Sri Lanka is a complicated country. In a recent article, Nilanthi Samaranayake notes that Sri Lanka’s foreign policy has been evolving since the unexpected ascension of President Maithripala Sirisena in January 2015. Unfortunately, the trends that Samaranayake has succinctly captured — especially a strengthening of security ties between the United States and Sri Lanka — could ultimately prove to be inimical to both America’s long-term interests in the Indo-Pacific and lasting peace in the island nation. The article doesn’t mention that Sri Lanka is still recovering from a brutal civil war. One cannot properly assess the current state of affairs, particularly when it comes to defense relationships, without examining the situation through the prism of the civil war and the root causes of the unresolved ethnic conflict.
To be clear, the bilateral relationship is in much better shape now than it was under the nation’s previous president, Mahinda Rajapaksa. Sri Lanka’s new government is less authoritarian than the previous one and certainly seems keen on charting a more balanced foreign policy course. However, the government’s progress still leaves plenty to be desired. This has implications for both the country’s domestic politics and U.S. foreign policy.
Appraising the Reform Agenda
Colombo has committed to an expansive reform agenda including anti-corruption efforts, economic reforms, and drafting a new constitution. The most controversial set of reforms pertains to transitional justice — trying to heal the wounds of a civil war fought between the Sri Lankan military and the Tamil Tigers, who sought an independent Tamil state in the northern and eastern parts of the country. The war raged from 1983 to 2009 and resulted in massive civilian casualties, most of whom were Tamil civilians.
Nevertheless – across all areas of reform – the coalition government (created through an awkward power-sharing arrangement between longstanding rival parties) has been struggling to implement its agenda. In her piece, Samaranayake briefly notes that Rajapaksa “was defeated in the 2015 polls.” While Rajapaksa is no longer president, he was elected to parliament in August of 2015 and remains a force to be reckoned with in Sri Lankan politics.
A Rajapaksa Resurgence?
Rajapaksa cannot become president again due to a constitutional amendment passed in April of 2015 that reinstates a two-term limit for the presidency. However he could still become prime minister (again) and one of his allies, such as his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa (who served as secretary to the ministry of defense during Rajapaksa’s presidency and is one of the key officials accused of war crimes) could potentially win a presidential election. Though not currently close to a parliamentary majority in the 225-member legislative body, Rajapaksa and his allies are the strongest opposition force in the country. Since the Sirisena administration has become increasingly unpopular, the possibility of a return to Rajapaksa rule in the coming years cannot be discounted. Rajapaksa and Sirisena are both members of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, yet many parliamentarians from that party remain loyal to the former president. Rajapaksa’s support is believed to be even stronger at the level of local government. Many people still venerate him as a war hero who militarily defeated a ruthless terrorist organization.
Furthermore, in Samaranayake’s reference to “heated debate” over the Hambantota port deal, she fails to mention that Rajapaksa is from Hambantota district, that the area remains a political stronghold of the Rajapaksa family, and that the former president was reportedly behind recent port-related protests there.
Wartime Atrocities, Ongoing Violations and the Urgent Need for Security Sector Reform
Samaranayake does not clearly explain in her article that America’s “virtual suspension of bilateral security cooperation” during Rajapaksa’s tenure was both a direct result of rising authoritarianism and a response to the way the government fought the civil war. Military cooperation became more limited over the course of the war and military aid was suspended entirely at the end of 2007.
As an article in The Independent makes clear, China did not have similar concerns, “increasing aid to nearly $1bn (£690m) to become the island’s biggest donor, giving tens of millions of dollars’ worth of sophisticated weapons, and making a free gift of six F7 fighter jets to the Sri Lankan air force.” Beijing also supported the Rajapaksa administration diplomatically — including at the U.N. Human Rights Council and, far more importantly, the U.N. Security Council.
In congressional testimony that Samaranayake cites in her article, a former senior State Department official notes Sri Lanka’s “worrisome record on human rights, weakening of democratic institutions and practices, and the way in which it conducted the final months of its conflict against the Tamil Tigers hamper our ability to fully engage.” End of war atrocities by government forces are widely believed to have included systematic shelling of hospitals, extrajudicial killings, deliberate targeting of civilians, and sexual violence. The Tamil Tigers committed their share of atrocities too, including using human shields, conscripting child soldiers, and preventing civilians from leaving conflict areas. However, almost all of their leadership did not survive the war (and many were probably killed extrajudicially).
Sri Lanka has shown virtually no interest in reforming its security sector. Members of the military who allegedly played major roles in the war’s tragic finish (and who may be guilty of war crimes) have been promoted recently. What’s more, respected organizations, such as Freedom from Torture and the International Truth and Justice Project have documented cases of torture and sexual violence — allegedly committed by state security personnel — that occurred after Sirisena was sworn in as president.
The Perils of Sustained Militarization
Eight years after the end of the civil war, demilitarization has yet to begin and the country’s defense budget remains stubbornly high. During a visit to the country last year, I heard firsthand about the military’s continued occupation of civilian land and its involvement in agriculture, tourism, education, and more. The situation is particularly dire in the northern and eastern provinces, where most of the fighting was concentrated during the civil war. Many people would assert that Tamils in the north are living “under de facto military occupation.”
