Working overtime to defend a defence deal

Updated - July 14, 2019 12:21 pm IST

Published - July 13, 2019 09:05 pm IST

Sri Lanka's ousted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe looks on during a parliament session in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka's ousted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe looks on during a parliament session in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Over the last two months, the U.S. finds itself constantly under scrutiny in Sri Lanka, where it has been accused of pushing the Status of Forces Agreements (SOFA), or at least a version of it.

With stiff resistance emerging at the top-most level, from President Maithripala Sirisena, the U.S. mission here is working overtime to defend the proposed agreement.

Tweeting on an article claiming that the U.S. was planning to turn Sri Lanka into a “military colony”, the U.S. Ambassador in Colombo, Alaina Teplitz, said: “Blatant misinformation. There is no plan or intention to establish a U.S. base in Sri Lanka. VFA negotiations only aim to facilitate cooperation and any agreement will fully respect the sovereignty of #SriLanka.”

Later, in a front-page message published in a special media supplement on July 4, she said: “Respect for Sri Lanka’s sovereignty also lays at the heart of our security cooperation.” She reiterated the point in her remarks at a reception held in Colombo to commemorate the American Independence Day. “There is an important quality to the U.S.-Sri Lankan partnership, and it’s one that I want to emphasise tonight — mutual respect. Respect for sovereignty. Respect for quality of life. And even respect for our differences as nations.”

Raging controversy

The controversy has spanned months now, and there are few indications that things might get any easier for the U.S. It was in this backdrop that U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo cancelled his scheduled visit to the island nation in late June. The U.S. Embassy attributed the decision to “scheduling conflicts”. Amid growing scrutiny by both local media and some political parties, the SOFA morphed into a ‘Visiting Forces Agreement’ (VFA). However, that has not made it any more acceptable among those resisting it.

A State Department brief on the U.S.’s security negotiations and agreements, including the SOFA and the Acquisition and Cross Servicing agreements (ACSA) that Sri Lanka signed in 2007 and renewed in 2017, notes that “collectively, these agreements facilitate the deployment and movement of U.S. forces and materiel abroad and provide protections for U.S. service members operating overseas”.

“Protections”, to many wary of the deal, only means impunity.

The concern is not confined to certain politicians or nationalist groups. The most recent objection has come from the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce. The leading business organisation, with prominent private sector representatives, asked the government to clarify the “exact position” in regard to the current status of the SOFA and also the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Agreement, as per which the U.S. is gifting Sri Lanka some $480 million. In a statement, it sought “an enhanced level of transparency with respect to these agreements and their potential consequences”.

In a response addressed to the Chamber’s head, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said there was no SOFA between the U.S. and Sri Lanka, nor was one likely to be signed as it had not been presented to the Cabinet. Mr. Wickremesinghe was “perturbed” by the Chamber’s “express ignorance” on the contents of the SOFA and the MCC. “Politicisation of this reputable business conglomerate under your recent assumption of leadership is to be much regretted,” he told the newly elected head of the Chamber, apparently accusing him of siding with the SOFA-sceptics.

Almost in predictable fashion, Mr. Sirisena and Mr. Wickremesinghe are voicing very different views on the matter, in yet another manifestation of the deep divisions in the government. While Mr. Wickremesinghe has insisted that due process has been followed in all discussions with the U.S. so far, Mr. Sirisena, in a recent address, said: “During my tenure as President, I will not allow the government to sign any agreement with any world power...”

Whether it is the SOFA or the VFA, there is little information in the public domain on their specifics. Moreover, it is election year in Sri Lanka. Sovereignty and national security will soon become buzzwords. A defence deal at this point, that too with the U.S., can’t be easy.

(Meera Srinivasan is the The Hindu’s Colombo correspondent.)

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