Photo: The beautiful Samadhi Buddha of the NJ Buddhist Vihara located on Rt. 27 just north of Princeton. Credit: Wikimedia Commons - Photo: 2016

Sri Lanka and the US – The Past, the Present and the Future

Viewpoint by Dr Palitha Kohona

The writer is former Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations in New York.

COLOMBO (IDN) – Sri Lanka’s relations with the US go back a long way and have encompassed many different areas of interest. These have mostly enriched the relationship. In recent times, the bilateral relationship has undergone considerable stress.

As to whether Sri Lanka occupied the central attention of US foreign policy makers to any significant degree in the past, or even at present, can be the subject of a useful discussion, perhaps after a few glasses of good Californian wine. But for Sri Lanka, the US has been a vital foreign policy concern, especially in the recent past.

A brief survey of the relationship in the past reveals that the US established a consulate in Galle as far back as 1857, at a time when many of the countries with embassies in Colombo today did not even exist as countries. Then, the main interest of the US was the need to provide consular services to the US whaling fleet operating in the Indian Ocean.

Subsequently, two Americans, Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, a Civil War veteran, and Madame Helena Blavetsky, played a critical role in the Buddhist revival of this country. At a time Buddhism had been marginalized and many Buddhists had become used to making excuses for being adherents of the traditional religion, Olcott and Blavetsky restored the self-confidence of Sri Lankan Buddhists. Their work will be long remembered.

Many of our leading Buddhist schools in the island owe much to these two American theosophists. Olcott’s statue occupies a prominent position in the Princeton Buddhist Vihara, New Jersey. With their encouragement, leading Buddhists, including Anagarika Dharmapala attended the Chicago Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1893 creating an upsurge of interest in the US about Buddhism.

Many a Sri Lankan youngster has been deeply influenced by the American Declaration of Independence and the towering personalities such as Abraham Lincoln, who despite all his reservations about war took the nation to war to safeguard the Union.

The two world wars saw the US cede the dominant role in Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon, to Britain for obvious reasons. Since independence, Ceylon began to evince greater interest in the US. An embassy was established in Washington in the early fifties. President J. R. Jayawardene was hosted by President Ronald Reagan at the White House. He was the only Sri Lankan head of government to have been granted that honour.

The impact of Cold War

Undoubtedly, the Cold War had a noticeable impact on the relations between the two countries. During the first Sirimavo Bandaranaike government, as we dabbled with our own version of state control of the economy, the nationalisation of foreign owned oil companies led to the withdrawal of PL 480 assistance to Sri Lanka with significant negative consequences for the government’s budget. The steady drift towards government control of the economy did not endear Sri Lanka too much to the West.

At the time, India was very much cosying up to the Soviet Union as its arch-rival, Pakistan, a member of CENTO until its dissolution in 1979, was well established in the US orbit. India, which was a pioneering giant in the Non Aligned Movement, was essentially balancing its own national interest in developing close relations with the Soviet Union. You will recall that Gary Powers started his ill-fated B 70 flight over the Soviet Union from Pakistan.

Sri Lanka shifted economic and political direction in the late seventies and, in the process, appears to have miss-read the international political situation badly.

After his resounding electoral victory in 1977, President Jayawardena liberalized the economy to the delight of the US and began moving Sri Lanka closer to the West, mainly in the hope of kick starting an economy that was stagnant.

Learning lessons from the experiences of the 80s

In addition, with little thought for possible repercussions, a relationship carefully nurtured with India by the successive Bandaranaike governments, especially at personal level, was allowed to lapse.

Many have argued that the simmering insurgency in the North of the country evolved in to a full blown separatist movement with Indian blessings, if not with Indian support, against the background of this serious error of judgment on the part of the Sri Lankan government.

It has also been suggested that there was a belief in the ruling circles that China would actively intervene to deter India from getting too involved in Sri Lanka. Neither the newly cultivated friends in Washington nor the old friends in Beijing were ready to step in to harm’s way, when India did insert itself in to the Sri Lankan conflict, violating Sri Lanka’s airspace, ostensibly on humanitarian grounds, and pressured Sri Lanka to agree to the Indo Lanka accord. 

This accord was also used to address India’s security concerns. The deployment of over 100,000 Indian troops in Sri Lanka, purportedly to maintain the peace on this island, and their subsequent bloody conflict with the separatist LTTE, leading to their unceremonious withdrawal, need to be discussed at another time.

