Sri Lanka

U.S. backs Sri Lanka's peace process

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By Elizabeth Kellerher, Washington File Special Correspondent

Washington -- The United States will give "significant further assistance" to Sri Lanka, if its government quickly moves to protect the rights of all Sri Lankans and if rebels stop smuggling weapons and recruiting child-soldiers, said Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage

Armitage, appearing February 14 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a policy research organization, spoke of new U.S. aid on top of earlier pledges of $8 million for humanitarian relief and more than $1 million to help remove the 700,000 land mines in Sri Lanka. He stopped short of specifying an amount and said the aid would depend on peace progress accomplished by Sri Lanka's government and the ethnic-minority Tamil rebels, the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE).

The government and rebels agreed to a cease-fire February 22, 2002, ending two decades of fighting that claimed 65,000 lives and left the island country physically and economically devastated.

Armitage spoke movingly of a recent visit by helicopter to the Jaffna Peninsula, an area blasted and pockmarked by bomb craters.

In a separate written message delivered to the conference by Sri Lanka's ambassador to the United States Devinda Subasinghe, Sri Lankan Minister of Economic Reform Milanda Moragoda said the country's economy is in tatters and that "the majority of our people are in a poverty trap."

The peace process has allowed refugees to flow back into the country, creating an additional economic and humanitarian burden, Armitage noted. He said that some 300,000 displaced people have returned to the northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka -- areas that lack sanitation, clean water and other basic amenities.

The fighting parties' resolution to sustain peace "can only be reached with the help of multilateral resources, both moral and material," he said.

The deputy secretary's remarks came during what he admitted was a "busy time of high stakes diplomacy" for the United States. Washington has been under a heightened alert for terrorist attacks, and Armitage had testified before Congress about Iraq and North Korea in preceding days.

But Armitage said he welcomed the chance to reflect on Sri Lanka because "this may be a key moment" in settling the conflict there. The cease-fire between Sri Lanka's government and the rebels has ended "years of death and years of destruction," he said.

December was a "watershed," he said, referring to a December 5 statement in which the rebels gave up their long-held demand for a separate state and instead called for "internal self-determination based on a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka."

There is now a "pull of opportunity" to commit human and financial resources to Sri Lanka, and unlike earlier attempts to establish long-term peace, this time "it can be done," he said.

Armitage said by June, when international donors will meet in Tokyo, both the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers will have to make "hard choices and compromises ... if they want to meet their ambitions for international support."

He outlined the steps each side must take.

The LTTE, which has a violent history of guerrilla warfare and suicide bombings, "has often pledged to stop the recruitment of child soldiers," Armitage said, "but this time they have to prove that they can carry through and will carry through on that pledge."

The United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) has complained that child recruitment by the LTTE has continued since the cease-fire.

Further, Armitage warned that the rebels will have to respect the rights of other ethnic and religious groups -- including Muslims and Sinhalese -- living in northern and eastern areas it controls.

But self-imposed restrictions by the LTTE on its arms supply is most important to the United States, Armitage said. He said he was troubled by a recent incident in which a boat manned by an LTTE crew was caught smuggling weapons onto the island. The boat was subsequently blown up by its crew, who died in the blast. This "called into question the LTTE's commitment" to the peace process, Armitage said. The Tigers must honor the cease-fire agreement and "down the road" accept complete disarmament, he said.

Armitage held out a carrot to the LTTE: the Tigers "must publicly unequivocally renounce terrorism and prove that its days of violence are over," but if it does so the United States will consider removing the group from its list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, he said.

Sri Lanka's government also must prove its commitment to peace, Armitage said, if more help is to come from the United States. He asked the government to move forward as one, to put aside contentious political conflicts between Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayaka and President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who are from different political parties.

In addition to healing internal political rifts, the government must reach out to all the diverse ethnic groups, classes, castes and religions in the country, Armitage said. Its history of favoring the majority Sinhalese culture -- an ethnic group that comprises three-fourths of the population -- must end, he said. Armitage called on leaders to protect the "full range of human rights for all the people of Sri Lanka." As refugees return to the northern and eastern areas, the government must "hold officials accountable for their conduct" toward them, he warned.

He also called on the government to "institute reforms that address the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil people." Specifically, he called for changes in policies that restrict fishing rights of many Tamil fisherman trying to earn a living. "Tamils deserve the simple right to stay in their own homes and to pursue a living," he said.

Finally, Armitage called on President Kumaratunga to forgive the LTTE for its past atrocities. Noting that Kumaratunga herself has been a victim who lost loved ones to the violence, Armitage asked her to find a "justice that falls somewhere between retribution and impunity."

After a year of cease-fire in Sri Lanka, tourism has improved and, in the most recent quarter, the Sri Lankan economy grew 5.3 percent compared to negative growth a year earlier, according to economics minister Moragoda. But he said "Without the international community investing political and economic capital in this process, it is doomed to fail."

The United States will do its part to keep the international community, led by Norway, cohesive and firm in its purpose to help Sri Lanka, Armitage told his audience. He praised Norway's leadership in negotiating peace and organizing donors. "Where the Norwegians led and where they lead, the United States is delighted to follow," Armitage said.

(The Washington File is a product of the Office of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)