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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2610

Delhi – Colombo U.S. Embassies, Robert Blake to decide

Daya Gamage – US National Correspondent Asian Tribune – A Commentary

Ambassador Robert Blake Washington, D.C. 02 August, ( The United States diplomatic mission in New Delhi will soon endeavor to bring “sense” to the political establishment in India, reluctant so far to intervene in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka, the importance of bringing pressure on Sri Lanka to devolve power under the Thirteenth Amendment. In Washington at the State Department assistant secretary Robert Blake will use his clout to convince policymakers of both Obama and Clinton, and Congressional leaders the way out for Sri Lanka is devolution of power through which to address 12% Tamil minority aspirations and grievances.

At the American embassy in Delhi the State Department already has a Sri Lankan expert as its deputy chief of mission Peter Burleigh taken out of his well earned retirement from the State Department.

Soon to be installed American ambassador to Sri Lanka Patricia Butenis whose reputation for deeply meddling in her previous posting in Bangladesh was well documented in these columns and considered a tough nut to crack.

Sri Lanka’s former Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike was once reputed for cracking a tough nut, Francis Willis, who presided over the American embassy in Colombo in the early sixties on the issue of nationalization of American oil companies. The U.S. could not pull a covert operation in Sri Lanka the manner in which they pulled to depose Iran’s Mohamed Mozadegh in 1954. Instead, U.S. suspended the low-interest food aid which was provided under PL 480 Food Aid Program but several months later learning that Bandaranaike was a hard nut to crack resumed the food aid. Bandaranaike who went on to a second term in the seventies described the West as ‘rapacious’ because of their meddling in the internal affairs of her nation and their endeavor to set the national agenda that fitted the ‘rapacious West’.

On May 18 this year another head of state in Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, cracked even a harder nut - Velupillai Prabhakaran and his outfit that influenced Sri Lanka’s national agenda for three decades.

Sri Lanka is now faced with another hard nut who will descend in Colombo probably in early August – new American ambassador Patricia Butenis.

This time Sri Lanka’s national agenda is being drawn jointly by Blake’s office in Washington, Peter Burleigh’s office in New Delhi and Butenis’ Executive Office in Colombo. The new American ambassador to Delhi Timothy Roemer has pledged to ‘rope’ Indian political establishment for the U.S. (and the West) to exert pressure on the Rajapaksa regime to implement what the West thinks is beneficial for Sri Lanka’s long-term progress.

Evidences toward that end are emerging very clearly. The United States ‘significant strategic interests’ in Sri Lanka is cited lately in order to develop policy planks of this agenda.

Ambassador Tim Roemer

The United States expects to work with India in a regional-cum-global effort to find out a long-lasting political solution to the ethnic question in Sri Lanka, according to Timothy Roemer ambassador-designate to India.

In his testimony to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on July 7, Tim Roemer, said the US Administration was very concerned about the resettlement of the Tamil war refugees in northern Sri Lanka. It was also worried about the process of ethnic reconciliation between the minority Tamils and the majority Sinhalese in the aftermath of the military defeat of the Tamil Tiger separatist rebels in May this year.

Roemer then went on to propose a joint US-India approach to the Sri Lankan question. “I think that’s something that would be important for the next ambassador to continue to work with the Indian government on, to see that the Sri Lankan situation moves in a peaceful process, with reconciliation as a high goal,” he told at his confirmation process at the Foreign Relations Committee.

Mr. Roemer is President of the Center for National Policy (CNP) in Washington, D.C. Before joining CNP, he represented the 3rd District of Indiana for six terms as a U.S. Congressman, from 1991 to 2003. Congressman Roemer served as a member of the 9/11 Commission. He was appointed to the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Proliferation and Terrorism, a bi-partisan commission created by Congress to examine how the U.S. can best address this threat to the country’s national security. In addition, he serves on the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Presidential Task Force on Combating the Ideology of Radical Extremism, and the National Parks Second Century Commission. As a Distinguished Scholar at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, Congressman Roemer works with Members of Congress and staff to improve public policy outcomes by teaching on the legislative branch and policy analysis. Congressman Roemer holds a B.A. from the University of California, San Diego and a M.A. and PhD. from the University of Notre Dame.

