Wednesday, December 09, 2009

U.S. envoy in Sri Lanka, Washington mulls change in ties

The U.S. diplomat responsible for south Asia landed in Sri Lanka on Tuesday after a U.S. Senate committee urged the United States not to "lose" its relationship with the strategically located island nation.

Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert Blake is on a three-day visit to discuss political matters and reconciliation in Sri Lanka after the end of a 25-year war with the Tamil Tiger separatists in May.

Blake served as the U.S. ambassador in Colombo until his promotion in May, and he arrived as President Barack Obama's administration is reassessing its approach toward the island nation in the face of strong Indian and Chinese influence.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Monday issued a report that encourages the Obama administration to recalibrate its approach to post-war Sri Lanka to include more economic, political and security aid to protect U.S. interests.

"While humanitarian concerns remain important, U.S. policy cannot be dominated by a single agenda. It is not effective at delivering real reform, and it shortchanges U.S. geostrategic interests in the region," the report says.

After the war ended, the United States and other Western nations criticized President Mahinda Rajapaksa's administration for civilian casualties, attacks on the media, and restrictions on hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Tamil minority.

That infuriated the Sri Lankan government, which felt it should have been congratulated for defeating the Tamil Tigers, which the United States and more than 30 other countries listed as a terrorist group.

"The challenge for the United States will be to encourage Sri Lanka to embrace political reform without pushing the country toward Burma-like isolation," the report says.

Tellingly, Rajapaksa's first state visit after the end of the war was to Myanmar, the former Burma, and members of his government have publicly said they do not need U.S. help given the billions invested by China and India into the country.

"While the United States shares with the Indians and Chinese a common interest in securing maritime trade routes through the Indian Ocean, the U.S. government has invested relatively little in the economy or the security sector," the Senate report says.

The report says that all three countries are concerned about deterring terrorist activity and piracy in sea lanes.

It also warns that a failure to bring ethnic reconciliation between Sri Lanka's Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority could give rise to instability in India's Tamil Nadu state, home to 60 million Tamils.

"The United States cannot afford to 'lose' Sri Lanka. This does not mean changing the relationship overnight or ignoring real concerns about Sri Lanka's political and humanitarian record," it says.

Washington should increase its leverage by opening up military and economic aid, and increasing aid to the entire country instead of the conflict-afflicted areas in exchange for broader reforms by the government, the report says.

© Reuters

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