Posted on November 5th, 2017


This essay looks at the current relationship between Yahapalana government of Sri Lanka and the United States of America. From a triumphal, highly visible start in 2015, with prominent visits by Secretary of State John Kerry and other high ranking officials, the USA has now decided to go into low profile. Visits from US officials are continuing but without much publicity.

Alice Wells, US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs was in Sri Lanka in August 2017. She met with government officials, business leaders and civil society representatives to discuss US cooperation in the region. Wells joined a candlelight vigil at Vihara Maha Devi Park, to mark the UN Day of the victims of Enforced Disappearances. She was accompanied by US Ambassador in Colombo Atul Keshap. She was joined by the top representatives of the Tamil National Alliance

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe paid a quiet visit to New York in June 2016. The reason given to the Sri Lanka public was that Wickremesinghe was visiting New York for medical purposes,   though he had been examined and cleared fully in Singapore. The reality was that he was meeting two officials from the White House, ‘who would represent President Donald Trump.’ Wickremesinghe was also scheduled to address the United Nations Ocean Conference. You cannot drop in on such conferences and deliver addresses. The schedules are arranged months before. This indicates that the visit was planned well ahead.

New information on US involvement in the internal politics of Sri Lanka is greatly welcomed by an eager public. The US Embassy is heavily involved in the internal politics of Sri Lanka, said the media in 2016. The previous US Ambassador Michelle Sison was openly talking politics at embassy functions and she was one of those who were adamant that the candidate to challenge Mahinda Rajapaksa should not be a UNP candidate but a common candidate, reported the media in 2016.

US intervened at two presidential elections, in January 2010, and January 2015 in a bid to defeat war-winning President Rajapaksa, observed Island in October 2017. The US has been so keen to remove Rajapaksa; it played the central role in bringing in the TNA into the UNP-led coalition that included the JVP, on both occasions. The US succeeded in its second attempt concluded Island.

Shamindra Ferdinando said in his regular column that according to US State Department financial report for 2016, the US has invested USD 585 million in 2015 in three countries, including Sri Lanka.  The money had been spent by the State Department under the subject ‘Democracy, human rights and governance’. Although the report refrained from specifying projects funded by the State Department, former Secretary of State John Kerry wrote in the foreword that ‘we have supported important democratic gains in Sri Lanka, Nigeria, and Burma’. Kerry also stressed that ‘in an era of diffuse and networked power, we [the US] are focusing on strengthening partnerships with civil society, citizen movements, faith leaders, entrepreneurs, innovators, and others to promote democracy and good governance and address gender-based violence [in these countries]’.

Hasina Leelarathna, former Times of Ceylon journalist, found that USAID had given US 3.4 million to the Yahapalana 100-day administration, as funds were urgently needed, with the August 2015 parliamentary polls looming ahead.  This had come from the US Complex Crises Funds which had been directed to make USD 40 million available to support governance, rule of law and economic reform in Sri Lanka.  Leelarathna had obtained the information through America’s Freedom of Information Act.

But the most explosive information of all came the other day from UPFA Kandy District MP Keheliya Rambukwella. Keheliya told Island ‘there is no point in debating the interim report of the Constitutional Assembly Steering Committee as the final draft of the new constitution has already been prepared by the US and given to the government.  A group of Sri Lankan MPs including me visited the US recently. We were attending a Congress meeting on Sri Lankan affairs. David Price, a US Congressman,   told us that the US had prepared the final draft of the new constitution and sent it to the Sri Lankan government. He said almost everybody had accepted the draft except a bunch led by Mahinda Rajapaksa. Then, I told Price that I was one of the members of that bunch’, concluded Keheliya.

A US Senate committee has opposed Trump Administration’s proposal of a drastic 92 percent cut in American aid to Sri Lanka.  The cuts are mostly from accounts that have supported programmes to promote the rule of law, democratic reforms, post-war reconciliation and related efforts, said the Chairman of House Foreign Affairs Sub Committee on Asia and the Pacific. These programmes are cost-effective ways to contribute to Sri Lanka’s transformation, while pursuing a partnership and a strategic lead in an important country, he said.  The Committee expressed concern over this massive cut in US aid to Sri Lanka.

