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Home > Struggle for Tamil Eelam > International Frame of Struggle for Tamil Eelam > United States & the Struggle for Tamil Eelam > US Congress Committee on International Relations Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, November 1995 - Statement by US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia
United States & the struggle for Tamil Eelam
Whatever may be said, who ever may
say it - to
determine the truth of it, is wisdom - Thirukural
Hearing on Sri Lanka
by Ambassador E. Gibson Lanpher,
US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia
Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, I am pleased to be here today to testify on recent developments in U.S. policy toward Sri Lanka. While the attention devoted to South Asia is often focused on India and Pakistan, significant events are also taking place in Sri Lanka. I am grateful for the recognition of this reality by you and the committee, as demonstrated by your call for today's hearing.
The United States' primary interests in Sri Lanka are promoting a peaceful resolution of Sri Lanka's long-standing ethnic conflict, strengthening the human rights situation and expanding the commercial ties between our two countries.
The Long-Standing Conflict
Sri Lanka has been a functioning democracy since its independence in 1948. However, the democratic process has been tested considerably by the ongoing conflict waged by the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for the last 12 years against the Sri Lankan Government.
In response to continuing LTTE attacks, the Sri Lankan government launched a limited military offensive in July and a much larger offensive in October. Over the last few weeks, the Sri Lankan security forces have moved slowly from a Northern military base to the outskirts of Jaffna City, the LTTE stronghold. The LTTE recently ordered the evacuation of civilians of Jaffna to a town under LTTE control ten miles east of Jaffna City. As many as 300,000 persons may have been displaced by the recent fighting in the North.
Mr. Chairman, during free and fair elections last year, Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga successfully campaigned on a peace platform. Her government made sincere efforts to negotiate a lasting political settlement with the LTTE through four rounds of talks. In January, the Government of Sri Lanka and LTTE announced a cessation of hostilities. Regrettably, the LTTE unilaterally resumed fighting in April.
In August, the Sri Lankan Government announced wide-ranging constitutional proposals to shift power from the central government to eight newly-constituted regional councils. The devolution package is the most forward-leaning government proposal to date to address the underlying political issues of the long-standing conflict. It is a bold step which the U.S. has praised and one that we believe is an excellent starting point for consideration by all parties.
The LTTE failed to engage in a dialogue with the government on this proposal, and subsequent LTTE attacks made clear that the insurgent group has not abandoned its core demand for the establishment of a separate state in northeast Sri Lanka. The LTTE is not the sole representative of Tamil people, however, and representatives from mainstream Tamil and Muslim parties continue to support a process of negotiation and devolution. We believe the government's August proposal constitutes a solid basis for a constructive dialogue on finding a peaceful solution.
Mr. Chairman, the United States supports a political resolution of Sri Lanka's long-standing ethnic conflict that is:
--- lasting and comprehensive;
---- protects the rights of all Sri Lankans;
--- and preserves the unity of Sri Lanka.
Consistent with that policy, we supported the Sri Lankan Government's efforts to negotiate a political settlement with the LTTE. In February, Secretary of State Christopher publicly congratulated the Sri Lankan Government for achieving a cessation of hostilities.
In April, we deplored the LTTE's resumption of hostilities and urged the LTTE to return to the negotiating table.
In August, we welcomed the government's political package.
Mr. Chairman, I am pleased that the House of Representatives recently passed a resolution on Sri Lanka that similarly supports a political resolution of the long-standing ethnic conflict.
I also want to stress that during the course of the Sri Lankan Government offensives, we have urged the Government and LTTE to take all appropriate steps to protect civilians. We also condemned the recent LTTE massacres of over 120 innocent civilians, including children, in eastern Sri Lanka.
Let me also emphasize that the United States supports the efforts of relief agencies. We have urged the Sri Lankan Government and LTTE to cooperate fully with relief agencies who are assisting persons displaced by the current fighting. We understand that the government's first shipments of relief supplies have reached the displaced persons and we continue to monitor the situation closely.
The U.S. provides assistance to Tamil refugees through contributions to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Committee of the Red Cross's (ICRC) South Asia regional programs. This fiscal year we provided $9 million to UNHCR and $9.9 million to ICRC. We also answered UNHCR special appeals for Sri Lanka this year and last year, contributing an additional $500,000 both times.
