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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 1829

U.S. wants Tamil Tigers to surrender to third party and Sri Lanka to offer rebels amnesty – State Department official

Daya Gamage – US National Correspondent Asian Tribune

Washington, D.C. 07 May (Asiantribune.com): “We are trying quietly -- and I can't talk too much about this-- but we are trying quietly behind the scene to find a way to bring an end to the fighting. It's very difficult to see exactly how that's going to happen, but we think there are a couple of elements that need to be involved, and we need to find a way for the LTTE to surrender arms possibly to a third party in the context of a pause in the fighting, to surrender their arms in exchange for some sort of limited amnesty to at least some members of the LTTE and the beginning of a political process" is what a U.S. State Department official who is knowledgeable about a covert attempt to pressure both the Government of Sri Lanka and the rebel LTTE says.

The State Department official who disclosed the 'behind the scene' moves is Mike Owens acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs.

Mr. Owens had earlier served in Sri Lanka as a Foreign Service Officer, and immediately prior to the current position he was Director of the State department’s Office for India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Bhutan.

And before that Mike Owens served in Mumbai, also in Tanzania, Ghana, Karachi and other places.

What he says here can safely attribute to the current thinking, maneuvers and deliberations of the United States Department of State over the situation in Sri Lanka.

Talking further about the truce or session of hostilities Owens said: "Now, those are pretty vague -- that's a pretty vague outline, and we realize that. It's going to require a lot of negotiation with the parties involved to bring that to fruition in a really a coherent way, but that is something that is underway behind the scenes to try to find a way to reach that point."

Elaborating further on the same issue the State Department’s acting Deputy Assistant Secretary Owens said: "I just want to emphasize this is what we would like to see happen, but we don't have any illusions that this is easy to engineer. It's something that we've been working on very hard and quietly behind the scene, because we see -- the only potential we see to bring this to an end is to have a package in which we have a pause, and the civilians were allowed to leave. And now it's very clear that many civilians do want to leave in spite of the fact the LTTE has said earlier they do not want to leave. They do in fact want to leave.

"So what we would like to see is a package, in which there is a pause, and then during that pause, not only do the civilians leave but we also make some arrangements between the government and the LTT that would involve trading off surrender of arms for a limited amnesty. The government of Sri Lanka has previously offered a limited amnesty. This would be for the lower level LTTE cadre, not the leadership.

"And so I think one of the big questions is what to do about the leadership, and that's certainly not easy to answer.This is a very complex and very difficult sort of thing to orchestrate. There are many problems, and we are running out of time. We really, literally, have a matter of a couple of days maybe in which we can try to get this finalized.

"So we are working on it, but I don't want to raise expectations that we're close to a comprehensive agreement."

Dismissing the Tamil Tiger claim that the civilians in the No Fire Zone do not want to leave Mr. Owens stated: "We've been hearing from the LTTE on many occasions when we stress the importance of allowing civilians to leave the safe zone. The LTTE has often responded by saying the civilians don't want to leave; they want to stay because they're afraid of what might happen to them once they leave. I think this clearly shows that that is not the case. Thirty-five thousand civilians voted with their feet and did obviously want to risk a lot in order to leave."

If the general impression is that the United States wants the 13th Amendment that devolves political and administrative power to the provinces implemented one may change that impression if one listens to what Mr. Owens said. The devolution needs to go beyond the 13th Amendment, and this is what he says: "I think it's important that Sri Lanka move toward really a democratic -- a strong democratic governance in a multiethnic society in which all groups have a voice in that society. So the devolution of power to the provinces, as envisioned in the 13th Amendment, that's something that we feel is very important as the first step, but it needs to go beyond that. There are going to be a lot of civil society challenges in the next several years in dealing with the aftermath of this conflict and making sure that the conflict doesn't reignite as a result of mistakes that are made now. So we want to work closely with the government in that way."

He stressed "And we are going to press for and hope that the government will agree to implement the 13th Amendment as envisioned as quickly as possible."

Mike Owens does not say if the United States is pressing for a fully-fledged federal system.

He reminds that legitimate Tamil grievances in Sri Lanka in fact gave birth to the Tamil Tigers. What Mike Owens spells out here is the core thinking of the State Department for a very long time, the thinking that has been entertained by his boss Hillary Clinton.

