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U.S.-Sri Lanka Relations

Evan Feigenbaum, Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs
Interview with Shakuntala Perera, The Daily Mirror
Colombo, Sri Lanka
July 3, 2008

Question: What are your main concerns with regard to the present situation in Sri Lanka?

Deputy Assistant Secretary Feigenbaum: First, let me start by telling you what I’m doing here. This is actually my first trip to Colombo since I took this job last year. I came for two reasons: One was to continue the on-going discussion that we have between the United States and Sri Lanka; it was a chance for me to touch base with people.

I met with a whole range of people: the Acting Foreign Minister, the Foreign Secretary, the Defence Secretary, the Justice Secretary, the Human Rights Minister. I had a little bit of time with the President. In the first instance, it was a chance to catch up with people and talk [about] concerns that we have — concerns about the political situation, concerns about the human rights situation — but also talk about ways to continue programs that we’re doing and move the relationship forward. That was the first reason.

The second, of course, was that we were opening our Arugam Bay Bridge project, which is the largest post-tsunami reconstruction project that we have done in Sri Lanka. I went down the other day with Jim Moore, who is our Chargé, and we were there with the President and others, a few ministers. We had a chance to open the bridge. We had a chance to see what was happening, at least in that part of the East, and hear a little bit from the President and others what they were thinking about the East and also talk about, again, some of our concerns for the country. That’s what I was doing.

Question: Can you elaborate on your concerns about the country?

Deputy Assistant Secretary Feigenbaum: I think I would group them into a couple of categories. You know, the United States and Sri Lanka have been friends for a long time, more than 50 years of history. And there is a lot of goodwill between the two countries: There are a lot of Sri Lankans living in the United States, and thousands of Americans who come here and spend time as tourists and as businesspeople. So there’s a reservoir of affection and there is a lot of goodwill between the two countries.

But to be candid, there has been concern in Washington: in the first instance about the political trajectory here and, in the second instance, about the human rights situation.

Now on the first, I would repeat what the Ambassador and others have said many times, which is we continue to believe, fundamentally, that it ultimately will be a political solution that is required to give all communities, including the Tamil community and the Muslim community, a sense of investment in the future of the island, a sense of being stakeholders in the future of this country, including the politics and governance of this country. These are long-standing concerns that we have. But we continue to urge steps toward a political solution – not least, for instance, through re-invigorating the APRC process, and taking other steps.

We also have human rights concerns — and these are well known and long-standing. We talk about it in our statements. We talk about it in our reports. I would highlight a couple of areas, and these have been highlighted by my colleagues before. One, of course, is pressure on the media, and we have seen this in a fairly dramatic fashion in the last few days. This is an area we are continuing to watch very closely: We think journalists need to be free to report. They need to have some sense of security. So we are watching that very closely. We are concerned about that situation: the pressure on the independence and security of the media.

There is also the question of abductions. And there are also the questions of the larger human rights concerns that have affected all of the communities in the country but, I think, in many ways, the Tamil community, in particular, are the victims.

Question: Now, on those grounds, there are two issues that have come out when you talk about human rights. One is the government says, given the situation, given the offensive that has started, to certain extent one cannot avoid some of these violations. How do you see that situation?

Deputy Assistant Secretary Feigenbaum: Every government all around the world has a whole variety of responsibilities. They have to provide security for their people. But they also have to protect the human rights of their people, and they have to give people a stake in the political process (inaudible). We do pay attention to what the government says about those things.

We’ve talked extensively about our sense of the security threats here. We have banned the LTTE as a Foreign Terrorist Organization for more than 10 years now, since 1997. We have tried to cooperate in various ways with the government on terrorism. But also — it is something we are very attentive to — it’s not just a question of banning the LTTE: There has been an FBI sting operation. There have been efforts in our law, in our practice, to try to ensure that American citizens and others are not able to raise money or ship arms to help in facilitating terrorist incidents here by the LTTE.

But the government also has a responsibility to protect human rights. And the government is clearly trying to get the balance right — but the government ultimately has to do both. Every government has a responsibility to do both.

My job here, and the Ambassador’s job here, is to try to talk about those things directly. It is not a choice; it is not a question of either-or. The government, obviously, has a responsibility to protect security. But as our concerns about the human rights situation have grown, we’ve felt it imperative to talk to the government quite openly and quite candidly, both publicly and in private.

Question: How responsive was the government to these concerns?

