Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Beacon No. 19: In Sri Lanka, Tigers and Marines?


The Marines have landed in Sri Lanka, but don't count on them heading anywhere in the island's north, say numerous news accounts, which note that U.S. law forbids the Marines from directly aiding any group classified as a terrorist organization.

That would be the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who've long fought against Sri Lanka's Sinhalese-majority government to gain an independent northern state. The LTTE controls a large swath of Sri Lanka's north and has set up a civil administration there, handling all the regular functions of government.

Unfortunately the north is one of the areas hardest-hit by the recent tsunami, to the tune of an estimated 16,000 dead. Since the State Department classifies the LTTE as a terrorist group and it has de facto control of large swathes of the north, the Marines can't go there:

"We realize aid shouldn't discriminate, because the disaster didn't discriminate," said U.S. Embassy spokesman Chris Long. "The fact that they're on the foreign terrorist list means that the U.S. government is prohibited from giving them or sending them material aid."

Officials said it was possible that the United States could still deliver aid through intermediaries, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Otherwise, aid has to be given to the Sri Lankan government for distribution to the north—which may or may not be done equitably. Colombo insists that Tamil regions are getting more than their share of aid, but there's no question that it could be more quickly and efficiently delivered to the devastated north by Marines working temporarily with the LTTE, whose military arm is noted for its discipline and efficiency.

So couldn't Congress or the President grant a waiver granted in this case, when the U.S. has a strong national interest in seeing aid distributed equitably in South Asia?

There's a precedent here in the case of U.S. help to northern Iraq's Kurds from 1991-2003. The U.S. supplied both aid and air cover to big stretches of Kurdish territory even though the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which both the U.S. and its ally Turkey classed as terrorists, would strike Turkish targets from bases inside Iraq.

Hopefully the U.S. can broker some sort of deal that preserves the intent of the "terrorist organization" restriction, brings relief to Tamil areas of Sri Lanka and avoids stepping too hard on Colombo's toes. Otherwise, the expected wave of sanitation-related diseases (typhoid, dysentery etc.) will hit all Sri Lankans that much harder when they do emerge—as they usually do when thousands occupy refugee camps with inadequate shelter, food, water and medical care.

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