Senator Kerry, US Secretary of State: New US foreign policy trajectory toward Sri Lanka
On 21 December 2009 a sizeable group of Tamils of Sri Lankan origin stormed the Boston, Massachusetts office of Senator John Kerry to express their utter displeasure, exhibit their vehement protest and denounce the report his senate panel - foreign relations committee - issued earlier that month which took somewhat a different perspective the Clinton-State Department pursued about Sri Lanka.
The previous May, Sri Lankan military forces were responsible in causing an ignominious defeat to Prabhaharan's separatist/terrorist outfit that took a section of the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora which was monetarily and materially aiding and abetting the Tigers to secure a Tamil homeland in the north and east of Sri Lanka.
Since the defeat of the LTTE the active section of the Tamil Diaspora led by those who gave legal and other professional/counselling support to Prabhaharan found their voices been accepted and heard in the halls of the State Department advocating war crime tribunal for Sri Lankan leaders.
The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee report, jointly issued by Chairman Kerry and Ranking Member (Republican) Richard Lugar, was advocating a completely different approach toward Sri Lanka.
The pro-Tiger/separatist activists of the American Tamil Diaspora was angered by the tone, approach and far-reaching suggestions of the report which called for friendlier relations between the two nations.
The Boston Tamil Diaspora has been encouraging their senator Kerry and other US officials to open a war crimes investigation, charging that the Sri Lankan army shelled hospitals and killed civilians in their effort to defeat the rebels.
The Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora in Boston gathered outside Senator Kerry’s office in Bowdoin Square and handed over about 45 letters of complaint to one of Kerry's aides. The protesters claimed that the report was biased towards the Sinhalese ethnic majority that rules Sri Lanka, and against the Tamil minority that has been fighting for a separate homeland for decades.
When others in the State Department were mainly focusing on rule of law and human rights, Kerry-Lugar report of the powerful foreign relations committee underscored "The United States cannot afford to 'lose' Sri Lanka,"
Mr. Siva Sivalogan, who was one of those who organized and led the protest demonstration said "The report falls short on presenting the Tamil's grievances," and noted that one of the staffers who co-authored the report is of Sinhalese descent.
To that the Kerry staffer Frederick John was somewhat annoyed and showed his anger when he told the Tamil gathering "To question the objectivity and expertise of a Foreign Relations Committee stiffer based on her ethnicity is deeply troubling."
The bipartisan report "does not take sides between the different ethnic groups," Jones said. "The Senate Foreign Relations report presents a balanced and pragmatic view of the steps all sides need to take to help the country transition to a real peace," he further told the Tamil Diaspora gathering which obviously annoyed the Kerry stiffer because of the attitude the gathering leaders took in questioning the integrity of the senator John Kerry.
It is this John Kerry whose integrity was questioned by the pro-separatist Tamil Diaspora is to be nominated by President Barack Obama as the next United States secretary of state.
The Kerry Foreign relations committee report took a different view that angered the pro-separatist Tamil Diaspora one of which was "Sri Lanka's strategic importance to the United States, China, and India is viewed by some as a key piece in a larger geopolitical dynamic, what has been referred to as a new ``Great Game.'' While all three countries share an interest in securing maritime trade routes, the United States has invested relatively few economic and security resources in Sri Lanka, preferring to focus instead on the political environment. Sri Lanka's geo-strategic importance to American interests has been neglected as a result."
And then this policy sentiment: "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."
The report opined what the Clinton-Blake State Department never focused: "The United States does have influence in Sri Lanka. The challenge today is how to creatively leverage political and humanitarian reform with economic, trade, and security incentives so as to link an expanded partnership with better governance and a strengthened democracy. To be effective, the United States should better understand what is important to the Sri Lankan Government and people and retool its strategy accordingly."
The US Senate Foreign relations Committee report of December 2009 it faulted the Clinton-Blake State Department's over-emphasis of humanitarian and political concern over Sri Lanka's strategic location in the Indian Ocean:
"While the United States shares with the Indians and the Chinese a common interest in securing maritime trade routes through the Indian Ocean, the U.S. Government has invested relatively little in the economy or the security sector in Sri Lanka, instead focusing more on IDPs and civil society. As a result, Sri Lanka has grown politically and economically isolated from the West.
"This strategic drift will have consequences for U.S. interests in the region. Along with our legitimate humanitarian and political concerns, U.S. policy-makers have tended to underestimate Sri Lanka's geo-strategic importance for American interests. 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 following sentiment - the crust of Kerry-report argument - obviously angered the pro-separatist Tamil Diaspora that stormed Kerry's Boston office on 21 December 2009, an anger that epitomized the rest of the pro-separatist Tamil Diaspora in the United States and in other Western cities.
