Last week, fans of the Nuga Sevana programme in Rupavahini witnessed US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Biswal, who is on an official visit to Sri Lanka, preparing a polos embula –local spicy with guidance and tips from none other than Sri Lanka’s celebrity Master Chef Dr. Pubilis Silva of Mount Lavinia Hotel.
Biswal, who arrived in Sri Lanka after visiting Bangladesh, went to the Holey Bakery in Dhaka, and paid respects to the victims of heinous terrorist attack that took place, a few weeks back.
Interestingly Biswal’s arrival fell a few days after Chinese Foreign Minister’s low-key yet important visit to the country. Biswal has been a frequent visitor to Sri Lanka since President Maithripala Sirisena was elected to office in January 2015 with her visiting the country at least three times in 2015, first in February which later followed her visits in August and December.
On her first visit, Biswal pointing out challenges the new regime would have to face noted that “President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe have put forth an ambitious agenda for their first one hundred days and much has already been accomplished in such a short time. But we recognize that there is a lot of hard work ahead and some difficult challenges.”
“Sri Lanka can count on the United States to be a partner and a friend in the way forward: Whether it is on rebuilding the economy, on preventing corruption and advancing good governance, and ensuring human rights and democratic participation for all of its citizens.”
“The United States stands with Sri Lanka. Our friendship dates back generations and since Sri Lanka’s independence, the United States has provided over $2 billion in assistance. No country in the world buys more Sri Lankan products than the United States and we look forward to growing and deepening our partnership, to advancing trade and investment.”
While she enjoyed preparing a polos curry, her visit to the island most certainly could not be as lighter a matter as cooking a local dish.
While, the attention may have drawn to progress and what the government should accomplish before the progress was discussed at the UNHRC in October this year, the fact Biswal was accompanied by Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labour, Tom Malinowski shows that USA has put Sri Lanka amongst their priority list.
The visit was part of a planned visit to two different countries in the region –Bangladesh and Cambodia, and projected as a farewell gesture as President Barrack Obama’s tenure coming to an end. Experts in international relations, however, are of the view that this visit was to display USA’s solidarity to Sri Lanka and its wish to continue the goodwill in a manner that Sri Lankan rulers will not be pushed once again towards China.
Not only is Sri Lanka strategically important to both USA and India, but at a time tension between China and the USA is rising, the possibility is such that the world’s most powerful country would not take any stern action that would hurt Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka-US relations
Time and again, the US top officials insisted that Sri Lanka-US relations at an all-time high and on a tremendous trajectory of partnership between the two countries which include last year’s visit by Secretary Kerry, Ambassador Samantha Power, and the Partnership Dialogue USA inaugurated in February this year.
She also said that Sri Lanka itself has been on a remarkable trajectory of addressing not only the internal issues that have challenged it, but also engaging with the broader international community in a spirit of partnership and dialogue.
“The United States has welcomed a deepening of ties between our two countries. The United States and Sri Lanka share common goals as fellow democracies, which are both working to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms. We are partners, and today our relations are at an all-time high.
We have been proud to partner with Sri Lanka over the past 60 years, during which development and humanitarian assistance has improved countless lives, livelihoods, and living conditions all across Sri Lanka.
She also promised to continue to make substantial investments in multiple sectors — agriculture, enterprise development, education, health care, energy and natural resources, and humanitarian activities.
“As the Government of Sri Lanka moves ahead with its plans for constitutional reform, for justice and reconciliation, the United States will continue to partner with the government to foster economic development and encourage foreign investment, to work to advance opportunities for all Sri Lankans.”
These two top US officials arrived at a time where a clear division between the Executive President and part of the government on the matter of letting foreign experts is evident.
Not long ago President Sirisena amidst growing resistance from his opponents on involving foreign judges and other experts in an accountability process on alleged war crimes contradicted his Minister of Foreign Affairs Mangala Samaraweera and pledged the Maha Sangha that he would not allow any foreign involvement in the matter as long as he was in office.
It is despite this strong resistance by the Head of the State that Biswal following her meeting with Mnister Samaraweera noted that “We continue to support the Government of Sri Lanka as it takes meaningful and concrete steps in response to concerns of its people related to democratic governance and advancing respect for human rights, for reconciliation, for justice and accountability. We can envision a future which brings benefits to both countries, and to peace and prosperity and security across the Indian Ocean as Sri Lanka assumes a greater role as a key partner in this region, as Sri Lanka assumes its great potential as a hub and a gateway to connect to rising economic societies of South and Southeast Asia.”
