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Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2006

CIVIL WAR

Sri Lanka has so much, and stands to lose it all


LOS ANGELES -- If there is one country in Asia that can serve as a metaphor for all the good and the evil in the world, it may well be little Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon.

This physically gorgeous island nation off the coast of India is a mess. A few years ago, after some two decades of vile civil war, its people experienced an unaccustomed respite: a rather well-observed, virtually unprecedented, long-overdue ceasefire.

How long would a ceasefire really last -- a few months, a year or two or perhaps four at most? But while it did last, it suggested that Sri Lanka had a splendid future, that it could mature into a gem like Switzerland or Singapore, that it could offer the rest of the world an exemplary measure of hope that our planet is moving toward a higher level of civilization rather than descending into a Hobbesian state of nature wherein life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

You have to understand, this is a nation of tremendous promise. Its people are, by and large, talented, educated and ready for the globalization experience. Why else would the Japanese -- always so savvy about investing their time and money in a prospect -- have invested so much in trying to help all parties maintain the ceasefire? And why else would those near-saintly Norwegian peace negotiators be so prodigiously devoted to mediation efforts? Sri Lanka, everyone realizes, is well worth the attention.

But to realize its potential, it has to begin helping itself if others are to realize success in permanently helping it out of its nightmare. If it does not, then all of the outside parties -- which include the United States and other nations and organizations that came to its aid after last year's horrid tsunami -- are going to walk away from Sri Lanka as if it has never existed. For at a certain point, it is only rational to say that it is impossible to help someone who so stubbornly will not help himself.

Right now things are getting worse in Sri Lanka. Recently elected President Mahinda Rajapakse is demonstrating astonishing ineptitude. Paramilitary forces allegedly -- repeat, allegedly -- linked to the SL government have just abducted a handful of nonviolent humanitarian aid workers and have stored them who knows where (assuming they are still alive). And the various warring parties practically had to be begged by the international community to send representatives to Geneva where the next multiparty peace chat has been scheduled.

Since December more than 100 people have died in Sri Lanka in the renewed round of fighting. Some 60 to 80 Sri Lankan Sinhalese troops have died, as have some 40 to 60 Tamil civilians. The latter is from the minority ethnicity of Sri Lanka that largely inhabits the northeast portion of the island-nation. Its inhabitants, fearful of oppressive rule by the Sinhalese leadership, by and large would settle happily for some kind of Quebec-like federal status in a bicultural Canada-like Sri Lanka.

In two decades of conflict, more than 60,000 people have died. Land mines, grenade attacks and what-have-you have converted this tourist postcard island into an Asian Gaza Strip.

The U.S. Embassy in Colombo, the capital, should be congratulated for playing a steady mediator's hand. When the 10 aid workers of the nonprofit Tamil Rehabilitation Organization were abducted last week, the embassy issued a forthright statement expressing Washington's alarm and urging all the parties to show up in Geneva later this month to attend to the business of making peace.

An ominous recent study, made public after a renewed effort by the governments of Britain, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden (backed by the World Bank and the Asia Foundation), declared that "the potential for a return to war is inherent in the current situation. The study's authors -- who include a University of London expert -- argue that the key to peace in Sri Lanka is to be found in a renewed effort in Colombo by the majority Sinhalese government to magnanimously accept many of the expressed wishes of the minority in the northeast.

The study calls for "a more inclusive approach to conflict resolution," including a recommendation for greatly increased humanitarian aid to the minority northeast, the hardest hit region by the tsunami: "Sri Lanka's current situation may be characterized as a 'pause in conflict.' "

The pause seems about to end, and the country would appear to be on the precipice of a descent into hell like that of Darfur.

UCLA professor Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, is a veteran journalist who has worked at TIME, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and CBS.
Copyright 2006 Tom Plate


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