"The United States cannot afford to ``lose'' Sri Lanka. This does not mean changing the relationship overnight or ignoring the real concerns about Sri Lanka's political and humanitarian record. It does mean, however, considering a new approach that increases U.S. leverage vis-a-vis Sri Lanka by expanding the number of tools at our disposal. A more multifaceted U.S. strategy would capitalize on the economic, trade, and security aspects of the relationship. This approach in turn could catalyse much-needed political reforms that will ultimately help secure longer term U.S. strategic interests in the Indian Ocean. U.S. strategy should also invest in Sinhalese parts of the country, instead of just focusing aid on the Tamil-
dominated North and East."
Gibson Bateman, who frequently writes on Sri Lanka issues while connecting well to the overall American foreign policy toward the Asian Region, in his 14 December 2012 submission to the well-read Foreign Policy in Focus was not far away from the sentiments Senator John Kerry possesses.
Mr. Bateman opines: "The United States will invariably look to strengthen military ties with Sri Lanka.
Strategically speaking, it would be unwise for Washington to further antagonize Colombo and lose an ally in a region where it intends to maintain a significant presence in the coming decades. Sri Lanka is not a top tier foreign policy priority for the United States, but the Obama administration will be reluctant to cede all influence there–especially as China’s foreign policy agenda continues to expand."
And, then he says: "In the long run, it’s likely that international forums are not the best way to pressure the regime. Effective diplomatic pressure on Sri Lanka will probably happen bilaterally. The regime probably recognizes this, which would explain why it has disregarded the HRC resolution. Yet here again, U.S.-Sri Lankan relations will be brought to the fore."
Sri Lanka policy subcontracted to India
Since the nineties and even after the separatist battle in May 2009, the Clinton-Blake State Department heavily depended on the good offices of the Indian government to bring pressure on Sri Lanka but at some stage it was very clear that Delhi was somewhat reluctant to perform as a 'subcontractor' of Sri Lanka policy. The U.S., while bringing some pressure on Sri Lanka, did not see the importance of incorporating smaller states such as Sri Lanka in the overall American policy in the Asian Region but manifested as if it has 'subcontracted to India' instead of coordinating with Delhi.
The Asia Society report 'The United States and South Asia after Afghanistan' released in the second week of December (2012) makes this recommendation at a time Senator John Kerry has been mentioned as the next secretary of state in the second Obama administration.
"A second Obama administration provides an opportunity to forge a better-integrated South Asia strategy. The approach should not be a focus on a single country alone. This is not about an India strategy, with neighbours attached"
Then it opines: "A holistic approach is essential. Many, if not all, functional challenges cross the traditional South and Central Asia/East Asia divide. Asian states see Asia as a geopolitical and economic space. U.S. policy makers on South Asia need to do likewise. China is a South Asian foreign and economic policy actor; a close political ally of Pakistan; and deeply engaged with Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives. U.S. policy makers need to stretch their vision beyond the boundaries of geographic bureaus at the State Department."
What the Asia Society December 2012 report cited Kerry Foreign relations Committee report envisaged in December 2009. Asia Society said: "For China, South Asia is the near abroad. The country shares direct land borders with Pakistan, India, Nepal, and Bhutan and a close interest in Sri Lanka and the Maldives given that so much of China’s energy needs are shipped via the Indian Ocean. Just as U.S. policy toward China will have consequences for U.S. relations with South Asian states, China’s policy toward South Asia will have consequences for Washington’s interests."
Is it possible for Washington to develop a more strategic foreign policy approach to South Asia rather than have policy making dominated by the agenda of the day?
Does the U.S. government have the South Asia expertise it needs, and does this connect properly to policy making?
How can the competing policy communities that care about specific countries or specific issues forge a common policy agenda that can be coherently implemented by an administration?
The three questions perhaps mattered less when South Asia was less relevant to U.S. policy goals, but given vital and growing U.S. interests in the region, they merit answers.
China-Sri Lanka-Rest of South Asian nations
The Asia Society report found policy discrepancies in the state department's approach to South Asia. At a time Senator Kerry is tipped to take over the department U.S. faces a challenge posed by the successful rise of South Asia to enduring policy importance. Instead of working on a country as a whole, state department officials, in the opinion of the Asia Society, currently focus on a particular issue within it. As a result, relatively few state department officials can successfully build a broad understanding of regional issue.
