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A Fragile Peace: The Aftermath of the Sri Lankan Civil War

One of the greatest challenges in a diplomat’s career is serving in a country that is trying to rebuild after a brutal conflict. Although it is possible to repair infrastructure, rebuilding trust between communities is a much greater challenge. This was the case when Patricia Butenis arrived in Colombo, Sri Lanka as the U.S ambassador.

Members of the Tamil diaspora protest in Paris, France in 2007 | Protests in Paris, 2007 (2007) Nelson Minar | Flickr
Members of the Tamil diaspora protest in Paris, France in 2007 | Protests in Paris, 2007 (2007) Nelson Minar | Flickr

While Butenis had served in other places that were experiencing or recovering from conflicts, she learned that the civil war in Sri Lanka had been massively devastating, and that it would take an enormous amount of work to rebuild the country and heal society.

In the years after Sri Lanka’s independence from the British, ethnic and religious tensions began to foment between the country’s Buddhist Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority. Many Sinhalese felt that the British colonial administration had unfairly favored the Tamil in the political realm. Later, attempts to make Sinhalese the official language angered the Tamil population. In 1983, the Tamil Tigers insurgent group attacked a Sri Lankan army patrol, triggering anti-Tamil riots in Colombo. The Tamil Tigers began battling the Sri Lankan military, in hopes of creating an independent Tamil state in the country’s north. The war would last 26 years, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 100,000 people, and the displacement of countless more. The war ended in 2009 after the Sri Lankan army killed the leader of the Tamil Tigers and crushed the insurgency. However, the end of the war came at a devastating human cost, with large numbers of civilians caught in the violent battles that marked the war’s conclusion.

As ambassador, Pat Butenis was responsible for implementing U.S policy in Sri Lanka, which encouraged reconciliation between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities. However, given that the war had shattered intercommunal relationships and trust, this was easier said than done. This contention played out in the controversy over IDP [Internally Displaced Persons] camps in the country’s north, which were largely populated with Tamil civilians. Although the war had ended, the trauma of the conflict still loomed large in these camps. The Sri Lankan government initially wanted to strictly regulate the camps and prevent freedom of movement for IDPs, while human rights groups advocated for Tamil residents to return to their villages.

Ultimately, Pat had to balance the demands of the Sri Lankan government with the needs of the refugees. She knew that many human rights groups were criticizing the Sri Lankan government’s treatment of Tamil refugees, and she worried that the government was treating Tamil civilians as if they had been involved with the Tamil Tigers, further alienating them. So she had to take a careful approach. Although she acknowledged the government had security concerns related to the Tamil Tigers, she encouraged them to grant displaced people freedom of movement. Aid distribution proved to be another point of contention. Although USAID was more focused on serving Tamil IDPs, Pat encouraged them to also distribute some aid to members of the Sinhalese community, who often felt that the trauma they had suffered during the war was being ignored. As a diplomat in a country struggling with the aftermath of a traumatic war, Pat had to carefully balance the needs of different groups in order to accomplish the goal of post-conflict rebuilding. In this “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, we see that Pat’s story is illustrative of the challenges diplomats face when working in the aftermath of a civil war.

Patricia A. Butenis’ interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on September 11, 2014.

Read Patricia Butenis’ full oral history HERE.

For more Moments on the Sri Lankan Civil War crisis check out our moments HERE and HERE.

Drafted by Artemis Maria Katsaris

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Excerpts:

“The government was largely treating the entire Tamil population in the north…as if they’d all been Tigers, and that wasn’t the case.”

Human Rights Issues:
When I had my hearings Sri Lanka was controversial because of human rights issues. The 26-year war between the Tamil Tigers and the Sinhalese-dominated government had just ended in May of 2009, and my hearing was in June. The Democratic committee staff weren’t happy with the Obama administration, believing that we had not been tough enough with the Sri Lankan government in pushing for a ceasefire during the last months of the fighting and then later in urging better treatment of the Tamils. The government was largely treating the entire Tamil population in the north, where the Tigers had held territory and made their last stand, as if they’d all been Tigers, and that wasn’t the case. So the human rights groups were very unhappy.

The Tamil diaspora is well organized and active, especially in Canada. When I had preliminary meetings with Senate staffers, they were a bit difficult. They delayed my hearing, to make a point, I guess, and then asked to see me a second time. Their message was that we should be more aggressive in pressuring the Sri Lankan government to respect the Tamils’ human rights and improve their treatment. Anyway, I had my hearing and I was approved. During my pre-departure consultations I met with Samantha Power, at that time the NSC director of multilateral affairs and human rights, who was quite focused on Sri Lanka and the human rights situation there.

