YAHAPALANA AND THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA PART 1
Posted on January 9th, 2017
The United States of America was interested in developing a close relationship with Sri Lanka from the time Sri Lanka got independence. By 1948 the US had replaced Britain as the dominant power in Asia and needed military and communication bases in Asia. In 1951 Ceylon signed an agreement with the US to relay Voice of America (VOA) programmes over Radio Ceylon, which was then a popular radio station heard all over India. In return Radio Ceylon would get modern, new broadcasting equipment. VOA used the facility to broadcast to all of Asia, including Central Asia. In the 1950s, the US Information Centre distributed free to select homes, an anti-Communist magazine ‘Free World’ which featured Southeast Asia. It said that Communism was bad and America was good. It had colored photographs, which I used to cut out.
The US has never been interested in helping Sri Lanka to stand on its own feet. US objected to the 1956 Rubber-Rice pact with China and promptly cut off aid to Sri Lanka, under its rule of not giving aid to countries that sold strategic materials to Communist countries. USA also made France, Italy and Japan withhold their supply of sulphur fungicide, badly needed by Sri Lanka’s rubber plantations. US had earlier turned down a request from Ceylon for a 50 million dollar aid, for a high price for rubber and a low price for rice. J.R.Jaywardene, known as “Yankee Dickie”, supported the US viewpoint and strongly opposed the Rubber-Rice Pact.
USA supported Tamil separatism. Izeth Hussein recalls that on the day of India’s air drop in 1987, US Ambassador James Spain had sought a meeting with the Foreign minister as he had to convey an urgent message from his government. India was going to suggest something and Sri Lanka should not over react. That ‘something’ was the Indo-Lanka Agreement. A third party was definitely involved in this matter, said Hussein. After the document was signed, Ambassador Spain had handed over a letter to Rajeev Gandhi, obviously a congratulatory and goodwill message from Reagan. Clearly the contents of the agreement were already known to the US government, concluded Hussein.
US wanted the LTTE to win the Eelam war. ‘We were hounded and intimidated by the US to stop the war against the LTTE,’ said Godage. According to a report filed by Times Online, the US military has used satellites to spy on Sri Lanka during the final stages of Eelam War IV. US sought to justify its action on the ground that it was looking for evidence of war crimes in view of the impending UN Human Rights Council session on Sri Lanka. US ambassador Blake tried to take Prabhakaran out through an operation by the US Marines based in Hawaii.
If the LTTE had succeeded, critics observe, US would have gained control of two thirds of Sri Lanka coast line, enabling them to secure Persian Gulf energy resources to Japan, interfere with the flow of resources to China, interfere with free trade in the Indian ocean, and undermine stability in India by provoking Tamil and Hindu sentiments in Tamilnadu.
Sri Lanka’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean was known to the western powers for centuries, but the issue was not openly discussed in Sri Lanka and the general public was not told of it. The intelligentsia knew that Trincomalee harbor could comfortably hold the 7th Fleet of the US Navy, but the possibility of America actually doing so was glossed over. America was not in a hurry to capture Sri Lanka either. US was mainly interested in the Pacific Ocean, Atlantic Ocean and South East Asia in the 20th century . Five of the seven US security alliances were with Asia-Pacific partners. US also had some form of defense pact with sixty nine countries. Those countries accounted for around 75% of the world economy. Sri Lanka was not one of them.
Things changed with the rise of China. The Indian Ocean was a part of China’s new Maritime Silk Route. The Indian Ocean became vitally important and Sri Lanka’s strategic position in the Indian Ocean also went up in value and urgency. US Senate was told ‘Sri Lanka is strategically located at the nexus of maritime trading routes connecting Europe and the Middle East to China and the rest of Asia. All of China’s and Japan’s energy resource from the Persian Gulf transits Sri Lanka and the island has the potential to control or impede the free flow these resources to China. Half the world’s container traffic also passes through Sri Lanka and the island has the potential to block this as well. In view of strategic importance of Sri Lanka to the US, an alliance should be maintained with Sri Lanka. US foreign policy should be recast for the purpose.’ Sri Lanka could also be used to further US interests in the Indian Ocean.
It was observed in 2014 that‘If Sri Lanka has this same stability for the next five years then it will be difficult to achieve US ambitions. A weaker Sri Lanka is easy to dominate’. President Mahinda Rajapakse was not prepared to give in to the US. He had refused to bow down to US pressure to stop the war on LTTE. Also he had established links with China and was planning a big military deal with Russia, which had offered a credit line for arms, ammunition, helicopters and land mine clearing. Rajapakse was becoming a serious obstacle to US interests in the Indian Ocean region. He had to go. Rajapakse gave them the opportunity by calling for elections in 2015.
Once the Yahapalana regime was in place, USA moved very fast to indicate that the US was now in control. John Kerry, Secretary of State, arrived in May 2015. US Assistant secretary for south Asian affairs, Nisha Biswal, visited in July, August and December 2015. US Assistant Secretary for Democracy and Human rights, Tom Malinowski (July 2015) and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon (December, 2015) also visited. In November, 2016, we were told that Obama had planned to visit in May 2016.
Samantha Power, US ambassador to the UN, visited in November 2015. She said USA was deeply committed to supporting Sri Lanka’s efforts at peace, reconciliation and accountability. She feels a strong sense of responsibility towards the beleaguered people of all communities of Sri Lanka. She considered Neelan Thiruchelvam her friend. She said that Mahinda Rajapakse, when President, had brusquely brushed aside her overtures to initiate a meaningful dialogue. Gotabhaya and Basil Rajapakse had been even worse. They had been brazenly unpleasant.
