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Monday, September 23, 2013

Sri Lanka: Background and U.S. Relations

Bruce Vaughn
Specialist in Asian Affaris

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 index ranking.

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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