Search Penny Hill Press

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Sri Lanka: Background and U.S. Relations

Bruce Vaughn
Specialist in Asian Affairs

This report provides historical, political, and economic background on Sri Lanka and examines U.S.-Sri Lanka relations and policy concerns. Recent interest in Sri Lanka has focused on human rights issues related to the final stages of Sri Lanka’s 26-year secessionist civil war between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) with its attendant humanitarian emergency. A United Nations appointed panel found in April 2011 that allegations that both the government and the LTTE were responsible for war crimes were credible. The nation remains deeply divided along ethnic lines despite the end of the war. An ongoing challenge for the international community is how to assist Sri Lanka to effectively consolidate peace with the defeated Tamil minority. Sri Lanka’s ethno-national conflict centered on an armed struggle between majority Buddhist Sinhalese and the LTTE whose base was drawn from the Tamil minority concentrated in the island’s north and east.

Both the House and the Senate have considered legislation related to the situation in Sri Lanka. H.R. 440, “To provide for the establishment of the Special Envoy to Promote Religious Freedom of Religious Minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia,” and H.Res. 177, “Expressing support for internal rebuilding, resettlement, and reconciliation within Sri Lanka that are necessary to ensure a lasting peace,” were referred to Subcommittee in March 2011. The Senate agreed to S.Res. 84, “A resolution expressing support for internal rebuilding, resettlement, and reconciliation within sri lanka that are necessary to ensure a lasting peace,” on March 1, 2011.

The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, an island nation in the Indian Ocean, is a constitutional democracy with a relatively high level of development. Political, social, and economic development has, however, been seriously constrained by years of ethnic conflict and war between the government and the LTTE. Between 1983 and 2009, a separatist war costing at least 70,000 lives was waged against government forces by the LTTE, a rebel group that sought to establish a separate state or internal self-rule in the Tamil-dominated areas of the north and east. The United States designated the LTTE as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in 1997. Open fighting in this conflict came to a close with the defeat of LTTE field forces and the combat death of their leader Velupillai Prabhakaran in May 2009. The government continues to face the challenge of consolidating peace with the Tamil community. Sri Lanka presents the United States and the international community with several key challenges. Chief among these is how to help and encourage Sri Lanka to win the peace now that it has won the war against the LTTE.

Sri Lanka offers a test case of how to respond to a brutal military victory over a violent ethnonationalist separatist movement. The situation presents decision-makers questions of how to balance the imperatives of seeking accountability and resolution, providing development assistance, and promoting broad geopolitical interests. President Rajapaksa has a firm hold on government and popular support among the Sinhalese majority for his leadership in presiding over a military victory over the LTTE. But Sri Lanka remains a multi-ethnic society, where longheld historic grievances have been deepened still further by the conflict’s brutal end. The government’s reluctance to seriously entertain notions that the Sri Lanka army’s conduct was in any way suspect at the conclusion of the war raises questions about whether public international condemnations of what appear to be heinous war crimes can be effective. Some government officials have offered the view that in such situations quiet diplomacy may actually achieve more on the ground than public condemnations. Others have argued that the promotion of international norms of proper conduct in war require international action lest those norms of behavior be undermined.

Date of Report: June 16, 2011
Number of Pages: 12
Order Number: RL31707
Price: $29.95

Follow us on TWITTER at or #CRSreports

Document available via e-mail as a pdf file or in paper form.
To order, e-mail Penny Hill Press or call us at 301-253-0881. Provide a Visa, MasterCard, American Express, or Discover card number, expiration date, and name on the card. Indicate whether you want e-mail or postal delivery. Phone orders are preferred and receive priority processing.