The December 2009 Kerry-Lugar foreign relations committee report warning was very clear. As much as that report recognized Sri Lanka as a key component of any regional policy, Asia Society report noted (Begin Quote) Bangladesh deserves attention as a moderate Muslim democracy of 160 million people118 and the bridge for a future economic corridor between South and South-east Asia. Nepal, although not a vital U.S. interest, could become more important if U.S.-China relations deteriorated.
Nepal’s hydroelectric resources could help meet the energy demands of its neighbors. The same is true of Bhutan, which could also present investment opportunities to unlock its enormous energy potential. While Bhutan does not have diplomatic relations with the United States, it does participate in the South Asia Regional Initiative for Energy (SARI/Energy) sponsored by USAID. The program helps countries in South Asia develop their power infrastructure. Sri Lanka and the Maldives are a key component of any regional policy, both to stimulate greater economic integration and to maintain peace and security in the Indian Ocean. (End Quote)
And Senator Kerry is well knowledgeable that China is investing heavily in South Asia: in the Mes Aynak copper mine in Afghanistan, the port of Gwadar in Pakistan, , and in various industries in India including new energy projects. China recently pledged to increase investment in Pakistan from $7 billion to $30 billion a year. Only India, however, has significant investment in China in a reciprocal relationship. The first Chinese-built port opened in Sri Lanka in June 2012, a symbol of China’s support for development in the postwar state. Other Chinese projects in South Asia include plans to build a second port in Sri Lanka, a rail project in Nepal, and a possible port on Sonadia Island in Bangladesh.
Reciprocity from Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is fortunate that a person of the calibre of John Kerry who has been handling foreign policy issues for the United States for decades and who understands Sri Lanka issues well as manifested in his December 2009 report is taking over the helm of the state department. And Sri Lanka is equally benefited that not a foreign policy hawk is t at the helm of America's public diplomacy and strategic communication. Which is why the pro-separatist Tamil Diaspora in the U.S. was angered by the tone of the Kerry-Lugar report. The report took a different approach toward Sri Lanka and Sri Lanka needs to define Mr. Kerry using that approach and tone he laid down three years ago.
But the Kerry foreign relations report laid down several observations and policy planks the U.S. expect the Government of Sri Lanka to fulfill. To establish a cordial US-Sri Lanka rapport under Secretary of State Kerry, Sri Lanka needs to reciprocate on key issues.
The Kerry-report outlined its recommendations to the Sri Lanka government in this manner:
(Begin Text) U.S. engagement with Sri Lanka has continued in the Obama administration. Just days before the war ended, President Obama delivered a statement from the Rose Garden urging Sri Lanka to ``seek a peace that is secure and lasting, and grounded in respect for all of its citizens.'' While economic and security relations continue on a limited basis, the U.S. approach has heavily focused on humanitarian issues and political reforms.
The administration has consistently called for an end to human rights abuses, protection and rapid resettlement of IDPs, and genuine efforts towards reconciliation in part through statements from President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert Blake. The State Department, under the leadership of its new U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Patricia Butenis, has demanded progress from the Government on eight benchmarks including improved conditions in the camps, return of IDPs, political progress, and de-mining.
The United States does have influence in Sri Lanka. The challenge today is how to creatively leverage political and humanitarian reform with economic, trade, and security incentives so as to link an expanded partnership with better governance and a strengthened democracy. To be effective, the United States should better understand what is important to the Sri Lankan Government and people and retool its strategy accordingly.
Treat all internally displaced persons in accordance with Sri Lankan and international standards, including by guaranteeing their freedom of movement, providing access to war-torn areas and populations by humanitarian organizations and journalists, and accounting for persons detained in the conflict.
Recognize the importance of a free and fair press, for both its own democratic traditions and for sharing accurate information with the international community. cease prosecuting cases against journalists based on emergency law; and actively investigate threats, abuses and killings of journalists.
Take steps to repeal emergency laws that are no longer applicable now that the war is over. This will send a strong message that Sri Lanka is ready to transition to a post-conflict environment.
Share its plans for resettlement and reconstruction in the North with Sri Lankan civil society and international donors, who are well-positioned to support such efforts if there is greater transparency and accountability.
Commence a program of reconciliation between the diverse communities in Sri Lanka.
Engage in a dialogue on land tenure issues, since they affect resettlement in the North and East. ,b>(End Text)
Senator Kerry has extended his friendly gesture with total understanding of Sri Lanka issues without taking a hawkish attitude that some American officials took in the past. This obviously angered Sri Lanka, and Mr. Kerry has noted that in his report. John Kerry as President Obama's 'top diplomat' Sri Lanka has got a chance of a lifetime not only to 're-adjust' its relationship with the United States but also to make use of that extended friendly hand to reciprocate.
- Asian Tribune -