Upul Joseph Fernando
“If the US withdrew the training programmes China would replace them.” Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa made this remark at an event at the National Chamber of Commerce recently. At a time when three US Deputy Assistant Secretaries are scheduled to visit the country, these remarks have assumed an added significance.
It can be safely assumed from such signals emanating from the government that it considers the departure of Hillary Clinton from the State Department and the arrival of John Kerry as Secretary of State as a favourable sign. Such thinking is not without reason.
When John Kerry was Chairman of Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the country report on Sri Lanka and future relations with it specifically said pushing Sri Lanka more towards China by exerting too much pressure with its human rights issues should be avoided, as it could impact negatively on bilateral relations.
US country report on Lanka
A few excerpts of pertinent selections from the report are given below:
“Yet, in Colombo, the government considers the bilateral relationship with Washington to be on a downward trajectory. Most US criticisms of Sri Lankan actions at the end of the war and treatment of IDPs have fallen on deaf ears, with Sri Lankan authorities dismissing the US posture as ‘no carrots and all sticks’. US assistance to Sri Lanka, although delivered in grants and not loans, has attracted criticism from the Rajapaksa Government for its emphasis on political reform. This growing rift in US-Sri Lanka relations can be seen in Colombo’s realignment toward non-Western countries, who offer an alternative model of development that places greater value on security over freedoms.
“Indeed, Sri Lanka’s geopolitical position has evolved considerably. As Western countries became increasingly critical of the Sri Lankan Government’s handling of the war and human rights record, the Rajapaksa leadership cultivated ties with such countries as Burma, China, Iran, and Libya. The Chinese have invested billions of dollars in Sri Lanka through military loans, infrastructure loans, and port development, with none of the strings attached by Western nations. While the United States shares with the Indians and the Chinese a common interest in securing maritime trade routes through the Indian Ocean, the US Government has invested relatively little in the economy or the security sector in Sri Lanka, instead focusing more on IDPs and civil society. As a result, Sri Lanka has grown politically and economically from the West.
“This strategic drift will have consequences for US interests in the region. Along with our legitimate humanitarian and political concerns, US policymakers have tended to underestimate Sri Lanka’s geostrategic importance for American interests. Sri Lanka is located at the nexus of crucial maritime trading routes in the Indian Ocean connecting Europe and the Middle East to China and the rest of Asia. The United States, India, and China all share an interest in deterring terrorist activity and curbing piracy that could disrupt maritime trade. Security considerations extend beyond sea-lanes to the stability of India, the world’s largest democracy. Communal tensions in Sri Lanka have the potential to undermine stability in India, particularly in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, home to 60 million Tamils. All of these concerns should be part of our bilateral relationship.
“The United States cannot afford to ‘lose’ Sri Lanka. This does not mean changing the relationship overnight or ignoring the real concerns about Sri Lanka’s political and humanitarian record. It does mean, however, considering a new approach that increases US leverage vis-a-vis Sri Lanka by expanding the number of tools at our disposal. A more multifaceted US strategy would capitalize on the economic, trade, and security aspects of the relationship. This approach in turn could catalyze much-needed political reforms that will ultimately help secure longer term US strategic interests in the Indian Ocean. US strategy should also invest in Sinhalese parts of the country, instead of just focusing aid on the Tamil-dominated North and East.”
Disregard for Tamil people’s problems
When this report was released, the LTTE Diaspora in Boston picketed in front of Senator John Kerry’s office protesting that the committee chaired by him was extremely partial to the Sri Lanka Government with cynical disregard of the Tamil people’s problem.
From the time it came to be known that John Kerry would be the next Secretary of State in the US, the Sri Lanka Government presumably lined up a strategy of weaving a cocoon around itself by raising the spectre of China as a warning in a general sense. Therefore, the Defence Secretary’s remarks perfectly dovetails with the presumed strategy of playing the ‘China card’.
In retrospect, it looks as if America has not taken Kerry’s report that seriously, as evident from the fact that America played the key role in bringing a motion against Sri Lanka at the last sessions of the UNHRC in Geneva.
Furthermore, John Kerry adamantly rooted for an America sponsored ceasefire during the last stages of the war against the LTTE.
