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Political Crises in South Asia: Recent Developments in Nepal and Sri Lanka

Steven R. Mann, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs
Statement before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia
Washington, DC
August 1, 2007

Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, thank you for inviting me here today to discuss recent developments in Nepal and Sri Lanka. These two South Asian nations are both struggling with domestic insurgencies that in Nepal’s case, will require a period of recovery and national reconciliation, and in Sri Lanka’s case, still threaten the country’s institutions and people. Let me first turn to Nepal.

Nepal’s recent history is nothing short of remarkable. Its citizens have endured much, but have hope for a brighter future. Nepal has seen a decade-long insurgency end as the Maoists agreed in November 2006 to enter into the political process. It has experienced political upheaval as a palace massacre claimed the lives of the king and several members of the royal family. In April 2006, the country witnessed a popular movement that ended the direct rule of King Gyanendra and replaced him with Prime Minister Koirala, who is serving in that capacity for the fifth time.

Today, Nepal is entering a decisive phase in its history as it prepares for Constituent Assembly elections on November 22. While there is progress, serious concerns remain. We are optimistic that the November 22 elections will be conducted in a free and fair manner. At the same time, we are fully cognizant that Nepal faces difficult challenges in the run-up to the election.

If I may start on a positive note, we are impressed by the work of the members of Nepal’s Election Commission to date. They are aware of the importance of conducting a free and fair election on schedule and they are working diligently with the international community. The Election Commission has registered over 17.6 million voters, representing 58 political parties.

The Commission has welcomed and encouraged volunteers and representatives of non-government organizations, including the Carter Center, to monitor the election. The Election Commission is preparing to issue a Code of Conduct, outlining election rules and behavior. The Code will clarify the right of parties to campaign and have access to the media and places a ceiling on campaign expenditures and restrictions on polling of voters, all of which could unfairly influence the outcome of the elections.

Serious law and order issues could affect the election and need to be addressed by the government of Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala. We remain concerned that the Maoists and their Young Communist League will continue their campaign of intimidation, abduction, and extortion and seek to disrupt the election or unfairly influence its outcome. The local press reports Maoist atrocities virtually every day. The Maoists commit crimes with impunity, devalue justice in Nepal, and threaten the integrity of the election process. As such, they clearly continue to warrant designation as a Specially-Designated Global Terrorist organization.

Due to improvement in the human rights situation since the April 27th declaration of a cease-fire between the government and the Maoists, there has been a substantial decrease in abuses by the Government. We continue to urge the Government to address past abuses and to appoint new members to the National Human Rights Commission. We welcome recent progress in this regard.

Regional tensions, increasing demands by traditionally-marginalized groups for representation, and the emergence of ethnically-based political factions and splinter groups -- particularly in the Terai -- have complicated the political landscape.

We are concerned by recent violence in the Terai, the low lying area of Nepal bordering India, where approximately half of the Nepali people reside, because it has the potential to derail the election process and it undermines law and order and stability. Aside from the criminal activity of the Maoists, which continues nationwide, the greatest obstacle to a peaceful and successful election is ethnic tension in the Terai.

The situation is complex because the Maoists are politically active in the Terai, but their interests often conflict with those of Terai inhabitants, most of whom are Madhesis, a distinct ethnic group with its own language whose culture is, in many ways, closer to that of India. It is in the Maoists’ interest to blame the violence in the Terai on Madhesi groups despite Maoist involvement. The Maoists and Young Communist League have assumed great influence in the western Terai through threats and intimidation. In the eastern Terai, the Maoists are in open conflict with Madhesi groups, who are using this transition period to assert their rights and, in some cases, to call for regional autonomy.

During the past year, a number of political groups with radical agendas, some of them armed, have emerged in the Terai. These groups’ agendas vary. Some groups seek to continue the armed struggle that the Maoists claim to have given up, others are promoting an ethnic-based agenda. Other established groups have split into factions dominated by politically ambitious individuals. In some areas, groups have splintered from the Maoists and become their military or political rivals.

