As economic and political power shifts east, western nations are responding by reinforcing trade and security alliances across Asia. With the U.S.-Korea free trade agreement, a new military base in Australia, and deepening alliances across the region, the U.S. has recommitted to the Asia Pacific. As President Obama’s foreign policy pivots to Asia and the vision of “America’s Pacific Century” unfolds, U.S. strategic relations with Sri Lanka must also be examined.
Sri Lanka is the region’s longest standing democracy with a burgeoning economy and vast opportunity for commercial, military and cultural partnerships. It has much to offer the U.S., already Sri Lanka’s biggest trade partner augmented by the 2002 signing of the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement. There exists a military-to-military relationship and the USAID presence has grown steadily since 1948. Education is another essential link, and Fulbright scholars are exchanged each year.
Unfortunately our bilateral relationship has been side-tracked. Under brutal attack by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), an internationally proscribed terrorist organization, Sri Lankans lived in fear for 26 years. The FBI described the LTTE as the “most dangerous and deadly extremists” in the world. This group pioneered the use of suicide jackets, assassinated Sri Lankan and Indian heads of state, and ruthlessly conscripted child soldiers. This constant threat of terror was the reality that plagued our island nation for the past quarter century.
In 2009, after years of conflict with the LTTE, Sri Lanka achieved what few other countries can claim – defeating a violent terrorist group and ending decades of fear. Under the visionary leadership of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, our country is ushering in a new era with the personal dedication of every Sri Lankan to move the country forward to a bright future.
It has been only three and a half years, but already much has been accomplished. Nearly all 1.5 million landmines laid by the LTTE have been removed, and 300,000 internally displaced people resettled. Sri Lanka is also satisfying a comprehensive process of reconciliation based on recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). Amnesty has been granted to over 12,000 former LTTE combatants and child soldiers who are being reintegrated into society. 225 ex-combatants face legal proceedings for criminal charges, and a court of inquiry has been convened to explore allegations of wrongdoing against the Sri Lankan Armed Forces.
Today, not only is the entire country safe for everyone but we are also quickly becoming one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. The Northern Province has recorded 22 percent growth, and the IMF forecasts 6.7 percent GDP growth island-wide for 2013. We’ve also accelerated tourism development, fulfilling our target one million tourist arrivals last year and recently opening the country’s second international airport. The New York Times declared Sri Lanka as the 2010 top tourism destination in the world; Lonely Planet ranked the country #1 among its top-10 locations for 2013.
Like any democracy, Sri Lanka faces its share of challenges. We agree that while much has been accomplished since 2009, more needs to be done. The government has met unexpected challenges that have slowed progress on implementation of LLRC recommendations. But as in any post-conflict effort, reconciliation and accountability take time.
The Government of Sri Lanka is committed to promoting and protecting human rights, fostering national reconciliation, and pursuing peace. This commitment is not just to democracy, but also to respecting rule of law and the principles of sovereignty.
We are moving in the right direction and are keen to broaden our bilateral relationship with the U.S., as recommended in the 2009 Kerry-Lugar Senate Report on Sri Lanka. This report concluded the need to re-chart U.S. strategy in Sri Lanka beyond humanitarian and political reforms. Indeed, there are many avenues of cooperation, including in the strategic and defense area where Sri Lanka can offer its experience in defeating terrorism.
Most importantly though, we are now rebuilding our nation, and we believe the U.S. has an opportunity to participate in this effort from the beginning. We have investment requirements ranging from education, clean energy and tourism to maritime security and defense. Opportunities also exist for commercial partnerships, building the infrastructure of Sri Lanka’s future.
There is value in new prospects for mutual development and prosperity, and it is imperative that the U.S. and Sri Lanka consider a broad engagement strategy to take advantage of these opportunities. Sri Lanka is well positioned to build on its 200-year-old trade partnership with the U.S. and become a stronger geopolitical and strategic ally in the decades to come.
*Wickramasuriya is Sri Lanka’s ambassador to the United States.