The Sri Lankan army's recent military success against the
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is being diminished by
international concern over the deteriorating human rights situation
surrounding the fighting.
The Sri Lankan army has been able to drive out the LTTE,
designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the U.S.
Department of State, from its strongholds in the north of the
island and from Kilinochchi, the city the LTTE used as a capital.
The army is on the verge of military victory, having forced the
Tigers into a small patch of jungle in northeast Sri Lanka. Over
the long term, the likelihood of the Sri Lankan government uniting
the nation will be diminished if massive civilian suffering
accompanies its military victory.
The fighting has had dire consequences for civilians in the
region and prompted international concern that the Sri Lankan
government is not taking adequate action to protect non-combatants.
On March 13, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Sri
Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa to express the United States'
deep concern over the deteriorating conditions and increasing loss
of life in the designated "safe zone" in northern Sri Lanka.
Clinton stated that the Sri Lankan army should not fire into the
civilian areas of the conflict zone and urged the president to give
international humanitarian relief organizations full access to the
conflict area and displaced persons camps. Some health officials
say more than 500 patients in the war zone have died since January
due to a lack of medical supplies.
Although some civilians have been permitted to leave the
conflict areas, the Red Cross believes there are at least 150,000
civilians still trapped in Tiger-held areas. Human rights
organizations are reporting that designated "safe zones" for
civilians have been bombarded by artillery fire. Additionally, the
United Nations reported that cluster bombs were used against the
last working hospital in northern Sri Lanka. However, after an
attack on Puthukudiyiruppu, the last town controlled by the LTTE,
the Sri Lankan government claimed it captured the hospital
allegedly shelled by the Sri Lankan military.
The Sri Lankan government has set up "welfare villages" (refugee
camps) to house displaced persons from the conflict region and to
monitor civilians until the fighting is over, but there have been
questions over the treatment of these persons. Reports state that
barbed wire surrounds the camps, which are guarded by the army.
Rumors persist that the Sri Lankan government will not allow people
to leave the camps unless one of their relatives remains behind.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has protested
against the conditions of the camps, which prompted the Sri Lanka
government to claim it will resettle 80 percent of the people in
the welfare villages by the end of 2009.
As the LTTE loses ground militarily and is no longer able to
fight conventionally, it will likely step up suicide attacks in
other parts of the country and could engage in guerilla war
fighting for years to come. Indeed, on March 10, a LTTE suicide
bomber killed at least 14 and injured 35, including Postal Services
Minister Mahinda Wijesekera and Culture Minister Mahinda Yapa
Abeywardena, 100 miles south of Colombo in the town of Akuressa.
Journalists Under Threat
The government of Sri Lanka has banned journalists from
traveling to the conflict areas and has cracked down on media
dissent against its military campaign. Journalists reporting on the
conflict have noted numerous threats and acts of intimidation. On
January 6, the control room of Sri Lanka's largest independent
broadcaster, Sirasa TV, was destroyed by an explosive device. After
Lasantha Wickramatunga, a prominent newspaper editor and critic of
the government, was shot and killed on his way to work in January,
his newspaper ran a posthumous editorial in which he had declared
that the government would kill him. The government of Sri Lanka
firmly denies any involvement in the killing of journalists, but
Sri Lankan Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa has said publicly
that dissent or criticism during a time of war would be considered
Turning to the Chinese
The human rights concerns in Sri Lanka are limiting U.S.
engagement with the country's leadership and leading the Sri
Lankans to depend increasingly on Chinese aid. Already, the U.S.
has cut off development funding for Sri Lanka by "de-selecting" the
country for access to Millennium Challenge Corporation funding,
citing "ongoing security concerns" in 2007. The U.S. also cut
off direct military assistance to Sri Lanka in 2008 because of
human rights concerns, and financial assistance has decreased from
$20.65 million in 2005 to an estimated $7.4 million in 2008. Sri
Lanka has begun to look increasingly toward China for assistance
since Chinese aid comes with no strings attached. In fact, China
has become Sri Lanka's largest donor, providing almost $1 billion
in aid last year. Chinese fighter jets, weapons, and radar
have also been vital to the Sri Lankan military victories over the
The U.S., along with other concerned countries in the Tokyo
Co-Chairs group (Japan, U.S., Norway, and the European Union)
should advocate for the International Committee of the Red Cross
(ICRC) to be able to screen and record each person in the camps or
"welfare villages." Allowing the ICRC to record and monitor
people being placed in the camps would reduce the Tamil
population's fears of human rights abuses. Additionally, the U.S.
should continue to urge the Sri Lankan government to allow
international aid agencies to deliver aid and supplies directly to
The U.S. and other concerned countries, such as India, should
also stress to the Sri Lankan government the importance of
addressing Tamil minority concerns as part of a longer-term
approach to promoting reconciliation and peace in the country. If
the government forces defeat the LTTE militarily, they will need to
quickly take steps to promote a post-war reconciliation process
that addresses Tamil grievances. The U.S. and other nations should
stress that Sri Lankan government efforts to promote a
reconciliation process would help shore up Sri Lanka's
international reputation and allow for resumption of assistance
that was curtailed due to human rights concerns.
Toward a Unified, Prosperous,
Democratic Sri Lanka
The Sri Lankan government must increase its efforts to protect
civilian human rights and Tamil citizens not connected with the
LTTE. It is in the U.S. interest to see Sri Lanka maintain
standards of democracy and accountability, even as the country
stands on the verge of militarily defeating the LTTE. An apparent
disregard for human rights would damage Sri Lanka's international
reputation as well prospects for sustaining peace once the current
military operation ceases.
As in many other areas of the world, in the short term, a policy
sensitive to international standards of human rights opens the door
to Chinese diplomatic exploitation. But time will show that it is
the U.S. and its like-valued friends who have Sri Lanka's real
interests at heart. Recognition of this fact by the Sri Lankan
government is essential to achieving victory over the LTTE-the kind
of victory upon which a unified, prosperous, and democratic nation
can be built.
Lisa Curtis is Senior
Research Fellow for South Asia in the Asian Studies Center and
Nicholas Hamisevicz is a Research Assistant in the Asian Studies
Center at The Heritage Foundation.