“Much work remains, but the United States is committed to partnering with the Sri Lankan people to address challenges and help this country and its people to realise their true potential,” she said.
Meanwhile, Assistant Secretary Malinowski after meeting Minister Samaraweera said, in the last few months, and in particular the last several weeks, they have seen Sri Lanka take very concrete steps forward in its reform, democratization, and reconciliation agenda: the bill to establish an Office of Missing Persons, ratifying the convention on disappearances, additional land releases by the military, the President’s very important directive on arrests under the PTA, and progress in work on the Constitution.
“A lot of this work was foreshadowed in last year’s Human Rights Council resolution. That resolution embodied commitments the Sri Lankan people have made in their own national interests to restore accountability and the rule of law to their country. The United States was a co-sponsor of that resolution, and as such we feel we have a shared responsibility to help see this process through. So we look forward to supporting Sri Lanka as it puts into place the remaining institutions and reforms that the resolution endorsed. We very strongly commend the government for working closely with the United Nations and High Commissioner Zeid to advance that progress.
“I also want to strongly second my colleague Assistant Secretary Biswal’s comments on economic development and on the opportunity and responsibility we have as a partner of Sri Lanka to help the people of this country achieve the peace dividend that they so deserve. I want to stress that in our minds these two objectives — economic development and reconciliation — go hand-in-hand. Without a peace dividend, it will be harder to pursue reconciliation.
“But reconciliation is also advanced, as we have seen in country after country in the world, where people can come together rather than let themselves be split apart. In a larger sense, this reminds us why what is happening in Sri Lanka is so important to people all over the world, because if you look at what’s happening in the world today, there’s obviously not a lot of good news to be found. A lot of the problems that we see are rooted in something that Sri Lanka knows all too well — this contest between the politics of division and the politics of common ground. We’ve seen, unfortunately, in many places around the world that it is easier to win in politics by making simple appeals to racial, religious, or national pride, than by doing the hard work of governing. Easier sometimes to blame others for our problems than to take responsibility ourselves. In that way you can distract people from your own failures and lack of vision.
“I think the people Sri Lanka have shown us again and again, that regardless where they come from, or what language they speak, or what faith they belong to, everyone has the same fundamental interests. Everybody has an interest in peace, everyone has an interest in law and order, in accountability, in moving this country forward. The people of Sri Lanka chose a government that seeks to serve all its people rather than setting them against each other. For that reason, the whole world needs Sri Lanka to succeed and to show others the way. We are proud to be your partner in that effort.”
If there is anything that both India and the USA do not wish to see, that is China occupying the major portion of Sri Lanka’s ground and the ocean. For USA, who is planning on increasing its presence in Indian Ocean, China increasing its presence in Sri Lanka is surely not the appetite.
At a time a Chinese company eying to acquire lands and properties occupied by World’s largest cement producer, Lafarge Holcim who is planning on fully divesting its Sri Lankan operations, its subsidiary Holcim Lanka as part of a global rationalization strategy of the Switzerland-based building materials group, USA is unlikely to do anything that would push Sri Lanka towards China. It was believed that USA’s stern approach in matters of Sri Lanka pushed the Rajapaksa regime towards bonding strongly with US opponents like China, Russia and Pakistan.
If China succeed in acquiring the deal, it will make sure Chinese presence in all salient points including Colombo Harbour, Galle Harbour and more importantly Trincomalee Harbour.
It is also no longer a secret that US is planning on stationing its Pacific Command in the Indian Ocean with the assistance of Sri Lanka. The first sign of this was US Navy’s Seventh Fleet Flagship, USS Blue Ridge, arriving in Colombo on 26 March 2016 for a five-day port call, with 900 sailors on board.
In November 2011, Hillary Clinton, the then Secretary of State, in her Foreign Policy article ‘America’s Pacific Century’ has defined the Asia-Pacific as “stretching from the Indian subcontinent to the western shores of the Americas, the region spans two oceans – the Pacific and the Indian – that are increasingly linked by shipping and strategy.
In his 17 November, 2011 address to the Australian Parliament, President Obama said that the future being sought in the Asia-Pacific was “security, prosperity and dignity for all”.
On the other hand, the Strategic Guidance Document published by the US Department of Defence in 2012 stated that, “US economic and security interests are inextricably linked to developments in the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean Region and South Asia, creating a mix of evolving challenges and opportunities”.
Under these circumstances, it is likely that USA who also does not face domestic pressure like the UK or Canada, will only push Sri Lanka to get foreign technical assistance in certain areas and not push for setting up a ‘hybrid’ court as predicted, experts opined.