The Sunday Leader

American Elephant In Sri Lankan Drawing Room?

by N. Sathiya Moorthy

US Secretary of State, John Kerry meeting Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in Colombo

As expected, the American diplomatic traffic to Sri Lanka has increased since the Maithri-Ranil duo came to power in January. Introduction of personalities, personalities and more personalities apart, there is now a need to take bilateral relations forward, if either or both sides seek to make a productive use of the ‘window of opportunity’ now available to them.

Leave aside the India-centric, ‘Cold War’ South Asian dynamics, this is not the first time the US is trying its diplomatic luck with Sri Lanka in recent years. Post-war, similar diplomatic tours de force did not bear American fruits, and they lost interest. Then President Mahinda Rajapaksa is since on record that the West conspired to have him thrown out.

It’s an all-American geo-strategic maxim that there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies in international politics. There are only permanent interests. It could not be otherwise as the US politico-administrative scheme is too dynamic for the comfort of their international partners. ‘Guided democracy’ is what they have and what they preach – but with the all-American short, medium and long-term interests in mind.

As co-chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, current US Secretary of State, John Kerry co-authored a report, which underlined Sri Lanka’s geo-strategic interests for America. Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans read it wrong. To the limited extent the incumbent Rajapaksa Government was willing to work with the Americans, the latter were ready to respond in kind.

As Rajapaksa went his way, in American perceptions (too), particularly on the China front, so did the US. ‘Sri Lanka’ provided the constancy to bilateral relations, the rest of it all could change. That could include a change of political formation at White House later in the New Year, going beyond the mandatory change of personality after two terms at the Oval Office.


Unquestioned, but…

There is no denying the fact that Sri Lanka needs the US and the rest of the West in every which way, as the latter might require Sri Lanka, mostly on the geo-strategic front. Maintaining geo-strategic neutrality alone would not do for Sri Lanka, if that’s what is warranted.

For development, it requires China’s funds, which the rest of the world does not possess or are unwilling to part with in unquestioning Chinese ways. In politics, Sri Lanka requires China’s veto-vote, again unquestioned, at UNSC.

But on both fronts, there are areas that the West and West alone could help.  Devoid of details, it means the US. The standard American prescription to sway away Third World nations from China is the IMF route. Already, the Ranil Wickremesinghe leadership is talking about taking the highway.

China, and Russia, too, might have worn blinkers. Rather, they were politically and economically weak in relative terms when it happened. By taking away such work of the UN to the UNHRC, with no veto-vote, the West has Third World nations – and at times, China and Russia, too, where it wants. Almost always on the defensive, all of them – and requiring their backing, the Third World nations among them, in particular.

The American interest in Sri Lanka dates back to the days after the US began globalising its geo-political and geo-strategic interests by lending support first, and leadership from then on, to the World War victors in Europe (sans communist Soviet Union) and losers like Japan elsewhere. In the ‘Cold War’ era, when neighbouring India’s position was unclear at best, Sri Lanka became the sheet-anchor of American geo-strategic policy, but with only mixed and at times varied results.

How thus is the current situation different from that over the past decades and phases? Until proved otherwise, substantially and continually so, everything has changed and nothing has changed at the same time. The change in Sri Lankan political leadership is obvious, so is the attending change in the new Government’s geo-strategic approach towards the US, China and consequently, neighbouring India. Or, it’s in the reverse order, but not necessarily in the order of priority.


‘Dependency- neutrality’

Despite unilateral poll-time announcements to the contrary, the new government leadership has declared its intention to revive the China-funded Colombo Port City project. The new Government has also signed other developmental projects, with Chinese aid, and hence near-complete labour participation.

What is thus likely to change is Sri Lanka’s geo-strategic posturing, from a perceptible pro-China tilt towards neutrality. The two ‘Sinhala majors’ in Sri Lankan political landscape had worked on a ‘geo-strategic neutrality’ agenda for the nation long ago. It remains to be seen if the incumbent Government is seeking to apply ‘correctives’ where required, or is also aiming at the traditional UNP tilt towards the US and the rest of the West.

