By Jehan Perera –
US Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Sri Lanka coincided with the conclusion of the government’s 100 Day programme which had just ended on a high note. The virtually unanimous passage the 19th Amendment to the constitution was a triumph to the government. The vote in favour was 212 to 1. The reform of the executive presidency, which formed the core of the 19th Amendment, was a promise that had eluded successive governments for over two decades. During the latter half of the 100 day period it seemed that the government was not going to be successful in implementing the most important of its election time pledges. There was increased public skepticism about its willingness and ability to tackle issues of past corruption and abuse of power. The opposition led by supporters of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa appeared to be gathering in strength.
However, President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe were able to lead their respective political parties to an unprecedented bipartisan consensus that saw all other political parties fall in line. The emergence of a reformed presidency shorn of its extreme powers was an outcome of their leadership. In a statement to the media, the visiting US Secretary of State acknowledged the government’s commitment to reform. He said, “One thing about this Sri Lankan government seems clear. The President, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister are not afraid of tackling tough issues. They are willing to make difficult decisions and they are committed to keeping their promises. We have seen that in the 100 day plan.”
Under different circumstances the timing of Secretary Kerry’s visit might have been controversial. He arrived the day before Vesak, the most sacred Buddhist religious festival. He departed on Vesak day. However, the dramatic changes that have been taking place in Sri Lanka over the past four months since the government changed made t his visit a part of the Vesak spirit of rejoicing, sharing and contemplation. The tenor of Secretary Kerry’s remarks during his stay was overwhelmingly positive and supportive towards Sri Lanka with the promise of concrete support to come. He also took the opportunity to visit an important Buddhist temple to perform an act of reverence which also acknowledged the Buddhist heritage of the country.
In the aftermath of the election President Maithripala Sirisena and the formation of the new government driven by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe there has been a spate of visits to Sri Lanka by high level representatives of foreign governments and the UN. Secretary Kerry’s visit was especially significant, not only because the United States is the most powerful country in the world, but also it was the country behind the UN human rights resolutions on Sri Lanka from 2009 onwards. These resolutions which called for an investigation into the last phase of Sri Lanka’s internal war were resisted tooth and nail by the government of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The former president turned the UN call into a personal battle in which he pledged his willingness to go to the “electric chair” for the sake of the country and its armed forces. The Rajapaksa government also roused Sinhalese ethnic nationalism to the maximum to resist foreign intervention and to consolidate political power within the country. Sri Lanka’s attitude towards the international community, in particular the Western countries, turned adversarial. The government’s defiance of the international community took on the character of defying international institutions, including the UN human rights system, and calling it into question. This was a challenge that the international system led by the United States could not afford to tolerate as it could lead to an undermining of the system that had been established to ensure post-second world war order.
During the period of the Rajapaksa government, Sri Lanka also had the tacit sympathy of many third world countries which felt that they too were at the receiving end of double standards in their own wars against insurgencies and terrorism. This became evident at the annual vote taken at the UN Human Rights Council on the issue of compelling the Sri Lankan government to accept an independent investigation into allegations of war crimes and serious human rights violations. The United States and its Western allies had to exert considerable pressure on other member countries of the UN to get them to vote against Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s foreign policy makers became overconfident that they could avoid being taken to task under the existing international human rights framework with the backing of China and Russia.
Under the government of former President Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka also became over-dependent on this emerging Chinese superpower for both economic assistance and political protection in international forums. The large loans at relatively high rates of interest that Sri Lanka took from China for low yield and massive infrastructure investments led to the prospect of Chinese expansion into the economy in the case of inability to repay the loans on time. The Colombo Port City project which gives China outright ownership of land next to Colombo harbor is being challenged at the present time, on the several grounds of economic viability, environmental degradation and geopolitical considerations. Over fifty years ago Sri Lanka was subjected to US disfavour for its close ties to China when it entered into the rubber-rice pact with a country that was referred to as an enemy nation.
In the course of the main speech he delivered while in Sri Lanka, Senator Kerry made an offer of US assistance to Sri Lanka in four key areas. These are reconciliation and post-war healing, justice and accountability, human rights and strengthening of democratic institutions. He said that the United States having experienced a terrible civil war in which a movement of separation had to be defeated on the military battlefield had much to contribute from its own experience, both positive and negative. He added that “Until just recently our diplomats routinely clashed with yours on these issues at the Human Rights Council in Geneva and the UN in New York. Now, with the new government, with the turning of this critical page, we have the opportunity to work together.”
Accompanying this was an offer of a “partnership dialogue” and expanded bilateral assistance with regard to trade and investment that could help to consolidate the country’s post-war gains. The large scale and generous US assistance that helped to transform South East Asia could now come to Sri Lanka, albeit a half century later. Highlighting the new and improved relationship Secretary Kerry referred to Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera by his first name as “Mangala” and also as “friend.” This is an opportunity to be supported by the most powerful and wealthy country in the world that Sri Lanka cannot afford to miss. However, Sri Lanka’s long colonial experience beginning with the Portuguese in the 16th century has made a deep imprint on the psyche of its people. It is important that the government shows the people that in relation to the international community the country’s sovereignty will continue to lie within and not outside its territorial borders.