The importance of Assistant Secretary of the USA for South and Central Asia Nisha Desai Biswal’s visit to Sri Lanka cannot be over-emphasised. Firstly, this is her second post-election visit to Sri Lanka, having come here immediately after President Maithripala Sirisena took office. Secondly, she is visiting a Sri Lanka, whose foreign policy orientation is starkly different to that which existed during the tenure of Sirisena’s predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa.
It is no secret that there was no love lost between that administration and the US State Department, with the antagonisms finding expression in annual wars of words in Geneva during the UNHRC Sessions, battles which naturally favoured the powerful. When Biswal came early this year, she didn’t mince her words about her country’s determination to interfere in Sri Lanka’s affairs.
She said that the patience of the international community would start to wear thin and urged Sri Lanka to take concrete steps to address issues of human rights, accountability and reconciliation.
In the context of global power structure and how right and wrong are variously defined and praise and blame apportioned accordingly, it would be a waste of time to call out Biswal on morality in these matters. Patience, accountability, reconciliation and human rights are all politically loaded terms and the US can be skewered with each of these but logic, justice and such are meaningless here.
It does not matter that Sri Lanka was fighting a terrorist outfit and one which essentially orchestrated more bloodshed than necessary by the employment of a device called ‘human shield’.
Any move to hang those who saved hundreds of thousands used as ‘human shields’ would only encourage terrorists to deploy civilians in a similar manner.
But that does not matter here. What matters is that her statements have to be taken seriously. Period. Biswal’s statements must also be read in conjunction with those issued by the US Secretary of State when he visited Sri Lanka in April (Accompanied by Biswal).
This is what he said: “The problems of Sri Lanka are clearly going to be solved by Sri Lankans. That’s the way it ought to be, but it’s also the only way it’s going to work And you wouldn’t have it any other way.”
What is the “Sri Lankan Way”? The Government has clearly stated that it would permit only a domestic inquiry into allegations of wrongdoing during the last phase of the war.
Elections have not warranted a change in that position. In addition to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), the previous Government appointed a Commission to Inquire into Missing Persons, headed by Maxwell Paranagama. The report of the Commission’s findings has already been finalised.
What might appear sinister about Biswal’s visit is that it is preceded by a relentless onslaught on Sri Lanka and her efforts to ‘solve Sri Lanka’s issues’ employing ‘Sri Lankans’. It comes just before a group of US-led investigators release a report sanctioned by the UNHRC on the conduct of security forces during the last stages of the war.
We don’t know how short or long US patience is, but if we are to take Kerry’s assertion as being an honest one, then the Paranagama Report should be the base document for action on the issues flagged by Biswal in February. The visiting US official would be well advised to take into account the delicate situation of the new Government.
True, it won an election, but then again the Maithripala-Wickremesinghe dispensation was painted as being servile to US interests and ready to pander to the outrageous demands of pro-LTTE sections here and abroad. Anything forced upon the new Government that gives credence to this contention will create the kind of unrest it just doesn’t need right now.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe may need the help of the USA or at least believe he needs it. The US certainly would be more disposed towards trusting him in ways that it did not trust the previous regime. His hand should be strengthened to let the domestic inquiry proceed to a reason-directed one as opposed to an emotion-driven and revenge-seeking conclusion.
Biswal’s visit could help or else it would precipitate a disaster that the new government could ill afford.
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