Former US Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Jeffrey Lunstead, has said that Washington has no "significant" strategic or economic interest in Sri Lanka. But if it is engaged in the peace process in the island country since 2001, it is because of two concerns: (1) a commitment since 9/11 to fight terrorism globally, (b) an interest in upholding human rights everywhere.
"While the US has a congenial military to military relationship with Sri Lanka, strategic interests of the type present in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan do not exist," Lunstead wrote in his report to the Asia Foundation on the role of the US in the Sri Lankan peace process.
No use for Trincomalee
"Contrary to the musings of various South Asian theorists, the US does not have, and has never had, any interest in the use of the harbour at Trincomalee for military purposes," Lunstead said in the report released on May 11.
Explaining this, he said that Trincomalee did not lie on the main sea route; the infrastructure in it was poor; and above all, it was in conflict zone, liable to be attacked by the LTTE at any time. The US was also not keen on antagonising India by establishing a base in a neighbouring country, he added.
On the slim economic stakes in Sri Lanka, Lunstead said that trade at $ 2.3 billion in 2005 was "relatively insignificant." By way of comparison, US trade with Malaysia, a country as small as Sri Lanka, was $ 34 billion. More significantly, Sri Lanka was not a major market for US goods, as the US exported only $198 million to Sri Lanka in 2005, and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) by US companies in Sri Lanka was also quite small, he said.
US companies did not find Sri Lanka a congenial place to invest, he noted. The war and the ethnic conflict were not the only reasons, he said. The Investment Climate Report for 2006 on Sri Lanka had carried the title: "Claimed Openness to Foreign Investment: Reality Differs." The 2006 Country Commercial Guide spoke of "persistent problems mainly caused by an inefficient bureaucracy, corruption and government failure to honour commitments."
The guide book also spoke of intellectual property piracy, local labour laws and inadequate infrastructure as reasons for the lack of interest in Sri Lanka among US investors.
If a number of US companies had invested in Sri Lanka it was substantially due to the Indo-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement (ISLFTA) which allowed duty free imports into India of products manufactured in Sri Lanka with at least 35 per cent value addition, Lunstead said.
However, despite the lack of interest in the country, the US had entered the peace process in 2001, and from 2002 onwards, it had been a key participant along with the EU, Japan and peace broker Norway. It was one of the co-chairs of the Tokyo Peace and Development Conference in 2003 and organised a meet in Washington on Sri Lanka.
Lunstead attributes the change to: (1) an urge to combat terrorism globally following 9/11; (2) the election of a pro-US and pro-peace government in Sri Lanka led by Ranil Wickremesinghe; (3) the personal interest shown by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.
With the approval of the rest of the participants, the US chose to be a "tough cop" in the peace process. It talked tough to the LTTE while aiding the Sri Lankan government militarily (though only modestly with $ 1 million in 2006-7). But the US did not marginalise the LTTE politically because it believed that direct talks with the LTTE was the right thing to do, Lunstead stressed. Explaining the US "double speak" on terrorist groups, he said that the LTTE was essentially a Sri Lankan group and it did not pose a "direct" threat to the US.
While throwing its weight behind the elected Sri Lankan government, by keeping the LTTE on the banned list and criticising it strongly, Washington had been insisting that Colombo move towards a political settlement and top violating human rights. Lunstead made it clear that for the US to be continually interested in Sri Lanka, Colombo must move towards peace and stop the violation of human rights.