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Missed opportunities

Illustration: Keera Ratnam

As US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo left Colombo last week, Sri Lanka’s leaders will have breathed a sigh of relief. The much-anticipated tough talk on human rights and accountability did not materialise. Instead, the US diplomat spoke on the two government’s “friendship” and how to drive American investment to the island, with only a cursory mention of justice for mass atrocities. That this was done whilst posing for photographs with Sri Lanka’s war crimes accused president sends worrying signals - for the future of the island and for the direction of US foreign policy.

Sri Lanka was clearly bracing itself for Pompeo’s visit. A government minister claimed that both president and prime minister were staunchly opposed to the trip by the Secretary of State, whilst a familiar protest took place outside the embassy in Colombo. When a State Department official said that discussions would involve the “difficult” economic decisions that Sri Lanka has to make and that Washington will “watch closely” on democratic developments, government figures were reportedly seething. Indeed, the absence of prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was a conspicuous snub. During the visit, however, Pompeo failed to deliver.

Though his trip’s focus was on other major regional powers, this was an opportunity for Washington to be firm with its messaging to Sri Lanka and other similar states. Pompeo’s blinkered focus on China’s role on the island, however, distracted from much more pressing ground realities. Sri Lanka’s lurch towards authoritarianism, it's ever-growing militarisation and silencing of dissent were missed - all of which pose deadly threats to Pompeo’s vision of “a free and open and prosperous Indo-Pacific… upholding the rules-based international order” that he spoke of in New Delhi.

Sri Lanka meanwhile used the opportunity to showcase once more its commitment to the defence of the Dharma. Ahead of the visit, Sri Lanka’s opposition spoke about the US travel ban on the war crimes accused head of the army, demanding that it be withdrawn. Sri Lanka’s press also repeatedly raised the issue with Pompeo, claiming that Silva, who is sanctioned over his role in overseeing the execution of Tamils, is “one of the war heroes in our country”. Opposition and even government politicians meanwhile vowed to protect Sri Lanka’s sovereignty from US incursions in the form of a much-needed Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Grant - a deal that Gotabaya Rajapaksa said he would not sign “even in his dreams”. Even as a global superpower visited, the Sri Lankan state’s raison d’être - the preservation of a chauvinistic Sinhala Buddhist bastion - was once more at the fore.

For the Tamil people, from the families of the disappeared to those still struggling for their land and those still under military occupation, Pompeo could have, and should have, shed light on their suffering. It was a sorely missed opportunity. And as Amnesty International highlighted in their letter to the Secretary, he leaves with the root causes of the island’s conflict still unaddressed. 

With Pompeo back in Washington, the world will now be watching as the US goes to the polls today. The results, as ever, will have global consequences and present an opportunity for decisive and progressive shifts in policy. The Tamil people are acutely aware of that US engagement with Sri Lanka is based in self-interest and real politik. But in order to achieve any such goals, as well as the advancement of an open and democratic international order, Washington will need to come up with a marked change in the conduct of its foreign policy. The Rajapaksa regime’s authoritarian and racist turn is rapidly laying down the conditions that created decades of turmoil and violence. The Tamil people will continue to resist that chauvinistic project, as they have already shown several times throughout this year. But Washington must realise, that more of the same will not work.

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