By Daya Gamage –
The Government of Sri Lanka is getting fresh – and this time serious – pressure for the implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment to hold the long overdue provincial council election and devolve power to provinces, one of the policy planks adopted by Washington since the conclusion of the Eelam War IV.
The pressure was renewed by Washington following the Sri Lankan Tamil political-legislative delegation, led by TNA spokesman Abraham Sumanthiran, along with the representatives of Tamil Diaspora representing the London-based Global Tamil Forum met for a week-long discourse with (Congressional) lawmakers and (State Department) policymakers in the week November 15 through 20.
Washington policymakers were of the opinion that the best devise to solve Sri Lanka’s ethnic problem and address minority Tamil grievances was the devolution of power to the Tamil-majority districts in the north and east advocated by two classified documents in 1984 and 1986 jointly prepared by the U.S. National Security Agency and the State Department. The two documents – since declassified in 2011 – further noted that Washington should not extend military assistance to Sri Lanka – requested by the Jayewardene administration at that time – to combat the emerging Tamil rebellion in the North of Sri Lanka as the military assistance could be used to suppress the minority Tamil community. The Documents justified their determination declaring that Washington could face problems in dealing with minorities in other countries if it supplied to suppress the minority Tamils.
It was this policy that Washington continued to follow until the Eelam War was concluded drastically reducing or completely cutting military assistance to Sri Lanka along with political and administrative power devolution to the Tamil-majority north and east, and Washington lawmakers and policymakers giving more emphasis on Tamil grievances. Throughout the Eelam War IV (2006-2009), Washington provided only Maritime Surveillance.
Aware of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration’s feet-dragging on provincial council election due to its Sinhala Nationalist vote that elevated it to power, one of the two influential U.S. Congressional committees, the House Foreign Affairs Committee (other being the Senate FA Committee) activated this week to bring a renewed appeal to the Secretary of State Blinken on broader issues connected to Sri Lanka declaring in its December 3, 2021 communication “Since the end of Sri Lanka’s 30-year civil war, the committee has demonstrated an interest in ensuring that U.S. policy continue to support reconciliation and accountability, while also addressing the root cause of the conflict. We strongly urge the State Department to re-focus its efforts in Sri Lanka to emphasize the importance of substantive and durable political solution.”
This writer somewhat familiar with the functioning of the State Department and its overseas diplomatic missions due to his employment in the U.S. Federal Government is quite confident that the South Asia Bureau of the State Department discreetly requested the members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee to address a letter to the Secretary of State which could help the Department to address the issues with the Government of Sri Lanka.
The letter signed by the Chairmen of the Foreign Affairs Committee Representative Gregory W. Meeks (Democratic) and Vice Chairman (Republican) Michael McCaul further noted: “”The United States has rightly championed justice and human rights in Sri Lanka. Advancing these values will require solutions to political questions that remain unanswered years after the end of the civil war, including the meaningful devolution of power in an undivided Sri Lanka. We urge the Department to support the government’s engagement with opposition parties, including Tamils and Muslims, to find such solutions.”
The week long dialogue between the Sri Lankan parliamentarians and representatives of the Global Tamil Forum of the Tamil Diaspora in Washington apprised the Sri Lanka government’s reluctance to move forward to solve outstanding minority issues while placing before both policymakers in the department and lawmakers in the House Foreign Affairs Committee. This move by the House Committee is separate to the Resolution now before the committee on Sri Lankan issues.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa won his presidency in November 2019 using the wave of Sinhalese Nationalism, and Rajapaksa in his inaugural address acknowledged that he won solely by the Sinhalese vote. Having worked in a political position at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Colombo, this writer is well aware that diplomatic cables informed Washington the subsequent policy positions of the news regime arising out of the electoral victory. The Sri Lankan parliamentary delegation and the representatives of the GTF two weeks ago in Washington refreshed the minds of the policymakers of the State Department as an encouragement for them to work with the House Committee to bring out a fresh communication highlighting Sri Lankan issues. The Tamil delegation got the most difficult exposure when it had the opportunity to meet the South Asian Director and her staff of the U.S. National Security Council, an arm of the Biden White House.
What the Rajapaksa administrations, previous one and the current, never focused is the in-depth knowledge Washington has on Sri Lanka ‘national issues, and the influence the representatives of the Tamil Diaspora have on their policies. It has come to a situation that the Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime has no alternative other than entering into dialogue with these overseas Diaspora groupings some of them proscribed by the GSL.
The former defense secretary during the Eelam War IV and current president Gotabaya Rajapaksa is viewed by Washington as an alleged war criminal. The Chairman of the US Senate Foreign Affairs Committee Bob Menendez in December 2019 at a senate hearing on economic assistance to Sri Lanka inquired from the USAID official “Is that the alleged war criminal who was elected president in Sri Lanka?”
In January 2010, the American Embassy under the signature of Ambassador Butenis sent a diplomatic cable naming three Rajapaksa brothers – Mahinda, Gotabaya and Basil – as war criminals.
Since the Eelam War, Washington has been moving many Resolutions in UNHRC Geneva on Sri Lanka, the October 2015 Resolution wanting a hybrid committee to investigate alleged war crimes and human rights violations.
It is in this scenario that Washington is having fresh look at Sri Lanka’s minority issues and grievances, devolution, reconciliation and accountability for the War.
In Washington’s endeavor, New Delhi is being supportive following the two nations’ entry into three military-technological agreements since 2017 giving more emphasis on Indo-Pacific region against the expansion of the Peoples Republic of China. In fact the Tamil delegation met with the Indian ambassador to the U.S. in Washington during their broad discourses in Washington.