Photo courtesy MFA Sri Lanka

Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera in his first visit to Washington, D.C. after assuming office addressed a full-house gathering at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) on Wednesday February 11th. The CEIP, founded in 1910, is the oldest international affairs think tank in the United States. In the last few years Carnegie has established research centres in Russia, China, Europe and the Middle East to make it a global research network.

The central theme that ran through Mr. Samaraweera’s speech was the need for improved relations between Sri Lanka and USA and the thesis that the new Sirisena administration has the democratic credentials to make it happen. Appealing to give the new government in Colombo more time to address human rights concerns, he urged that the UNHRC (Geneva) delay the publication of the report on “—-alleged serious violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes by both parties in Sri Lanka—“ during the period (February 2002 to November 2011) covered by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). The report is due out on March 02 when the 28th session of the UNHRC convenes in Geneva. He also told the Washington audience that the government was seeking the assistance of the World Bank to recover state assets that may have been stolen during the tenure of the Rajapaksa administration.

The present writer has attended similar talks that other foreign ministers of Sri Lanka have delivered in this town from time to time in the past twenty-five years. Mr. Samaraweera’s presentation, easily was one of best attended. The audience was a mixture US government officials, foreign policy wonks, academics. media people, and Sri Lankan expatriates.

Sri Lanka is not exactly on the US foreign policy radar in Washington, D.C. Obama is unlikely to think about what US policy should be on Sri Lanka when he has more urgent things to do these days such as how to thwart the murderous ISIS in the Middle East, what to do to help the government of Ukraine that is battling rebels that Putin is backing, and how to react to Euro Zone’s economic crisis that is threatening to upset the slow recovery of the global economy from the 2008 recession. However, the toppling of the Rajapaksa regime has drawn sufficient attention of the Obama administration to make it dispatch to Colombo for consultation Assistant Secretary of State for South and Asia Nisha Biswal a few weeks after Sirisena assumed office. On Thursday February 12th Mangala Samaraweera got face time with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington, D.C. Sri Lanka must have done something to excite Washington.

Samaraweera in his speech at the Carnegie mentioned what he believes are the factors that drew Washington’s attention. The main point that he made was that Maithripala Sirisena won the election where good governance – the importance of rule of law, corruption-free governance, transparency and accountability – was a key factor that persuaded a majority of voters to reject Rajapaksa. This is important because in past elections in Sri Lanka good governance has not played such a big role.

Good governance is a broad concept that goes beyond corruption. In the January election Sri Lankan Tamils and Muslims who together account for 21% of the electorate had their own security and poltical concerns to vote the way they did. In the case of the Sinhalese voters who account for 75% of the electorate, corruption along with national security and cost of living were the three main factors that influenced their choice at the ballot box. Polling data show that in the 2005 presidential election corruption and related governance issues were not a decisive factor. In the absence of reliable polling data we cannot be sure if in elections prior to 2005, corruption and related governance issues played a decisive role. But we can be certain that good governance issues mattered for a large number of voters when they went to the poll on January 8th. This is a notable evolution in Sri Lankan electoral politics.

As Samaraweera mentioned in his speech the election campaign was far from free and fair. The Rajapaksa campaign grossly misused state resources and the opposition campaign was physically harassed. However, the poll was sufficiently free and fair to ensure a verdict that rejected the incumbent. US foreign policy has had a democracy-promoting component for decades. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, US took it to a new higher level in the mid 1990s when USAID established a major separate program to promote democracy that stressed the importance of good governance. As far as we know the US program has had nothing to do with the Sri Lankan poll on January 8th. However, for US that lays great stress on democracy, the January 8th result would have been a pleasing outcome.

Samaraweera stressed that President Maithripala Sirisena would establish a new democratic poltical culture in Sri Lanka under what he called a “rainbow” coalition. In answer to a question from the audience as to what would happen to the government after the next general election that is expected after April this year, Samaraweera said that the country would have a coalition government of the two major parties with the party that wins the highest number of seats in parliament having the post of prime minster and the next party the post of deputy prime minister. He also expressed the view that it could even be a grander coalition of several more if not all the parties in parliament joining in.

In the main presentation and the Q and A session that followed five points stood out. The first was the fact that US was the principal customer of Sri Lankan exports in value terms. In 2013 USA purchased from Sri Lanka exports worth $2.5 billion that accounted for 24% of Sri Lanka’s total exports. This underscores the economic dependence of Sri Lanka on the USA.

Sri Lanka is a lower-middle income country with an annual per capita GDP of about $4,000. US grant aid is mainly given to low-income countries. Improved democracy in Sri Lanka won’t bring much aid for from USA. For that reason Samaraweera quite rightly urged US investors to consider Sri Lanka favorably as a destination for investment and assured that they would find a welcoming environment.

Second. The Sri Lankan Foreign Minster drew the attention of the audience to an experience that Sri Lanka and USA shared in respect of terrorism. Sri Lanka ended a battle with terrorism in 2009 that lasted almost three decades and USA has had its own quota of deadly experience of terrorism at home, notably the 9/11 attack, as well as more globally.

The third issue that Mr. Samaraweera dealt with was US-Sri Lanka relations in the context of Asia’s two giants India and China. USA and India have been getting closer to each other for quite some time. President Obamas’ recent visit to India further cemented that relationship. This is happening in the broader context of Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” policy. The Chinese suspect that USA is trying to checkmate China using India and other countries in the region. However, China knows that its export-dependent economy cannot survive without the US market. USA realizes that China, that now has the world’s largest economy in purchasing power parity terms, is absolutely crucial for global economic and poltical stability. Small Sri Lanka is of no consequence in this “battle” of the giants except for the fact that it is located on the southern flank of India. Both India and USA would like to see a Sri Lanka that scales back the degree of economic dependence on China that the Rajapaksa administration built up over the last ten years. When Samaraweera says that Sri Lanka would welcome US investors it is both an invitation as well as a challenge.

In answer to a question from the Carnegie audience whether Sri Lanka’s foreign policy would now be less pro-Chinese, Samaraweera very diplomatically replied that it has been and always would be “pro-Sri Lankan.” However, he conceded that all state projects with foreign funding and involvement would be reviewed by the new Sirisena administration and that the country would prefer more foreign direct investment and fewer loans to fund development.

Fourth, in the open forum after the main speech, the UNHRC Report on War Crimes that is due to be made public on March 02nd came up. It was clear from the remarks of the Foreign Minister that UNHRC would not agree to stop the release of the report that was prepared without any cooperation from the Rajapaksa administration. However, the government is making a case for postponing its release on the grounds that Colombo would have its own investigation of alleged war crimes and human rights abuses. Although Mr. Samaraweera did not say so, the government may also want to delay the release of the UNHRC report to avoid any possible adverse poltical fall out before the next parliamentary elections.

Referring to a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that the government is trying to establish with the assistance of South Africa, the Foreign Minister stressed that it would not be a judicial mechanism. The implication being that any war crimes would be dealt with under the normal laws of the country.

The Foreign Minister also stressed that the government will soon launch enquiries into killings and disappearances of journalists and other critics of the Rajapaksa regime.

Fifth, Samaraweera also said that the Sirisena administration was seeking technical assistance from the Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative (STAR) of the World Bank to recover any funds that might have been stolen from the government under the previous regime.

Overall, the Foreign Minister had no big surprises for his audience. But his speech made it clear that Colombo wants to have cordial and closer relations with Washington and that the Sirisena administration was fully aware that it had a difficult balancing act to perform vis-a-vis the Washington-Delhi-Beijing axis.