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The main U.S. strategic interest in Sri Lanka is in ensuring that a terrorist organization does not obtain its goals through the use of terror - (File photo)

Reproduced below are the first three paragraphs of Jeffrey Lunstead’s “Introduction” within his “Executive Summary” in the official document The United States’ Role in Sri Lanka’s Peace Process, 2002-2006 (Asia Foundation, 2007). Its authors conceived of this survey as “A Supplementary Study to the Sri Lanka Strategic Conflict.” Lunstead himself was a career Foreign Service official from 1977-2006 who had been US Ambassador to Sri Lanka from August 2003 to July 2006 before moving to the position of Assistant Vice President of International Affairs at American University in Washington D. C. So, what one sees within these covers is a significant document.

Executive Summary: The United States has been deeply involved in the current phase of the Sri Lanka peace process since it began in late 2001. This is in distinct contrast to U.S. engagement in earlier phases of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict since it erupted into armed conflict in 1983. While the U.S. was supportive of peacemaking efforts in the 1980s and 1990s, it played a relatively low-key role, deferring to India as the lead outside actor. With the end of the Cold War, U.S. interest in Sri Lanka waned. As recently as 2000, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) was planning for significantly reduced development assistance levels. The enhanced engagement that commenced in 2001 occurred despite the absence of significant U.S. strategic interests in Sri Lanka. Political-military interests are not high, and the U.S. has no interest in military bases in Sri Lanka. From an economic and commercial standpoint, Sri Lanka is unlikely to be a major U.S. trading partner in the near future. There is not a large enough Sri Lankan-origin community in the U.S. to have an impact on U.S. domestic politics. The main U.S. strategic interest in Sri Lanka is in ensuring that a terrorist organization does not obtain its goals through the use of terror.

Heightened U.S. interest in Sri Lanka from 2001 onwards was largely driven by then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. The enhanced interest was largely based on a belief that Sri Lanka was engaged in a process which, if successful, would resolve a conflict marked by terrorism through peaceful political means— assisted by the international community. This would be a model for the region and, indeed, for the world. It would show that a seemingly intractable problem could be solved peacefully when the internal actors were willing, and that the international community could play a major role in assisting them.

U.S. enthusiasm was bolstered by the policies of the Ranil Wickremesinghe government that was elected in December 2001. In addition to its willingness to engage in a risky peace process; that government was generally friendly to the U.S., in favor of market-oriented economic reform, and pro-free trade and globalization. While the U.S. clearly supported the Wickremesinghe government, it attempted to maintain productive relationships with both Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. The U.S. did not, however, attempt to act as a mediator between them. The U.S. adopted a bipolar approach, concentrating its attention on the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE); but also tried to work with outliers and potential spoilers. Exchanges with potential spoilers such as the radical Sinhalese/Marxist JanathaVimuktaPeramuna (JVP) and the Buddhist monk-based Jatika Hela Urumaya (JHU) were cordial but did not produce any changes in attitude. Efforts to encourage the involvement of other internal parties depended on progress in the peace process. As the process stalled and then moved backwards, such efforts diminished.