- The Sri Lankan should strive to cool down the tensions and contemplate means to strengthen ties with America in a way substantially addressing American strategic interests
- All that might appear tempting, when the government rides high on a wave of public approval, but make no mistake, the wave would crash at one point, and there will be a payback
America’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week imposed a travel ban on Lt. General Shavendra Silva, the acting Chief of Defence Staff and the Commander of Army, and the Sri Lankan government now complains that the decision had complicated the country’s relations with the United States.
The designation of Lt. Gen Shavendra Silva, under Section 7031(c) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, made him and his immediate family members ineligible for the entry into the United States.
It was made “due to credible information of his involvement, through command responsibility, in gross violations of human rights, namely extrajudicial killings, by the 58th Division of the Sri Lanka Army during the final phase of Sri Lanka’s Civil War in 2009,” the statement by the US State Department said.
That the designation of the Army Chief was made publicly (The Secretary of State can sanction individuals privately as well) made it further embarrassing- and a cause for celebration for the fringe diaspora.
In the past individual officers were denied a visa to the United States on occasion, but all such decisions were guarded by confidentiality.
The government raised ‘strong objections’, claiming that the travel restrictions on Gen. Silva have been imposed based on ‘independently unverified information.
On Sunday, Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena summoned the American Ambassador in Colombo, asked that the United States review the decision and lamented that the US decision would ‘unnecessarily complicate the US-Sri Lanka relationship’.
Minister Gunawardena might be thinking that the government is in a fix. He stressed for a second time (The first being the initial media statement on the US decision) that Gen. Silva’s appointment as the Commander of the Army and the Acting Chief of Defence Staff was made taking into account his seniority and that there were no substantiated human rights allegations against him.
That the travel restrictions on Gen. Shavendra Silva were imposed six months after his appointment as the Commander of the Army and 10 years after the end of the war in May 2009 make the State Department decision further intriguing.
However, when Gen. Silva was appointed the Commander of Army in August last year, the US Embassy in Colombo said “The allegations of gross human rights violations against him, documented by the United Nations and other organizations, are serious and credible” and that the “appointment undermines Sri Lanka’s international reputation and its commitments to promote justice and accountability.”
Lt. Gen. Silva’s appointment also saw the UN reducing the intake of Sri Lanka’s intake of the UN peacekeeping forces.
Still, the timing of the public designation of the Sri Lankan Army Chief leaves much to ponder about.
The change of government after the Presidential Election might affect. In other developments, Gen. Silva hosted General Oleg Salyukov, Commander-in-Chief of the Land Forces of the Russian Federation on a five-day visit to Sri Lanka on the invitation of Gen. Silva about two weeks back.
Such visits, even seemingly normal courtesy call, could be interpreted in many ways and provoke a response. However, Gen. Silva is not the only one to be slapped with a travel ban. The United States revoked the visa of Philippines Senator Ronald Dela Rosa, the former Police Chief who implicated in extrajudicial killings in President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs.
In return, an angry Duterte terminated the two-decade-old Visiting Forces agreement, which allows the temporary presence of the US defence personnel in the Philippines.
Manila is one of the key American allies in the Asia Pacific region and is an alliance partner of United States, having signed a Mutual Defence Treaty as way back as 1951, which invokes both parties to act to meet the common danger in case of an attack on either party.
The Philippines is a major partner in America’s hub-and-spokes alliance model in Asia Pacific– comprising Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand.
It would help the government to view this big picture before jumping the gun.
Indeed, President Rajapaksa has intrigued observers who held reservations about him, with an unexpected display of maturity in foreign and domestic policy. He has eschewed rhetoric and also managed to rein in his acolytes who ravished in flag-burning demonstrations in front of the Western Embassies.
However, the travel ban on the Sri Lankan Army Chief now raises the ante. It surely causes the loss of face for his government. His Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena stressed, rightly so, that it is the prerogative of a democratically elected President to appoint persons of expertise to the positions of responsibility.
Similarly, though, it is the prerogative of the American lawmakers to decide who they let into America. The government can shout from the rooftops, invite the Suleimani’s replacement as the revolutionary guard command to a red carpet welcome and burn the house down with whatever international image it cultivated during the past five years.
Or it can just let this incident pass. Escalation would only drive Sri Lanka to the wall. It was similar short-sighted egotism of senior Rajapaksa, Mahinda that landed Sri Lanka in the fringes of the civilized world. Successful leaders and countries learn from past mistakes and strive to avoid repetition. President Gotabaya should not let the history repeat itself.
There is one last point. Whether the Sri Lankans like it or not, the events of the final phase of the war would continue to haunt us periodically, though the apparition has lost much of its stem. Sri Lanka has to handle it dispassionately. EU countries and NGO captains are calling for a full-scale international investigation. Some of those calls are no different from asking for a consolation prize for losing the war.
Majority of often exaggerated civilian casualties were indeed collateral damage. Then there are several high profile incidents, such as the abduction of Tamil youth by a Navy intelligence unit, the killings of students in Trincomalee, etc. Some of them are currently before the court. These investigations are important to redeem the image of the security forces and the country.
However, there are signs that the government is backtracking on the process. A presidential commission appointed to look into allegations of political victimization recently issued an order preventing the Permanent High Court from proceedings in the case filed against the former Commander of the Navy, Admiral of the Fleet Wasantha Karannagoda and others.
The Attorney General rejected the order, admirably so, stating that he is not bound by the instructions of the presidential commission.
Also, certain quarters within the government are campaigning to end the investigations into the attacks on media personnel. A television station owned by the family of Duminda Silva is lobbying for the release of the former Parliamentarian who was sentenced to death over the killing of political rival Baratha Lakshman Premachandra and three others.
All that might appear tempting, when the government rides high on a wave of public approval, but make no mistake, the wave would crash at one point, and there will be a payback.
If the integrity of courts and other independent institutions are compromised, it would be extra difficult to defend Sri Lanka internationally.
Finally, relations with the US do not need to be drastically affected. If that happens over this incident, it would be due to the government returning to the old habits of its predecessor in 2010-2015.
Instead, It should strive to cool down the tension. It should contemplate the means to strengthen ties with America in a way that it would substantially address the American strategic interests so that it would be tempted to overlook minor discrepancies in our domestic policy in the past.
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