Patricia Butenis

In her Senate confirmation hearing before the Foreign Relations Committee on 16 June at Capitol Hill in Washington U.S. ambassador-designate to Sri Lanka Patricia Butenis did not conceal her objectives, targets and passions when she declared that “the Sri Lankan government must seriously address previous human rights abuses, including establishing accountability and rule of law by bringing to justice those responsible for extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and the numerous attacks against press freedom that have occurred in the last several years.”

With that observation Ms. Butenis indicated that as the U.S. State Department representative in this South Asian nation she will take the stated issues very seriously and get the Sri Lankan administration to establish accountability to human rights abuses.

Ms. Butenis who is well known for her outspokenness leading to controversies and sometimes exercising diplomatic improprieties when she was ambassador in Bangladesh during 2006-07 period was very candid when she told the U.S. Senate “The Sri Lankan government now has an historic opportunity to bring lasting peace by addressing the legitimate grievances of the Tamil people and finding a political solution that will ensure equality and justice for all Sri Lankans. They should not miss this chance to set the course for lasting peace.”

“However”, she said “political reconciliation is required to sustain the peace over the long term. The Sri Lankan government must begin addressing legitimate Tamil grievances, including articulating a political vision inclusive of the aspirations of all Sri Lankans -- all religions and ethnic groups.”

“In order to secure a lasting peace”, Ms. Butenis declared “the Sri Lankan government must seriously address previous human rights abuses, including establishing accountability and rule of law by bringing to justice those responsible for extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and the numerous attacks against press freedom that have occurred in the last several years.”

The envoy-designate told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that she was “looking forward to furthering US strategic interests in Sri Lanka.”

As a reminder to both Ambassador Patricia Butenis and Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry the Vienna Convention of Diplomatic Relations (VCDR), to which both Sri Lanka and the United States are signatories, sets the guidelines on how diplomats should conduct their relations in the host countries together with other provisions. One of the important provisions of this Convention is on diplomatic immunity. Diplomats are exempted from persecution in the courts of the host countries and other legal obligations that the citizens of that country are subjected to. This immunity is however balanced by responsibilities. Article 41 (1) of VCDR reads: "Without prejudice to the privileges and immunities, it is the duty of all persons enjoying such privileges and immunities to respect the laws and regulations of the receiving states. They have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of that country". Sub-paragraph (2) of Article 41 is equally interesting as it states that diplomatic missions must conduct their relations with the host country either with the Foreign Ministry or through the Foreign Ministry of the receiving state.

Here is the full text of Article 41 of the VCDR:

1. Without prejudice to their privileges and immunities, it is the duty of all persons enjoying such privileges and immunities to respect the laws and regulations of the receiving State. They also have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of that State.

2. All official business with the receiving State entrusted to the mission by the sending State shall be conducted with or through the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of the receiving State or such other ministry as may be agreed.

3. The premises of the mission must not be used in any manner incompatible with the functions of the mission as laid down in the present Convention or by other rules of general international law or by any special agreements in force between the sending and the receiving State. (End Article 41)

Ms. Butenis has served as the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq since July 2007. Prior to this assignment, she served as Ambassador to Bangladesh, a position for which she was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on February 16, 2006, and sworn in on March 17, 2006. She is a career member of the Senior Foreign Service, rank of Minister-Counselor. Ms. Butenis was previously Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan (2004-2006).

Robert Blake

The US would back the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution as the solution for the Tamil issue, said Robert Blake, the new Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia at a congressional hearing in Washington on June 25.

Blake said that to end terrorism and secure lasting peace in Lanka, the 13th Amendment could be fully implemented.

Observing that a lot needs to be done in Sri Lanka, Obama Administration's point man for South Asia said in his testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia that the US would continue to press for the "political reconciliation" with the ethnic Tamil community.

