When J.R. Jayewardene (Yankee Dickie”) became President, 1977- 1978 and 1978 – 1989, there was an open tilt towards the USA. JR paid a state visit to USA in June 1984, during his second term in office. This was the first state visit to USA by a Sri Lanka Head of state. It is also the only state visit to US by the Head of state of Sri Lanka to date.
In 1985 United States Navy super carrier USS Kitty Hawke visited Sri Lanka. It was, I think, the first US super carrier to visit Sri Lanka. JR permitted US naval ships to enter Trincomalee. He wanted to give the Trincomalee oil tanks to America, but India protested.
US said that it wanted to set up a VOA relay transmitter along Sri Lanka’s western shore. JR’s government allocated 625 hectare from a government-owned coconut plantation bordering a predominantly Roman Catholic fishing village, at Iranawila for this purpose. The foundation stone for the VOA station was laid in 1985.
The next government supported the venture, but reduced the acreage.VOA started transmitting from Iranawila in 1997. The 520-acre area is tightly guarded using diplomatic immunity. It is completely run by the US government and is out-of-bounds for Sri Lankans, complained critics.
JR Jayewardene is remembered with contempt as the person who got the 13th Amendment accepted in Parliament. At the time, it was thought that this was forced on Sri Lanka by India, thanks to JR’s poor diplomacy. It is now found that this was the work of the USA, not India. USA was behind the India-Sri Lanka accord of 1987, said analysts. This makes sense. The 13th Amendment is linked to Eelam. It benefits USA, not India.
Izzeth Hussain recalls that US Ambassador James Spain had sought a meeting with the Minister of Foreign affairs, on the day of the Indian parippu air drop over Jaffna in 1987. Ambassador Spain had to convey an urgent message from his government. India was going to suggest something and Sri Lanka should not over react, Spain said. That ‘something’ was the Accord. Hussain had told W.T. Jayasinghe, Permanent Secretary, Foreign affairs, that almost certainly a third party was involved in the Indo-Lanka accord. Jayasinghe, who was present at the signing, ‘told me later that I was correct.’
Just after the signing of the document, Ambassador Spain handed over an envelope to RajIv Gandhi, obviously a congratulatory and goodwill message from Reagan. Clearly the contents of the agreement were already known to the US government, said Hussain. In addition, visiting US senator Charles H. Percy had carried a letter from US President Reagan to President Jayawardene offering to be of any assistance in conveying a message from J.R. to Rajiv Gandhi.
US continued to maintain contact with the next heads of state. Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa met with US President Reagan when he was on a private visit to USA in April 1983. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe paid two working visits to USA in November 2003 and July 2002.
When Chandrika Kumaratunga became President, in November 1994, USA was able to make a further advance. US and Sri Lanka had an agreement in 1995, by exchange of diplomatic notes, regarding the status of US military personnel and civilian employees of the Department of Defence who may be present in Sri Lanka for exercises or official duties. US had commenced work on these agreements in 1995, soon after Chandrika Kumaratunga’s election as President. Letters were exchanged in May, 1995.
One of the letters said: The (Foreign) Ministry is pleased to inform the above-mentioned personnel that US military personnel, civil employees of the Department of Defence will be accorded the same status as provided to technical and administrative staff of the Embassy of the United States. The Ministry also wishes to inform that this reply shall be considered an agreement effective May 16, 1995. This was the start of the agreement known as SOFA.
In 2004, when Kumaratunga was President, the US tried to persuade Sri Lanka to sign an agreement under the US Tropical Forestry Conservation Act of 1998. This Act said that if a tropical country has at least one globally important tropical forest that country can sign an agreement with the United States to reduce its debt with the US. Under this arrangement the forests will be managed by a committee of representatives from the US government and International NGOs.
Some Sri Lankans supported this move, saying that the motive was only to help conserve tropical forests. Others disagreed. US would benefit from this in several ways, they said. This agreement would give US control over all Sri Lankan forest assets against interest on monies borrowed by Sri Lanka from USA, said critics. The Sri Lankan cloud forests would belong to the President of the United States of America.
Under the Kyoto Protocol a country has to either reduce its carbon emission or buy carbon entitlements from other countries. US could say that it need not reduce its Carbon dioxide levels because it is protecting so much of tropical forests in the world. These will act as sinks to absorb the Carbon dioxide which the US releases.
The agreement will also give US exclusive access to the medicinal plants in these forests. The search for pharmaceuticals is a multimillion-dollar industry, carried out mainly by US firms and US pharmaceutical companies are well known for getting patents for plant based pharmaceuticals.
There were strong protests from Environmental NGO’s led by the Wildlife & Nature Protection Society and it was stopped. But there is nothing to stop the Agreement from raising its head again, as many of the original players are back in the ring today, critics said in 2017.
Chandrika Kumaratunga was succeeded by Mahinda Rajapaksa (2005- 2015). US found it was unable to influence Mahinda Rajapaksa. He refused to stop the war when US asked him to, instead he went on to win the war.
The US Senate Committee on Foreign relations sent 2 members to Sri Lanka in November 2009, to assess the impact of this victory on US Policy. The team was asked to make recommendations to increase US leverage in Sri Lanka for securing long term US strategic interests, and expanding the number of tools available to Washington.
The team emphasized the strategic importance of Sri Lanka to the US, particularly its geopolitical location. It said that an alliance must be maintained. And that it was necessary to recast the foreign policy.
The US was advised to go carefully with Sri Lanka. The US cannot afford to ‘lose’ Sri Lanka. . This does not mean changing the relationship overnight, they said. It means trying new approaches that would increase U.S. leverage. There should be a broader and more robust U.S. approach to Sri Lanka. An approach that appreciates the new political and economic realities in Sri Lanka and U.S. (continued)