Desires and Challenges
The two-day, May visit to Sri Lanka of US Secretary of State, John Kerry, in more than forty years, certainly boosted the new Sri Lankan government’s efforts towards promoting its democratic face and restoring the tarnished image of perpetual violations of human rights. For the United States, it was the beginning of a new era of forging closer ties with the strategically located Indian Ocean nation after years of strained relations.
Lisa Curtis, Senior Research Fellow at the Asian Studies Center, The Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, made the following comment about Kerry’s visit:
“Secretary Kerry’s visit, the first by a U.S. Secretary of State in over a decade, demonstrates a new era is beginning in US–Sri Lankan relations. The new Sri Lankan government’s efforts to reinforce the democratic process, reach out to the US, and rein in corruption are deeply appreciated in Washington and will help restore relations, which had deteriorated significantly under the previous government. While the political situation is still fluid in Sri Lanka, last Tuesday’s parliamentary vote shows Sri Lankans are committed to strengthening democracy and provides hope that disparate political elements will work together in the near-term to achieve that goal.”
Sri Lanka, a paradise island country, has been through a violent phase in its political history that spread over several decades. When peace eventually prevailed and the sands of differences between the Sinhalese and Tamils started settling, Sri Lankan leaders began to explore avenues to restore the country’s viable economic state. In order to achieve this end, it became imperative to strengthen democracy and undoubtedly this occurred when Mathripala Sirisena took over the reins of government from Rajapaksa, who, despite being instrumental in the peace process with the Tamil separatists, was suspiciously eyed by the international community for clashing with the United Nations Organisation for investigations into the war atrocities and human rights abuse committed in Sri Lanka during the civil strife. A major victory for Sirisena is the 19th Constitutional Amendment with an overwhelming support of 212 parliamentarians out of a total of 225. The amendment aims at limiting the term of presidency to two years and granting more independence to both police as well as the judiciary. It also establishes the popularity of Sirisena as head of state and shows the trust the public has reposed in his leadership.
Since his election, Sirisena has been striving to win the patronage of Europe and US. He has made it clear that the top priority of his government is reconciliation. He has also expressed resolve to investigate the allegations of civil-war crimes. It is pertinent to mention that the United Nations Human Rights Council, at the request of the Sri Lankan government, postponed the release of its preliminary report on its investigation of war crimes and human rights violations till September 2015. At the same time, Washington called on the government to lend full support to the United Nations for conducting an internationally-credible war-crimes probe. Sri Lanka has made a pledge to conduct this probe.
After suffering isolation at the international level for a long time, Sri Lanka is poised to return with a bang. The beginnings have been made with USA extending its support. Addressing some business leaders and activists, Secretary Kerry stated in clear terms:
"Sri Lanka is at a pivotal point. Peace has come but true reconciliation will take time," Kerry said, "The United States is prepared to furnish whatever legal, whatever technical assistance, whatever help we can to support Sri Lanka."
According to the Wall Street Journal, during his visit, Kerry not only hoped for rejuvenated cooperation between the US and Sri Lanka but “he also offered generous help, including expertise and technical assistance, to investigate the thousands of people gone missing during the war, to expedite the release of political prisoners, to improve judicial independence and to foster demilitarization.”
It is also a fact that Kerry kept his demeanor a little cautious with reference to Sri Lanka’s relations with China, making it quite clear that the US would never force the Sri Lankans to align themselves with any one country. This appears a far cry from the way the US has been handling similar affairs in other countries of South Asia, particularly Pakistan. Nonetheless, as far as Sri Lanka is concerned, these political overtures would most certainly pave the way for rehabilitation of the country’s dwindling economic situation while accommodating American multinational interests in the country’s intensive consumer market.
As South Asia appears geared to improve ties with China in the event of heavy investments in Pakistan and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to China, it has become imperative for the US to increase its stronghold in the region. Among other things, there is a dire need for the superpower to balance out both India and Pakistan, containing the latter from expanding its nuclear and ballistic capabilities and the former by boosting its military status, along with establishing its own position as the ‘Big Brother’ who is best suited to watch the interests of the entire area. Since long, the US has been seeking assistance of countries close to the subbontinent for the much-needed bases to act as watchdogs.
A declassified US Department of Defence study talks about basing opportunities to support US Air Force operations in South Asia, Sri Lanka’s strategic location is important because of its vast surrounding ocean area that is very ideally placed as the main connecting centre for all the principal countries. More importantly, in the words of British Admiral Horatio Nelson, the country has Trincomalee which is “the finest harbor in the world.”
Whatever maybe the covert intentions of the US, the fact remains that, Senator Kerry was awarded a very warm reception by the government of Sirisena, obviously in the hope to revive its weak economic position. Simultaneously, it cannot completely ignore China’s support to serve its massive infrastructure needs. Obviously, like China, the US would have to vie for any proposed projects if it wants to woo Sri Lanka; yet from the recent visit of the US Secretary of State, it seems that a slight nudge on the part of the superpower would be welcomed with open arms. The election victory of Sirisena that heralded the removal of Rajapaksa and his cronies, responsible for human rights atrocities against the Tamils, has won over the Tamil Diaspora in the US and has paved the way for better ties between the two governments.
The coming days, however, will show how relations between Si Lanka and the US grow. There still exist many ifs and buts. It is not yet certain how firmly the government of Sirisena would deal with the violators of human rights and establish a true democratic polity in a society divided on many lines. Kerry made it clear that the “US believes in the potential of Sri Lanka and would stand with it for building a stronger democracy.”
The term “stronger democracy” is subjective — it means that the United States will create yet another satellite state for advancing its interests in the region and promote a policy of influence that mainly aims at minimizing China’s penetration. Where cooperation of the United States is desirable and necessary for Sri Lanka, there is also a challenge to maintain its friendly relations with China and other neighbours.
Political overtures would most certainly pave the way for rehabilitation of the country’s dwindling economic situation.