UNITED NATIONS – As the four-year-old cease-fire in Sri Lanka is on the verge of crumbling, the United States has offered to strengthen its military assistance programs and increase training for government forces if the country’s rebel group resumes its separatist war in the northern and eastern provinces.
After meeting with senior officials in Washington last week, Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera said the objective of his trip was to keep Washington abreast of "the current status of the peace talks, where it has got stalled, and the need for it to be resumed as early as possible."
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who have been declared a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department, have been accused of several recent attacks on Sri Lankan troops even while a Norwegian-monitored cease-fire is on.
The rebel group has been fighting for a separate Tamil nation state in the politically troubled northern and eastern provinces.
Describing recent LTTE attacks as "provocations of the highest order," Samaraweera told IPS: "These are very serious attacks on the cease-fire agreement, which makes one wonder whether the cease-fire agreement is in place or not."
The LTTE is also accused of attacking the Norwegian-led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), which has helped sustain the fragile cease-fire over the last four years.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressed concern Monday about "the deteriorating security situation in Sri Lanka" and deplored the attack on the facilities of the SLMM.
"Escalating violence in the past few months has put a severe strain on the cease-fire that had ushered in a new era of hope in Sri Lanka and brought significant benefits for its people over the past four years. The impact of renewed violence is once again being felt by the civilian population," he said.
Addressing a meeting in Colombo last week, U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Lunstead used "blunt language" to warn the LTTE that the cost of returning to war will be high.
"If the LTTE chooses to abandon peace, however, we want it to be clear, they will face a stronger, more capable, and more determined Sri Lankan military," he added. He also said that U.S. military assistance "is not given because we anticipate or hope for a return to hostilities."
The United States has provided an average of about $500,000 to Sri Lanka every year as military grants under the International Military Education and Training Program (IMET), compared with about $1.4 million annually to neighboring India.
Washington also upped its military credits under its Foreign Military Financing (FMF) program: from $496,000 in 2005 to an estimated $1 million in 2006, compared with a high of $2.5 million in 2004.
These credits could be used by Sri Lanka to buy either U.S. weapons or counter-terrorism equipment.
Annan said a return to conflict will not resolve outstanding differences between the parties. He strongly urged the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE "to shore up the cease-fire, ensure respect for the human rights of all Sri Lankans, and urgently resume their dialogue under the facilitation of the Norwegian government."
Samaraweera told IPS the LTTE will continue to remain a designated "foreign terrorist organization" (FTO) in the United States despite intense lobbying by Sri Lankan Tamil expatriate groups to overturn the politically unpleasant designation.
The U.S. list includes over 40 FTOs ranging from Peru’s Shining Path and the New People’s Army in the Philippines to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Turkey and the LTTE in Sri Lanka.
A designated FTO may be dropped from the list after a biennial review of its actions, or in the alternative, the designation may be continued. But recent violations of the cease-fire in Sri Lanka make it unlikely that the LTTE will be removed from the list any time soon.
The designation of the LTTE as a FTO means firstly, that it is illegal for anyone in the United States to provide any financial support to these groups; secondly, that U.S. institutions may block funds of FTOs and their agents; and thirdly, FTO representatives could be denied entry visas to the United States.
The continued designation of the LTTE as an FTO puts it pretty much on a tight leash in the United States although funds have been transferred either as "charitable contributions" to LTTE front organizations in Sri Lanka or for post-tsunami reconstruction.
Samaraweera said the United States has been duly warned about both loopholes.
The United States is also sending Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, to get a firsthand view of the ground situation in Sri Lanka particularly in the north and the east.
Asked if the Sri Lankan government will, at some point, draw a line, Samaraweera said: "Absolutely." "As a responsible government, we will remain restrained and patient. We will certainly not fall into the trap of being provoked as the LTTE may be hoping we will." But at the same time, he warned, "even patience has its limits."
He said he had told U.S. officials that the LTTE should remain on the list of FTOs as long as they only "pay lip service to a political settlement while doing exactly the opposite." They should continue to be labeled terrorists, which they are, he added.
"But having said that, if they are willing to talk and negotiate, and come to a settlement, then I think at that point in time, the United States could review the status of the LTTE."
"I am not saying that the LTTE should forever remain a terrorist organization. The day they change, the world must also change. But until such time, they should be kept on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations," he added.
Samaraweera said that Sri Lanka is one of the oldest functioning democracies in Asia, and enjoyed universal voting rights as early as the 1930s.
At a time when the United States is promoting new democracies globally, it is also imperative to nurture existing democracies and to protect democracies under siege as in Sri Lanka, he added.