Copied below is a letter he had written to Mahinda Rajapaksa at that time.
President of Sri Lanka,
Dear President Rajapaksa,
I am writing to express my grave concern regarding the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka. As you may know, on February 24, the US Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Near East and South Asia held a hearing on the crisis in Sri Lanka. During this hearing, witnesses described horrific atrocities by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), including the use of civilians as human shields. The LTTE’s blatant disregard for human life underscores why the United States designated the LTTE as a foreign terrorist organization. Let me personally convey my condolences for the innocent victims of the March 10 bombing outside a mosque in southern Sri Lanka and of other incidents of terrorist violence.
While the Tamil Tigers have committed egregious acts, I am also alarmed by reports about actions taken by the Government of Sri Lanka, especially in the North and East. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) estimates that 150,000 civilians are still trapped in the Vanni region, caught between the forces of the government and the Tigers. According to the ICRC, even those fortunate enough to have escaped the fighting remain confined under poor conditions in government internment camps. There are also reports that government troops have shelled civilians and hospitals in the so-called ‘government safe-zones’; humanitarian agencies and aid workers have had only limited access to provide emergency food, medical aid, and relief supplies; and journalists have been banned from the North, imprisoned, and even murdered.
This situation jeopardizes the international standing of Sri Lanka and its relations with friendly countries. On February 2, US Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member, Senator Richard Lugar, and I issued a statement urging you to immediately take all necessary steps to protect civilians and facilitate humanitarian access. We also urged your government to protect all of your citizens and conduct swift, full, and credible investigations into attacks on journalists and other non-combatants. I understand that you recently spoke with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who made similar points. Let me once again emphasize the urgent need for the Sri Lankan Government to take all necessary steps to protect civilians, allow humanitarian access to the displaced and credibly investigate human rights violations by all members of government security forces.
As military operations against the LTTE wind down, the people of Sri Lanka will seek your leadership in finding a way to move the country forward after a quarter-century of conflict. You will have the opportunity to start down the path toward a durable and lasting peace through a political solution that acknowledge the legitimate aspirations of all Sri Lankans. As a friend of Sri Lanka, the United States will continue to closely monitor the situation – and will stand ready to facilitate a return to the peace and prosperity so earnestly desired by all of its citizens. I appreciate your personal efforts to bring a quick end to this crisis.
John F. Kerry
Kerry’s report, which was released after the war, as mentioned earlier, was overshadowed by India, according to political analysts at the time. Bilateral relations between India and Sri Lanka – bilateral at the time – were at its best. India wholeheartedly took upon itself the responsibility of protecting Sri Lanka without harming its American relations. It could well be the rationale behind India’s stated misgivings that unmitigated US perusal of human rights issues during the war could push Sri Lanka towards stronger alliance with China. This line of reasoning has crept in toto, into John Kerry’s report released after the war with the LTTE, giving credence to the contention that his report had India’s shadow over it.
Today, the position has visibly reversed, in that India-Sri Lanka bilateral relations have reached a new low-ebb. India promised its protection to the country on condition that Sri Lanka should honour its promise to solve the ethnic problem with the 13th Amendment and plus devolution of power to the minority Tamils. However, Sri Lanka latterly reneged on its promise of devolution, thus spurning Indian protection in the scrapes, which could surely crop up in the international arena, in the days ahead. India has by now taken measure of any possible threat from China to its strategic interests and its expanding interests in Sri Lanka does not weigh heavily compared to its interests in the region. India forcefully showed that it was no longer concerned with such considerations when it gave its full backing to American sponsored UNHRC resolution against Sri Lanka at the last Geneva sessions.
In this scenario, pinning any hope on the Kerry report to give us some respite from US interference in the diplomatic arena is unrealistic. Similarly, the change of personnel holding the office of US Secretary of State does in no way affect the overall US diplomatic stance viz-a-viz, Sri Lanka. Wishing for a change of American state policy towards Sri Lanka, based on change of personnel in the US state power structure is a no win situation.
Mahinda Rajapaksa himself has the key to change American state policy towards Sri Lanka; by changing his own egregious policy for a better power sharing policy to resolve the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka.COURTESY:CEYLON TODAY