Less than two weeks ahead of the much awaited January 26 Sri Lanka Presidential election, the United States (U.S.) and Norway — the latter acted as the official facilitator of talks between the Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam till the early 2009 — have become the centre of a controversy.

On Saturday the missions representing Washington and Oslo here issued two separate statements vehemently denying charges that they were funding the bid of the opposition consensus candidate retired General Sarath Fonseka to oust the incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa who is seeking a second term two years ahead of his term.

The reference was to charges levelled by Mohamed Muzammil, a legislator of the ruling combine United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) that opposition attempted to bribe him with Sri Lanka 30 million rupees ($2,65,000) to back the retired General and the money was supplied by the U.S. and Norwegian embassies.

The charges against the two countries have not come as a surprise to Sri Lanka watchers as both them were perceived to be at loggerheads with the Mahinda Rajapaksa Government on some of the contentious issues like the conduct of the Eelam War IV and the subsequent policies on re-settlement of nearly 3 lakh war displaced and the approach towards a political solution to the ethnic conflict.

Washington had tried unsuccessfully several times to pressure Colombo to halt the military operations against the LTTE on the ground that it could involve fate of large number of civilians caught in the cross-fire between the security forces and the Tigers. Norway was the official facilitator of talks between the Government and the LTTE and brokered the 2002 Cease Fire Agreement (CFA). Rajapaksa Government de-recognised Norway as the facilitator early 2009 after the Sri Lankan Embassy in Oslo was attacked by suspected LTTE members.

The admission that the policy makers in Washington have been over-zealous in their dealings with their interlocutors in Colombo came in a candid bi-partisan Senate Foreign Relations Committee headed by John Kerry in the second week of December. The crux of the 14-page report is that those dealing with Sri Lanka have tended to be confrontational and thus missed the wood for the trees.

Calling for a policy shift to safeguard and further the strategic American in the regional the paper argues that it was time for Washington to keep a fine balance over track record of Colombo on human rights record and humanitarian issues triggered by the 34-month war.

It goes on to say 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. 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.”

“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 report had said.

The supposed policy shift of Washington was watched with interest as political and diplomatic observers here were intrigued over the obsessive pursuit of Sri Lanka-related issues by Washington at a juncture when Mr. Obama is grappling with crucial issues such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, North Korea and Iran.

Two significant events marked 2009 in the U.S. 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.

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.

It is against this backdrop that the pro-active role of U.S. mission in Colombo in the last few weeks is being watched interest by observers. The mission in its latest statement said, “We will work with whoever wins the election to strengthen our longstanding partnership and we will maintain our support for a peaceful, prosperous and democratic Sri Lanka,” it said.

The pro-active attitude of the U.S. mission on the crucial Presidential election, mainly a contest between Mr. Rajapaksa and the former Army Chief, was evident on January 12 when the mission chose to issue a press statement expressing concerns over ‘escalating violence’ in the run up to the election after the first death since the campaign was launched nearly two months ago was reported.

The mission statement read, “The United States is deeply concerned by the escalating violence surrounding the upcoming presidential elections, particularly reports of today’s fatal shooting. We urge the appropriate authorities to conduct a full investigation of this and other acts of violence and to protect those exercising their democratic right to support the candidate of their choice. “This is the first nation-wide election in a peaceful, united Sri Lanka in several decades. We hope that the election is conducted freely, fairly and without violence.”

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