The Senate committee said that Sri Lanka is strategically positioned along key shipping lanes.  Given the geostrategic importance of the country, the Committee does not support the President’s budget cut for Sri Lanka. The Committee seeks USD 43 million for Sri Lanka. This includes USD 35 million as economic support fund, USD 6.8 million for non-proliferation and anti-terrorism and USD 500,000 in foreign military financing and an equal amount for training of military personnel.

The US has got into several critical  sectors  that affect the future of Sri Lanka .They include Sri Lanka ‘s economy, Sri Lanka ‘s Parliament and Sri Lanka ‘s armed forces. ‘We want to see Sri Lanka as a truly democratic, prosperous, happy and reconciled country in the future,’ US said. Let us look at how they are doing this.

House Democracy Partnership of the US House of Representatives has launched a Collaboration Agreement with the Parliament of Sri Lanka.  Speaker Karu Jayasuriya signed for Sri Lanka .The purpose was to strengthen partnership between the two legislatures. The collaboration between the two legislatures is based on the principles of facilitating the exchange of information on the legislative systems of each country, sharing knowledge, and offering consultations on effective legislative management; and cooperating and assisting each other through training programs for the members and staff of the legislatures, said USA

The House Democracy Partnership   is a bipartisan, twenty-member commission of the U.S. House of Representatives.  It works with partner countries to develop accountable, effective and independent legislatures. Partner states are eligible to participate in training seminars for staff, peer-to-peer exchange programs with the U.S. House of Representatives and receive capacity building assistance in critical areas such as constituent relations, legislative oversight, committee operations, and research and library services. The House Democracy Partnership is currently implementing projects in Afghanistan, Myanmar, Colombia, Georgia, Haiti, Indonesia, Iraq, Kenya, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Liberia, Macedonia, Mongolia, Pakistan, Peru, Timo-Leste and Ukraine.

Sri Lanka is also participating in another US project, ‘Strengthening Democratic Governance and Accountability Project’ (SDGAP). This is a project for the reform of Sri Lanka’s public sector. It has been costed at USD 13.7 million. The US has selected Development Alternatives, Inc (DAI) of Maryland, to implement the project. DAI would work closely with the Parliament, Independent Commissions and related ministries. USAID allocated USD 3 million for the project in September 2016 and the program was launched in November 2016.  SDGAP was subject to the laws and regulations of the United States, with oversight from USAID’s Office of Inspector General.

SDGAP project will help the Government of Sri Lanka to increase transparency and accountability, advance good governance reforms, and strengthen systems and processes for public accountability, financial management, policy development and implementation. It also supports the government to strengthen communication with citizens, include the public in policy-making, and increase the participation of women in political processes.

Then there is the US / Sri Lanka Partnership Dialogue, a regular policy consultation designed to discuss and identify opportunities for cooperation across the full range of bilateral and regional issues. The Partnership Dialogue demonstrates the consolidation of cooperation between the United States and Sri Lanka and serves to further strengthen and enhance bilateral relations in the widest sense, through regular and structured engagement, said the US. US Under Secretary for Political Affairs Ambassador Shannon is scheduled to visit Sri Lanka in November 2017 to take part in the next round of the Partnership talks.

In December 2016, Board of Directors of the U.S. Government’s Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) selected Sri Lanka to develop a Compact.  The Compact was a five-year grant program, with the Government of Sri Lanka that aims to reduce poverty and promote economic opportunity for Sri Lankans.

MCC announced Rs. 1.1 billion ($7.4 million) in funding to Sri Lanka to support the development of the Compact, including identifying and analyzing specific projects for potential investment. The country became eligible for assistance after passing 13 out of 20 indicators on MCC’s policy scorecard. MCC is an independent agency working to reduce global poverty through economic growth. MCC’s grants and assistance to Sri Lanka is an immense contribution to its efforts in advancing good governance, fighting corruption and in the protection and promotion of human rights, said admirers.

