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Treading Water in Sri Lanka

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Last week, a commission began investigating the final phase of a horrendous decades-long civil war. This war, which ended last year, caused tens of thousands of deaths, prompted military interventions from a regional power, drew in a transnational diaspora, and spawned numerous refugees. The war's aftermath presents significant implications for the international community concerning counterinsurgency, terrorism and refugee flows. Unfortunately, it occurred in Sri Lanka, a country that receives negligible, if any, attention in US media or political discussions. If the international community were to focus on this crisis, however, diplomatic pressure to address the grievances driving the conflict combined with reconstruction aid could yield tremendous benefits.

Tensions between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils in Sri Lanka began after independence from Great Britain. The colonial government empowered the Tamils at the expense of the Sinhalese, which generated a great amount of resentment. Contention between the groups erupted into a civil war in the 1980s that continued until recently; the primary combatant on the Tamil side was the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a terrorist group characterized by destructive attacks and a pioneering use of suicide bombings. Indian forces intervened in the late 1980s, but their troops did little to stabilize the country. After almost two decades of abortive peace agreements, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa launched an all-out offensive against the LTTE, with Sri Lanka's civilians caught in the middle.

The turmoil continued after the war ended. President Rajapaksa easily won re-election in January 2010. Yet, his opponent -- General Sarath Fonseka -- was recently convicted by a military court, an event some see as politically-motivated; Rajapaksa also attacked the UN over its attempts to investigate government actions during the war and set up his own commission, which many believe will be inadequate. And Tamils have expressed concerns over continuing government activities in Tamil-populated areas and perceived threats to their demographic and cultural integrity.

The situation in Sri Lanka resembles a swimmer treading water, neither sinking nor rising. There are several reasons why we should care about this, beyond altruistic concerns. First is what it says about counterinsurgency tactics. The Sri Lankan government defeated the LTTE through brute force, rather than a restrained civilian-centric strategy. This in part shows the inherent tragedy of war, as "good guys" are often hard to find and conflict rarely ends in a satisfying and morally-sound manner. As I have said before, this presents unwelcome lessons for US efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Namely, is it possible to put down an insurgency without resorting to the Sri Lankan government's tactics? Is the best we can hope for a low-level equilibrium? These are questions, not answers. If international silence over the Sri Lankan civil war continues, this could indicate tacit agreement that the government's rough tactics were acceptable, or at the least unavoidable.

Second, the Sri Lanka crisis speaks to worries over both terrorism and refugees. While the worldwide Tamil diaspora for the most part rejected the LTTE's brutal tactics, the group likely gained some support from Tamils abroad. Also, many Tamils fled the country during the fighting, including a ship-borne group that recently reached Canada. Canadian officials want to ensure the safety of the refugees, but also worry about terrorist entry into the country. International inaction could both allow LTTE cells to continue operation -- possibly serving as a model for other transnational terrorist networks -- and lead to the denial of asylum to legitimate refugees.

This treading of water is also apparent in US attention to the crisis. President Obama called on the Sri Lankan government to protect its civilians in May of 2009, and a November 2009 Congressional resolution expressed similar concerns. But there has been little beyond that.

With all the international and domestic problems we are facing, and a mid-term election looming, can we really expect US leaders to devote resources to this crisis? Probably not. That being said, of the various international concerns out there, this one may be relatively easy to address. Major combat is over, so it would not require military intervention in an ongoing war. And despite some problems, Sri Lanka is a democracy, so the United States would not be required to partner with a regime of dubious integrity. Diplomatic pressure and the threat of economic sanctions combined with aid for combat-affected areas could push the Sri Lankan government to accept the UN mission while providing help in recovering from the war.

Achieving a just resolution to this war, and repairing war-ravaged areas of Sri Lanka, would help the Sri Lankan people and provide a beneficial model for other cases of conflict resolution. Inaction, however, will produce a perpetuation of the tragic status quo in which the international community looks on as untold numbers of civilians die.