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. For two and a half decades, political, social, and economic
development was seriously constrained by years of ethnic conflict and war
between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), also
known as the Tamil Tigers. After a violent end to the civil war in May
2009, in which authorities crushed LTTE forces and precipitated a humanitarian
emergency in Sri Lanka’s Tamil-dominated north, attention has turned to
whether the government now has the ability and intention to build a stable peace
in Sri Lanka.
This report provides historical, political, and economic background on Sri Lanka
and examines U.S.-Sri Lanka relations and policy concerns. In recent years
interest in Sri Lanka has focused on human rights issues related to the
final stages of Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war with the LTTE, and its
attendant humanitarian emergency. Sri Lanka has faced criticism for what has
been viewed as an insufficient response to reported war crimes, a more
nepotistic and ethnically biased government, as well as increasing
restrictions on media and an unequal distribution of economic development.
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.
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 Mahinda 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 long-held historic grievances
have been deepened still further by the conflict’s brutal end.
Although Sri Lanka maintains strong economic ties with countries in its close
geographic proximity, Sri Lanka-India relations have been strained due to
political and ethnic tensions (Sri Lanka’s minority Tamils have strong
linkages with Tamil communities in India), and there has been an increase
in military and energy related investments from China in recent years. Sri
Lanka remains the only South Asian nation with a high human development
The United States recognizes the importance of the nation with its significant
geographic positioning, and has paid close attention to human rights in
the island nation. The U.S.-Sri Lanka relationship has been focused on
human rights issues over the last few years, with an emphasis on U.S.
sponsorship of resolutions through the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Date of Report: September 4, 2013
Number of Pages: 17 Order Number: RL31707 Price: $29.95
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