Such re-positioning by itself could be interpreted to mean a pro-India and/or pro-US approach, and tantamount to an anti-China attitude. By declaring its intention to go to IMF for funding (and by citing ‘anticipated’ global-level problems more than once in the past month), and by obtaining first and seeking now an extension to the currency-swap arrangement with India, the Maithri-Ranil leadership is also seemingly aiming at ‘economic’ or ‘dependency-neutrality’. How far it goes would remain to be seen.


Upstaging India?

Knowingly or otherwise, the US is also upstaging the Indian friend in the latter’s acknowledged ‘traditional area of influence’, not stopping with out-sourcing the same. Whether it also has to do with India’s constant and irritating practice of re-asserting ‘strategic independence’ and hence ‘strategic neutrality’ in neighbourhood affairs, including those pertaining to the Indian Ocean neighbourhood that it shares with Sri Lanka, and also Maldives, is a point to ponder over.

India moved away from excessive dependence on Moscow for its strategic hardware after post-Soviet Russia in its formative years proved to a less dependent partner. The ‘cryogenic engine’ fiasco was a case in point. The sudden collapse of the Soviet Union also took with it some of India’s joint development schemes like the ‘Kudremukh iron ore project’, even as Moscow began pressing for hard-currency transactions. India could not have afforded it then, it might not afford it now, after a point.

This has nothing per se to do with Sri Lanka, but has possibly everything to do with American perceptions of future Sri Lanka relations. From a narrower Indian perception, the nation has lost a dependable friend without gaining another dependable one, instead. India thus continues to do a balancing-act on Russo-American front, but unlike the visible pro-Moscow tilt as in the past. It’s akin to the Sino-American balance that ‘new Sri Lanka’ is seeking to achieve.


Ethnic component

The American geo-strategic interest in Sri Lanka was known ever since it began replacing the trans-Atlantic British parent in the Cold War era, colonial context. Yet, on a serious component, as the ‘Tamil ethnic issue’, the US had stayed away from interfering or influencing domestic political or administrative opinion, other than as a part of the learning curve. Not anymore.

In its time, and even at present, India has been on its own in Sri Lankan ethnic affairs and calculations. Norway was considered an American B-team.  The rest of Europe too now has real-time human rights concerns viz Sri Lanka, and have sure-fire Sri Lankan Tamil politico-electoral constituencies nearer home. The US does not have SLT constituencies, but it has human rights concerns of its own, and has to carry those of its European allies, too.

International public and political opinion on war-time ‘accountability issues’ in Sri Lanka is united at least on paper. By design or otherwise, by co-opting a redrafted western resolution this time, the Maithri-Ranil duo has ensured that there were no two opinions at the UNHRC, as a representative body of shared – or, divided – global opinion. The same cannot however be said of domestic politics in Sri Lanka. The ethnicity-wise differences are palpable. Below the radar, there are various shades of gray, which need to be understood and acted upon accordingly – and, not otherwise.

Through the decades of American international participation and leadership (at least to one of the two major global factions during the Cold War, and now a second one in its formative stages, still), the US has given the unmistaken impression that it understands only so much in terms of domestic politics and policies in third nations, and not more. It was so in the case of Sri Lanka’s Indian neighbour in the past, and so was it with the professionalised Norway as peace-facilitator.

The conclusion is that policy-makers of individual nations tend to reduce things third nations, to their own levels of equipment and consequent understanding. Rather, they have tended to reduce everything to a format in their own comfort zone, and work on a pro-active/reactive model of problem-solving.  The larger the nation, narrower has been the understanding of the rest. The smaller the nation on which such understanding is sought, faster has been the erosion of large nations’ interests. There are few exceptions but for different and differentiated reasons. Sri Lanka is not in the league of Israel, among a few others, to demand undivided and un-trampled upon American attention all the time.

Years after the war, the ‘ethnic issue’ continues to be Sri Lanka’s ‘national problem’. Post-polls gestures and postures apart, the Maithri-Ranil duo are yet to begin addressing any of the core issues, to which has been added the global ‘accountability concerns’ and ‘rehabilitation’ efforts. A new entrant to the Sri Lankan ethnic politics scene, the US may have any number of ideas to offer, solutions to work on. They need to be accepted by all sections of the nation and polity.