I want to emphasize that the war ended quite brutally, following years of terrorist attacks by the Tigers, so from a human rights perspective, it was hard to find any “good guys.” We later learned that the Tamil Tiger leader, Prabhakaran, calculated that if there were sufficient Tamil casualties the UN or the West (including the United States) would intervene, somehow, so he refused to allow Tamil civilians to flee the battleground to safe haven. He kept civilians with them as a shield and as a reason for an intervention, which never happened, and his plan ended catastrophically.

There was evidence that Prabhakaran and his 12-year-old son were captured alive but then killed. The Sri Lankan government denied that. The exact number of casualties from the final battles is still controversial, but thousands died, and many who surrendered were unaccounted for. The point was that on the Hill, among the Democrats in particular, there was a lot of concern that we hadn’t done enough.

“There were an estimated 300,000 civilians, those who’d survived the fighting, who were placed in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps.”

Concerns over IDP Camps:
The main policy issue that occupied us was the aftermath of the war, in which thousands died. We still don’t know exactly how many and likely will never know. Tigers, soldiers, Tiger families and camp followers, some of whom were not free to leave, and civilians, villagers caught in the middle, victims of the Tigers’ suicide bombings and other terror attacks. Part of our focus was also on alleged war crimes.

Shortly after the last battle, cell phone photos and videos, obviously taken by soldiers (since the army banned journalists and humanitarian organizations, including the UN from the battlefield) began to appear showing corpses killed in ways that pointed to torture and execution. There were photos of Prabhakaran himself, whom we were told had been taken alive, with the top of his head gone, blown off. I believe the government said he had tried to escape. There were photos of piles of bodies, of naked men, apparently executed. The only eyewitnesses were the soldiers themselves.

The Tamil population in the north was in shock. From the government’s point of view, they took good care of the Tamils. There were an estimated 300,000 civilians, those who’d survived the fighting, who were placed in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps. Some called them concentration camps, which was extreme but at least initially, the IDPs could not leave the camps and so were, effectively, under detention. The government said the barbed wire, soldiers, and other controls were for the inhabitants’ protection and there was no question that Tigers, combatants, had managed to blend in with the civilians and infiltrated the IDP camps. It was a very chaotic situation. To this day there are women who say their husbands, combatants, surrendered to the army and have not been seen since. This was another concern we had, accounting for the disappeared . . . .

“My talking point was freedom of movement, that the IDPs should be allowed to choose to stay in the camps or return to their homes . . . .”

The Plight of Internally Displaced Communities:
Going back to the IDP [Internally Displaced Person] camps, while the government, with support from other countries, our USAID included, was trying to meet basic needs, it also remained extremely suspicious of this population, knowing that there were some fighters in there and therefore limiting foreign access to the camps. There was also the Tamil diaspora, especially in Canada and Western Europe, which was very critical of the government. My talking point was freedom of movement, that the IDPs should be allowed to choose to stay in the camps or return to their homes, even though many of them had been destroyed in the fighting. Looking back we were a little unfair to the Sri Lankan government because we insisted that the Tamils should be allowed to leave while not fully acknowledging the difficulties. There were also legitimate security concerns. As I mentioned, Tiger combatants had passed themselves off as civilians and were in the camps and I was told that with enough money they could buy their way out and flee the country. The people who remained in the camps had no such resources and there were many who had been injured and disabled among them. Children hadn’t been in school for years. It was just a very sad, desperate situation.

“…often locations were discovered tragically—by someone stepping on a mine and being killed or injured.”

Demining Efforts:
Both the Tigers and the military planted mines over large tracts of land in the north. This was another reason why the government said it could not immediately return people to their villages—that until the areas were demined (and we helped fund that program) people risked injury or worse by reoccupying their land. In the area of demining, our assistance was welcomed. There were three or four internationally recognized demining companies, Halo Trust is one, and there were several, one was Indian, one was Swedish. To watch them work is extraordinary and a bit scary. The first problem is to locate where the mines have been sown and since neither the Tigers nor the army kept records, often locations were discovered tragically—by someone stepping on a mine and being killed or injured. It’s a very painstaking, tedious process. First they brought in these big flailing machines, with chains attached to the front and if I recall correctly, the flails were used to uncover the dirt and brush layers concealing the mines and then the mines were removed by hand. People creep along on their hands and knees and gently probe and brush away the surrounding dirt, lifting the mines out to be destroyed later. The companies hired local residents to do this work and trained them well, but it was still dangerous, nerve-wracking work.

We also funded trained mine sniffing canines, brought from Germany and trained in Texas. Once I visited a location where the dogs were working and of course brought some Milk Bones as treats. The Sri Lankan army initially was very suspicious of these internationally-sponsored demining efforts because they thought we were going to look for mass graves of all these people who had disappeared at the end of the fighting. So it took a while to get the cooperation we needed with the Sri Lankan military, which had its own demining unit. That was one of the areas where I pushed to increase our aid, and we succeeded in getting more money.

