P-TOMS (Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure) aid sharing mechanism with the Sri Lankan state (which grudgingly agreed to sign after intense EU pressure), the US immediately snubbed the Tamils again, by refusing to send any funds through it.
The US’s public dismissal of the P-TOMS effectively destroyed its credibility and undoubtedly encouraged the state not to aggressively oppose the Sinhala-ultra nationalist JVP’s (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna) challenge to the agreement.
Then in early 2006, amid what international truce monitors called a ‘cycle of violence’ or a ‘shadow war’ – in other words a cycle of tit-for-tat attacks - the US publicly called for the EU to punish the LTTE by banning it.
At a time when the Sri Lankan state was openly defying international calls to honour its obligations under the truce agreement to reign in the Army-backed paramilitary groups, the EU ban sent a clear signal to the LTTE and the Tamils.
Surprisingly, Lunstead wonders if the LTTE understood the message the US was sending.
Whilst he may argue that the US had a nuanced policy which offered clear incentives to the LTTE for ‘good behaviour’, it is clear no positive signal was sent and, in contrast, a series of humiliating and marginalizing messages were broadcast.
In word and deed, the US spurned LTTE efforts to engage with international demands.
Equally important, the US failed to restrain the Sri Lankan state’s belligerence and instead tolerated and encouraged it.
Whilst making the odd statement that there was ‘no military solution to conflict’, the US provided increased military and financial assistance to the state even when Colombo was stepping up military violence in breach of the ceasefire agreement.
The past eighteen months have made the US’s lack of commitment to a negotiated solution absolutely clear.
In this time, the Sri Lankan state has unleashed a fully fledged war in the Northeast, dismantled previous peace agreements (including the Indo – Sri Lanka Accord) and closed the space for peace actors to work.
The Sri Lankan state has unleashed a military campaign that deliberately targets civilians, killing hundreds and displacing over 250,000 people.
Yet the US has not only failed to pressure the Sri Lankan state to stop, it has also worked to undermine the efforts of other international actors (such as some European countries) to do so.
Analysts are agreed that the US has given a ‘green light’ for Sri Lanka’s violence against the Tamils – in stark contrast to Lunstead’s assertion that the US never encouraged a return to war.
On the issue of direct contact between US officials and the LTTE, restrictions stemming from the FTO designation only apply to US territory. British officials, for example, regularly meet with the LTTE, despite the UK ban.
But US refusal to meet with the LTTE is a minor issue. What is more important is the US’s pursuit of the LTTE’s marginalisation, isolation and destruction in the midst of a fragile peace process.
Despite Sri Lankan state’s historical record of discrimination, racism and violence against the Tamils, the US chose to give Colombo every advantage against the LTTE.
The rationale that Sri Lanka is a state is not tenable. Consider the ongoing case of Kosovo, or in Bosnia before that. Consider developments in Darfur.
Without any effort to understand the long and complex history of ethnic politics in Sri Lanka, the US has sought to impose an inflexible and simplistic ideology on Sri Lanka.
The lack of nuance in US policy was amply demonstrated in comments by US Under Secretary Nicholas Burns in November 2006:
“I'd just say on behalf of the United States that we have faith in the government and faith in the president of Sri Lanka. They do want to make peace. We also believe that the Tamil Tigers, the LTTE, is a terrorist group responsible for massive bloodshed in the country and we hold the Tamil Tigers responsible for much of what has gone wrong in the country. We are not neutral in this respect. We support the government. We have a good relationship with the government. We believe the government has a right to try to protect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the country. The government has a right to protect the stability and security in the country. We meet often with the government at the highest levels and consider the government to be a friend to our country.”
It is encouraging that a former US diplomat is prepared to question of the US’s conduct and even accept that perhaps things could have been done differently. But the fact that the realisation has not led to any change in US policy points to yet another shortcoming of the Washington’s inflexible approach to complex conflict.
So, with hindsight, the US role in the Norwegian peace process appears less an effort to resolve the conflict than one to help Sri Lanka achieve what was proving very difficult to achieve on the battlefield: the destruction of the LTTE and the imposition of Sinhala hegemony on the Tamils.
The Sri Lankan state is today, with active US support, unleashing a war that relies on Tamil civilian suffering to break LTTE resistance. The US, according to Burns, believes the government has “a right to try to protect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the country.”
But could not the same argument have applied to Saddam Hussein’s efforts annihilate Kurdish civilians in a bid to break their will to fight for an independent state?
It must be recalled how Saddam and Iraq continued to enjoy strong US support even as that genocidal war was unleashed against the Kurds. The parallels to today’s Sri Lanka are striking.

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