So President Sirisena has put his foot down on the sofa. No more talk about sofas, he has ordered returning from China last month after reportedly signing three agreements, of which the cabinet, parliament and public know little or nothing. The sofa he is angered over– and rightly so, too –is the one the Americans [...]


Gone too far with SOFA


So President Sirisena has put his foot down on the sofa. No more talk about sofas, he has ordered returning from China last month after reportedly signing three agreements, of which the cabinet, parliament and public know little or nothing.

February 2, 2015 file photo: Nisha Biswal is given a grand welcome by Sri Lanka's then Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera in Colombo. AFP

The sofa he is angered over– and rightly so, too –is the one the Americans had gift-wrapped and were ready to present to the people of Sri Lanka. This is the Trojan Horse that the US embassy in Colombo had secretly proposed in a confidential exchange (or was it a monologue) with our Foreign Ministry hoping, of course, that the natives will promptly put their signature to it saying “ehei hamuduruwaney”.

After all, there are several big guns in the UNP aanduwa that have been leaning heavily to the West, particularly towards Washington, that they find it difficult to straighten out without a couple of vertebrae going out of joint, as they say.

The UNP, which is a major constituent of this so-called yahapalana government, has, for decades, been paying pooja to Washinghton and London. So much so, one of the party’s great leaders and the first executive president of Sri Lanka was nicknamed “Yankee Dicky”– and not for nothing.

Throw your minds back to the 1977 JR Jayewardene government and its attempts to lease out some of the Trincomalee oil storage tanks to a Bermuda-based company that was a contractor to the US defence department.

It was this attempt to bring the Yankees in and house them in Trincomalee, India’s backyard, that raised Indira Gandhi’s hackles. That resulted in Gandhi’s first moves to destabilise the JR government by stoking the nascent LTTE into violence and later arm and train them on Indian soil.

True that might be all history now. So when Indian envoy Taranjit Singh Sandhu promises to assist Sri Lanka and says emphatically that New Delhi does not covet Sri Lanka’s markets, assets or land, there are sceptics, who would probably say “Oh yeah?”

Anyway, we know the JRJ tradition continues to reside in the UNP and, more so, in a one-time SLFPer Mangala Samaraweera. But before Mangala’s political conversion –far less dramatic than that of Saul on the road to Damascus — there was another UNP minister whose commitment to the US he publicly stated during a talk in Colombo several years back.

I don’t know how many remember Milinda Moragoda, a former minister and now a dedicated pathfinder who told the audience that when the American ambassador telephones to ask him for a meeting he does not stop to inquire what it is about but goes directly to the ambassador’s residence — in Horton Place.

In more modern times, we have the yahapalana government’s first foreign Minister, Mangala Samaraweera, burning incense to the several gods in Washington DC he worships.

During the Qing dynasty In China, visiting European envoys would kneel down and virtually prostrate themselves before the emperor. It was then called kowtow in Chinese, a mark of respect to the emperor. Today, however, it has acquired a new meaning euphemistically called “holding pandang.”

When a middle-ranking State Department official, Nisha Biswal, came on a two-day visit, our foreign minister was at the airport to meet and greet her. If the foreign minister goes to the airport to meet a junior official, it shows the readiness of our ministers to genuflect without any sense of shame or protocol.

That is not all. When then Secretary of State John Kerry visited Colombo and called on Minister Samaraweera at the Foreign Ministry, he was greeted by Kandyan dancers in the forecourt and girls gyrating with ‘thel pahan’ in their hands. The only thing missing was a minster crawling on his knees to pay homage.

Is it any surprise then that Washington worthies treat Sri Lanka like a piece of real estate in Trump’s backyard? It is all hush-hush this SOFA business, an abbreviation for Status of Forces Agreement. Had this totally one-sided attempt to impose conditions on Sri Lanka that would have turned this nation into a US puppet become known at the initial stages, any public outcry would have been understandable. SOFA is not the innocuous document that Ambassador Alaina Teplizt wants us to believe it is.

During a visit to Washington last month Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana had indicated to officials that certain clauses in the US embassy-submitted draft were unacceptable.

Thereafter, President Sirisena, bless the presidential intelligence and foresight, ordered a stop to any negotiations with the US on this.

Fortunately, for some alert parliamentarians and the journalistic instincts of this newspaper, the secretive attempts of the US embassy to push through another military pact over and above the Acquisition and Cross-Services Agreement (ACSA) that had already granted enough concessions to America’s military adventurism in this part of the world came unstuck.

But don’t think the US is going to give up on this. They might drop or amend a clause or two, but will press ahead with the core provisions. The visit to Colombo very soon of US Assistant Secretary of State for Political and Military Affairs Clarke Cooper, is a sign that Washington will bat on, come what may.

In our Foreign Ministry, the UNP’s pro-US lobbyists, who had collaborated in providing ballast to Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” agenda in the Indo-Pacific and now Trump’s more aggressive policy of trying to corner China, could tell the country whether opening the doors to US militarism is the best medicine for Sri Lanka’s current woes.

Those striped pants and saree wearers at the Foreign Ministry, who used to burn incense along with Khema’s boy plugging away on behalf of the stars and stripes may not be at the ministry any longer but spouting elsewhere, should be asked who in this yahapalana administration called for a return of the US Peace Corps?

It is known, of course, that in several countries where the USPC volunteers operated there have been accusations of interference in domestic politics. In some instance they were intelligence gatherers for the CIA and other US spy agencies. This is not to blame all volunteers some of whom have played useful roles.

Still the larger question remains. Who in this government invited them back? Even these volunteers are to be given certain diplomatic and tax privileges, but certainly not as much as those military and civilian personnel contracted under SOFA who would be stationed here or will be in and out without even showing a valid passport.

Although the full details of the proposed SOFA pact still remains largely confidential, what is now known should surely ring alarm bells among those in this country concerned about its sovereignty and security.

Among the privileges that the US embassy’s diplomatic note to our foreign ministry on SOFA asked for is the right of US military personnel to carry weapons and that they be subjected to US law in the event of some crime or criminal activity. They will be beyond Sri Lanka’s jurisdiction even if one of them kills or wounds a local person with his weapon.

There is also a clause that exempts US vessels and aircraft being boarded and inspected by Sri Lankan authorities. It also exempts equipment and other articles and material being used under this agreement from inspection within Sri Lanka.

To put it rather crudely, these privileges will allow the US to plant a nuclear weapon in President Sirisena’s back garden or carry one on board a US vessel and none of our sleuths will be any the wiser.

American Ambassador Teplitz might think that she can hoodwink the people by describing SOFA as one of not too much consequence and not one that compromises Sri Lanka.

If she thinks so she’d better take a break and do her homework. Is she aware, one wonders, how long this country advocated a peace zone in the Indian Ocean and wanted the big powers to stay out of it. The Indian Ocean Peace Zone resolution that Sri Lanka proposed was passed at the UNGA in 1972, as I recall. Also Sri Lanka was one of the countries that called for the closing down of the US military base in Diego Garcia. That is another despicable episode.

A consequence of SOFA and ACSA collectively is to enmesh Sri Lanka in big power geopolitics at a time when the Indian Ocean, a vital sea lane for Pacific nations, too, is increasingly becoming the centre of big power rivalry.



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