By Kalinga Seneviratne
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cancelled a scheduled visit to Sri Lanka on June 27 as part of his ‘Indo-Pacific’ tour citing “unavoidable scheduling conflicts”, according to the United States Embassy in Colombo. But they might more precisely have said, the visit was dropped “due to unavoidable opposition to U.S. moves” in Sri Lanka.
In recent years, Sri Lanka has been wooed both by China and the U.S. due to its location in the Indian Ocean that carries some 70 percent of global maritime trade. After recent bomb blasts in the island, Sri Lankans are increasingly getting worried that the U.S.-China rivalry would engulf their island which will not be to its benefit.
Nationalist politicians have pointed out that what Pompeo had planned to sign during his visit would have dwarfed the much touted “debt trap” deal with China where thousands of hectares of land were given to a Chinese government linked firm to develop an industrial park adjoining a Chinese built harbour in Hambantota on a 99-year lease.
The Sri Lankan government’s bid to sign a defence related deal with the U.S. has exploded into controversy and is facing pushback from nationalist forces, who suspect a U.S. plot to permanently station troops on Sri Lankan soil under the pretext of fighting terrorism following the Easter Sunday bomb blasts. Pompeo’s visit to Sri Lanka, it is believed, was planned to sign a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA)between the two countries that has been negotiated in secret without the knowledge of parliament.
On May 23, opposition lawmaker Bimal Ratnayake read from what he claimed was a leaked copy of a letter the U.S. embassy had sent to the government on a proposed SOFA, stating that Washington had asked Sri Lanka to allow passport-free access to American soldiers and contractors to the country.
According to the letter, the U.S. also asked for its military personnel to be responsible only to U.S. laws while in Sri Lanka, that U.S. warships and military aircraft be allowed to enter and leave the country without inspections, and that no military personnel be subject to customs checks when doing so.
“When such a letter is received, any government that has a backbone, should call the ambassador, question her and send her home,” Ratnayake told parliament.
Sri Lankan Army Commander Mahesh Senanayake said later that he would not agree to sign the SOFA, telling local media it would be like “committing suicide after leaving all my property to someone else”.
According to the U.S. Congressional Research Service, Washington has agreements with more than 100 countries that could be considered SOFAs.
“I find it difficult to understand why Sri Lanka needs a SOFA with anyone,” Dr Palitha Kohona, Sri Lanka’s former foreign secretary and permanent representative to the United Nations told IDN
“We have maintained good relations with all countries in the past, even during very difficult times. Sri Lanka has done well without SOFAs or other defence arrangements of this nature,” he added.
At a time when Sri Lankans are worried about a new terrorism threat, he points out that it was China that helped Sri Lanka to defeat the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) threat with military and economic assistance. “It would be unwise and patently ungrateful to the extreme to drift in to an anti-China configuration,” added Dr Kohona.
When the U.S. stopped military assistance to Sri Lanka in 2008 raising human rights concerns in the war against the LTTE, China stepped in providing large quantities of arms such as Jian-7 fighter jets, antiaircraft guns, JY-11 3D air surveillance radars and other sophisticated weapons that played a central role in the Sri Lankan military’s crushing of the LTTE in May 2009.
When the West tried to censure Sri Lanka at the UN and perhaps use it to stop the military campaign against the LTTE in 2008-2009, it was China (along with Russia) that ensured no such resolution would arrive at the UN Security Council.
Ever since the Easter Sunday bombings shocked the nation, variety of people from Buddhist, Catholic and Muslim communities have raised concern that terrorism is being used as a pretext for the U.S. to use Sri Lankan soil for its geopolitical battle with China with the possibility of a permanent U.S. base there under the U.S.’s ‘Indo-Pacific’ strategy.
Responding to concerns expressed in parliament by opposition lawmakers regarding the secret nature of the negotiations with the U.S., government’s chief whip Laksman Kiriella told parliament late May that SOFA is “not a defence agreement, this is only a service agreement, signed by 100 other countries”.
