Upul Joseph Fernando
After voting concluded on 8 January at the presidential election, the same night American Secretary of State, John Kerry, telephoned President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Kerry inquired from Mahinda whether the latter was prepared for a smooth transfer of power if he was defeated. Mahinda replied that the election process was continuing and he was confident of victory and added Mahinda would like to call on Kerry after his victory.
He also reminded Kerry about the invitation extended to him (Kerry) by his then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Prof. G.L. Peiris. After ending the telephone conversation with the US Secretary of State, Mahinda told his close confidantes that John Kerry was a good person and he hoped to work closely with Kerry in the future to free Sri Lanka from issues before the international community. Mahinda who was in such a happy mood planning the future later felt he was losing when results were being released.
Now John Kerry is to arrive in Sri Lanka when a new President has taken office. The last US Secretary of State to visit Sri Lanka after 1977 was Colin Powell. He arrived in 2005 to visit Tsunami affected areas to grant assistance. Chandrika Kumaratunga was the President during that period. Many officials from the United States frequently visited Colombo during President J.R.Jayewardene’s tenure and again in 2002 when Ranil Wickremesinghe was the Prime Minister. Even Colin Powel arrived in 2005 because Ranil strengthened relations with the United States as the Prime Minister 2002. In 2005 US President George Bush sent his former President Bill Clinton to Sri Lanka as a special envoy.
Those visits clearly indicate that American interest in Sri Lanka grew more to strengthen bilateral relations when the ground situation was conducive towards the US.
A different stance
Mahinda adopted a different stance towards the US during his administration. He turned pro-China and anti-American. However, America did not lose interest in this island nation though it went pro-China. The US kept a close eye on this island nation while China was making merry here. In a bid to display US protest to Colombo, former US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton visited Tamil Nadu and held talks on the Sri Lankan ethnic issue with Chief Minister Jayalalithaa Jayaram without coming to Colombo.
President Barack Obama twice visited New Delhi and discussed the Sri Lankan issue in the Indian capital with the Indian leaders. After John Kerry became the Secretary of State, he too visited India but did not visit Colombo. He began to display his interest in Sri Lanka even before he became the Secretary of State. As the Chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry outlined the importance of Sri Lanka in a report compiled by him.
That report saw the light of the day after the LTTE terrorist war ended in 2009. Following is an excerpt from that report: “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.”
Observing the contents of Kerry’s report and the subsequent elevation of Kerry to the Office of Secretary of State, Mahinda’s Government was impressed that the environment with the US State Department would be favourable to it. However, that did not happen. While the White House adopted a tough policy on the Rajapaksas, John Kerry followed a soft policy on Rajapakasas to control the latter in a strategic manner. Kerry’s policy paid dividends. Though the Rajapaksas thought they could attract John Kerry to work to their agenda, Kerry managed to get the Rajapaksas to work according to his agenda. Kerry was smart.
Following Kerry’s agenda which proved successful, Chinese power in the Indian Ocean weakened giving the benefit and victory to India. The major victory achieved by Kerry was to get the Rakapaksas to agree to conduct a free and fair poll. Now the Rajapaksas could be feeling they were foolish. Though Mahinda lost the presidency and the US Embassy in Colombo moved away from him, it is learnt that the Embassy is keeping contacts with Mahinda’s brother, former Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya. High officials at the US Embassy in Colombo had reportedly met Gotabhaya after the defeat of Mahinda.
There are no indications that Kerry who would be in Colombo on Saturday (2) would meet Mahinda. Curiosity is much as all wait to see what Kerry would offer Maithri. The US pressurized the UNHRC to postpone the tabling of the war crimes report till September though it was to be presented last March. If that report is not presented in September, Kerry would be in trouble. If the report is presented Maithri would be in trouble.