The day after

It is a tall order, considering that most Tamils and Sinhalas have shades of mutual distrust and suspicions about each other still intact. Both sections also have with them, those that are even more suspicious of international players and participation. In the past, it’s this that has frustrated other international peace-facilitators in Sri Lanka, whatever direct or indirect roles that they had played.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s recent, realistic reference to the US being the ‘elephant in the room’, as far as the neighbourhood Indian Ocean is concerned, is beginning to prove true in Sri Lanka’s domestic political contexts, as well. In doing so, the US seems to be replacing or seeking to replace, the relatively visible Indian concerns and the purportedly invisible Chinese hand at the same time.

The US has been seen as entering a military situation elsewhere (often after creating one in the first place) without planning for ‘the day after’. It was thus seen as exiting the scene, either by cutting down its losses if not to cut down further losses (starting with a loss of face), leaving behind a mess worse than when it had entered.

Sri Lanka is not a military situation for the US. Even in the Cold War era, when India’s ‘Operation Garland’ might have provided an occasion/opportunity, the US desisted the temptation – and with that the expectations of the JRJ leadership in Colombo. In a way, it also showed the limitations of unbridled domestic popularity/acceptance on international opinion. There, the stakes and stake-holders are true.

The reverse is also true, overseas’ understanding of Sri Lanka, so to say. The political complexity in Sri Lanka is as difficult as the tribal military composition in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Syria – and elsewhere. This is not to suggest that the US could or should fail in its Sri Lanka endeavour.

Instead, it is for the US to go back to the black-board, or even to the slate, if that is what it requires, to understand Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans better than it has ever had over the past months, years and decades, before embarking on a simple or simplistic solution of whatever kind and content.

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email:



6 Comments for “American Elephant In Sri Lankan Drawing Room?”

  1. Bass

    “”This is not to suggest that the US could or should fail in its Sri Lanka endeavour.”

    Multinational Beans is just another Billionaire Lobbyist that runs USA administration whether its Red or Blue. Political Correctness is the name of their game.- all balm and calm that is buying Lankan mercenary soldiers to serve as so called Peace Corps in all parts of the world where their policy of piracy is taking shape.

    Only world war would change the game. Gandhi or DSS did not get the freedom.
    WW2- Ceylon, India and Pakistan got its independence because EEIC was blitzed and Churchill had no money to run the largest cooperation in the world which could never have failed like the western private banks.
    Hillary may nuke Asia because she never knew more than her Monica’s knickers.

  2. Bass

    “Instead, it is for the US to go back to the black-board,”

    You can scream for all your worth like `very smart` hindian modi and his toadies lets bomb China.
    Now where is Modi but buying russian junk once again as no one wants to sell anything to copy-cats.- patent rights are an expensive item. After his `very intelligent` voice against china he goes he makes surprise visits to Pakistan to cool the now stagnant and putrid air.

    Lanka will do everything like the Spanish and Portuguese did during WW2
    Both gave Hitler 50K soldiers each so that they may not be bombed.
    In the case of Lanka Ranil – Ranil proclaimed a revolution has begun. the day they ousted MR (lankans are `very smart` donkey like their Indian brothers)
    Democracy consists of choosing your dictators after they’ve told you what you think it is you want to hear.When dictatorship is a fact, revolution becomes a right.
    Dictators free themselves, but they enslave the people. Charlie Chaplin

  3. Psycho

    It’s better to have an elephant in the room than a fox under the bed.

  4. gamunu

    well written factual analysis. I wonder the elephant would run amok.

  5. srilanka ethnic problem started from the indepentented. the matter became worse by the prime minister mr SWRD Bandaranayaka. the official language became a sinha language, the biddism is only religion for the srilankan. 2015 January election government decided to bring tamil also official language, it was a better idea to country peaceful and democratic live, UN human right was very keen about the srilanka communal problem to solve. present government also very keen to comprise with the minority, mr Rani is in the W Rajapaska minister of justice some what communal and he is harbouring the previous government corrupted ministers .the cabinet change in January 2016 bring better minister,

  6. Sam Mons

    If Rajapakse favoured the American camp we would be still fighting the LTTE. It is his tactfulness and fearless political leadership that won the war. Rajapakse is the ‘Real Fox’ not JRJ. US can take a hint or two in their war against ISIS from the generals who ended the Tamil war though those war veterans are being betrayed by the clueless Maithripala-Wickeremesinghe government in the name of human rights. Call for human rights is an attempt by governments to gloss over their own excrement!

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