A delegation from the MCC visited Colombo in July, 2017, to advance progress on the development of the MCC compact. Sri Lanka will receive approximately USD 700 million within a period of 5 years from the US to invest in three priority areas such as policy stability, access to land and transport.

Yahapalana has established a project management unit, the “Sri Lankan Compact Development Team”, within the Prime Minister’s Office, to work with MCC on the Compact. The goal is to develop a high-quality, evidence-based and sustainable compact aimed at addressing these economic challenges in a way that drives growth and reduces poverty. MCC holds partner countries accountable through rigorous oversight, monitoring and evaluation.

A 3 year economic plan for Sri Lanka, put together by a team of foreign and local experts led by Harvard university academic Ricardo Hausmann,  was presented at Sri Lanka Economic Forum, January 2016.  It was funded by the Open Society Foundation of George Soros.  Soros was also one of the main participants along with Harvard’s Joseph Stieglitz. Local economists and social scientists dismissed the plan. The analysis was defective, they said. The plan showed no understanding of the country needs. Hausmann has offered no sound policy alternative to Sri Lanka problems. He has used Venezuela as an example Stieglitz was no better.  The media also observed that there were two teams heading to Harvard for a Harvard study programme, each unaware of the other, one from PMs Office and the other from the Finance ministry.

Trade connections fared better. This is an auspicious time for American firms to do business in Sri Lanka, said the US embassy in Colombo. United States and Sri Lanka will engage in more business together. American firms are eager to do business in Sri Lanka and the US Government is engaged in ways to increase bilateral trade between the two countries. Sri Lanka will become closer friends and will do much more business together, said Deputy Chief Hilton Speaking at the Annual General Meeting of the American Chamber of Commerce in Sri Lanka.

Assistant U.S. Trade Representative Mark Linscott visited Colombo in September 2017 and encouraged the Government of Sri Lanka to implement policies that will increase trade and improve the business climate.    He brought up the current one-year limit on residence visas as a barrier to foreign investment  and was told  Yahapalana  government will be lengthening the duration of residency visas to three years, U.S. firms will then migrate to Sri Lanka.  As they do, Sri Lanka will be able to import more high quality U.S. goods.  We are all contributing toward a Sri Lanka that is more inclusive, more just, more peaceful, and more prosperous.  And, through our hard work, the United States and Sri Lanka will become closer friends and allies and will do much more business together.  We will all benefit, concluded Linscott.

A five member USAID team led by Davnie Eston arrived here and mapped out ways and means in which USAID could collaborate on ventures of the Ministry of Industry and Commerce. We are empowered to work with the private sector” said USAID. USAID was also asked to improve the soft skills of Lanka Sathosa personnel to match the country’s competitive retail market environment. The U.S. Department of State’s Export Control and Related Border Security (EXBS) Program and the World Customs Organization (WCO) trained 34 Customs Officials from Sri Lanka in strategic trade controls enforcement in September 2017.

The US government through its development agency, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) along with the business leaders and the Sri Lankan Government launched the ‘You Lead’ in October 2017. ‘You Lead’ is a new employability and skills development project with a US investment of USD 12 million. The project is intended to create a more market-oriented, skilled and flexible youth workforce. To help young Sri Lankans between the ages of 16 and 35 to become more competitive in the labor market. You Lead’s regional focus is on the provinces with the highest youth unemployment, Sabaragamuwa, Central, Southern and Northern Provinces. The project also aims to foster increased opportunities for self-employment by improving the skills of young entrepreneurs and working with financial institutions to encourage more lending to youth-led start-ups.

Now we turn to warfare. There are increasing naval links between the Sri Lanka navy and US navy. The U.S. Navy and Marines and Sri Lankan Navy and Marines launched the annual Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercise in Trincomalee in October 2107.  US navy said ‘it was pleased to add Sri Lanka to our list of CARAT partners in 2017 as part of our larger efforts to expand both bilateral and multilateral maritime security engagement across the Indo-Pacific region.’

