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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2708

Analyzing the messages U.S. officials from State and Defense gave Sri Lanka

Daya Gamage - Asian Tribune Media Note
Washington, D.C. 03 February (

The three mid-level American officials, two from the State Department and the other from the Defense Department who monitor South and Central Asian Region issues as contributory endeavors to develop policy planks for the hierarch of their government, gave many serious messages to Sri Lanka when they were in Colombo last week.

Their messages to the Government of Sri Lanka and the dialogue they had with officials were outlined at a media event on January 28 of which the transcript was provided by the American Embassy.

The three officials reiterated many issues that the United States wanted Sri Lanka to address, issues the USG highlighted long before the demise of the Tamil Tiger movement.

The State Department officials in Washington developed their mind-set on the 'National Question' that went into their policy planks helped by Foreign Service Officers who were assigned to their diplomatic mission in Colombo having this process gone through from the early eighties to mid-nineties.

Before the turn of the century the State Department formulated its Sri Lanka policy, and since the annihilation of the LTTE the platform was refined to include subsequent issues that emerged which led to intense engagement with this South Asian nation.

Whether Sri Lanka totally understood what that 'policy platform' meant was another matter as Washington officials have been constantly reminding Colombo the 'issues' that need to be resolved.

The issues that concerned the American side manifested during the media event given by the visiting triumvirate were defined or presented in such manner that the GSL, in the opinion of the American side, was unable to give cogent counter-arguments that would have cleared the path for lasting solutions for number of critical issues. Nevertheless, the media event in Colombo clearly projected that they were compelling the GSL to take serious note of what they were saying using strategic and diplomatic language.

The history of cordial U.S.-Sri Lanka relations has been based in large part on shared democratic traditions. For a considerable long period the U.S. policy supports efforts to reform Sri Lanka’s democratic political system in a way that provides for full political participation of all communities; it never endorsed the establishment of another independent state on the island. The U.S. opposed the Tamil Tiger call for a separate state.

Throughout, it condemned the LTTE terror tactics, its mass killings of members of all ethnic communities, its autocratic rule in the country’s northern and eastern districts making the Tamil residents a captive group with absolutely no democratic and human rights. It is this pragmatic approach that compelled the U.S. to give vital and valuable intelligence they gathered to Sri Lanka's intelligence network one of which that destroyed a fleet of vessels that were bringing heavy military equipment to replenish Tiger armory. The FBI cracked down arms procurement endeavors and money laundering of Tamil Tiger agents on American soil facilitating Sri Lanka's war on terror.

When perusing the transcript of the media event the American triumvirate very strategically presented at least seven issues that concerned the U.S. state and the defense departments, the issues which were part of the dialogue between them and the officials of the GSL.

The officials who spent several days in Sri Lanka in the final week of January engaged in the dialogue were, James Moore who was the deputy ambassador in the U.S. Embassy in Colombo most of that period working, observing and writing cables to Washington, some of which were disclosed by the WikiLeaks, under Ambassador Robert Blake now the assistant secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs in Washington. Mr. Moore continues to be his assistant in Washington. And, he very well knew the principal players in the Rajapaksa administration, their mind-set, and the scenario during the military offensive against Tamil Tigers.

The other, Vikram Singh, deputy assistant secretary for South and South East Asia in the U.S. Defense Department, was in Colombo at the height of the battle between the military and the Tamil Tiger fighting cadre sending media reports to US Government-controlled Voice of America. He too was well knowledgeable of the scenario and issues that Sri Lanka faced.

The third, Jane Zimmerman also deputy assistant secretary of the state department, handling human rights and labor works very closely with Blake-Moore office at the State Department.

Let's take the issues one by one -

Issue One:

Media: You had a resolution before. You had all kinds of commitments, and you are saying that still more needs to be done. What’s the pain threshold before you will do something concrete?

DAS Zimmerman: Again, to reemphasize our point, the LLRC is this democratically elected government’s commitments to its people, to heal the wounds from the past conflict. We fully support that goal. The elements of the LLRC are excellent. They can do a lot to get towards that goal. We realize there are certain things that are going to be harder to implement than others. In any post-conflict situation accountability is always one of the toughest issues. Reconciliation is so critical to ensure that the wounds of the past heal cleanly.

Singh: Real reconciliation that gets at some of the root causes of the conflict in the first place is tough. It involves addressing really fundamental issues of every Sri Lankan having a sense of justice and belonging in a Sri Lanka that is unified and is really moving forward into a bright future. I think that is going to involve a lot of issues being hashed out over time. We really look forward to partnering comprehensively in all areas with the Sri Lankan government, people, and civil society as they try to build that really true lasting peace.