US was advised to follow a subtle and a sophisticated approach, since the political game had changed in Sri Lanka. US should figure out how ‘not to lose Sri Lanka ‘said one observer. US should adopt a less confrontational approach, it is best to go carefully with Sri Lanka, the formulas which were used in the past 20 years were no longer applicable, advisers said.
The US is therefore funding a number of carefully selected projects in Sri Lanka. There is a special focus on youth. Since 2010 USA had provided nearly LKR 135 million in its annual Youth Empowerment grants programmes and had funded over 100 programs. In 2016, US gave Sri Lanka an unprecedented USD 13 million to 8 civil society organizations, for a three year ‘Strengthening accountability and good governance project’ (SDGAP). This was to support innovative small scale projects to nurture civil society groups helping Sri Lanka youth. They included leadership training and ‘advancing the rights of marginalized communities’. The project was to be administered by a private US company, Development Alternative Inc. SDGAP was new to Sri Lanka , but it has been implemented in Afghanistan, Colombia, Georgia, Haiti, Indonesia, Iraq, Kenya, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Liberia, Macedonia and Mongolia.
USAID’s STAIR (“Short term assistance to improve public financial management reform project”) had a three day training programme in AGs department. STAIR specializes in working with government agencies to increase transparency, reduce corruption, effective and efficient in delivery of public services.
US said that given Sri Lanka’s strategic location, it is in America’s interest to increase military collaboration and cooperation with Sri Lanka. US intended to expand military leadership discussions, increase naval engagement and focus on defense institution building. The first US Sri Lanka operational level bilateral defense dialogue took place in August 2016. The purpose was to develop a programme of bilateral training and exercises for the next three years. The 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit engaged in a Theatre security Cooperation (TSC) project with the Sri Lankan Navy’s newly formed marine force, In Trincomalee in November 2016. India observed that US Marines are now training Sri Lanka Special Forces. The US-Sri Lanka defence partnership seems to be at an all time high.
The Head of the US Pacific Command Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr. attended the Sri Lanka Navy’s “Galle Dialogue 2016”. He said USA and India had sent low ranking officers to the first Galle Dialogue. The People’s Republic of China had been represented by a high level delegation. It was different now. ‘The Indian Ocean matters to USA, Sri Lanka matters to the US and I believe that US matters to Sri Lanka.’ Sri Lanka could help to complete the defense ring around the Indian Ocean. The Yahapalana government also said that it was the duty of the Sri Lanka navy to protect the entire Indian Ocean region without limiting its operation to the exclusive economic zone of Sri Lanka. That will help Sri Lanka be an economic hub in the Indian Ocean region.
Our navy cannot even protect us from the Indian fishermen, observed Tissa Vitharana. If Sri Lanka navy is to carry out this huge responsibility, then US ships will have to be berthed in Sri Lanka. The US 7th fleet will come to Trincomalee. The US has its eye on Trincomalee harbor, it is planning to set up a US base there and was making Sri Lanka military vacate strategically important locations, said observers. The Yahapalana government also was ready to hand over Trincomalee port to them. Soon the US 7th fleet will be in our waters, said another analyst. These growing military ties with the US are not in the interest of Sri Lanka, Vitharana said. If military cooperation of this nature continues, and an American military base is set up in Sri Lanka , Sri Lanka would become a US puppet like the Philippines.
The US 7th fleet is now quietly arriving in Sri Lanka. Its flagship, USS Blue Ridge arrived in March 2016 with over 900 sailors. President Sirisena visited the ship and was received with a US navy military guard. The emphasis was to be on public relations. The marines (sailors) would paint walls, repair furniture, build playground equipment and serve food to the needy at a community centre. The US 7th fleet band would perform free at Viharamahadevi park and elsewhere, and the performance will include a join performance with the Sri Lanka navy band.
USS New Orleans visited in July 2016. US war ship USS Frank Cable, a submarine tender vessel visited in August 2016. It does maintenance and support for US Navy submarines in the 5th and 7 fleets. Its sailors were to volunteer at an animal shelter. The US navy Poseidon aircraft, an advanced US maritime patrol aircraft, left Mattala in December 2016 after a week of consultation and expert exchange with Sri Lanka military personnel. The assistance mission of the US Pacific commands “Operation Pacific Angels”, held a week long assistance programme in Jaffna in August 2016. They provided general medical care for approximately 4000 people and renovated six schools.
There is considerable anti-USA feeling in Sri Lanka. A NGO attitude survey done in the year 2004, found that the Sri Lanka respondents were suspicious of America. America was searching for a centre to block China, they said. It would be a mistake for Sri Lanka to rely too much on USA, said Neville de Silva. Other countries that sought Washington assistance found that they were invaded and occupied.
There is a considerable amount of anti USA comments in the local mass media. America always creates problems in any country it involves itself in, said one commentator. USA has been directly and indirectly involved in coups, invasions, regime changes from Iran in 1953 onwards, he added. USA supported dictators like Pinochet, Marcos, Suharto, Somoza, Pol pot. Saddam Hussein was initially a CIA agent. Osama Bin Laden was initially nurtured by the US and had financial interests in the US. The US was the world’s worst offender when it came to human rights, the media continued. Look at the enormous number of persons the US army had killed in its wars. The chemical Agent Orange in Vietnam resulted in severely disabled children. ‘Island’ editorial said ‘If the US solves its own problems without being a problem to other countries, it will help solve most of the problems the world is facing’.