"We continue to press the Sri Lankan government to grant humanitarian relief organizations full and unfettered access to the internally displaced persons residing in camps in the north, and to engage in political reconciliation with Sri Lanka's Tamil minority," Blake said.

"The actions the Sri Lankan government takes now, in the aftermath of the war, with respect to both humanitarian relief and political inclusions for minorities, will be important to securing an end to terrorism and a lasting peace," he added.

Blake also spoke about the importance of having a second chamber in the Sri Lankan Parliament, namely, an upper house to represent the provinces. These steps, he argued, “Would help achieve political reconciliation” between the various communities, principally, the Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims.

Blake was U.S. envoy to Sri Lanka from early 2006 through April 2009.

Peter Burleigh

Senior U.S. Foreign Service Officer was taken out of his retirement by the Obama administration early this year, made him the Charge’ de Affairs in the New Delhi American embassy, and will be the Deputy Chief of Mission when Ambassador Tim Roemer takes over the Mission in August.

Burleigh has had several diplomatic tours in South Asia and was ambassador in Sri Lanka from 1995 to 1997.

He had his first exposure to the sub-continent as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal in the early 1960s. From the Peace Corps, he gravitated to the State Department and spent some years of his diplomatic career in Nepal, India and Sri Lanka. As a junior diplomat, he had served in the US Embassy in Colombo from 1968 to 1970 and in New Delhi from 1973 to 1975. He also served as the US Ambassador to Sri Lanka from 1995 to 1997. In one of the web sites of the old Peace Corps volunteers, he had entered the following post about himself: "After graduating from Colgate in 1963, I spent two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nepal, then a year of graduate study in South Asian affairs at the University of Pennsylvania, and another year in Nepal on a student Fulbright grant.

He further added “On returning from Nepal in 1967, I joined the State Department and was assigned -- you guessed it -- to Sri Lanka, where I was a junior officer trainee until 1970. I learned the language, Sinhala, was able to spend another seven months in 1995 resurrecting that language ability. I use the language a lot, with Buddhist monks and village people in particular. English is widely used in government and the commercial sector of the economy. Between 1970 and December 1995 I served in India, Bahrain and Nepal in positions of increasing seniority, and for the past 13 years I was in Washington in a series of jobs. These included three deputy assistant secretary positions as well as coordinator for counter-terrorism. The last position carried with it ambassadorial rank, though I was based in Washington."

When he was posted in the US Embassy in New Delhi from 1973 to 75, the Indian Communists and anti-US magazines like the Blitz used to accuse him of being a CIA officer working under a diplomatic cover. While it is difficult to prove this, it needs to be noted that he had served as the Counter-Terrorism Coordinator in the US State Department in Washington DC in 1991-92. Past holders of this post had a CIA or FBI background.

Mr. Burleigh who knows principal players in Sri Lanka politics and civic leaders with a very good knowledge of socio-political developments in that country will undoubtedly be a ‘counseling’ hand to Ambassador Roemer when the United States commences its Sri Lanka agenda in New Delhi to ‘rope’ the Indian political establishment, which has demonstrated its friendliness toward the Rajapaksa regime and somewhat ‘hands-off’ policy, for a greater involvement in Sri Lankan affairs.

U.S. Congress

A Bill to authorize appropriations for the Department of State to modernize the Foreign Service, ‘‘Foreign Relations Authorization Act, Fiscal Years 2010 and 2011’’, is now before the United States Congress. It is now under discussion in the House and will soon be sent to the Senate.

Section 1121 of the Bill is on ‘humanitarian assistance to Sri Lanka’, and the language in this Section clearly reflects the overall U.S. policy toward Sri Lanka of her national issues. This is the operational line U.S. diplomats in New Delhi, Colombo and Blake’s office in Washington will pursue when they deal with many Sri Lankan issues.