As the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon reported on July 18:

“The security situation in the Terai has remained extremely disturbed and efforts to improve law and order in the region have been halting at best. Frequent clashes continue to occur between Maoists and Madhesi activists in the Terai as they compete for political space.”

The Nepal Government’s Ministry of Peace and Reconstruction is reaching out to these emerging groups to start a dialogue and to draw them into the election process. This is an essential process that the government needs to expand.

A successful, free and fair Constituent Assembly election would represent a significant step forward toward establishing a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic Nepal. Reaching out to the Terai groups and bringing them into the democratic fold will greatly improve prospects for success. It is clear that the Government of Nepal will have to make new and sustained efforts to fulfill the promise of the peace process.

We believe that seven of the political parties in the Parliamentary Alliance are committed to peaceful, multi-party pluralism. The Maoists are the exception. The seven parties may disagree at times, have competing agendas, and fail to consult with each other, but they are committed to working within the Parliamentary system.

Like ambitious political parties worldwide, they want to succeed and to expand their political base. Representatives of Terai districts and areas where the Maoists are active have been not been able to visit their constituencies regularly. In some cases, they fear for their safety if they return.

As described by the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights in a report in June, 2007:

“The Young Communist League’s violent disruption of activities of opposing groups, at times with other parties of the Seven Party Alliance (SPA), must not be tolerated. Such actions close the political space for dialogue and risk contributing to a spiral of violence. They are contrary to the principles of freedom of opinion, assembly and association and run contrary to conditions conducive for free and fair elections.”

Under the current Eight Party Alliance, the Maoists have more power than they are likely to achieve through the ballot box. Although their leaders have promised to curb violence, to date we have not seen any lasting drop in criminal activity by the Maoists or their Young Communist League affiliates. Their commitments to abide by the law and to respect their agreements have proven hollow. Maoist leader Mr. Pushpa Dahal has stated publicly that the Maoists have no intention of joining the political mainstream and their actions, to date, have consistently proved that statement accurate.

Mr. Chairman, the key elements of United States policy in Nepal are to use every means at our disposal to promote free and fair elections, to work with the Government of Nepal and other interested governments to push the Maoists away from armed struggle and peaceful participants in the political process, and to promote the increased participation of the Madhesis into Nepali political life.

In addition, we have a keen interest in providing humanitarian assistance to Nepal. In 2006 the United States spent roughly $32.6 million dollars on assistance to Nepal, most of it going to health-related programs, focusing primarily on women and children. Other assistance programs included law enforcement training, programs that bolster civil society, rule of law and respect for human rights in the government and military, and stabilization operations. In doing so, we continue to work with a variety of partners, both within Nepal and in the international community.

Turning to Sri Lanka:

Sri Lanka’s long-standing ethnic conflict, fragile peace process, and deteriorating human rights conditions continue to cause concern for the United States and the international community. The conflict between the Sri Lankan Government and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam entered a phase of intensified fighting during President Rajapaksa’s administration. In recent months, fighting has been steady in the Tamil Tiger-controlled East as Government forces attempted to re-take areas held by the Tigers under the terms of the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement. On July 11, 2007, the Sri Lankan military announced it had taken Thoppigala, the last remaining Tamil Tiger stronghold in the East, bringing the entire Eastern Province under government control. The costs of war have taken a heavy toll on the economy: inflation currently stands at 20% and tourism – one of Sri Lanka’s main industries - has plummeted by 40-60% since last year.

Fighting continues in the North and there is a continued Tiger presence in the East. Just five days after the government announced it was in control of the East, suspected Tiger gunmen shot and killed a senior provincial administrator. The Tigers remain a considerable fighting force and are capable of launching attacks across the island. On July 25, the Tigers detonated a claymore mine in the North, killing 11 soldiers and wounding eight others.