CARAT Sri Lanka 2017 is part of a series of bilateral CARAT military exercises between the U.S. Navy and the armed forces of Bangladesh, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Thailand.  U.S. Navy participation in CARAT Sri Lanka 2017 include Commander Task Group 75.5, Coastal Riverine Group 1, Underwater Construction Team 2 and U.S. Marines with Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team Pacific

The week-long exercise focused on maritime security skills and operational cohesiveness among participating forces.  CARAT training encompasses small boat operations, evidence collection, diving procedures, and anti-terrorism security.  It also builds relationships between military participants through community development projects, sports, and social events.

Robert Hilton, Chargé d’affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Sri Lanka, noted at the time  that, ‘as the Government of Sri Lanka continues to make progress on reconciliation, justice, and human rights, cooperation between our militaries will continue to grow to include further opportunities like this.   CARAT is entering its twenty-third year, and Sri Lanka is among the newest CARAT partner nations, demonstrating a shared commitment to maritime security in the Indian Ocean.’

USA’s Nimitz Carrier Strike Group visited Colombo in October 2017. These carriers are used for offensive operations. The Group included the USS Nimitz, the cruiser USS Princeton, destroyers USS Howard, USS Shoup, USS Pinckney, and USS Kidd. USS Nimitz is a super carrier of the United States Navy, and the lead ship of her class. It is one of the largest warships in the world. It is more than 23 stories high from the keel to the top of the mast and is approximately 333 meters long.  It can accommodate more than 5,000 personnel.  This was the first aircraft carrier to visit since1985. It was parked 150 nautical miles off Colombo.

The visit was given a PR look. I’m delighted that U.S. sailors will have the chance to visit Sri Lanka, meet with its wonderful people, and take part in public service activities at schools, hospitals, and rest homes that will improve the lives of Sri Lankans of all ages,” said the U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka. While in port, sailors will also work with local non-profit organizations to support community service events at a local hospital, an orphanage, and other sites.

The local media   kept very quiet about this visit. Foreign newspapers did not.   Asia Times had a paragraph on the event, starting with the headline, ‘US sends super carrier USS Nimitz to Sri Lanka in flag-showing visit aimed at China’.  This is what Asia Times said.

‘The US Navy, against a backdrop of quickening relations between Sri Lanka and China, is sending the USS Nimitz to make the first port call by a US aircraft carrier to the Indian Ocean nation in more than 30 years. The huge carrier will dock in Sri Lanka’s port of Colombo on Saturday for three days, in the first such visit since the mid-1980s. USS Nimitz and its escorting warships are currently one of three US carrier strike groups operating in the western Pacific. The show of force is a US response to continuing tensions with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program. The Nimitz’s flag-showing exercise in Sri Lanka also seems designed to counter a growing Chinese presence in the strategic nation’.

The 7th Fleet of the US Navy however appears to be accident prone.  In August 2017, the guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain, smashed into a tanker as the warship headed to Singapore, tearing a huge hole in the hull. The collision killed 10 sailors and injured five others. Another destroyer, the USS Fitzgerald, had collided with a Philippine-flagged cargo ship off Japan in June, leaving seven sailors dead. Two non-deadly incidents also occurred in 2017. In January, the USS Antietam ran aground near its base in Japan and in May, the USS Lake Champlain collided with a South Korean fishing vessel. Following the USS McCain incident, the Navy sacked the Commander of the Seventh Fleet and three top commanders. Several other officers and enlisted sailors were relieved of duty or reprimanded.

USA has now started to make its future military plans clear to those listening in Sri Lanka. At the Galle Dialogue 2017, Admiral Scott Swift, Pacific Fleet Commander said they look forward to the expansion of our military to military relations. It was necessary to build trust and cooperation to address multilateral challenges. With [certain] realities creeping into the Indian Ocean, maintaining the Indian Ocean as a sea of tranquility seems increasingly problematic.

Addressing the 3rd Annual Colombo Air Symposium, October 2017, United States Air Force Major General James Eifet called for increased partnership and information sharing among nations in the Indo-Pacific region in the face of a nuclear threat from North Korea. It was not only USA, the Republic of Korea and Japan who were at risk from a possible missile attack but also other countries in the region. Sri Lanka was also within the range of an attack by ballistic missiles from North Korea, he said.

