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Why Washington is moving close to Colombo

By Aziz Haniffa
February 25, 2016 19:59 IST
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'What we have heard from the Sri Lankans is their desire to have a foreign policy that allows Sri Lanka to best advance its own interests rather than a foreign policy that relied solely on one relationship.'

'We think this is an attitude that makes a lot of sense. India and Sri Lanka have many areas of shared interests, and it's certainly welcomed by us to see that deepening of those ties.'

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena in Colombo, March, 2015. Photograph: Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters

On the eve of the first-ever US-Sri Lanka Strategic Dialogue in Washington, DC, Nisha Desai Biswal, the Obama administration's point person for South Asia, lauds Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for not only immediately visiting the island nation after its January 8, 2015 election, but also pledging a strong commitment to an economic partnership with Sri Lanka.

Biswal, the US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, acknowledged in an exclusive interview with Aziz Haniffa/Rediff.com, that as India was an undisputed power in the region, on issues such as this that was envisaged to assist in the economic development and rehabilitation of Sri Lanka -- wracked by over two-decades of war -- it was only natural that the US would consult with India, as Washington would with Delhi on issues in the Asia-Pacific region and/or the Indian Ocean region.

On the eve of the first-ever US-Sri Lanka Strategic Partnership Dialogue what's the rationale for it?

We are calling this a Partnership Dialogue between the United States and Sri Lanka and we're very excited that later this week, we will be launching our first Partnership Dialogue.

Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera is going to be in town with a delegation and we have Secretary of State John F Kerry and Under Secretary Tom Shannon who is going to actually chair the dialogue, and various other bilateral meetings that are being teed up for this.

What we are particularly pleased is that US-Sri Lanka relations are really focusing on the broad and enormous potential.

We have always thought that Sri Lanka was an important partner for the United States. In the past, we have been somewhat constrained in being able to talk about the broad areas of partnership because there were a number of issues where we felt that the previous government was not being responsive and not making progress.

With the new government under the leadership of President Maitripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, what we have seen is that there is a very strong desire on the part of that government to have positive, productive and elevated relations with the United States and with the broader international community.

And just as importantly, a very strong commitment to address and make progress on areas of longstanding concern about accountability stemming from the terrible conflict that wracked Sri Lanka for so long, and for trying to really, sincerely, and actively promote reconciliation, promote justice for victims of that conflict.

So, we see that we have a partner in the government of Sri Lanka as we've always seen a partnership with the people of Sri Lanka, but also now with the government to try to advance a broad, a comprehensive relationship between our two countries and between the two peoples.

The last few months, in fact I guess with Secretary Kerry getting out there, you all have been very bullish on Sri Lanka. The change of policy has been quite dramatic.

What really prompted that sort of dramatic change, and how sustainable do you believe it is? Are you confident about the reconciliation process?

First of all, I would say that the dramatic and robust engagement from the United States has been more than anything a result of the dramatic and robust efforts by the Sri Lankan government to address areas that have been areas of longstanding concern, and what we see as the best opportunity for the Sri Lankan people to really put the past behind them and to realise a future that is more prosperous, more inclusive, more enduring peace for the country.

We, the United States, want to be a full partner and a supporter in Sri Lanka's journey towards peace and reconciliation and enduring prosperity.

We have long felt that this country has tremendous potential and now we see an opportunity to help in realising that potential.

In terms of confidence, the issues that Sri Lanka is grappling with across all fronts are enormous challenges and they will require enormous resolve and fortitude by the government and by the Sri Lankan people, all communities, to try to go down this path.

What we do see is commitment and we want to help strengthen that commitment by providing our partnership, by providing assistance where we can, encouragement, to take this very difficult road, but one that is ultimately in the interest of Sri Lanka.

How does the US plan to help in this sort of development process to make it sustainable, and in this reconciliation process in terms of tangible benefits? Are you guys going to walk the walk?

We're already walking the walk. We have already substantially increased our assistance, particularly our technical assistance, to Sri Lanka in all facets of the various aspects of governance that Sri Lanka is looking to strengthen and to create more accountable systems, more transparent systems.

So we've provided assistance to strengthening the judiciary, help in addressing some of the different commissions that Sri Lanka has established to look at transparency, to fight corruption. So we're already doing that.

But in addition, we understand that it's also important to address the economic aspirations of the Sri Lankan people. This is another area that we are actively looking at.

Late last year, you saw the announcement from the Millennium Challenge Corporation that Sri Lanka was going to get a threshold programme, which would help address some of the areas that continue to be of concern.

If all goes well, that would set Sri Lanka up potentially to be a compact State with the Millennium Challenge Corporation which carries with it sizeable economic assistance.

In addition, we're looking to see how we can work with the government of Sri Lanka to put in place the kinds of policies and programs that would facilitate trade and investment. And those are important, again, for all communities in the north and the south to see a Sri Lankan economy that starts to really achieve its potential.

I know that there are areas that other countries are also looking to engage with. Prime Minister Modi was, I believe, one of the first if not the first head of State, to visit Sri Lanka after the January 8 election, and he has pledged a strong commitment to an economic partnership with Sri Lanka.