But the lessons that can be learnt by Sri Lanka from the experiences of the 80s are pertinent even today. International friendships cultivated over the years with great care need not be callously sacrificed in the hope of impressing other, some recently acquired, friends. The new friends may not necessarily be impressed by such fickleness although they may try to exploit it. The hurt caused to old friends may not be readily forgiven. A country’s international approaches must be based on a high degree of predictability. Not knee jerk or short-sighted adoption of policies of convenience.

The pivot to Asia

The US got involved in, what I would like to describe as, many Asian adventures in the fifties, sixties and to some extent in the early 70s. Sri Lanka was, at best, a spectator in these global events. In the Korean Peninsula in the fifties, and in Indochina in the fifties and sixties.

These interventions may not have been the result of pursuing well considered complex policy goals. They probably were designed simply to achieve the limited goals of containing the spread of communism, the expansion of pro-Russian regimes and limiting the threat to American interests and influence, particularly in East and South East Asia.

US naval assets did turn up in the Bay of Bengal in support of Pakistan as India intervened to assist in the creation of Bangladesh by wrenching it away from Pakistan. India was unsettled, but subsequently, moved even closer to the Soviet Union. This would have implications for Sri Lanka as well.

American naval units were regularly deployed in South and South East Asian waters on humanitarian missions to deal with natural disasters. The assistance provided to Sri Lanka following the devastating floods of 1957 or, more recently, following the Boxing Day tsunami will be long remembered by Lankans.

Although the seventies and eighties saw the US retreating from the South China seas, the nervousness caused by an assertive China has seen it re-emerging as an active player in the region, a region in which the US has been a dominant party for over a century.

Along with these developments, the US has after much soul searching, developed a comprehensive policy for East and South East Asia. Its long-standing attachment to Europe has been diluted and its focus has shifted from Europe to Asia, particularly East and South East Asia. President Obama called it the pivot to Asia.

This change of focus has many strands. All equally important. Now, US troops will be stationed in Darwin in Australia. Defence arrangements have been entered in to with the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam. The US has inserted itself in to the multilateral territorial dispute in the South China Sea while Australia, its ANZUS ally, has studiously stayed away.

Chief among the factors motivating the US appears to be the belief that a rapidly re-emerging China, will encroach on space that the US had occupied for over a century, particularly through the projection of brute military force and to a lesser extent through soft power. Education, proselytizing, people to people contacts, cultural exchanges, trade and aid, were all part of this process of extending soft power.

The pre-eminence of the US presence in the region was taken for granted. The interchange of influence was not always one way and the seepage of Asian soft power into the US cannot be ignored.

Impact on the US

Asian food and eating habits, Asian religion, mind and body developing practices such as yoga, martial arts, and meditation, dress, large scale migration, reverse investments in the US, and burgeoning trade, have all had an impact on the US and influenced its thinking.

The inter connectivity among people, organizations and intellects, undoubtedly, has had an impact on thinking on bilateral and multilateral relations. The US inspired Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement excludes China and Sri Lanka which was not invited to participate during the negotiation stage, has now evinced interest in joining it.

Sri Lanka was part of the migrant tide that flowed back into the US albeit exerting less direct influence than the Indians, the Chinese, the Koreans and the Philipinos. Large numbers of Sri Lankan migrated to the US, mostly to better their lives, many as political refugees. The growing importance of the US to Sri Lanka in an economic sense and also politically needed to be carefully factored in to national policy making.

Sri Lanka’s social and economic relations with the US expanded rapidly in the late 1970s. Hundreds, if not thousands of Sri Lankan students are studying in the US and many Sri Lankan professionals have reached the top of their careers in the US. The number of Sri Lankan doctors listed in the New Jersey telephone directory is staggering.

The US has become the country’s first or second largest market for its manufactured products. It is a major destination for our garments with many top brands sourcing their requirements from Sri Lanka. 76% of the Sri Lankan garment production goes to the US. It is said that Victoria’s Secret sources around 40% of its requirements from Sri Lanka. Other brands such as Banana Republic, Gap, Nike and Macy’s are major purchasers of our garments.

Even after the Multi Fibre Agreement ended and many textile and garments manufacturers around the world feared loss of market share to China, Sri Lanka, as a reliable and timely supplier, continued to expand its market share in the US.