“I would say there was no recognition that the war left psychological, emotional, social wounds that were just as important as the physical ones.”

           
Women members of the Tamil Tigers participating in a parade | Parade in Kilinochchi, 2007 (2007) Marietta Amarcord | Wikimedia Commons
Women members of the Tamil Tigers participating in a parade | Parade in Kilinochchi, 2007 (2007) Marietta Amarcord | Wikimedia Commons

The Trauma of the War:
As I said before, the condition of the almost 300,000 Tamil civilians in the IDP camps where they initially didn’t have freedom of movement, they needed medical attention, their kids didn’t have access to schools. Other issues were related. One was the disappeared. What happened to these husbands and brothers and sons and daughters who were Tigers, combatants or supporters, some of whom were seen alive and being led away by the army? The Sri Lankan government wanted the country to forget the past and look to the future, arguing that there was no point in examining the war and the causes, the grievances that led to it. War is war. I don’t at all say that only the Tamil populations suffered. Many Sri Lankan soldiers and regular citizens were killed by the Tigers. But the government was in a victorious mood and wanted to begin to rebuild and not think about the Tamils’ needs in the north, other than rebuilding roads and other infrastructure.

I would say there was no recognition that the war left psychological, emotional, social wounds that were just as important as the physical ones. That was our message: what you are doing is good, needed—but what about these other issues? There were other human rights concerns, like freedom of the press and of expression. Sri Lanka became one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists, who were killed or threatened or in some cases, were disappeared—a phrase that I first learned in El Salvador in the early 1980’s, and unfortunately still applicable elsewhere. Sometimes the government, or individual officials would bring a lawsuit against a reporter or a paper for libel, as a form of intimidation.

In terms of our assistance, we naturally focused on the Tamils in the north, those in the IDP camps and after they began to be released to return to their homes, we had programs to assist with land titling so people could reclaim their land from the army and navy who occupied it during the fighting, skills training for widows and other women now heading households and demining. These weren’t the only areas we worked in but perhaps they were the most visible and the government and some Sinhalese began to ask why the U.S. only cared about Tamils. There were Sinhalese who were poor, as well. We tried to be sensitive to that and to see if we couldn’t direct some of our USAID projects to deserving communities in predominantly Buddhist areas. At the same time, I don’t at all regret that we were focused on the Tamils. They were pretty miserable.

“We consistently stressed to the Rajapaksa government that we supported the physical integrity and unity of the country and in fact were pushing them to address grievances so the Tamils would not again be seeking separation.”

Challenges to Reconciliation:
I have thought a lot about reconciliation, both as a concept and as our policy objective in Sri Lanka, and I left post not convinced that outsiders can do much to promote it. We believed that the Sinhalese-dominated government should reach out to the Tamil population, which had been traumatized by decades of war, and then the really brutal military defeat that the Tamil Tigers suffered. The government and the population at large should, if not embrace the Tamils, at least recognize the need to reintegrate them into Sri Lankan life. There were a couple of problems though. The government was very wary of any policies or actions that looked like they would lead to a separate state or entity within Sri Lanka for the Tamils, which had been what the Tigers had established at one point and was their endgame goal. In addition to control over large sections of the country, the Tigers had their own army, navy, and air force equivalents, their own TV station, they collected taxes—many of the trappings of an independent country.

We consistently stressed to the Rajapaksa government that we supported the physical integrity and unity of the country and in fact were pushing them to address grievances so the Tamils would not again be seeking separation. But we distinguished that from a cultural homeland where the Tamils traditionally in the north and east should feel comfortable and able to speak their own language, which is mutually unintelligible with Sinhala, reclaim their land, etc. But the government kept the army and navy in the north where they were viewed by Tamils as an occupation force, whereas the government, and no doubt the majority of Sinhalese, saw no reason why the national army (which had few Tamils in it) should not be deployed in the northern part of the country where terrorism in the government’s view remained a threat.

You know, once you’re in a place you begin to figure it out and you have these light bulb moments where you suddenly understand something. In trying to talk to Sinhalese about reaching out to Tamils, promoting reconciliation, eventually people explained to me, once I knew them a bit, that the Sinhalese felt that no one, not the United States or the West in general, had cared when their communities suffered violence . . . . Life went on. People asked me, why didn’t you care about our losses? Why should we care about the Tamil Tiger losses? The point was let’s just move on, there’s no reason to look back and dwell on the deaths, the suffering. Everyone suffers.

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education
BA in Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania 1969–1974
MA in International Studies, Columbia University 1976–1978
Joined the Foreign Service 1980
Bogotá, Colombia—American Citizen Services Chief, 1990–1993
Warsaw, Poland—Consul General, 1996–2001
Bogotá, Colombia—Consul General, 2001–2004
Colombo, Sri Lanka and Male, Maldives—Ambassador, 2009–2012