We've seen similarly that our European friends, the UK, Japanese friends and others are also engaging with Sri Lanka and what Sri Lanka has found is that the international community is there to be a partner, a supporter for the progress of the entire country.

IMAGE: In May 2015, US Secretary of State John Kerry called on Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena. Photograph: Andrew Harnik/Reuters

And in terms of your helping out in transparency in terms of reforming the judiciary, etc, have you had some American lawyers and others go out there to talk about best practices?

And in terms of sustainable development, is the USAID (US Agency for International Development) ramping up its activities?

Yes, yes, and yes.

We have had multiple delegations of technical experts from all parts of our government that have been and are continuing to go out to see what and how we can facilitate.

First and foremost, we absolutely recognise that this is all Sri Lankan led, and Sri Lankan owned. But where they are desirous of our support and assistance and where we think we can bring some best practices and some tools, we are more than willing to do that. USAID has been steadily ramping up their programmes and expanding their programmes.

I believe the Assistant Administrator for Asia, John Stivers, was just in Sri Lanka and visited multiple parts of the country, again in an effort to better understand how US assistance can be most impactful. And we see that trajectory only continuing in the coming months and years.

We also have had visits to Sri Lanka by Under Secretary Tom Shannon, (US) Ambassador (to the United Nations) Samantha Power, along with, as you noted, Secretary Kerry's visit last May.

In terms of the reconciliation process, Sri Lanka has been vehement in saying that it is going to do it independently -- it doesn't need any foreign assistance or intervention or anything like that. Is the US fully on board with that?

First of all, we worked very closely with Sri Lanka in supporting a resolution in Geneva that was for the first time co-sponsored by the government of Sri Lanka and co-introduced by the government of Sri Lanka.

And we stand firmly behind the commitments that were in that resolution and we are confident that the government of Sri Lanka, that the president and the prime minister, have reaffirmed their commitment to live up to the stipulations of that resolution.

The process by which you get to that is one that needs to be carefully thought through by the government through a transparent and consultative process that includes the input of the victims and other constituencies.

And I am confident that as they undertake that kind of a process that they will come up with a formulation that will allow them to have a process of accountability that is credible, first and foremost, to victims, but also meets the international tests of credibility.

US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Desai Biswal.

If not the first (overseas) trip, one of the first trips by Prime Minister Modi was to Sri Lanka. President Sirisena was out there to India on his first trip, and also Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe. Are you satisfied that the Sri Lanka-India relationship is back to the good old heydays?

Because there was a clear bent towards China during the Rajapaksa regime, it caused a lot of heartburn to India at the time.

What we have heard from the Sri Lankans, and what we fully endorse and appreciate is their desire to have a multi-faceted foreign policy that allows Sri Lanka to best advance its own interests rather than a foreign policy that relied solely on one relationship.

We think that this is an attitude that makes a lot of sense and certainly India and Sri Lanka have many areas of shared interests, and it's certainly welcomed by us to see that deepening of those ties.

We don't think there has to be a zero sum approach, but that Sri Lanka can have and manage good relations with all of its neighbours and we certainly encourage that.

But you and other senior official administration officials, recognising India as sort of the undisputed power in the region, have always said that Washington has always consulted with Delhi on issues on Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and during the time of the campaign against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, there was coordination too.

Does this still remain the same? Have you briefed India, for instance, on the new US-Sri Lanka Strategic Partnership that you are launching?

We have a very deep relationship between the United States and India and we certainly have a great deal of shared interests on the Asia-Pacific region, on the Indian Ocean region, and as a part of that, we have regional consultations with our Indian counterparts on all of the areas of shared interests.

We consult with them on Middle East policy, we consult with them on East Asia policy, we consult with them on Africa policy, and we consult with them on South Asia and Central Asia policy.

So yes, we have robust dialogue with our Indian counterparts on sharing perspectives, on how we see the world, how they see the world, areas of convergence as well as discussions where our perspectives may differ.

So in that sense you have briefed India on this envisaged US-Sri Lanka Strategic Partnership?

We certainly have had conversations about the nature and the trajectory of US-Sri Lanka relations as we have understood from them what their objectives are in India-Sri Lanka relations.

I don't know that we've discussed specifically the partnership dialogue, but you know, this will be the first launching of that and I look forward to seeing what we are able to accomplish with our Sri Lanka colleagues and look forward to continuing that as well.

In this (US-Sri Lanka) Strategic Partnership, is there a military component to it?

I know that Sri Lanka used to get International Military, Education and Training funds, but besides that -- and, of course, during the LTTE campaign there was a lot of military assistance, security assistance, not just from the US but from various other partners. But is there a military component in this Strategic Partnership?

Certainly, the security partnership is an area of discussion.

As Sri Lanka moves down the path of addressing areas of accountability and justice, we also want to work with the government and the military to explore areas of cooperation and partnership between the United States and Sri Lanka.

We have always kept ties between our two security forces, have worked with the government of Sri Lanka and with the Sri Lankan military on things such as humanitarian de-mining and on maritime cooperation.

We have not in recent years had active participation or cooperation with the Sri Lankan army. Again, as Sri Lanka moves down a path towards addressing a lot of the open questions from the conduct of the final days of the war, I think we are also open to exploring areas of cooperation between the United States and Sri Lanka's military.

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Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC
 
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