To quote Section 1121 of the “Foreign Relations Authorization Act, Fiscal Years 2010 and 2011”:

“The Government of Sri Lanka should allow the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) access to all sites where newly arrived displaced persons are being registered or being provided shelter, as well as to implement established international humanitarian standards in the camps for internally displaced persons;

“A durable and lasting peace will only be achieved through a political solution that addresses the legitimate aspirations of all Sri Lankan communities; and

“The Government of Sri Lanka should put forward a timely and credible proposal to engage its Tamil community who do not espouse violence or terrorism, and to develop power sharing arrangements so that lasting peace and reconciliation can be achieved.” (End Quote)

US Strategic Interests in Sri Lanka: An Overview

The U.S. envoy-designate to Sri Lanka Patricia Butenis told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee June 16 that she was “looking forward to furthering US strategic interests in Sri Lanka.”

According to an in-depth study with first hand knowledge on the subject of U.S. strategic interests in Sri Lanka former American ambassador to Sri Lanka (2003-05) Jeffrey Lunstead in a scholarly presentation to the St. Francisco-based US Government-funded Asia Foundation in May 2007 titled THE UNITED STATES’ ROLE IN SRI LANKA’S PEACE PROCESS 2002-2006 categorically declared that the United States did not and does not have any strategic interests in Sri Lanka.

He candidly says in the study that the little interest the U.S. and then deputy secretary of the State Department Richard Armitage had during and after the Norwegian-brokered 2002 peace agreement between Sri Lanka government and the LTTE was because of then Ranil Wickremasinghe government’s pro-US stance especially at the Cancun Round of Trade Talks in which Sri Lanka supported the US trade policies (which the entire developing world opposed).

Ambassador Lunstead wrote in his lengthy in-depth study that “U.S. engagement in Sri Lanka's peace process since it began in late-2001 has been substantial. The degree of engagement and commitment of U.S. attention could, in fact, be viewed as out of proportion to U.S. interests in Sri Lanka. This is not meant as a negative comment, or to imply that the U.S. has no interests in Sri Lanka. Rather, it signifies that the U.S. has no significant strategic interests in Sri Lanka, certainly in comparison to other areas of enhanced U.S. engagement”

He further elaborates: “Even within the South Asia region, U.S. strategic interests are concentrated on other countries and issues. The U.S. has strategic interests in India as a nuclear power and a growing economic/commercial partner. Pakistan is important because of its nuclear status and its frontline position in the war on terror. Afghanistan is a focus of the battle against al-Qaeda and an attempt to create a stable, democratic, and pro-U.S. government; with the commitment of U.S. and NATO forces. In comparison, U.S. interests in Sri Lanka are much smaller. While the U.S has a congenial military to military relationship with Sri Lanka, strategic military interests of the type present in India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan do not exist.”

Lunstead says: “On the economic side as well, U.S. interests in Sri Lanka are limited. U.S. trade with Sri Lanka is relatively insignificant, at about $2.3 billion in 2005. By way of comparison, U.S. 2005 trade with Malaysia, a country of similar population to Sri Lanka, was about $34 billion. More significantly, Sri Lanka is not a major market for U.S. goods, as the U.S. exported only $198 million to Sri Lanka in 2005, leading to a trade deficit of -$1.88 billion. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) by U.S. companies in Sri Lanka is also quite small.”

“With the end of the Cold War, U.S. attention to Sri Lanka declined. Clear evidence of this is seen in USAID planning. By 1998 USAID programs in Sri Lanka were running at approximately $5 million per year. USAID's "Country Program Strategy FY 2001- 2005"5 called for funding at this level for FY 2001-2004,6 dropping to $2 million in FY 2005” says Lunstead.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage provided the clearest public explanation of his interest in a speech he delivered at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington in February 2003. In that speech he posed the question himself, "Why should the United States invest significant attention and resources to Sri Lanka, especially at a time when we have such overwhelming competing interests?" It could not be justified in terms of U.S. self-interest, he said, for U.S. interests in Sri Lanka "do not really constitute a clear strategic impetus for the United States…particularly in a time of war and economic uncertainty."