Eifet also castigated China over its claims in the South China Sea. He said that the US considered China’s maritime claims as excessive and that it affected the freedom of navigation in the ocean. North Korea is the most urgent threat but we cannot ignore the threat of China in the South China Sea and the US is watching China carefully to consistently call upon China not to continue to build, reclaim and militarize disputed territories, as US flexed its muscles in the air and maritime domains it asked for greater partnerships with nations in the region. Strong partnerships enable us to advance collective interest including security, he said.

Shamindra Ferdinando observed that the US had twice commented on Sri Lanka-China relations, in an extremely negative way. One statement was made in Washington and the other in Colombo.

Alice Wells, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, in the second week of Sept 2017, declared in Washington, the US was seriously concerned over what she called unsustainable debt burden on Sri Lanka due to non-concessional loans from China. She had told a Congressional Sub Committee, China is providing non-concessional loans that promote unsustainable debt burdens, which I think are increasingly now of concern to the Sri Lankan people in the government. In Sri Lanka, we’re the largest grant provider of assistance. China is providing non-concessional loans that promote unsustainable debt burdens, which I think are increasingly, now of concern to the Sri Lankan people in the government. But what we bring to our relationship are multiple tools, she concluded. US grants are channeled primarily to NGOs working to the US agenda, observed Shamindra.

Rear Admiral Donald D. Gabrielson, of the US Navy, declared at the Galle Dialogues 2017 that every country should be cautious when working with China for want of transparency in certain engagements. The Rear Admiral was responding to a query regarding Chinese presence in the region, particularly Sri Lanka. Many an eyebrow was raised when Rear Admiral Gabrielson spoke ill of China, in Colombo, said Shamindra.

This created a reaction, at least among the readers and columnists of the media. Shamindra Ferdinando in his regular column stated If not for China, Pakistan and Russia, Western powers and India would have had isolated Sri Lanka in Geneva during the Rajapaksa administration. Their support had been special because they also provided military hardware, as well as much required training. China provided a range of arms, ammunition, equipment, aircraft, as well as artillery, on loan schemes. Chinese manufactured T-56 remains the standard assault rifle in use among armed forces here.

Shamindra went on to say, China provided jet planes to Sri Lanka in spite of Indian and Western pressure.  When the No 5 jet squadron was created in 1991, the Air Force had sought Chinese manufactured A 5s, capable of carrying a higher payload, external pressure compelled China to provide F7s. But Air Force pilots had to be sent to Pakistan to receive training in jet ground attack maneuvers as the Chinese weren’t prepared to share experience and knowledge.

Air Force   acquired four F7 GS jet interceptors on a soft loan, in June 2007. In Sept 2007, the Air Force acquired Chinese JY 11 three dimensional radar (3D) though India had strongly opposed such deployment. Unfortunately, Several LTTE ships hunted down had also carried weapons and ammunition of Chinese origin. Sri Lanka government had to request China to take tangible measures to prevent the LTTE from acquiring weapons with the help of corrupt officials.

A final comment on the United State of America. USA is continuously confronted with its unattractive past. 39 recently declassified US Embassy documents covering the period from 1964-1968, have revealed that the US government had intimate knowledge of the Indonesian army’s bloody anti-communist purge in the 1960s. Historians say up to 500,000 alleged Indonesian Communist Party [PKI] supporters were killed between October 1965 and March 1966 by soldiers and civilian militias after the army launched a campaign to crush the Indonesian communist party and its leaders following a failed coup. General Suharto, who put down the coup, blamed the Indonesian Communist Party and rose to power on the back of the bloodshed, going on to lead the world’s most populous Muslim nation with an iron fist for three decades.

During his rule, the massacres were presented as necessary to rid the country of communism – Indonesia had the world’s third-biggest communist party after China and the Soviet Union before the killings. The declassified documents show how American officials across the archipelago knew of the massacres, including the complicity of prominent Muslim civil society groups in the killings. In one telegram sent from the city of Surabaya on November 26, 1965 the US consul said the number of reports coming in from East Java were an indication [of] widespread slaughter” adding as many as 15,000 Communists may have been murdered in a single massacre. (CONCLUDED)

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