The Obama Administration is contemplating a ‘new policy’ on Sri Lanka, the New York Times reported on Monday.
The paper quoting from a report of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which gives contours of the new policy, said that Washington wants to stop sermonising the Mahinda Rajapaksa government over its human rights record and humanitarian issues triggered by the war between the security forces and the LTTE.
A New Delhi datelined report in NYT says, “A report on Sri Lanka to be released next week by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee urges a less confrontational approach to that nation, citing strategic American interests in the region.”
The report says that while the Sri Lankan government has been widely criticised for its handling of the war against the Tamil Tigers fighting for a separate State for the ethnic Tamil minority in northern Sri Lanka, the government has also achieved a measure of progress in resettling the conflict’s displaced and rebuilding the war-shattered east of the country.
“With the end of the war, the United States needs to re-evaluate its relationship with Sri Lanka to reflect new political and economic realities,” says the report, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times. “While humanitarian concerns remain important, U.S. policy toward Sri Lanka cannot be dominated by a single agenda. It is not effective at delivering real reform, and it shortchanges U.S. geostrategic interests in the region.”
The NYT report came ahead of the two-day official visit of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Robert Blake, beginning on December 8. The State Department last week had said Mr. Blake, previously American Ambassador in Sri Lanka, is visiting the island nation “as part of our regular bilateral relationship” and would hold talks with government officials, political leaders and members of the civil society on issues of mutual interest.
“The bipartisan report endorsed by Senator John Kerry, the Democratic chairman of the committee, as well as Senator Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican, is being released as the Obama administration is preparing to announce its new policy on Sri Lanka. It also comes as questions persist about what Western countries can do to influence the government there.
“Concerns about human rights and humanitarian aid for the people affected by the conflict have dominated the relationship between the United States and Sri Lanka over the past few years as the hard-line government in the capital, Colombo, pressed its military offensive against the Tigers.
“The tough strategy of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s president, and his two brothers, Gotabaya and Basil, helped defeat the insurgency in May after more than two decades of war. The rebel group used brutal tactics like the use of child soldiers and female suicide bombers. It was also responsible for the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, a former Prime Minister of India who was hoping to return to power, in 1991,” the New York Times report said.
The paper recalled that the U.S. and other Western countries abstained from a vote at the International Monetary Fund in July to lend $2.6 billion to Sri Lanka and Washington also curbed military aid because of concerns about human rights abuses in the war against the Tamil Tigers.
“But Sri Lanka is too important a country to be isolated from the West. Sri Lanka is located at the nexus of crucial maritime trading routes in the Indian Ocean connecting Europe and the Middle East to China and the rest of Asia. The United States, India, and China all share an interest in deterring terrorist activity and curbing piracy that could disrupt maritime trade,” the NYT quoted the Senate Foreign Relations Report as saying.
The policy shift of Washington, if it comes, towards Colombo is interesting as political and diplomatic observers here were intrigued over the obsessive pursuit of Sri Lanka-related issues by Washington at a juncture when Obama is grappling with crucial issues such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, North Korea and Iran.
Two significant events marked 2009 in the US vis-à-vis Sri Lanka. On October 21, the State Department gave the Congressional Appropriations Committee a document titled ‘Report to Congress on Incidents During the Recent Conflict in Sri Lanka’.
The 68-page State Department report lists 170 alleged incidents and acknowledges that it does not provide, nor is it intended to be, a comprehensive portrayal of the conflict. It further concedes that the report does not reach legal conclusions as to whether the incidents described actually constitute violations of international humanitarian law, crimes against humanity or other violations of international law and whether the alleged incidents actually occurred.
The most controversial aspect relates to the confusion over the sequence of events in the final days of the war and the debate on whether a section of the Tigers who walked out with a white flag were killed at point-blank range. The report says, “A number of sources alleged that the GSL [Government of Sri Lanka] committed unlawful killings. Multiple reports alleged that in the final few days of fighting, senior LTTE leaders contacted international representatives in an effort to broker surrender but were killed after they allegedly reached a surrender agreement with the GSL.”
In its immediate response to the report, Colombo said that it “appears to be unsubstantiated and devoid of corroborative evidence” and accused vested interests of endeavouring to bring the government into disrepute through “fabricated allegations and concocted stories”.
On October 28, on the basis of the State Department report, the U.S. authorities summoned Sri Lanka’s then Chief of Defence Staff Sarath Fonseka and now, the main opposition Presidential candidate against President Mahinda Rajapaksa, for questioning on November 4.
General Fonseka, who led the war against the LTTE as the Army chief, is a U.S. Green Card holder and was on a private visit, using his diplomatic passport, to see his daughters in the State of Oklahoma. The general was told by the Attorney that his statement during the scheduled November 8 interview could be used as possible evidence against Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa over charges of excesses by the security forces and the LTTE during the 34-month war.
Washington dropped the idea after Colombo took serious exception and let the General return to the island without being questioned.
In what was seen as an exercise to minimise any adverse impact of the State Department report on Eelam War IV, President Rajapaksa on November 6 appointed a five-member “independent committee” to study the issue comprehensively and formulate by December 31 recommendations for his consideration on the charges of human rights violations as recounted in the report to the U.S. Congress on October 22.
The group was constituted a day after the U.S. House of Representatives, in an uncommon move, approved a non-binding resolution urging Colombo to guarantee the safety and quick release of nearly 3,00,000 Tamils and other war-displaced people.