US takes a closer look at Sri Lanka

By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya

Little Red Riding Hood: “My, grandmother, what big eyes you have!”

Wolf: “All the better to see you with, my dear!”

The recent report on Sri Lanka by the US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee calls upon the US government to take a long hard look at its relationship with Sri Lanka, and re-evaluate it in the light of Sri Lanka’s increasing strategic importance to US. Had it been the Bush administration, Sri Lanka might have had reason to be concerned, rather like “Little Red Riding Hood” coming under the scrutiny of the Wolf (disguised as her grandmother) who was waiting to devour her! Coming from the Obama administration however, there is hope that the realistic new approach to policy that is being advocated here, presents an opportunity for Sri Lanka too, to re-negotiate its troubled relationship with the western world.

Barack Obama

History seems to show that when superpowers take a ‘strategic interest’ in a small and relatively powerless state, it usually does not augur well (for the smaller state). One only has to look at the crises that Afghanistan and Pakistan are mired in, to realize what a misfortune it is when one’s territory becomes strategically important in the power games of big powers.

It could be argued that Sri Lanka’s relative lack of strategic importance to the western powers was one of the factors that made it possible (despite constant pressure orchestrated by the Tiger network overseas) for it to fight the LTTE on its own terms, and eventually win. Given the relatively small and powerless status of this country, and its easily corruptible politicians, it would have been child’s play for a major power to manipulate the situation in Sri Lanka, had it chosen to do so.

So the new ‘strategic interest’ in Sri Lanka evinced by the US in this report would seem to signal a new chapter in Sri Lanka’s relations with the US, and for better or worse, in the geopolitics of the region. To quote from the report: “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.’ ”

The report is candid about the underlying rationale seeking to foster a stronger bilateral relationship with Sri Lanka – it is to secure the US’s own strategic interests in the region. Quote, “American interests in the region include securing energy resources from the Persian Gulf and maintaining the free flow of trade in the Indian Ocean.” To this end it admits that the approach so far has been deficient in some respects, and needs to be revamped. Quote, “While humanitarian concerns remain important, US policy towards Sri Lanka cannot be dominated by a single agenda. It is not effective at delivering reform, and it short-changes US geostrategic interests in the region.”

What is heartening from Sri Lanka’s point of view is the perceptiveness with regard to ground realities, reflected in the report to a degree hitherto not seen in the pontifications that have emanated from the west. A genuine attempt has been made to arrive at an understanding of the dynamics of the conflict, through extensive consultations with the whole gamut of stakeholders. The approach is one of seeking to achieve strategic objectives through better understanding, rather than by arm-twisting.

The tone and language of the report is also entirely non-confrontational. Concerns are expressed regarding Sri Lanka’s growing relationships with China, Burma, Iran and Libya, but clearly the US’s main worry is China’s growing influence on the Sri Lankan government. It refers to the billions of dollars China has given in loans for military, infrastructure and port development activities, and recalls how during the latter stages of the war, China blocked a western-led effort in the UN Security Council to impose a truce, and continued to supply arms to Sri Lanka. Minister Tissa Vitarana, Chairman of the All Party Representatives Committee (APRC), did not hesitate to tell the US Senate Committee staff that it was in fact the western stance that pushed Sri Lanka closer to China and other countries, when they refused to help Sri Lanka to finish off the war.

As we know the concern about China’s increasing focus on Sri Lanka is also shared by India. In the immediate aftermath of the war, a Times of India report stated that “With a greater engagement in Sri Lanka, not hampered by the complications of an LTTE presence, India ultimately hopes to counter the growing presence of China in its southern neighbourhood.”

Sri Lanka’s relations with India however have reached a level of harmony not seen in decades. The understanding between Delhi and Colombo is so fine-tuned now that even when certain statements are made by the Indian central government to humour its alliance partners in Tamil Nadu (as during the run up to the Indian elections earlier this year), Colombo is not unduly perturbed. These two neighbours have come a long way from the fractious times when India air dropped food in the North of Sri Lanka, violating its air space and causing outrage. India’s support was probably the single most important external factor that enabled the Sri Lankan government to withstand foreign pressures and defeat the LTTE.

Tamil Nadu politicians made an emotional issue out of the Sri Lankan conflict on account of 60 million ethnic Tamils in that state. Western perceptions of the conflict in Sri Lanka on the other hand have been influenced by the fact that those countries are home to large concentrations of Sri Lankan Tamils in the diaspora. The pro-Tiger elements among them – who form the most vocal segment – actively engaged western political establishments using propaganda to discredit Sri Lanka and advance their ‘cause.’ It is no coincidence that the strongest pressures to stall the war during its latter stages came from countries with the largest concentrations of diaspora Tamils.

Rather than preaching a sermon based on biased perceptions, the US Senate Committee report makes pragmatic recommendations emerging from a genuine attempt to get a grip on the complexities of the Sri Lankan conflict. In doing so it provides a useful blueprint for the reconciliation process, and possibly a corrective to the negative waves that have soured diplomatic relations with the west in recent times. But it is not easy to predict how the US’s increasing interest in Sri Lanka will pan out, given its stated strategic objectives.

Sri Lanka cannot afford to compromise its relationship with either India or China. There is repeated reference to the need for the US to “increase leverage” by investing more heavily in the economy and security sectors. What does this mean? US Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake did tell journalists at a recent press conference in Colombo that they would be seeing more of him in the months ahead. So it looks as if the US means business, and only time will tell.

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