The formation of US policy on Sri Lanka under Obama administration -4


Sri Lanka has been a friend and democratic partner of the
United States since gaining independence in 1948 and has supported
U.S. military operations overseas such as during the first
Gulf War. Commercial contacts go back to 1787, when New England
sailors first anchored in Sri Lanka’s harbors to engage in
trade. Sri Lanka is strategically located at the nexus of maritime
trading routes connecting Europe and the Middle East to China
and the rest of Asia. It is directly in the middle of the ‘‘Old World,’’
where an estimated half of the world’s container ships transit the
Indian Ocean.

American interests in the region include securing energy resources
from the Persian Gulf and maintaining the free flow of
trade in the Indian Ocean. These interests are also important to
one of America’s strategic partners, Japan, who is almost totally
dependent on energy supplies transiting the Indian Ocean. The
three major threats in the Indian Ocean come from terrorism,
interstate conflict, and piracy. There have been some reports of pirate
activity in the atoll islands near Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka’s geopolitical position has changed in recent years. The
United States has developed closer ties with India while Sri Lanka
moved towards China. India has been very concerned with instability
in Sri Lanka and has worked quietly behind the scenes to
push for faster resettlement for Tamils. India directly suffered from
the spillover from the Sri Lankan conflict in 1991 when a LTTE
female suicide bomber assassinated Prime Minister Rajiv Ghandi,
reportedly in response to Ghandi’s decision to send an Indian Peace
Keeping force to Sri Lanka in 1987. Communal tensions in Sri
Lanka have the ability to undermine stability in India, particularly
in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, home to 60 million
Hindu Tamils. India’s large Tamil population just across the Paulk
Strait fuels fears among Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese community, who
represent 80 percent of the Sri Lankan population and are concentrated
in the lower two-thirds of the country, that they could be-
come a minority under siege. While India has no apparent interest
in stoking conflict in Sri Lanka, Indian officials are reportedly increasingly
concerned about their strategic role in the Indian Ocean
and China’s growing presence in Sri Lanka.

Chinese activities in Sri Lanka are largely economic, focusing billions
of dollars on military loans, infrastructure loans, and port development.
While these are loans that will need to be repaid and
do not contribute much towards the local economy, they come without
any political strings, a fact which makes them attractive to the
Sri Lankan Goverment. According to the Congressional Research
Service, ‘‘Chinese activity in the region appears to be seeking
friends like Sri Lanka to secure its sea lines of communication from
the Straits of Hormuz and the western reaches of the Indian Ocean
region to the Strait of Malacca to facilitate trade and secure China’s
energy imports.’’

For instance, in 2007, China reached a billion dollar deal with
Sri Lanka to develop a deepwater port in the south at the sleepy
fishing village of Hambantota. In 2008, China gave Sri Lanka nearly
$1 billion in economic assistance according to the Congressional
Research Service. In 2009, China was granted an exclusive investment
zone in Mirigama, 34 miles from Colombo’s port. Even for
those that dismiss China’s ‘‘string of pearls’’ strategy as overblown,
there is concern about growing Chinese influence on the Sri
Lankan Goverment. During the closing stages of the separatist
war, for example, China blocked Western-led efforts to impose a
truce through the United Nations Security Council and continued
supplying arms to the Sri Lankan Goverment.

Sri Lanka’s strategic importance to the United States, China,
and India is viewed by some as a key piece in a larger geopolitical
dynamic, what has been referred to as a new ‘‘Great Game.’’ While
all three countries share an interest in securing maritime trade
routes, the United States has invested relatively few economic and
security resources in Sri Lanka, preferring to focus instead on the
political environment. Sri Lanka’s geostrategic importance to
American interests has been neglected as a result.

The Sri Lankan Goverment says American attitudes and military
restrictions led it to build relationships with China, Burma, Iran,
and Libya. The Minister of Science and Technology and All-Party
Representative Committee Chairman Tissa Vitarana Minister told
committee staff, ‘‘We have the United States to thank for pushing
us closer to China.’’ According to Vitarana, President Rajapaksa
was forced to reach out to other countries because the West refused
to help Sri Lanka finish the war against the LTTE. These calculations—
if left unchecked—threaten long-term U.S. strategic interests
in the Indian Ocean.


The United States and Sri Lanka have a long history of cordial
relations based in large part on shared democratic traditions. U.S.
assistance programs with Sri Lanka have covered a broad range,
including civil society, economic development, international visitor
exchanges, and humanitarian assistance training for the military.
Since 1956, USAID has invested more than $1.9 billion in Sri
Lanka according to the USAID Mission in Colombo. In 2008, the
United States successfully completed its $134.5 million tsunami reconstruction
program, and the rehabilitation infrastructure was
handed over to the Sri Lankan Goverment. Current programs focus
on the Eastern Province and adjoining areas, and USAID plans to
extend assistance to the North by helping war-torn communities return
to normalcy as soon as possible. In 2009, the United States
was the leading donor of food and humanitarian assistance to Sri
Lanka, with a total USAID budget of $43.12 million. More than
280,000 IDPs have been assisted by food rations, water and sanitation
facilities, temporary shelters, emergency medical treatment,
and mobility aids for the disabled.