Furthermore, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam are regarded as one of the world’s best funded guerrilla groups, with an estimate reported $200 to $300 million in annual revenues. Ample funding allows them to purchase weapons, to operate a maritime force- the Sea Tigers, and to maintain a small air capability. Tiger aircraft attacked military facilities co-located with Colombo’s international airport, as well as fuel installations outside Colombo in April 2007. The Tigers have publicly expressed their intention to continue attacking military, government and economic targets. The Tigers do not target U.S. citizens or assets. Rather, they limit their attacks to Sri Lankan security forces, political figures, civilians, and businesses. Their innovations such as explosive vests and waterborne suicide attacks have been copied by other terrorist groups.

The Tamil Tigers have demonstrated little interest in a peaceful settlement. They have not renounced their stated goal of an independent homeland. Claymore mine attacks and political assassinations attributed to the Tigers in the past months further signal their intention to continue the conflict. The Tigers are insisting the Government of Sri Lanka abide by the terms of the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement as a condition for talks. The Sri Lankan Government is unlikely to agree to these terms, however, as it would require ceding the East back to Tiger control.

Prospects for peace are currently focused on an effort by the President’s party, the major opposition parties, and other parties to finalize a proposal which would reform the constitution to create a system devolving certain powers to Tamil and other minority areas. The peace process in Sri Lanka has collapsed repeatedly in part due to a lack of political consensus over how to satisfy the rights and aspirations of the majority Sinhala and minority Tamil populations. It is critical that the country’s political leadership engage fully and in good faith in the current debate over devolution of power and place the best interests of the country ahead of partisan politics. I must flag the fact that the Tamil Tigers share the responsibility for the negotiation impasse. It is important to note as well that although the Tigers are a party to the negotiations, they cannot be considered to be the representatives of all Sri Lankan Tamils.

Our top policy priorities for Sri Lanka remain restoration of good governance and respect for human rights leading to an eventual negotiated settlement. We believe that finalizing a credible devolution of power proposal, together with ending human rights violations and improving government accountability, are essential steps towards a lasting peace. The Government of Sri Lanka must do more to provide security and equitable treatment for its citizens, including taking seriously the plight of internally displaced persons, creating the conditions to allow economic opportunities to return across the island, and ensuring fair treatment at the hands of the police and security forces. These issues cannot be stably resolved through military means alone.

We are supporting the pursuit of a political settlement in Sri Lanka in several ways.

As a member of the Co-Chairs of the Tokyo Donors Conference, the United States participates along with the European Union, Japan, and Norway in the only international mechanism solely dedicated to peace in Sri Lanka. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard A. Boucher led the U.S. delegation at the Co-Chairs most recent meeting in June in Oslo. The Co-Chairs discussed ways forward for the peace process as well as current challenges on the ground in Sri Lanka, including deteriorating human rights conditions and difficulties with humanitarian access. The Co-Chairs continue to pursue openings to return both sides to negotiations. After the Oslo meeting, the Norwegian Ambassador in Colombo was permitted to travel north to meet with Tiger leadership for the first time in six months.

We are also working towards peace in Sri Lanka through consistent senior-level bilateral engagement and high-level visits, in which we deliver to the Government of Sri Lanka a consistent message that the only lasting solution to this conflict is through negotiation. Assistant Secretary Boucher visited Colombo and Jaffna in May 2007 and delivered a tough message to all parties on the need for dialogue, a serious devolution of power proposal, equality among all Sri Lankans, and respect for human rights. Assistant Secretary Boucher stressed that a credible power-sharing proposal that addresses legitimate Tamil grievances and preserves a political, social, and economic role for the Tamil and other communities in a post-conflict Sri Lanka could help re-energize the peace process and begin the process of national reconciliation.

In addition, we support peace efforts in Sri Lanka through U.S. Agency for International Development projects promoting dialogue between ethnic communities, developing citizenship skills, and improving governance. Our programs are focused on laying a foundation for peace in many ways, including providing technical assistance to develop a political framework to resolve the ethnic conflict, targeting corruption, training local government officials in management and budgeting, building the capacity of human rights institutions, and stimulating economic development. We are also interested in supporting programs that work with judges and bar associations and provide training for human rights groups to help provide legal aid to citizens in the North and East.

