Clash of the Titans

In its fight against IS-linked terrorism, Sri Lanka finds itself contending with stark divisions both domestically and internationally. Neville de Silva reports

US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, President Trump’s top diplomat, last month called off aplanned visit to Sri Lanka during his scheduled tour of the Indo-Pacific region. The US Embassy in Colombo said the cancellation was ‘due to unavoidable scheduling conflicts’, and that Secretary of State Pompeo would make the trip at a later date.
But, although the embassy’s explanation sounded plausible enough, not everyone accepted this story. The aborted visit was seen by some as a snub, due to recent events which have soured relations somewhat between Washington and Sri Lanka. Washington probably expected to apply pressure by turning the screw.

The situation began in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday suicide attacks by Muslim extremists suspected of links with the fundamentalist Islamic State (IS), which killed 260 people, of whom nearly 50 were foreign guests at leading Colombo hotels. Following the atrocity, Sri Lanka appealed to several foreign countries and organisations for technological expertise in order to unravel how it all happened. Those approached included the US, the UK and India. The experts were to help trace the extent of foreign terror groups’ involvement in the attacks.

In response, these countries deployed teams of intelligence officials and forensic experts to Sri Lanka. However, their presence there, and the length of their stay, alarmed Beijing. China has considerable assets in Sri Lanka, including the new Hambantota Port, which straddles the vital international sea lanes carrying east-west trade and energy supplies – now leased out to China for 99 years – and the Colombo Port City, still to be completed.
Consequently, the Chinese ambassador in Colombo called on President Maithripala Sirisena to express China’s concerns. These were echoed by President Xi Jinping, who sent an urgent message to Sirisena, inviting him to Beijing for bilateral talks. The Sri Lankan leader responded, and during the three-day visit the two presidents signed three agreements, the details of which are still not public.

But a few days after Sirisena’s return, the political editor of the prestigious Sunday Times wrote that ‘one of the key decisions’ of these talks ‘was on “strengthening co-operation in the defence sector and sharing intelligence between Sri Lanka and China” – an aspect that has been incorporated into the new defence agreement’.
Once back home, Sirisena directed his Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana, who was in Washington to update and renew the US-Sri Lanka Partnership Dialogue, not to engage with the US in any discussions on military agreements.

Adding to the tension was the fact that Marapana had already raised concerns over some clauses in the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the United States and Sri Lanka, which had originally been signed in 1995 and was currently being renegotiated.

Drafted by the US, the new SOFA was wide-ranging and went far beyond what was contained in the 1995 agreement. Marapana, a former attorney-general, was naturally worried as several provisions in it clearly trampled on Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, providing facilities to US military personnel and ‘contractors’ of the US defence department engaged in activities under SOFA.
The details of the agreement were contained in a confidential ‘diplomatic note’ that the US embassy in Colombo had sent to the Sri Lanka Foreign Ministry in August 2018, informing it that the ministry’s ‘yes’ to that note would suffice to signify official approval.

GATEWAY: Sri Lanka's new Hambantota Port
GATEWAY: Sri Lanka’s new Hambantota Port

Although the contents of SOFA were still under wraps, certain of its provisions had been leaked to some opposition members. They took up the issue in parliament, raising the ire of ordinary Sri Lankans, who saw this as vitiating the country’s sovereignty.

The opposition accused pro-US forces in the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe-led United National Party (UNP) – which has a history of bowing to the West, especially the US – and pro-American career diplomats in the ministry of trying to hock the country to the West, just as the UNP is said to have ‘sold’ some national assets since their election in 2015.

Under the draft SOFA, uniformed US military personnel carrying weapons and communications equipment were free to travel anywhere in Sri Lanka in vehicles that had freedom of access. They were free to import or export any personal property, equipment, supplies, etcetera, and exempt from any inspection in Sri Lanka and from local taxes.

Moreover, SOFA calls for US personnel to be accorded the privileges, exemptions, and immunities in keeping with those granted to the administrative and technical staff of a diplomatic mission under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. US personnel may enter and exit Sri Lanka with US identification and with collective movement or individual travel orders.

These persons were to be exempt from Sri Lanka’s criminal law jurisdiction. This means that, even if a weapon-carrying American murders or sexually assaults a local –as has happened with US troops in the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa, for instance – Sri Lanka has no power to bring him to justice.
Perhaps US officials had forgotten that, in 1996, Sri Lanka had passed the Diplomatic Privileges Act No 9, under which any granting of diplomatic privileges and immunities is required to be published in the government gazette and presented in parliament.

Also of serious concern, from the perspective of Sri Lanka’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity, was that Sri Lankan authorities had no authority to board and inspect US aircrafts and vessels at local airports and ports. This would allow the US to engage in its illegal ‘extraordinary rendition’, as it was euphemistically called. In reality, it was used to transport terrorist suspects out of US jurisdiction, allowing them to be tortured and inhumanly treated.

An even more dangerous and threatening provision was that US vessels could carry and bring into Sri Lankan territory nuclear weapons without Sri Lanka’s knowledge. Yet even as far back as the 1970s, big power naval vessels docking in Sri Lanka’s port had to provide a written undertaking that they carried no nuclear weapons.
The best hope for Sri Lanka to keep big power rivalry at bay, and to prevent terrorist organisations such as the Islamic State from bringing their vengeful battles to South Asian soil (as reportedly happened on Easter Sunday), is to renegotiate the highly-expanded and nationally-dangerous Acquisition and Cross Services Agreement (ACSA) and the SOFA deal for parliamentary approval, leaving the people to decide whether such bilateral pacts benefit the country.
Time is running out for Washington. If it hopes to coax, cajole or even coerce the current administration, which is in a state of internal squabbling, it will need to do so by December, when the Presidential election takes place and battle will be joined by those not particularly amenable to what they see as US machinations to enmesh this small island in their geostrategic confrontations.

Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who held senior roles in Hong Kong at The Standard and worked in London for Gemini News Service. He has been a correspondent for foreign media including the New York Times and Le Monde. More recently he was Sri Lanka’s deputy high commissioner in London

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