Our Comment The United States was convinced of the false steps successive Sri Lankan administrations took to creating an atmosphere for somewhat detrimental to the minority Tamils somewhat difficult, and the failure to undertake remedial actions due to pressure from Sinhalese nationalist elements. But most strikingly the U.S. saw the LTTE-professed political agenda for the Tamils had clear resemblance to what the Federal Party (Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi or Lanka Tamil State Party) demanded since its inception in 1951 i.e., the recognition of Tamils as a distinct nationality, Tamil homeland, self-determination of the Tamil people within a unitary state etc., and the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) interpretation given over the years to the U.S. Foreign Service Officers that the LTTE manifested the aspirations of the 12% Tamils in the island calling the U.S. to give some legitimacy to the LTTE agenda short of recognition to its main demand – a separate independent Tamil nation - forcing the hand of the Sri Lankan administration to rearrange the polity to award self-rule in predominantly Tamil north and east within a unitary state.

By 1995, the U.S. State Department had already developed a very clear understanding of what is said to be the ‘outline’ of its ‘Sri Lanka policy’ toward the ‘Tamil issue’ which is now governing the conversation since the military defeat of the Tamil Tigers in May 2009.

Significantly, during the fifteen (1980 thru 1995) year period, from one group of (US) Foreign Service Officers to another, not forgetting the change of ambassadors every two to three years, change of administration in Washington and change of top personnel at the State Department, there was no lacuna in the development of the perspective toward the ‘National Issue’ with uninterrupted continuity.

This writer, at close quarters within the portal of Colombo's American diplomatic mission working with principal officers, saw the unfolding and shaping of the ‘American perspective toward Sri Lanka’s National Issue.’

Which is why at the media briefing following their talks with GSL officials, opposition politicians and civil society activists the American officials declared. "Reconciliation is so critical to ensure that the wounds of the past heal cleanly" and "the LLRC is this democratically elected government’s commitments to its people, to heal the wounds from the past conflict."

Sri Lanka does not seem to have summoned her strategic communication and public diplomacy skills to explain to the international community the measures taken toward this. The impression created as a result is Sri Lanka is still dragging her feet, even after two-to-three years of the LTTE defeat, to be engaged in genuine reconciliation.

Issue Two

DAS Zimmerman: I should also say another important partner is civil society. That includes those of you right here at this table. Media, journalists, lawyers, human rights defenders. But we can’t help but be worried about the future when we perceive threats to the independence of the judiciary such as the impeachment of the Chief Justice; when we are hearing very credible reports from our contacts in civil society, lawyers, human rights defenders, and journalists such as yourselves about harassment and intimidation and even physical attacks and violence.

Our Comment: There is a wide spread belief, with credible reports, at the American diplomatic mission in Colombo and at the South and Central Asian Affairs Bureau at the State Department, that dissent and free speech have been curtailed and that those, media and civil society activists, who freely expressing their thought that are critical of the government are harassed and intimidated. The American officials have addressing this issue for a considerable long time, and allegations of such incidents, it has been brought to the attention of the State Department, have not been seriously investigated and perpetrators not brought before justice.

A Cabinet Minister's statement, sometimes back, that he was responsible in beating a government-controlled Lake House newspaper journalist (now living in exile in another country) was taken note of by policymakers of these western nations.

Issue Three

DAS Zimmerman: Again, it’s very much a joint civilian/military effort. For instance, we have an assistance program to develop livelihoods in conflict-affected areas so that people can have jobs and a stake in the future, the peaceful future. We stand by ready to help to build the capacity of civil society so that the military will have a strong civil society to which it can pass off responsibilities that it has naturally had to undertake in the post-conflict environment.

Our Comment: Continued 'militarization' in the north and east of Sri Lanka is something that the State Department and the Defense Department want to see an end. Sri Lankan expatriate Tamil lobby in the United States and EU nations have been highlighting this fact saying that the minority Tamils are subject to military rule. Tamil political parties too have brought this matter with the GSL and the foreign ministries of Western nations.

Which is why the State Department officials very diplomatically and strategically declared "We stand by ready to help to build the capacity of civil society so that the military will have a strong civil society to which it can pass off responsibilities that it has naturally had to undertake in the post-conflict environment".

Mr. Singh used the strategic term "the military will have a strong civil society to which it can pass off responsibilities" meaning prepare to lift the influence the military has over the civilian population.

Issue Four

Media: Are you satisfied with the progress made in implementation of the LLRC proposals. Are you satisfied with the progress that has been made thus far? In the implementation of the LLRC proposals.

DAS Zimmerman: We’ve certainly seen progress in many areas including demining, infrastructure, redevelopment, the rehabilitation and release of former combatants, but that said, there’s still a lot more work to do. There has been a lot that has taken place in terms of process, but we would like to see more in terms of implementation.

