Fresh debates have erupted over Sri Lanka-US relations, with prominent present and former Government members airing their contrary views this week. The statements also come in the backdrop of a 20% reduction in US aid to Sri Lanka and continued concern over reconciliation efforts that have made the island a repeated subject at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).
Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal penning a column to Forbes Magazine insisted that it was time for the US to move towards a symmetrical relationship with Sri Lanka. He believes that the US is applying heavy pressure toward the Sri Lanka Government to accelerate the reconciliation process with the minority Tamil population while ignoring the major strides that have been made towards this goal by the Sri Lankan Government and people.
Cabraal argues that at the same time, the US seems to be paying little attention to the geo-strategic dimensions of US-Sri Lanka relations as well as to the economic potential that Sri Lanka has to offer as the fastest growing economy in its region and as a gateway to a one billion people market in next door India.
He goes on to present the hackneyed point that Sri Lanka needs time and support rather than censure. The column while dealing with many salient points pays little attention to many issues highlighted by the US, including lack of progress on power devolution, ongoing media suppression, loss of judicial independence, increasing disregard for law and order as well as a worsening of international acceptance. It also fails to acknowledge that the US remains one of Sri Lanka’s main export markets and has consistently maintained relations despite the UNHRC resolutions. It must also be remembered that the Central Bank, rather controversially, hired public relations organisations recently to promote a rosy-tinted Sri Lanka to the US, underscoring its importance.
Former Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama gave voice to somewhat contrary views calling on the Government to take the initiative with the US on relations and show tangible results. He emphasised on the need for the Government to carry out promises it makes in its statements and stressed that the nation is looked at by the world as one that is not adequately responding to its own agenda. By this he was clearly referring to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) recommendations and credible investigations on alleged war crimes as well as overall improvement on human rights.
Bogollagama had also advocated for a redesign of foreign policy so that developed countries and emerging powers are given balanced attention. Earmarking “coordinated relationships” as an option for Sri Lanka he suggested that Colombo engage directly with Washington on meaningful progress being made on the ground in terms of reconciliation and overall governance. Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa otherwise known as BRICS could also have an impact on positioning Sri Lanka on the world stage – for the right reasons.
With tussles over the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), continued hostility from Southern India and Canada as well as wariness from the UK and other European nations, it is surely time for Sri Lanka to rethink its priorities on foreign policy.