Deputy Assistant Secretary Feigenbaum: The President and all of the people I met with here tried to explain to me their security concerns, their concerns about terrorism. As I said, we have a history of supporting the fight against terrorism here. But having said that, the President was also talking about their intentions for the political process, the 13th Amendment. We talked about the history of the APRC process. I was very clear, as we have always been, again both publicly and privately, about our concerns and the human rights situation. That is something that everybody is paying a lot of attention to. And I’ve noticed that the question of pressure on the media, for instance: this is not just an issue of the Americans talking, of the international community talking. It has been front page news in every newspaper in Sri Lanka during the three days that I’ve been here.
The government has tried to give me and others various assurances that it is attentive to these issues. We’re going to continue to pay attention because we can only judge progress in the country by results on the ground.

Question: But there has also been the criticism of the international community, or where the U.S. or the British Government is concerned, that there has not been anything more constructive than a press release being issued; that your engagement is not sufficient.

Deputy Assistant Secretary Feigenbaum: No, I don’t agree with that. As I said, the United States has a long history here, including banning the LTTE as far back as 1997 – more than ten years now. This is not a recent phenomenon. So we have a history here. We have a history of taking a stand on the question of terrorism, including LTTE terrorism. The United States itself has had a lot of experience with this, not least since 9/11, but even going back before that. You’ll find no audience that understands, I think, more than Americans the sense of frustration that people who have been victims of terrorism have.
But as I said, a government has many responsibilities. One hand does not wash the other. A government has to do more than one thing at a time: They have to protect security, but they also have a responsibility for protecting human rights. In fact, everybody has a responsibility for protecting human rights — it’s not just a question of governments; it’s a question of citizens, of institutions, of civil society. Everybody needs to take a stand on it. So we’ve tried to take a stand on both of those questions, and I think our positions on that are quite well known.

Question: How do you see the present military offensive that has been launched by the government? There has been a lot of criticism of the government in the way they are handling the offensive, the fact that there has been the criticism that civilians are increasingly being targeted – by both sides. But, of course, the LTTE is a terrorist organization, whereas the government has a responsibility towards civilians. And also the harassment of the Tamil people living in Colombo. We have reports of these armed people who come at midnight and all these searches going on, the amount of harassment – traveling has become a huge problem for Tamil people. How do you see it?

Deputy Assistant Secretary Feigenbaum: Well, first, on the military offensive, obviously, we don’t have American officials on the ground in the Vanni or in the combat zones so I’m not in a position to evaluate the progress of the combat. I read the newspapers. I see the reports. I see things on the Internet. But I’m not in a position to evaluate on a first-hand basis.

All I can say is to reiterate what we’ve said repeatedly, which is: whatever the progress of the military campaign, we continue to believe that, ultimately, only a political solution can produce a lasting peace, prosperity, and sense of security on the island. We’re watching the military campaign. We are obviously reading reports about it. But, ultimately, we continue to put the emphasis on the political track because we believe the political track is ultimately what is going to be required. Again, that figured in all of my conversations with every minister and with every official that I met. So that’s on the military side.

We come back to the question of human rights, and I think these issues are not unrelated. The question of human rights, the question of a political solution, ultimately, to the problems are intimately related. If people have a sense of fear, if people have a sense of insecurity — in fact, if people have a sense that their human rights are not being protected for whatever reason — it becomes impossible to invest them, in a sense, in a political process. There is a challenge here to try to move the political process forward. That’s why we’ve listened very closely when people have talked about things like, in the first place, the implementation of the 13th Amendment, which we think would be a good step, but a first step. We continue to think the APRC process and, more broadly, a solution the elements of which I think are pretty well known — they have been talked about for a long time — a solution that invests all of the communities in Sri Lanka, but particularly the Tamil and Muslim communities, in the sense that they have dignity and standing in this country — and that requires a credible devolution proposal.

Question: Are you able to be satisfied with the commitment of the government on the political process? Is there more concentration on military over the political?

Deputy Assistant Secretary Feigenbaum: Again, as I said, both ultimately may be needed. The government is concerned about security, so whether it is in terms of counterterrorism or it is in terms of security in urban areas, or it is in terms of the military campaign, I don’t begrudge the government the responsibility of having to protect its citizens. But having said that, we continue to believe a political process is important.

It’s not for Americans, ultimately, to evaluate what is going to be satisfactory to all of the communities. That is something that the communities themselves need to do. It has to be a political consensus on the island among the communities – among elites, but not just elites; among the people of all of these communities. Ultimately, it’s something that has to be acceptable to all Sri Lankans.