Media: What are the specific areas you think there should be vast improvement?

DAS Zimmerman: Well, there are still quite a number of families wondering what has become of their loved ones. Whether or not they are being held somewhere. Whether or not there’s any answer to disappearances. There’s a desire for accountability when it comes to extrajudicial killings.

Our Comment: Sri Lanka, in overseas diplomatic and civil society gatherings, has been accused of disappearances and 'unaccountability' of persons taken into custody. The American officials made this point very clear in saying "Well, there are still quite a number of families wondering what has become of their loved ones. Whether or not they are being held somewhere. Whether or not there’s any answer to disappearances. There’s a desire for accountability when it comes to extrajudicial killings".

Sri Lanka seems to have allowed the pro-separatist Tamil lobby in Western capitals to monopolize this issue that has somewhat tarnished her image abroad with foreign ministries of those nations. The end result: The Tamil lobby has gained easy access to the policymakers of those western nations marginalizing the GSL lobby using these critical issues.

Issue Five

Media: Did you discuss the matter of impeachment with the government? And also the appointment of the new Chief Justice who is already the political advisor/the legal advisor to the government/cabinet?

DAS Moore: We did. And we noted that we continue to be concerned about the impeachment of the Chief Justice Bandaranayake.The impeachment proceedings were conducted in defiance of a Supreme Court order, and we believe that the impeachment raises questions about the separation of powers, as well as the rule of law, in Sri Lanka. Of course as part of our ongoing dialogue with the government we continue, along with our international partners, to urge the government of Sri Lanka to uphold the rule of law and to respect the principles of democratic government.

Our Comment: Many statements by the spokesperson of the State Department at media briefings reiterated that the impeachment proceedings were conducted in defiance of a Supreme Court order, which the officials don't seem to have received a cogent explanation from the GSL. If a cogent explanation emerged from the GSL after the sentiments were expressed several occasions the visiting State Department official Mr. Moore would not have repeated the sentiment and concern at Colombo media briefing.
The officials also have serious issue about the separation of powers following the impeachment, and rule of law, which is the cornerstone of any democratic society.

Issue Six

Singh: That we could move towards even greater military cooperation as we see progress on the human rights and accountability.

Our Comment: 'Greater military cooperation' and 'greater economic assistance' heavily and solely depend on the 'Leahy Amendment' ratified by the United States Congress.

The Leahy Law or Leahy provision is a human rights stipulation in U.S. congressional foreign assistance legislation. The Leahy Law prohibits U.S. military assistance to foreign military units (or individuals) that violate human rights with impunity. It is named after its principal sponsor, Senator Patrick Leahy. The law first appeared in the fiscal year 1997 Foreign Operations Appropriations Act, and has been attached to all subsequent acts.

There are actually two different Leahy Laws. One is attached to the Defense Appropriations and the other is within the Foreign Operations Appropriations. The Foreign Operations Appropriations Leahy Law cover weapons funding and training, but the 2001 Defense Appropriations act Leahy Law only covers training. Both Leahy provisions have similar wording.

The Leahy Law version attached to the Foreign Operations Appropriations (foreign economic assistance) has no waivers, but the Leahy Law in the Defense Appropriations version can be waived if the Secretary of Defense determines that “extraordinary circumstances” require it.

This is the message that Deputy Assistant Secretary of the US Department of Defense Mr. Singh endeavors to convey to the GSL and the Sri Lankan people.

He attaches 'accountability' as done by the State department officials.

Issue Secven

Media: Does the U.S. hope to bring another resolution against Sri Lanka at the upcoming United Nation’s Human Rights Council? Or strengthen the one that it brought earlier?

DAS Moore: You’re referring of course to Geneva in March, is that correct?

Media: Yes.

DAS Moore: The United States has decided to sponsor a procedural resolution at the March 2013 session of the UN Human Rights Council along with international partners. The resolution will be straightforward, it will be a procedural resolution, and it will build on the 2012 resolution which called on Sri Lanka to do more to promote reconciliation and accountability. The resolution will ask the government of Sri Lanka to follow through on its own commitments to its people, including the implementation of the LLRC recommendations.

Our Comments:What was discussed above will be communicated to the United States delegation head of the UNHRC in Geneva. She is expected to use the report filed by the State Department based on the findings of the three American officials who visited Colombo in the final week of January. Obviously, the GSL is now aware of most of the contents of the US Resolution at the UNHRC in March; but they are not aware of the verbal submission the US Delegation Head intends submitting at the session. That presentation sometimes can be more damaging to the international image of Sri Lanka.

- Asian Tribune -

Analyzing the messages U.S. officials from State and Defense gave Sri Lanka
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