The fact that our industry complied strictly with international labour and environmental standards enabled us to remain in the US market as a supplier of “Garments without Guilt’. Large industrial manufacturers such as Loadstar and Motorola established themselves in Sri Lanka as did major US hotel chains, Hilton, Hyatt, Intercontinental and Holiday Inn.

Inward tourism, especially at the high end, is expanding and could have prospered further, if not for the misconception that the US was too far away. This feeling persisted despite Thailand and the Maldives successfully tapping into the lucrative US market. The US travel market needs to be accessed further and Sri Lanka stands to gain much.

The economic relations, which began to expand rapidly in the late 70s, have continued to be strengthened, despite the politically difficult times experienced more recently. With the new government in office, with its more open approach to trade liberalisation, it is likely that the economic relationship will expand further. 

Even in the security realm, Sri Lanka has not been reluctant to offer facilities to the US in the past, but without compromising its Non Aligned status. Sri Lanka hosts a significant Voice of America facility and when, following 9/11, the US commenced its Operation Anaconda bombing campaign of Afghanistan, readily offered relevant logistical facilities to the US forces. A bilateral mutual Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement was signed during the previous government.

Internal conflict in Sri Lanka and the US

But an interesting development related to the internal conflict in Sri Lanka began to manifest itself in the US in the late 90s and the early 21st century. Recognising the way that the US political system worked, the Tamil groups were the first to organise themselves financially and numerically to exert pressure on US politicians and political deal makers.

The latent attachment to the rights of man, so embedded in the psyche of the liberal American, was carefully exploited to generate political sympathy for the Tamil separatist cause. Vast funds collected by the pro LTTE Tamils were liberally deployed to influence the American political establishment and the media, despite the unmitigated brutality of the campaign conducted within Sri Lanka by the LTTE.

What was blazed across American TV screens was the alleged suppression of the yearning for freedom of an oppressed minority by the Sri Lankan state, not the rest of the story.

The non-separatist Lankans took a while to organise themselves, were less focused and could not match the financial clout of the separatist LTTE organisations. A negative media blitz sympathetic to the separatist cause influenced US political thinking on Sri Lanka while a murderous terrorist campaign, that included the killing of moderate Tamil leaders and the Tamil Foreign Minister, was being waged.

While it could be expected that individual American politicians would be influenced by the lobbying by Tamil pressure groups, the government of Sri Lanka appears not to have developed a comprehensive counter strategy to the US in support of the yeoman service performed by the diplomats stationed in Washington and New York, often under trying circumstances.

The result of the pressure exerted by the groups supportive of Tamil separatism manifested itself in different ways. National policy makers with a human rights background came under lobbying pressure. Legislation adopted by Congress, for example the Leahy Amendment, began to be applied to Sri Lanka resulting in the suspension of military assistance.

Bushmaster guns exported to Sri Lanka could not be used due to the absence of ammunition. The long hoped for joint exercises did not materialise. The millions of Dollars pledged to this country under the Millennium Challenge Account for infrastructure development were withdrawn putting tremendous financial pressure on us.

Tamils for Hillary began making significant donations to her presidential campaign, which were returned only after protests were registered at diplomatic level.

Disturbingly, a statement made by Hillary Clinton at the time seemed to suggest that a distinction could be drawn between good terrorists and bad terrorists.

Leaked cables indicate that Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State, had intervened to exert pressure on the IMF to deny Sri Lanka a critical stand-by loan just two weeks before the LTTE was vanquished. The IMF appears to have resented this intrusion by the Secretary of State to its domain. The same leaked cable reveals that there was even a serious suggestion to extricate elements of the LTTE leadership from the Mulaitivu beach. 

Relations between the two countries spiralled downwards further when an invitation to the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister for a bilateral visit to Washington was ignored. This may have been the opportunity to bring a semblance of balance to the relationship that was now on a distinct downward curve.

But it is to be remembered that during this period, the US also proscribed the LTTE and took concrete steps to prosecute LTTE fundraisers. A FBI sting operation netted a LTTE sympathiser seeking to bribe a State Department official. US assistance played a vital role in the sinking by the Sri Lanka navy of a number of large LTTE sea going vessels used as floating armouries. One is left to speculate on the reason as to why there was this lack of cohesion between the political elements at the helm of the US government and the military.