The congressionally funded Asia Foundation has been in Sri
Lanka since 1954 and has played a quiet but important role in supporting
Sri Lankan Goverment and civil society initiatives to
strengthen democratic institutions, the rule of law and human

On the economic front, the United States is by far Sri Lanka’s
most important trade partner, accounting for more than one-quarter
of the country’s total exports according to the Congressional Research
Service. During Prime Minister Wickremasinghe’s 2002 visit
to Washington, the United States and Sri Lanka signed a new
Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) to examine
ways to expand bilateral trade and investment. While the war precluded
most major U.S.-Sri Lanka economic initiatives since 2006,
TIFA talks were held in Colombo this fall to explore new opportunities.

On the security front, the United States and Sri Lanka have enjoyed
friendly military-to-military relations and defense relations,
although the U.S. scaled back security assistance in recent years.
Sri Lanka continues to grant blanket over-flight and landing clearance
to U.S. military aircraft and routinely grants access to ports
by U.S. vessels. U.S. military training and defense assistance programs
have provided basic infantry supplies, maritime surveillance,
and interdiction equipment for the navy and communications
and mobility equipment to improve the Army’s humanitarian effort
and U.N. peacekeeping missions, according to the Congressional
Research Service. In 2007, the United States and Sri Lanka signed
an Acquisition and Cross-Services Agreement, which created a
framework for increased military interoperability.

U.S. engagement with Sri Lanka has continued in the Obama administration.
Just days before the war ended, President Obama delivered
a statement from the Rose Garden urging Sri Lanka to
‘‘seek a peace that is secure and lasting, and grounded in respect
for all of its citizens.’’ While economic and security relations continue
on a limited basis, the U.S. approach has heavily focused on
humanitarian issues and political reforms.

The administration has consistently called for an end to human
rights abuses, protection and rapid resettlement of IDPs, and genuine
efforts towards reconciliation in part through statements from
President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Assistant
Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert
Blake. The State Department, under the leadership of its new
U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Patricia Butenis, has demanded
progress from the Goverment on eight benchmarks including im-
proved conditions in the camps, return of IDPs, political progress,
and de-mining. The Treasury Department abstained on the $2.6
billion IMF loan to Sri Lanka this summer because of humanitarian
concerns. At Congress’s behest, the U.S. Goverment continues
to suspend military aid to Sri Lanka and issued a report on
incidents during the war that may have constituted violations of
international humanitarian law.

In Colombo, the U.S. approach is viewed by many senior government
officials as heavy-handed and ‘‘shrill.’’ They no longer sense
a strong partnership with the United States and view the relationship
to be on a downward trajectory. The President’s senior advisor
and brother, Basil Rajapaksa, advised committee staff that the
United States should approach Sri Lanka as ‘‘friends’’ and ‘‘give
suggestions rather than make critical remarks.’’ The President’s
other brother and Defense Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, expressed
similar frustration that the United States and international
community had not recognized the Goverment’s progressive
transition to democracy, ethnic reconciliation, disarmament
and demobilization of paramilitary groups, rehabilitation of child
soldiers, and economic development. He said he believed strongly
in the value of repairing Sri Lanka’s relations with the United
States and recommended that Washington focus its attention on
the future and not the past, judging the Goverment on its record
of performance in the Eastern Province, and not on the agendas of
its critics. He said he did ‘‘not deny there have been cases of government
abuse,’’ but that defeating the LTTE had been the top priority
and trumped other considerations.

Many Sri Lankan Government officials seemed surprised by the
barrage of international criticism and intense public scrutiny they
received following the war. They had expected instead praise for
defeating a notorious terrorist group—which pioneered suicide
bombing techniques and assassinated Indian Prime Minister Rajiv
Ghandi in 1991 and Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa
in 1993—and space to make the transition to a post-conflict environment.

Opposition leaders take a different view. United National Party
and opposition leader Ranil Wikremesinghe said the United States
was on the right track in publishing the ‘‘Incidents Report’’ and
should ‘‘keep the pressure on the government.’’ Wikremesinghe said
Sri Lankans did not want to lose their relationship with the United
States, and the Goverment’s criticism of recent U.S. remarks was
‘‘complete nonsense.’’

Among both government and opposition leaders and within civil
society, there is growing consensus on the importance of the U.S.-
Sri Lanka bilateral relationship and the need for it to be strengthened.
There is a common view that American influence is waning,
in part because of the tone of its messages. As one Western aid official
told committee staff: ‘‘Sticks don’t work with the Sri Lankan
Government. They need to hear coordinated, constructive messages
that give them time to implement change without losing face.’’
There is also concern that Western donors do not invest in projects
that are government priorities such as big infrastructure projects
and roads, allowing non-traditional donors like the Chinese to fill
the vacuum.

With the end of the war, the United States needs to re-evaluate
its relationship with Sri Lanka to reflect new political and economic
realities. While humanitarian concerns remain important,
U.S. policy toward Sri Lanka cannot be dominated by a single
agenda. It is not effective at delivering real reform, and it shortchanges
U.S. geostrategic interests in the region.

The challenge for the United States will be to encourage Sri
Lanka to embrace political reform and respect for human rights
without pushing the country towards Burma-like isolation, while
still building a multifaceted bilateral relationship that reflects
geostrategic interests. Engagement is key, for as Minister of Justice
Moragoda said, the United States ‘‘cannot afford to marginalize
the Sri Lankan Government.’’ Serious engagement will require an
expansion of the number of tools in the U.S. toolbox.

The United States does have influence in Sri Lanka. The challenge
today is how to creatively leverage political and humanitarian
reform with economic, trade, and security incentives so as
to link an expanded partnership with better governance and a
strengthened democracy. To be effective, the United States should
better understand what is important to the Sri Lankan Goverment
and people and retool its strategy accordingly.


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