About the ENHANCED U.S. INTEREST during the Ranil Wickremasinghe regime Ambassador Lunstead outlined in his Asia Foundation research-study: “The pattern of limited U.S. engagement with the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict changed dramatically with the start of the new peace process in 2001-2002. This was not due to any dramatic change in U.S. strategic interests in Sri Lanka, but rather to a combination of other factors:

(a) The post-Sept. 11, 2001 atmosphere that ushered in a new determination by the U.S. to confront terrorism on a worldwide basis. (b) The election in Sri Lanka of a UNP/UNF government led by Ranil Wickremesinghe that was markedly more pro-West and pro-free market/globalization.(c) The personal interest of then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.”

Lunstead says: “In fact, the first two elements were enabling factors. It was the third element—the personal involvement of Deputy Secretary Armitage—that drove U.S. involvement.”

But Ambassador Lunstead was honest when he described the low strategic interest: “It was also limited by the fact that the LTTE is essentially a local Sri Lankan phenomenon with no clear ties to other terrorist groups with a world-wide reach. The U.S. opposes all terrorist groups, but all such groups are not equal in the extent to which they threaten U.S. interests directly.”


‘There has never been pressure from India. Only a desire for more understanding. If any pressure has come on me, it has been from the West’, Mahinda Rajapaksa told Inderjit Badhwar of Gfiles in a candid interview. The Tehelka magazine’s latest issue (August 1, 2009) carried the interview that covered the entire gamut India- Sri Lanka relations, regional security, China’s influence, West’s concerns over human rights, ethnic Tamil issue and above all LTTE’s brutal mission.

Rajapaksa brushed aside the criticism of the West that that after his decisive victory over the LTTE he was no longer concerned about the rights and grievances of Sri Lanka’s Tamils.

‘I do not need lectures from outsiders on Sri Lankan Tamils’, he told his western critics, saying the Tamils are ‘my people’ and ‘our country is proud of them (Tamils)’.

The President pointed to his own abiding ties with Tamils at the personal level and at the political level to make it abundantly clear ‘I will tolerate no injustice towards them (Tamils) as I would not tolerate injustice to any Sri Lankan’.

Then in August 2007 President Rajapaksa gave an exclusive interview to Asian Tribune criticizing the West attitude toward Sri Lanka.

Rajapaksa clearly showed his bitterness when he indicated that half of the problems his government is facing from principal players in the international community because of his non-elitist background. The West placed its bet on Ranil Wickremasinghe in supporting him for the country’s leadership but obviously was disappointed that the grip of the elites in the political leadership was lost to a commoner who hailed from the rural countryside.

“That’s one reason the West doesn’t like me,” the President of Sri Lanka told Asian Tribune in the exclusive interview conducted at the Peninsular Hotel in Los Angeles, California.

When the question came as to why the West does not accept his government’s cogent arguments about maintaining the checks and balances that are in place to monitor human rights issue while attempting to protect national security from Tamil Tiger terrorists, he posed the question with some anger “what does the West want? Treat LTTE terrorists as freedom fighters?”

He declared to Asian Tribune that Sri Lanka saw her cogent arguments and explanations to the international community about the serious struggle she is involved in combating Tamil Tiger terrorism while her endeavor to safeguard the nation’s territorial integrity, sovereignty and national security being defeated and buried in the hands of LTTE propaganda, misinformation and myths.

“The West is of the opinion that if the Tamil Tigers are militarily defeated our government will abandon the search for a political solution to the nation’s problem. That will not happen”, President Rajapaksa reiterated to Asian Tribune.

We thought it appropriate to carry the above sentiments, one expressed to Tehelka magazine’s August 01 (2009) issue and other to Asian Tribune in August 2007, how Mr. Rajapaksa felt about the West policies and attitudes toward Sri Lanka.

Now, United States diplomatic missions in New Delhi and Colombo with Robert Blake’s South and Central Asian Affairs Bureau in Washington’s State Department are on the verge of drawing an agenda for the Rajapaksa administration to bring external solutions that the U.S. and the West believe will suit Sri Lanka to solve her national issues.

The next episode begins when the new American ambassador Patricia Butenis descends in Colombo in August. Is the Government of Sri Lanka prepared for it?

- Asian Tribune -

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