In a statement given to the media, U.S. Ambassador Alaina Teplitz said that the agreement under discussion relates to several matters with regards to military training and co-operation and is not inimical to the sovereignty of Sri Lanka in any way. She even visited the two leading Buddhist prelates of Asgiriya and Malwatta late May to convey this assurance.
Another issue attracting the ire of nationalists in the island is a grant from the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), an independent American foreign aid agency separate from the larger U.S. Agency for International Development.
Just four days after the Easter Sunday bombings, the MCC approved a US$480 million for a five-year project aimed at reducing poverty through economic growth in Sri Lanka. A major component of this project is a land reform program, in which government-owned land could be valued and sold to foreign entities.
Under existing laws, non-citizens must have a local partner to buy land in Sri Lanka. But according to critics, new laws being drafted under MCC tutelage include moves to remove this hurdle, as well as a proposed “land bank” to bring publicly owned land under a single hub, thereby making it easier to privatise.
“Government cannot even lease public land to foreigners when national security issues are involved,” points out Prof Prathiba Mahanamahewa, law professor and former Human Rights Commissioner of Sri Lanka. “This involves the government and public trust principles that cannot be violated. (Thus) any agreement (that may be signed in secrecy) people can ask for it to be made public under the Right to Information laws.”
With 80 percent of Sri Lanka’s land under public ownership and most rural farmers getting government land grants to farm, land rights activists are worried that it would result in mass dispossession of farmers. If they are allowed to sell, they could sell the land to overcome short-term debt woes. Since the colonial era Land Development Ordinance of 1935 that sought to return land to peasant farmers, a total of over 1.5 million hectares of government owned land have been granted to farmers.
Opposition lawmaker Wimal Weerawansa, leader of the National Freedom Front in a letter to President Sirisena made public via his Facebook page, has warned of the grave danger facing Sri Lanka’s sovereignty from these schemes. He claims that under the MCC scheme, the four land investment zones that would be established across the country, will allow U.S. and other foreign companies to lay their hands on over 3 million acres of public land. Under the Hambantota “debt swap” deal the Chinese were given only 15,000 acres around the harbour on 99-year old lease.
Communications Director of MCC, Leigh Stapleton, in an emailed response to IDN said that the U.S. and the Sri Lankan governments have been working on this compact for two years. “The United States will not own, control, or in any way administer land in Sri Lanka under the MCC compact. The Government of Sri Lanka will retain oversight and control of land and roads undergoing improvement as part of the MCC compact,” she added. “The land projects will help enhance tenure security and tradability of land for smallholders, women, and firms”.
Professor Mahanamahewa in an interview with IDN argues that the deal with China on Hambantota is not a threat to national security like the proposed MCC and SOFA agreements. “For China, Hambantota is part of their one belt one road silk route project covering 60 countries and promoting trade and tourism,” he notes. “This is the larger modus operandi of China to benefit the region at large.”
After Sri Lanka defeated the LTTE, the government was closely aligned with China, and the U.S. with help from its European allies orchestrated a campaign against Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) claiming the Sri Lankan army committed war crimes quoting unsubstantiated claims of 40,000 deaths in the finals days of the battle to eliminate the LTTE. Thus, for the growing nationalist movement in Sri Lanka the SOFA deal smacks of hypocrisy designed to co-opt Sri Lankan armed forces to fight geopolitical battles with China using the island as a base.
“Not so long ago, USA was the co-sponsor together with a few western nations of a resolution against Sri Lankan troops for alleged violation of human rights, and international humanitarian law,” notes Lawyer and Buddhist activist Senaka Weeraratne.
“Isn’t it paradoxical that the very same country that had accused and humiliated our troops and blackened the image of our security forces before the UNHRC and demonized our military officers accusing them of fabricated war crimes, now wants to secure joint military ties with the very same armed force?” he asks sarcastically.