Repairing US Sri-Lankan Relations: A review of the SENATE REPORT

REPAIRING SL-US RELATIONS
December 10, 2009  

THE SENATE FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE REPORT
 
-          By Dayan Jayatilleka
 
As a citizen of Sri Lankaand a political scientist by vocation, hardly a day passes when I do not envy the American people for the high intelligence of their political leadership and policy elites, the capacity for self-correction ensured by the functioning of their democratic political institutions, and the transparent, accountable, democratic and participatory character of their civic culture.  (I didn’t feel this way during the Bush years of course).
 
One of the most superbly impressive of these institutions is the US Senate’s powerful Committee on Foreign Relations. That body has just issued a report dated Dec 7th, 2009, entitled Sri Lanka: Re-charting US Strategy after the War.  Bearing the signatures of two of the most respected and influential USSenators, John Kerry and Richard Lugar, Democrat and Republican, it is an admirable combination of Realism and principle, balancing US interests with US values.  Its sheer analytical intelligence and lucidity of perspective and presentation are in stark and welcome contrast with the preachy platitudes that pass for political and policy debate in Sri Lanka be it in the institutions or the public domain. 

 
The Report shows that Sri Lankahas made its point. We didn’t blink, and fought the war to a victorious finish, using our friends to balance off the efforts of the West to secure a truce. Our balance of power strategy and countervailing efforts succeeded.  The USunderestimated us, miscalculated. However – and this is crucial – the US has the “smarts” to strive to re-set the relationship, given its strategic interests. It also lets Sri Lanka know what its views, opinions and parameters are. The Report educates the USsystem and public opinion what reorientation is needed in US policy so as to best sub-serve US interests. In that sense it is an antidote to the anti-Sri Lankan propaganda of the pro-Tamil Eelam lobby. As importantly, it also seeks to educate the Sri Lankan political elite and opinion makers as to the deal that is on the table.
 
As someone who played a direct role in defeating a Western attempt to push through a UN resolution inimical to Sri Lanka, I’d strongly suggest we take the deal that is on the table, barring one matter that should be off limits.  That is Sri Lanka’s relationship with China. Now it must be stressed that the US Senate Report does not even hint that Sri Lanka should cut back on that relationship, but it signals quite rightly that the USshould not let its own interests go by default and should enter the ring. That’s fine.  Given that the Report itself indicates that China’s power of veto forestalled a possible Western move to push a truce through the UN Security Council, none can fault us for recognizing the grand strategic value – perhaps even primacy—of that relationship, on which we cannot and must not compromise, though we must carefully balance our relations with China and India as Madam Bandaranaike and Lakshman Kadirgamar did.              
 
While our relationship with the US cannot be at the expense of our relationship with China, our relationship with China and India cannot be at the expense of each other, and our identification with the rest of the Global south must not be the price we pay for our relationship with the USA, the US Senate Report does not indicate any such zero sum games. Our relationship with the US can dramatically improve at virtually no cost to Sri Lanka, in a multiple sum game.
 
Our wartime foreign policy was an essentialist one, necessarily balancing off the East against the West and the North against the South. That is no longer necessary.  It does not mean that we must dump our friends, shift our tested relationships or unmoor our existential identifications. It does mean that we have to re-balance; re-calibrate our relations, repairing the damage in our relationships with the USA, thereby plugging the gap in our external relations. This would enable us to have a multi-directional (multi-vector) foreign policy, suitable to an increasingly multi-polar global reality.
 
A powerful, respected segment in Washington DC is ready to reach out to Colombo. Their checklist of concerns (though the word “demand” appears once) is transparent and to my mind possible and positive; unexceptionable and desirable. No international friend of Sri Lanka that I can think of would suggest that we ignore or cold-shoulder it. As I have pointed out before, we have stretched our friends to the point of embarrassment with our confrontationist rhetoric in relation to the Obama administration and there’s not much more mileage to be obtained by staying that course at a time when the equations these friends (China,Russia, India) have with the US under Obama have significantly improved.
 
Indeed the Report provides a kind of roadmap for domestic reform and re-democratization that a consortium of concerned Sri Lankan citizens should have come up with, but has not so far. The states that supported us when the chips were down have all been urging these reforms on us in private. Thus we may say that the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee Report would command a broader international consensus on Sri Lankathan Sri Lanka’s own self –perception, claims and rhetoric. Our failure to win a majority of the Commonwealth over to our effort to host the heads of state summit in 2011 and its postponement to 2013 points to our position and predicament.
 
 
The Senate report recognizes some vital historical facts: “President Mahinda Rajapaksa declared total victory after government soldiers killed the Tamil Tigers’ leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, and took control of the entire country for the first time since 1983…It was a bitter and hard-fought victory, one of the few instances in modern history in which a terrorist group had been defeated militarily.” (My emphasis- DJ)
 
 
 
It correctly identifies, far better than any election propaganda, the challenges, tasks and programme for post war post –election Sri Lanka:“The war in Sri Lankamay be over, but the underlying conflict still simmers. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Sri Lankais not a post-conflict environment. While the fighting between the Government and the LTTE may have ended, the reasons for the political and social conflict (that also gave rise to youth militancy and armed clash in the 1970s and 1980s) will take time to address. Those root causes must be tackled soon and with a sense of urgency to prevent the country from backsliding”.
 
 
 
Tamil leaders and opinion makers should take note of the clear criticism contained in the Report, which indicates a course correction that should be made by the Tamil polity: “Thirty years of violence have taken a toll on the majority Sinhalese population, giving rise to a siege mentality toward the ethnic Tamil minority. For their part, Tamil leaders have not yet made anticipated conciliatory gestures that might ease government concerns and foster a genuine dialogue”. (My emphasis- DJ)
 
 
The Report also has some fascinating snippets– such as Opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s suggestion to the US to “keep up the pressure”. It also contains some discreet signals. While the name of the present Foreign Minister does not appear even once in what is after all a Report of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, one name crops up at least three times, in a clear indication as to who has presented the Sri Lankan case most successfully to the US: Justice Minister Milinda Moragoda.    

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