A sad development

However, with the US attitudes, particularly at political level, shifting away from Sri Lanka, the government of Sri Lanka had little choice but to look for friends who would help it to end the terrorist scourge.

The majority of the people demanded it. China was the main country that it turned to but Pakistan, Israel, India, Ukraine and Russia were also prominent in supplying military hardware to the Government of Sri Lanka.

In the case of China, there were long standing historical links which both sides were ready to nurture to build a stronger relationship, which later included the provision of investments to drive forward the reconstruction process. India also provided assistance and, importantly, ensured that the retreating LTTE was not resupplied from Southern India.

The slow motion drift away by the US culminated when the US began to take the lead in driving the resolution critical of Sri Lanka in 2012 at the UN Human Rights Council. A country that was once considered a warm friend of Sri Lanka was now acting in an outright hostile manner. The result was inevitable.

The US, with diplomatic missions in a majority of countries of the world and extensive economic and military relations, had the type of diplomatic clout that could overpower many challengers.

Sri Lanka decided to confront the US at the Human Rights Council despite quiet advice on the need to avoid a confrontation from friends and the resolution was adopted with an increasing majority each year.

Sri Lanka just did not have the diplomatic, military and financial clout to take on the US head on. The US was able to ensure that India, despite its long-standing proximity to Sri Lanka, joined those who would vote against us. And Sri Lanka, by far, was not even the worst human rights offender to incur the wrath of the international human rights activists.

However, once the decision was made in Colombo to confront the US, the diplomats gamely spear headed the campaign. Unfortunately, the US position continued to harden and Sri Lanka seemed to fall in to the same basket as that reserved for the states regularly black listed by Washington. North Korea, Burma, Iran, Belarus and Cuba. This was a sad development in the bilateral relationship.

Apparently a turn for the better

The situation with regard to the bilateral relationship appears to have taken a turn for the better since the election of the new government in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka decided to cosponsor the Human Rights Council resolution spearheaded by the US in 2015. There are conflicting views on the wisdom of this action. But now that Sri Lanka has cosponsored the resolution, it is at least morally bound to give effect to it.

An endless cavalcade of high-level dignitaries from Washington, including Secretary of State John Kerry, has visited Sri Lanka with definite advice on how to implement the resolution. The fact that a resolution of the Human Rights Council is not directly enforceable by the Council or any one else seems to have escaped many of the commentators.

The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, with only four months left of his tenure of office, also came calling and apparently said that he would ensure that the resolution was implemented quite forgetting that his powers of enforcing even a UN resolution against a sovereign state are non existent. Having resisted visiting for five years during the time of the Rajapaksa presidency, he would not have undertaken this visit without a nod and a wink from Washington. 

The country seems to be getting tons of advice, from Western leaders, on what should be done to sort out its problems, mainly in the area of reconciliation. But what needs to be kept in mind is that all this external advice may not sit comfortably with a nervous majority population in the country.

Unless their concerns are also sensitively addressed we may set ourselves up for another eternity of conflict, which may then be exploited by external entities for their own benefit. The peace that dawned overnight in May 2009 could become a long-term nightmare.

Along with this we also need to address our development needs. While much attention has been paid to addressing the aftermath of the UNHRC resolution, similar attention must also be paid to reviving the economy, which needs serious attention.

Immediately after the change of government, a noisy and unseemly effort was made to distance Sri Lanka from China despite the fact that China had stood by Sri Lanka through the difficult days of the conflict and became its major development partner after the conflict ended. Perhaps this was meant to endear Sri Lanka to Washington and New Delhi.

This was a mistake as China was being courted assiduously by almost all western countries for their funding needs. If Sri Lanka had expected the West to step in to fill the economic vacuum left by an unhappy China, this did not happen and is unlikely to happen.

The West did not have the spare resources to assist Sri Lanka then and is unlikely to have such funding in the future. Sri Lanka will need to restore warm relations with China.

At the end of the day, many of our internal problems could be resolved by getting the economy to move faster that at the rate of 2.6%. [IDN-InDepthNews – 30 September 2016]

Dr Palitha Kohona’s previous IDN-INPS articles: Kohona&searchphrase=all

Photo: The beautiful Samadhi Buddha of the NJ Buddhist Vihara located on Rt. 27 just north of Princeton. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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