The military’s consistent foray into civilian affairs doesn’t just guarantee that egregious human rights violations remain widespread in the north and east, it also ensures that lasting peace will remain illusory for the foreseeable future. In this context, it’s counterproductive to have a U.S. Navy band casually mingling with schoolchildren and (indirectly) providing more than a veneer of legitimacy to an issue that remains quite controversial within certain segments of Sri Lankan society.
Sri Lankan civilians from across the country can view the U.S. embassy in Colombo (among others) actively promoting this sort of behavior on social media. While these types of interactions might not seem offensive in a place like Hambantota (which is a predominantly Sinhalese area – the overwhelming ethnic majority in the country), they are extremely offensive to the country’s Tamil community, irrespective of where this is taking place. In a recent phone interview, human rights activist Sherine Xavier (who is Tamil) explained that “what the U.S. military has been doing with Sri Lanka’s civilian population is very disturbing.” She continued:
The U.S. has talked about how militarization is a problem in Sri Lanka – and then the Americans are sending their military to be involved in our civilian affairs. And it’s not just the south, some of this is happening in the north too you know. For me, as a woman and an activist, I find this appalling. If the U.S. military does this [participates in Sri Lanka’s civilian affairs] then the Sri Lankan government thinks it’s okay for them to do it. Tamils have already been stripped of their dignity. What the Americans are doing just makes things worse.
Sri Lankan soldiers have no place in Sri Lankan schools. Sri Lanka’s military should not be running shops and stores and taking jobs away from the civilian population. The U.S. military should be more careful about its engagement with the island’s civilian population, so as to not give the impression that it supports the militarization of civilian life, provides tacit approval for majoritarian triumphalism, or turns a blind eye to the well-known rights violations — which occur with almost complete impunity — that happen due to the Sri Lankan military’s proximity to the civilian population in the country’s north and east. More broadly, if the government fails to follow-through with a credible transitional justice program, a return to violence over the medium to long term cannot be ruled out.
U.S. Foreign Policy Miscalculations
By the time Barack Obama left office, the United States — in its efforts to enthusiastically support the Sirisena administration — had ceded much of the influence it had to encourage the new government to move ahead with important political and democratic reforms. This fervent embrace of the coalition government (and concomitant willingness to quickly deepen security ties) is unhelpful for building a durable peace in the war-torn country and, potentially, counter-productive for U.S. security interests in the region. There are strong moral reasons for trying to help a divided nation come together and preventing a return to Tamil militancy in the coming decades. But there are compelling strategic reasons too: The United States should seek to build a strong partnership with a stable, prosperous Sri Lanka where all its citizens reasonably believe that they are treated fairly irrespective of their ethnic or religious background. A return to violent internecine conflict would be neither stabilizing for the region nor strategically beneficial for the United States.
While much about Donald Trump’s foreign policy remains unknown, the prevailing security trends are expected to continue in the coming years. Nonetheless, a more cautious approach — immediately narrowing the scope of bilateral military training exercises, reducing the frequency of U.S. Navy port visits to the island, and linking the defense relationship to progress pertaining to demilitarization and security sector reform — is sorely needed. The recent flurry of military cooperation is almost certainly going to make reforms of the military and the police more difficult because it’s sending a message to Colombo that security sector reform is neither necessary nor urgent. Besides, some recent scholarship has shown that countries that receive military assistance from the United States “exhibit lower levels of cooperation than states that do not receive military aid.”
Last Thursday, Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva was appointed as adjutant general of the Sri Lanka Army. Silva is an alleged war criminal and played a significant role during the end of the war. In 2012, “Silva was removed from a top UN peacekeeping advisory committee because of the allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity against him.” That same year, Silva was not allowed to assume a diplomatic post in South Africa due to similar concerns.
The Bottom Line
While Sri Lanka occupies a strategically significant position in a region that will become increasingly important in the years ahead, that doesn’t mean that the United States has no leverage to more forcefully encourage the Sirisena administration to implement a host of reforms that it has committed to publicly. Essentially, Washington could strike a more even balance between carrots and sticks and stop praising the Sirisena administration so effusively for what might, at best, be described as an underwhelming governance and reform record. Sri Lanka does not want to be considered a client state of China and Rajapaksa’s strategic drift toward Beijing has widely (and correctly) been viewed as a mistake. In the last section of her article, Samaranayake observes that Sri Lanka “will continue to remain open to strategic relations with various countries.” Sri Lanka’s political elites seem to understand the importance of maintaining good (or at least decent) relationships with the United States, China, and India concurrently.
Since Sri Lanka’s political shake-up two years ago, the United States has always had more policy flexibility than is commonly believed. Going forward, Washington should do a better job of trying to balance what are perceived to be immediate strategic gains with a more sophisticated long-term vision for bilateral ties that includes keeping human rights and transitional justice on the front-burner.
Taylor Dibbert, a writer based in the Washington, D.C. area, is affiliated with the Pacific Forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. From 2011 to 2014 he worked for a human rights organization in Sri Lanka. The views expressed here are his own. Follow him on Twitter @taylordibbert.
Image: U.S. Army, Staff Sgt. Nicole L Howell