But observing it from afar, it’s clear that there has not yet been a political solution on the table that has been satisfactory. If there were, there would have been a settlement. There has not been a settlement, which suggests that a lot more work has to be done. Our role as a friendly country, as a country that has had a relationship with not just the government, but, frankly, with all of the people of Sri Lanka for a long time, is to try as we can to encourage that process, to nudge that process along. But, ultimately, it is something that all Sri Lankans have to do for themselves.

Question: The government taking the East as a test case has implemented a political process there, but criticism is still leveled against the continued use of arms by the new Chief Minister and the recruitment of children and cases of extortion by his cadres. Would it be fair to expect the Tamil people to accept a solution coming in that manner?

Deputy Assistant Secretary Feigenbaum: I can’t speak for the Tamil people, but it’s interesting that you mention the East. We’re paying a lot of attention to the East, in part because the government is putting so much attention on the East. It is very clear, if you listen to the statements that government officials have made – frankly, that the President made at our Arugam Bay bridge opening the other day – that the government sees the East as a kind of test case, as an opportunity. And from our perspective, we are quite attentive to what is happening in the East.

We see the opportunity there as well. On one hand, it is clear that there is a sense of normalcy in some places of the East that clearly was not there before: The LTTE has been cleared out of some sectors. Schools and hospitals are open. The fact that we were able to go down to Arugam Bay in the Eastern Province and do the ceremony the other day I think speaks volumes about some of what is happening in the East.

But having said that, I think it’s early days in the East, and as you said – and you alluded very specifically to some of these – there are real challenges. The new Chief Minister is a government official. He has a responsibility for security, for development, for the welfare of people in the Eastern Province. He has to do that as Chief Minister using certain state structures. But he also continues to be the Leader of the TMVP — and there are armed cadres in the TMVP. That’s something that I’ve talked to people here about: something has to be done with these people; something has to be done to reduce the sense of fear and to try to create a sense of normalcy by ensuring that, as Chief Minister, he is working [through] state structures.

There are other things too. You mentioned the problem with child soldiers. The TMVP, as you know, has a history of recruiting and using child soldiers. This is something we are very concerned about, in part because we have legislation in the United States that is very specific, that is related to child soldiers, that restricts certain kinds of assistance to Sri Lanka until the government takes effective measures against this problem and until we can be satisfied that efforts are being made.

I talked a lot about child soldiers to everybody. One thing we’ve done is to try to encourage the government to work closely with UNICEF. I’ve been told that they are doing that — I had a chance to talk to the UNICEF people. I think there’s a commitment to try to do something about the problem of child soldiers. If there were not a commitment, there would not have been the two releases that we’ve seen thus far. The two releases are very encouraging. I think the trajectory is good, but we still have a lot more progress to see made. We, our colleagues in the Sri Lankan Government and, hopefully, those in the East as well, including the Chief Minister, will continue to be attentive to this question. We need to get those children released in a way that is credible. We also need to ensure that there are measures in place — mechanisms, policies, public education plans — that there are ways of ensuring that even after the children are released that the problem does not recur and we eliminate the problem of child soldiers at least in the areas under the government’s control.

Question: You spoke of UNICEF, but except for the UN organization, a lot of NGOs and humanitarian agencies (inaudible) if not prevented; there are restrictions on their movements in the East and the North by the present government – they give various reasons. How do you see that?

Deputy Assistant Secretary Feigenbaum: As I said, it’s early in the East. Let’s see how the situation evolves in the East.

The government’s argument is: the situation is gradually returning to normal. As I said, there are certain elements of normalcy in the East now in ways that there were not before. One would hope that as the security situation continues to improve, as the government continues to extend its authority, as basic functions return to normal – people are out walking the streets now; that was really (inaudible) not so very long ago – that space would open up for community groups, for civic groups, for NGOs to operate in ways that perhaps were not the case when the security situation was much more severe. So let’s watch; the trajectory is positive.

We’d like to do some things in the East. You saw the Arugam Bay bridge — we’re already doing things in the East. The Ambassador has talked about this: we have some vocational training. AID, our Agency for International Development, is looking at agricultural initiatives and other things that we might do. As the situation returns to normal, we’ll look at what the opportunities are; there’s some discussion in our government about that. But I think the fact that we did the Arugam opening the other day – really our flagship project on post-tsunami reconstruction that was done in the Eastern Province — it suggests at least the possibility of further opportunities over time and some continued development cooperation in the East between the United States and Sri Lanka. So we’ll continue to watch the situation closely, but we will also explore the avenues in which we can perhaps be (inaudible).