The United States is committed to help foster a lasting peace in Sri Lanka and to improve human rights conditions for all Sri Lankans. Ultimately, however, it is the Sri Lankan Government’s responsibility to the Sri Lankan people to provide the conditions of safety and security that will lead to a more peaceful and prosperous future. Reaching consensus on a devolution proposal is a critical first step towards peace, but it is a domestic political issue in which the United States should not take sides. The United States’ interest is in keeping the political process on devolution moving forward, rather than prescribing particular solutions to the Sri Lankans. We therefore continue to see no role for a Special Envoy to Sri Lanka at this time. We have, moreover, a highly capable envoy already on the job – his name is Robert Blake and he is our U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka.

The only lasting and stable solution to this conflict will be one that is reached through negotiations. Our military assistance does not support efforts to expand the conflict. Our modest assistance focuses on improving maritime capabilities such as weapons interdiction and surveillance. We support Sri Lanka’s efforts to defend itself against terrorism and have demonstrated our commitment over the last year by arresting 15 individuals in the United States and Guam on material support charges, including an alleged leader of the Tamil Tigers in the United States who was arrested in April 2007. We refuse to allow the Tamil Tigers and their supporters to use the United States as a source of supply for weapons, technology, and financial resources.

Another key U.S. policy concern in Sri Lanka is the deterioration in human rights conditions. As the State Department’s most recent Country Report on Human Rights practices indicated, human rights conditions across Sri Lanka have deteriorated significantly in the past year. We are deeply concerned by continuing reports of disappearances, abductions, torture, and the rise in extrajudicial killings, with eight extra-judicial killings reported over a three day period in July on the Jaffna peninsula. Human rights conditions are worst in Tiger-controlled areas, where there is no rule of law to protect Sri Lankans’ civil liberties. The Tigers’ recruitment of child soldiers is singularly deplorable.

The intimidation of civil society through such incidents as the April 29 killing of Tamil journalist Selvarajah Rajivarman and the July 23 murder of Mariyanayagam Aloysius, a Tamil employee of the Danish Refugee Council, is an additional area of concern. We are encouraging the Government of Sri Lanka to improve its accountability and rein in the paramilitaries that reportedly operate openly in government-controlled Tamil areas and have been accused of serious human rights abuses, including the recruitment of child soldiers. We are also working with the government to improve human rights conditions through the human rights Commission of Inquiry and the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons. Our representative to the Group, former Department of State Assistant Secretary Arthur E. “Gene” Dewey was in Sri Lanka in July 2007, and will return in mid-August for the Group’s next plenary meeting. While it is important that the Government investigate abuses, our message has consistently stressed the need for the Government to improve accountability writ large – this means not limiting its response to investigations that could take years, but taking immediate measures to hold the security forces accountable for order and discipline.

We are also engaged fully in humanitarian relief efforts to address the critical needs of Sri Lanka’s more than 500,000 internally displaced persons. To date, in Fiscal Year 2007 alone, the United States has given $10.6 million in humanitarian assistance to Sri Lanka. This includes funding for Save the Children and UN Children’s Fund programs providing protection, emergency relief supplies, nutrition, water, and sanitation and hygiene services. It also includes World Food Program funding for emergency food assistance, as well as International Committee of the Red Cross funding for emergency relief such as health services and shelter. In addition, the U.S. also supports the efforts of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees through regional funding.

Mr. Chairman, we are deeply committed to achieving lasting peace and stability in Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the South Asia region. We will continue to work on the ground in that region with our friends and allies, through international fora such as the Co-Chairs group in Sri Lanka, and through the extensive outreach programs of our Embassies in Kathmandu and Colombo, to help the Nepalese and Sri Lankan people overcome the considerable obstacles before them on their path to peace and prosperity.

Thank you again for the opportunity to appear before you. I would be pleased to answer your questions.

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