Obama's call for peace in Sri Lanka

Peace for this island nation needs more foreign leaders speaking out.

For the 21 million people who live in Sri Lanka – a tear-shaped island in the Indian Ocean – many a tear has been shed over a quarter-century of conflict. The minority Tamils and majority Sinhalese just can't seem to find peace.

But now that a US president has forcefully spoken out against the war's tragic consequences for civilians, perhaps the world community will finally help bring about a settlement. "Sri Lanka must seek a peace that is secure and lasting and grounded in respect for all of its citizens," President Obama said this week.

Protecting some 50,000 Tamils now caught in a major and perhaps final battle between the government and rebel Tamil Tigers – let alone reconciling Tamils and Sinhalese after the conflict – won't be easy.

Too many global players have a stake in how this conflict ends.

By sheer geography, Sri Lanka has often been a strategic pawn for big powers. It sits astride the sea lanes that bring oil to Asia and Asian exports to Europe and the Middle East.

China, for instance, is building a "commercial" port at the island's southern tip as part of its seafaring expansion. Japan is Sri Lanka's largest bilateral donor. India wants to dominate the Indian Ocean while both Pakistan and China have provided weapons to the Sri Lankan military. And for decades, the navies of Russia and America have eyed Trincomalee, one of the most ideal warm-water ports in the world.

Despite a recent increase in killings of civilians by both government and Tamil Tiger forces, the UN Security Council has not been forceful enough. China, as a veto-wielding member, doesn't want to jeopardize its growing ties with Sri Lanka's leaders as it seeks a strategic advantage with India.

On Wednesday, the council finally expressed "grave concern" over the plight of Tamil civilians caught in the conflict. Such a weak response should only compel the US and others to be more outspoken.

For years, Europe has been the most forceful in decrying the war's human rights atrocities and in seeking peace for this former British colony (previously called Ceylon). But in 2006, after a Norway-mediated cease-fire collapsed, the hard-line Sinhalese leaders, backed by strident Buddhist monks, decided an all-out military victory over the Tigers was necessary.

At the time, in the post-9/11 era, it was hard for the US to argue with this military offensive. The Tigers, who seek an independent Tamil homeland by force, relied on terror to take over much of the island's northeast. They virtually invented the tactic of suicide bombing, later used by Palestinians against Israel and by jihadists in Iraq and Afghanistan. And as one of Asia's oldest democracies, Sri Lanka has an elected government acting on the wishes of the majority.

But the Sinhalese-led military has been too brutal and lacking in counterinsurgency tactics, while too many government leaders make anti-Tamil comments. Dissent is stifled and the government is suspected of the recent murder of a prominent (Sinhalese) journalist who criticized their tactics.

Most of all, it has not been aggressive enough in helping the recovery of captured Tamil areas or giving Tamils there the degree of autonomy they need to quell fears of future Sinhalese-led violence.

Both sides have suffered from their extremists. The rebels, known officially as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), are led by the ruthless Velupillai Prabhakaran. And many elite Sinhalese express a Buddhist supremism and an intolerant ethnic nationalism. Such feelings are in large part a legacy of the colonial period and a mismanaged economy.

As in many religious and ethnic conflicts, the Tamils and Sinhalese must see themselves as citizens of one country united by a shared history, destiny, and democracy. (More Sri Lankans died in the 2004 tsunami than in this conflict.)

The bad turn of the war toward inflicting so much tragedy on civilians may leave great resentment. But that is all the more reason for other nations to work harder on behalf of Sri Lanka's future – and not their own interests.

In fact, a peaceful Sri Lanka is in the world's interest.

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