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Breakfast with familiar faces

February 5, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps

Landed in Colombo before dawn this morning, more than 30 hours after leaving for the Portland airport on Tuesday. Yet despite crossing 13 time zones, the front page of the local English-language daily I read at breakfast featured two familiar mug shots: President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Yesterday was Sri Lanka's 61st Independence Day, and President Obama issued a carefully worded statement to mark the occasion. He said, in part, "The United States values its enduring friendship with the people of Sri Lanka. I hope that the coming year will see advancement of our shared beliefs in democracy, liberty, pluralism, and respect for human rights."

Secretary of State Clinton's message was less celebratory. She and the British Foreign Secretary issued a joint statement expressing concern about the safety of anywhere between 100,000 and 250,000 civilians trapped by fighting between the Sri Lankan Army and the separatist Tamil Tigers.

(Short digression: I can't seem to get away from these two; my last overseas trip, to Sudan, coincided with their international-newsworthy showdown in last February's Super Tuesday primaries.)

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa yesterday called the Tigers "the most powerful terrorist organization in the world," but stressed that they are now "almost completely" defeated, and used his Independence Day address to urge Sri Lankan expatriates of all ethnicities to come home and help rebuild the country. His remarks were part of a capital-city celebration that included a full-blown military parade and a public exhibition of boats and submarines captured from the Tigers, who've been fighting to carve out a Tamil homeland on the island since the 1970s.

Thatcher and I aren't going anywhere near where government and rebel forces are squaring off in what many observers consider to be the Tigers' last stand. But it's arguable that the work we'll see — to help rebuild tsunami-battered industries, improve agricultural yields and foster interethnic cooperation — takes on even greater import if Sri Lanka is indeed on the cusp of long-awaited peace.