Home The Washington Diplomat January 2007 Sri Lankan Government FacesProspect of Full-Scale Civil War

Sri Lankan Government FacesProspect of Full-Scale Civil War


Bernard A.B. Goonetilleke, Sri Lanka’s ambassador in Washington, remains hopeful that his government can broker a compromise to end more than 20 years of on-again-off-again fighting with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE—which reignited in 2006 with a vengeance.

In late November, the LTTE formally resumed its two-decade struggle to create the independent state of Tamil Eelam in the northeast region of this island nation of some 20 million people, claiming discrimination by the majority Sinhalese. But Goonetilleke and others in the Sri Lankan government contend that the Tigers’ separatist demand is unreasonable and unacceptable to the majority of the nation’s citizens.

The conflict, which has killed an estimated 65,000 people since 1983 and 3,000 last year alone, flared again in 2006 despite a cease-fire declared in 2002. Goonetilleke said the government still wants to avoid full-scale war but will protect its interests and its people.

“There is no intention on the part of the government to engage in war,” Goonetilleke said in a wide-ranging in-terview with The Washington Diplomat at the Sri Lankan Embassy near Dupont Circle. “Very clearly, the political leadership has made it clear that it is not something that can be won by waging war.”

Nevertheless, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse recently reinstated an anti-terrorism law crafted in late 2001 but later suspended that allows security forces wide powers to arrest, search and interrogate suspected rebels. The Sri Lankan government also announced emergency regulations making it illegal to support or assist the rebels or to release information that could be construed as jeopardizing national security. Violators could get 20 years in jail.

“Our government decided to reactivate provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act to face this cruel and senseless terrorism,” Rajapakse said in a televised national address in December, after the LTTE reportedly bombed a school, killing a boy and injuring others.

The reinstatement angered the rebels, who contend it will only exacerbate the conflict. They also denied intentionally shelling the school. “The cease-fire agreement put this draconian act to sleep for a while,” said Daya Master, the LTTE media coordinator in a Reuters interview in early December. “Now the dragon is given life.”

In an earlier incident, the Sri Lankan Army also fired on a school being used as a shelter by Tamil civilians, killing dozens of people. The government, however, claimed those people were being used as human shields by the LTTE. One thing is clear: Both sides have continually broken the tenuous cease-fire, and as civilian casualties mount, the patience of the international community is tested.

Goonetilleke, a career diplomat who presented his papers in Washington in May 2005, said his government has appointed a task force to craft a proposal that would effectively make way for the “devolution” of power in the Tamil region.

The ambassador said he could not provide details or even a rough sketch of the proposal because it is very much a work in progress. But he hinted that such a proposal could give the Tamil people wide ability to self-govern and establish a semi-independent economy.

“Whatever we do with regard to devolution of power to certain areas, it has to be a democratic exercise acceptable to the people,” Goonetilleke explained, noting that the Sri Lankan Parliament must ratify any such compromise. “They have to determine if it is a reasonable offer.”

He added: “But if there are rightful demands on the part of the people to look after their own affairs … there should not be much problem.”

However, Sri Lanka will not relinquish a wide swath of valuable land—much of it coastal—to the Tigers’ demands, according to the ambassador, who pointed out that the Tamil people represent about 4 percent of the population of Sri Lanka but the Tigers are demanding 30 percent of the land, including two-thirds of the cash-generating coastal area.

“That is not an option,” he said. “In today’s world you can’t have separate states being created on the basis of religion, ethnicity or the tribal group you belong to. That kind of arrangement won’t work.”

President Rajapakse’s brother, who is the nation’s defense minister, was nearly killed in a suicide attack in Colombo in late November. Also around that time, a leading pro-Tamil politician was shot and killed in Colombo. Despite the tit-for-tat violence, the president told the nation in December that negotiations are still an option.

Goonetilleke said his government aims to represent all people in the country, including some of the Tamil population who might not have allegiance to the Tigers. “We have to look after the interest of the Tamil population and free them from the clutches of the LTTE,” he said, adding that the government is actively working to erode the Tigers’ power base. “If we allow the LTTE to become stronger, there will be less of a compulsion for them to return to the negotiating table.”

A big part of that strategy is convincing other countries—possibly through the United Nations—that they should not help fund the rebel group. “One of the problems we face is the funding the Tamil Tigers get from other countries. These funds fuel the conflict in Sri Lanka,” Goonetilleke said.

As ambassador, Goonetilleke keeps his eye on the conflict back home but has other pressing duties here in the United States. Foremost among them is convincing Congress to give Sri Lanka more favored status as a trading partner.

“We are trying to negotiate a free trade agreement with the United States,” he said, acknowledging that it is not an easy climate to do that in. “We can’t say it is a trade-friendly Congress. We are not confident, in the near future, that that kind of arrangement is possible…. But we’re trying to see to what extent we can adjust our trade relationship with the United States.”

The Southeast Asian nation was devastated by the tsunami of 2004, with 38,000 killed and nearly 1 million left homeless (see February 2005 cover of The Washington Diplomat). The damage was particularly painful to the tourism and fishing industries, but both are rebuilding quickly. Goonetilleke said it will take another three years to complete rebuilding of the infrastructure, where losses were estimated at billion.

Goonetilleke said his country was deeply appreciative of the generosity of the world community in the aftermath of the tsunami. The United States sent about 8 million in aid to Sri Lanka. But even with that money, rebuilding hasn’t been easy.

“It was a huge, huge destruction,” he said, referring to not only the loss of human life, but of roads, railroads, bridges and other basic infrastructure. “Even if you have all the cash in the world, you can’t go to a store and buy these things. You have to plan first.”

Goonetilleke pointed to one silver lining—that when Sri Lanka is completely rebuilt, the country will be even stronger. “When we rebuild a railroad track, it will not be done to the specifications of before. It will be built in a better way,” he said confidently.

He also said that tourism, which came to a halt immediately after the tsunami, is once again flourishing thanks in part to a successful quasi-governmental campaign to rejuvenate the injured cash cow. Goonetilleke could barely contain his enthusiasm when discussing his country’s attributes.

“We are not only a beach. We have ancient cities going back 2,000 years. We have wildlife parks, hill country—there are other activities other than the beaches,” he boasted. “If you drive in the country, in particular places at particular times, you will have to wait for elephants to cross. You cannot see this in many places in the world today.”

Another effect of the tsunami was that the Sri Lankan Diaspora living in the United States came out of the woodwork to help, and now the embassy in Washington is trying to locate as many expatriates as possible to form a loose coalition.

“During the tsunami we realized the potential of these people because they, on their own, they got together in small communities, collected relief supplies and sent them to Sri Lanka,” the ambassador recalled.

He also hopes some of his countrymen will speak up for Sri Lankan interests in the United States. “We know that to get anything done in the United States, you need lobbyists, and for that you need fat wallets,” Goonetilleke said. “There are Sri Lankans who are willing to help and maybe they could lobby their own congressman.”


About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.