Question: Is the U.S. Government concerned that there is a delay in engaging the LTTE in a political process at present?

Deputy Assistant Secretary Feigenbaum: Let’s go back to what I said is the fundamental challenge. I think the elements of a political solution are well known. The challenge is to try to get the elements of a political solution out onto the table. That would provide a basis for the resumption of negotiations. That would provide a basis for the resumption of discussions.

It needs to be something that gives the Tamil community a sense of refuge. My message here has been, in part, that we are watching the situation closely. We think, ultimately, whatever is happening on the military front, there needs to be a political solution, there needs to be a political process. Discussion of things like the 13th Amendment, like the APRC, the different elements that have been there a long time – there may be new ideas as well as old ideas – those are the things that would facilitate a return to negotiation among communities.

A lot of what I tried to do here was to encourage the government and others to think hard about the elements of what a political solution might involve. For that matter, I met principally with government people but I also had an opportunity to talk with some others here. I met with the Tamil National Alliance, and I also met with the UNP leaders. This is a message that is not just directed at the government; it’s a generic message that we direct at all communities of Sri Lanka, and obviously that is a particular responsibility. That’s really a challenge that we have going forward.

Question: You do not see this alienation of the LTTE? Do you see, instead, a process where the LTTE is just seen as the enemy that needs to be crushed, and that is the end, and they have no place at the table?

Deputy Assistant Secretary Feigenbaum: No, there is a history of negotiations. I’m not in a position to get inside the heads of the LTTE; I wouldn’t want to speak for the LTTE nor would I want to psychoanalyze the LTTE.

The problem, as I said, is fundamental. You need to build bridges across and among communities. There’s a sense of alienation among a lot of people here. There’s also a sense of fear, and it is very palpable when you talk to people of various communities. Without psychoanalyzing what particular groups think, I do think we can say there is a sense of alienation from the political process by various people in various communities. So when we say “political solution,” we mean a process in which people are prepared to come back and work for the elements of a compromise that might give people an investment in the future, devolve power to communities, and give, in particular, the Tamil community a sense of investment in this country’s future.

Question: The President himself was recently critical of what he termed were the ‘double standards’ employed by the Western governments in fighting terrorism. How do you see that?

Deputy Assistant Secretary Feigenbaum: The United States has been very consistent in our approach: we’re opposed to terrorism in all forms. As I said, we’ve proscribed the LTTE as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. And it’s not just proscribed it through rhetoric: we have taken tangible steps in American law, through American law enforcement, and in cooperation, including on some things like a maritime surveillance radar, between the United States and the Government of Sri Lanka.

At the same time, we continue to (inaudible) for a political solution. I don’t see any contradiction at all. I think our position is well known. It’s clear. We think we have spoken to all dimensions of the problem.

Question: On the press, the intimidation against the press. How concerned is the U.S. Government on this? Is there any form of intervention in what is happening?

Deputy Assistant Secretary Feigenbaum: We’re very concerned about the situation with the press. It’s really rising to the top, in many ways, of the whole panoply of human rights issues. It’s become much more pronounced in the public debate of recent days because of the attack the other day. And I’ve seen our Embassy put out a statement condemning the attack but also speaking to our larger concern about the situation of media freedom, media independence and media security. It’s something that we’re deeply concerned about. We’re talking very candidly to people in the government here, to our friends here. We’re going to speak candidly in public about it, and we’re going to watch it very closely.

The United States cares a lot about media freedom. We think it’s important for journalists to report without a sense of fear and without a sense that their independence is being threatened. I think you’re going to see a lot more attention to this issue from the United States Government.

Question: There is also a feeling that a change of government in the U.S. could change their policy against terrorism, which could affect the kind of assistance that Sri Lanka gets. How do you see those concerns?

Deputy Assistant Secretary Feigenbaum: I can tell you that the concern about terrorism and the concern about security in the United States ultimately is a bipartisan concern. It is not subject to politics. You have only to look at the way Americans reacted after September 11 — it was a time when people really came together in our country.

Now, obviously it’s an election year. We have political debate. That’s what elections are all about, about democracy. Sri Lanka is a democratic country; people know that very well. There will be political debate. But the one thing I’m pretty certain there will not be debate on is the question of terrorism. All Americans are concerned about it. We’ve been victims of it. We’re intrinsically sympathetic – and empathetic – to other people who have been victims of it. I’m certain that that will not change.

Thanks very much.

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