De­sires and Chal­lenges

Southasia - - FRONT PAGE - By Huza­ima Bukhari & Dr. Ikra­mul Haq

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.

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