Neither the UNHCR nor ICRC has issued a special appeal in response to the recent population movements in Sri Lanka. We will give serious consideration to any new requests they may make.
Promoting Human Rights
Turning to human rights, we are working to ensure that the Government keeps up the momentum on reforms. The human rights situation in Sri Lanka has improved considerably since the 1988-1990 violent conflict between the JVP, a Sinhalese Maoist group, and the Government. The ongoing conflict between the government and LTTE, however, is a continuing source of human rights abuses. Nevertheless, successive Sri Lankan governments have made real progress in safeguarding human rights over the last two years. Disappearances, which averaged 15 a day in 1990, dropped to 210 over the entire year in 1992, 98 in 1993 and to 10 in 1994.
The three regional commissions established to investigate previous disappearances continue their investigations. The legal mandate of the Human Rights Task Force (HRTF) to monitor arrests and detentions has been extended. Similarly, emergency regulations governing the behavior of the security forces have been strengthened and broadly applied.
In the wake of the LTTE's resumption of hostilities, however, serious human rights abuses occurred. The security forces were responsible for upwards of 50 extrajudicial killings of Tamils and over 30 disappearances. Torture remains a concern and government censorship was imposed on all domestic news reports relating to military or police matters.
Over the last two months, the Sri Lankan government has taken important steps to stem the worst abuses. Most importantly, 17 security force personnel were arrested for the extrajudicial killing of 21 Tamils in Colombo. Moreover, we have no confirmation of any disappearances since mid-August. We continue to urge the Sri Lankan government to keep its human rights improvements on track.
We cannot report similar progress in the LTTE-controlled areas of Sri Lanka. The LTTE controls territory in northern and eastern Sri Lanka through authoritarian rule, denying the people under its control of their civil liberties. The LTTE regularly carries out extrajudicial killings, including civilian massacres and assassinations, disappearances, arbitrary arrests, detentions, and torture.
Strengthening Commercial Ties
Despite the long-standing conflict, Sri Lanka has maintained impressive economic growth rates over the last several years. Sri Lanka was the first South Asian nation to embark -- in 1977 -- on significant economic reforms. Since then, the reforms have broadened and a lasting peaceful resolution of the conflict, of course, would deliver even more significant economic benefits to all Sri Lankans.
The Sri Lankan government elected last year has pledged to continue market oriented economic reforms. Sri Lanka's program of privatization and private sector participation in infrastructure development may offer U.S. investors important new opportunities in Sri Lanka. Actions, of course, speak louder than words, and current and potential investors are carefully gauging the government's implementation of economic reforms, as well as the security environment.
We wish to see Sri Lanka continue its progress on economic reform and we continue to promote U.S. trade and investment. In the past few years, we have signed a bilateral investment treaty, an intellectual property rights agreement and helped establish a U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Sri Lanka. Our Embassy just held the second American Trade Fair and I am pleased to say that 38 companies participated in this successful event.
The U.S. is projecting $12 million in development assistance for Sri Lanka in 1996. I would point out, Mr. Chairman, that our greatest impact on Sri Lanka comes through US trade with that nation. In 1994 Sri Lankan exports to the U.S. -- mostly finished garments -- totaled more than one billion dollars.
The U.S. also provides a limited amount of other assistance, mostly in the form of IMET training. Our FY'95 IMET budget was $100,000. We have also provided training for counter narcotics efforts.
Mr. Chairman, I am grateful to have the chance today to discuss the situation in and U.S. policy toward Sri Lanka. As my testimony has underscored, the important U.S. objectives of promoting peace, human rights and trade all come in to play in Sri Lanka.
Mr. Chairman, armed conflict has been a tragic feature of the Sri Lankan political landscape for more than a decade. It has taken a severe toll on the people of Sri Lanka. It is a human tragedy that must be brought to a close. We believe that President Kumaratunga's package of proposed political reforms offers the best chance in many years for a peaceful, equitable end to the conflict, and we support those efforts. We urge all of the parties in Sri Lanka to use her proposal as the basis for a serious dialogue on peacemaking and political change. We hope then to see formal parliamentary approval for constitutional and other legal changes that will lead to peace, stability and a strengthened democratic system in Sri Lanka.