Sri Lanka: The Challenge of Communal Violence

Observations of a recently declassified Intelligence Assessment, ‘Sri Lanka: The Challenge of Communal Violence’ compiled jointly by the United States Department of State’s office of Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs (NESA) and (US) Directorate of Intelligence in a June 1984 report, expressed fear that if Washington was seen associating with a regime that battles a minority group it could “damage the U.S. prestige in the region and in parts of the Third World and that highly politicised Tamil minority in Sri Lanka might even turn to the Soviet Union for support.”

The report says that President Jayawardene’s failure to deal with the demands of Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority has brought the Tamils to the brink of open insurrection. Tamil demands probably would be satisfied by a federal structure that would guarantee Tamils control over security and economic development where they comprise the majority of the population. Most Tamils are aware that an independent Tamil state in Sri Lanka is economically and politically untenable.

In our judgement, Jayawardene through his political manoeuvring since his election in 1977, has contributed to the deterioration of communal relations by:

  • Failing to share political power with minority groups and reneging on other campaign promises made to the Tamil community.
  • Publicly announcing his commitment to his Sinhalese Buddhist constituency at the height of last: summer’s communal riots.
  • Implementing punitive anti terrorism measures and failing to discipline security forces responsible for violence against Tamil civilians.

These actions have played into the hands of Tamil extremists. They have reduced the influence of Tamil moderates and have convened what had been a demand for limited autonomy into an insurgency calling for complete separation from the Sinhalese majority.

Prime Minister Gandhi, however, has made clear to Jayewardene her willingness to act forcefully if the situation in Sri Lanka deteriorates much further. We believe the Indian military over the last several months has im­proved its ability to mount operations against Sri Lanka. Moreover, New Delhi continues to provide support to Sri Lankan Tamil insurgents based in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Understaffed and ill equipped, we judge that the Sri Lankan forces will be hard pressed to cope with increasing Tamil separatist attacks in the north. Even given the strategic advantages of home terrain, population sympathy, and perhaps even initial numerical advantage, the Sri Lankan forces are no match for an invasion by a modern force the report states.

Colombo’s failure to resolve the country’s communal problems makes US relations with all the countries of the region more difficult. New Delhi is sensitive to any potential involvement by the United States in the affairs of the region and will watch closely for the outcome of Jayewardene’s trip to Washington. Although the assertion has been officially denied several times, Prime Minister Gandhi apparently continues to believe the United States is seeking to gain port facilities at Trincomalee for the US Navy.

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