"We, of course, have designated the LTTE as a terrorist organization, and we certainly have no sympathy for some of the things that they've carried out, but I think you do have to ask a very legitimate question: Why did they have a following in the beginning? And I think it's because some in the Tamil community do have legitimate grievances, and we need to find -- I think it's imperative for Sri Lankans to find a way to give everyone in the community, all Sri Lankans a legitimate voice in their government. And so we want to support the government of Sri Lanka as they move forward in an effort to do exactly that."

Then the State Department acting Deputy Assistant Secretary cast the following aspersion at the current leadership of Sri Lanka: President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

He said: "Sri Lanka is a very diverse country, and you can't just – you shouldn't sort of simplify things as the Tamils, Sinhalese. It's a much more diverse and complex multiethnic country than that, and there certainly are elements of very strong Sinhala national, Buddhist nationalism at work in Sri Lanka. And I think it requires political leadership to bring those diverse elements of multiethnic, multicultural society together in a coherent way.

"And so I think that's what is going to be required, strong political leadership at the top to say: ‘We want to maintain Sri Lankan unity, and to do so we need to find a way that all of the people in Sri Lanka can live together’. Without that strong political leadership at the very top, I think Sri Lanka is going to face continuing problems. So I think that's really the only answer as far as I'm concerned. You have to have strong leadership with the support of the international community, and the international community holding that political leadership responsible for the consequences of what happens."

Then Mr. Owens expressed this warning to the Government of Sri Lanka: "About consequences if the government of Sri Lanka does attack the safe zone and large numbers of civilians are killed: Certainly, there would be consequences, and we've made it very clear to the leadership of the government of Sri Lanka there would be strong consequences if that occurred. I would not want to sort of tie our hands in terms of specifying exactly what those consequences would be, but we would certainly hold the government of Sri Lanka responsible for the death of a lot of civilians, and we've made that very clear to the leadership."

Mike Owens outlined some of the specific steps that the United States envisions in the immediate future:

"Humanitarian pause, getting civilians out of the way, helping to find some way, some mechanism for the conflict to end through a surrendering of arms and some sort of amnesty. But once the conflict ends, there are several other things we envision doing as quickly as possible.

"One is demining. That is going to be critically important as the LTTE has dropped back over the last several of months to a couple of years. They have left mines in many, many locations throughout Northern Sri Lanka. I don't think anyone knows exactly where those mines are, so there's not a map there to find where we have to go and demine. So that's going to be a tremendous undertaking.

"We're already talking with some of our counterparts in other countries and other NGOs, NGO community, to try to put together a coherent effort in which we can get a lot of resources on the ground in a hurry to help the government of Sri Lanka demine the northern part of the country. We have already identified $10 million we're prepared to put to this right away, and we hope to have additional resources, subsequently.

"I think it's very important to do that right away so that there is no excuse for people staying in camps any longer than they have to. People can get back to their villages and their towns wherever they were, and that's very important. We want to work with the international community and the government of Sri Lanka to resettle refugees as quickly as possible.

"We hope to see the rise of maybe some new voices in the Tamil community, moderate voices in the North. We think that's very, very important, and we want to work with the Tamil community, and I think here especially the Diaspora has a very important role to play in helping build a sort of new set of moderate Tamil voices in the North. Building-rebuilding infrastructure and civil society, that's something that's going to be very important. We are doing that to a limited degree in the East now, and we hope to be able to do the same thing on a larger scale in the North in the future.

"And then we're going to need to continue to press on a number of important issues, rights issues. I would say one of the most important is trust freedom. There have been a lot of attacks on media in Sri Lanka. We need to make sure that journalists are protected and that the media is able to report effectively what's going on throughout the country.We think that's very important.

"And we are going to press for and hope that the government will agree to implement the 13th Amendment as envisioned as quickly as possible."

He reiterated: "I would emphasize that we believe theDiaspora, the Sri Lankan Diaspora, and particularly the Tamil Diaspora in North America, in Europe, elsewhere, has a very important role to play in this. They should, I hope, be speaking out in terms of what they envisioned for Sri Lanka in a post-conflict scenario. They have an important voice in that process."

- Asian Tribune -

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