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'US can't afford to disengage with Lanka'

February 22, 2010 10:51 IST

A leading Washington, DC-based think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, notwithstanding the arrest of retired Sri Lankan Army General Sarath Fonseka who challenged President Mahinda Rajapakse at the recent elections, and the country's poor record on human rights and its treatment of several thousand internally displaced persons, has said that the United States cannot afford to disengage with the island nation.

In a paper titled 'Sri Lanka's Election: A Clear Mandate,' the CSIS South Asia bureau, which is headed by former diplomat Teresita Schaffer, who served for nearly three decades in South Asian capitals, including a stint as US ambassador to Sri Lanka, said, Rajapakse's recent victory -- which has been called into question in certain quarters with Fonseka alleging it was rigged – 'presents an opportunity to rebuild a nation devastated by a protracted, separatist war.'

It said that 'in order to sustain peace the new government must find a way to bring minorities into the political mainstream while pursuing economic development.'

"Beyond domestic concerns, Sri Lanka's poor record of upholding human rights and its treatment of the IDPs, has strained relations with the West," the report noted.

But it argued, 'given Sri Lanka's critical strategic location, the United States cannot afford to disengage with the country.'

Thus the CSIS called for 'a subtle and sophisticated approach to rethinking the partnership, recognising that the political game has changed in Sri Lanka, but also focusing on US economic, trade, and security interests, will benefit both sides.'

The report said that 'eight months after the dramatic and three decades of separatist war, Mahinda Rajapakse's decisive re-election as president of Sri Lanka gives him an opportunity to move the country forward on multiple fronts -- political reform, economic renewal, and re-engagement with international players including the United States.'

"For the United States and more broadly for the West," it argued, "it is time to recognize that the formulas for political reform that were put forth in the past 20 years are effectively dead."

The report added that 'these countries will need to find a new way to communicate with a leader, and a country, in no mood to listen to countries that they believe provided bad advice over the past two decades.'

It said that although Fonseka has not accepted Rajapakse's victory, 'other observers who have no reason to favour Rajapakse have not confirmed any suggestion of massive fraud, and the results were consistent all over the country.'

Although predicting that Fonseka's accusation are 'unlikely to get any traction,' the report acknowledged that Rajapakse's large scale reorganisation of the country's military with a purge of several senior commanders being forced into compulsory early retirement was necessarily because they supported Fonseka in the election notwithstanding the government accusing them 'of breaching military discipline.'

The CSIS report said that Rajapakse's remarks during his presidential campaign where he promised a continuation of political development in the provinces as well as free election in the north and his declaration of 'a Sri Lankan solution,' was an implicit rejection of 'the aspects of previous settlement proposals loosely modeled on the Indian constitution.'

It also said that Rajapakse has 'burnished Sri Lanka's long standing ties with China and also moved closer to Myanmar, Iran, and Libya,' and pointed out that Beijing has investment billions of dollars in Sri Lanka through military loans, infrastructure loans, and port development.'

But the report argued, 'at the same time, Sri Lanka has economic needs that the United States and Europe are better-placed to supply.'

Thus, according to the CSIS, "The stakes in new engagement between Sri Lanka and Western nations involve more than Sri Lanka's political future," and reiterated that since Sri Lanka is located at the nexus of crucial trading routes in the Indian Ocean, "the United States has an interest in deterring terrorist activity and curbing piracy that could disrupt trade in the area."

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC