Daya Gamage, courtesy of The Asian Tribune, 19 December 2015, where the title reads “U.S. to persuade ‘Sinhala Hardliner’ Ranawaka for federalism in Sri Lanka”
A hard-line advocate for the retention of the unitary system in Sri Lanka whose advocacy resonates well with the majority Sinhalese sentiments met a strong advocate for a federal system for Sri Lanka in the U.S. Department of State on December 18 at a time the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe administration announced the formation of a constitutional assembly to discuss a new constitution for Sri Lanka. Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka, the leader of the nationalist Jathika Hela Urumaya and a leading minister who could influence the Sinhalese opinion in favor of the current administration on the issue of federalism, met with Atul Keshap, the U.S. ambassador in Colombo, who has gone on record tilting in favor of the Tamil political agitation for a federal structure for the north-east region of Sri Lanka.
The U.S. Embassy Web Portal carried this very interesting caption announcing the dialogue between the two: “U. S. Ambassador Atul Keshap met today with Minister of Megapolis and Western Development Champika Ranawaka. During the meeting, Ambassador Keshap and Minister Ranawaka discussed future infrastructure projects essential to Sri Lanka’s prosperity, energy production and environmental protection, and progress on the development of a new constitution. Ambassador Keshap stressed “the United States supports the Sri Lankan voters’ vision of a unified, peaceful, prosperous, and reconciled Sri Lanka with equal opportunity and human rights for all, regardless of ethnicity or religion.”
The last time the American embassy officials discussed infrastructure projects with high officials in the Government of Sri Lanka was way back in 1988 when the then Housing and Construction Minister (prime minister) R. Premadasa was planning his Marine Drive that would have cost a portion of the sea-front land in which the American Embassy was located – at that time in Galle Face. The protest made the abandonment of the idea for Mr. Premadasa to start the Marine Drive from the Kollupitiya Junction close to the sea.
Anyone who monitors Sri Lanka affairs knows that that the least the American government has limited interest in such spheres as infrastructure, energy production and environmental protection. So, the Keshap-Ranawake meeting obviously cannot be a serious exchange of views these topics (Sri Lanka buys its requirements from the Middle East) or environmental protection. The dialogue starts there (anyone who has been in serious diplomacy work knows) when the serious talks are directed to what the American government is mostly interested in: Constitution making.
The U.S. Embassy Web Portal caption has given less prominence to the “progress on the development of a new constitution”.
The significance of Ambassador Keshap having ‘an audience’ with Minister Ranawaka, who has nothing to do with constitution-making, is his strong pro-Sinhala voice within the current administration that can de-rail what the U.S. Department of State envisages: a constitution with federal features. Not so long ago Patali Champika Ranawaka had gone on record expressing his opposition to a federal structure. Quoting from a Sri Lankan newspaper – 4 August 2015 – “The Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) says it will not allow the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to have its way and implement a Federal system in Sri Lanka. The TNA has been calling for a Federal solution since 1949. It is just one of their dreams”. The newspaper further said “last week Mr Ranawaka vowed that “federalism will never be given to the North” and stated “we will never support a federal solution”.
Having a US-friendly administration, American foreign service officers assigned to Colombo are aware that they could persuade leading personalities to produce a constitution with federal features but could have a serious setback if strong pro-sinhala personalities such as Minister Ranawaka who resonates with the sentiments of majority Sinhalese could derail the Washington strategy. A savvy diplomat, Ambassador Atul Keshap knew who and what the obstacles were and what strategy needed to be adopted to fulfill the objective of Washington. Hence the dialogue with the Jathika Hela Urumaya leader Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka.
It is interesting to ascertain the recent track record of the United States regarding the establishment of a federal structure for Sri Lanka.
The U.S. despite its condemnation and rejection of terror tactics by the Tamil Tigers which led to the outfit being declared a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) under U.S. Federal laws was conscious that Tamil grievances were the underlying causes led to the birth of the LTTE; that those causes needed to be recognized by the Sri Lankan authorities to build a secular society awarding the ethnic Tamil minority a greater participation in the affairs of the nation.
Assistant Secretary for South Asia Richard Boucher in one of his official visits to Sri Lanka at a press conference in Colombo on June 1, 2006 expressed the United States policy in this manner: “I think we all understand that the Tamil community in Sri Lanka has certain rights and certain needs and certain grievances that need to be addressed. I met this morning with a number of representatives of the Tamil community and just talked to them about how things are here and what they felt and what they faced. Although we reject the methods that the Tamil Tigers have used, there are legitimate issues that are raised by the Tamil community and they have a very legitimate desire, as anybody would, to be able to control their own lives, to rule their own destinies and govern themselves in their homeland; in the areas they’ve traditionally inhabited. So I don’t want to confuse the issue of talking to Tamils and understanding legitimate grievances and legitimate aspirations of the Tamil community with not talking to the LTTE. Whether to talk to the Tigers or not is based upon their behavior and if they continue terrorism we won’t. If they abandon terrorism and one’s able to say they are no longer a terrorist organization, then we would find opportunities to consider dealing with them.”
When Richard Boucher recognized the ‘homeland concept’ and ‘traditionally inhabited’ areas, the right to ‘govern themselves in their homeland’, and inalienable right to ‘control their own lives’, he was giving legitimacy to the claims of an organization designated by his own administration as a ‘Foreign Terrorist Organization’.
With the annihilation of that secessionist movement, the ‘Voice of the Tamils’ was taken over by the professional elements of the Tamil Diaspora with whom the State Department continues its dialogue to date. Ambassador Atul Keshap, has gone on record that the United States supports a federal structure as a catalyst for national reconciliation among the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority. Mr. Keshap made the authoritative declaration that Sri Lanka needs a federal structure to redress minority Tamil grievances when he was Deputy Assistant Secretary in the State Department’s South Asian Bureau. Previously, he was working very closely on Sri Lankan issues with Robert Blake when the latter was the assistant secretary of the South Asian Bureau.
Atul Keshap, before he was posted to Colombo as ambassador, has been to Sri Lanka on two occasions, one in June 2014 and the other in February 2015.Ignoring the Sinhalese sentiments that establishing a federal structure in the Island is a stepping stone for separatism, Atul Keshap made the pronouncement when he accompanied assistant secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Biswal on an official tour in June 2014 at a media interview in Colombo.
Officials in the United States Department do not make policy statements to the effect what other nations should undertake unless they are recognized as policy planks at some high level of the American government. When Mr. Atul Keshap, not once but several occasions in the same interview with a Sri Lankan newspaper – Daily Mirror – about the vitality of establishing a federal structure in Sri Lanka, he was obviously pronouncing a policy plank of the United States Government already consolidated at some high level.
At this June 20, 2014 interview Mr. Keshap affirmed what the United States believed in saying: “The U.S. believes in a very bright future for this country and it believes that Sri Lanka has the potential in terms of human capital, in terms of resources, in terms of geographic location, in terms of having secured peace after a very brutal civil war – a country connected to the entire world. A country that is not the subject of UN Human Rights Council Resolutions because it has perfected its democracy and perfected its respect for human rights. A country that has created a meaningful formula for devolution of power and federalism, to ensure coherence among the various regions. A country that is reconciled, peaceful, and prosperous”.
Lamenting about the long delay in bringing changes Mr. Keshap said: It’s been five years since the war ended and I haven’t seen any meaningful discussion or movement along the lines of a meaningful negotiation of the very tricky political issues related to federalism. At another point in this interview he reiterated this message “We care about meaningful devolution of powers to ensure that a true federal compact can be forged to really cement the peace and put the country on a good track”.
This Daily Mirror interview was carried in full in the American Embassy web site, in effect giving tacit approval to every sentiment Mr. Keshap expressed including the importance of a federal structure for Sri Lanka.
The U.S. Permanent Representative for the United Nations Samantha Power, Obama administration’s top foreign policy advocate visited Sri Lanka November 21-23. This was her second visit, the previous one being June 2010 during the Rajapaksa administration. The visit was significant as she, since 2012, have been direct participant of UN-Department of Political Affairs- initiated ‘promotion of federalism’ in Third World nations on ethnic lines. Samantha Power’s visit gains in significance when Colombo has an American diplomatic envoy – Atul Keshap – who is a strong believer in a federal structure in Sri Lanka.
And this is all more interesting because the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe administration on 17 November 2015 made an official announcement – with cabinet approval – that the Executive Presidential system will end with Sirisena’s completion of his term and that in 2016 the Sri Lanka legislature will be transformed into a ‘Constitutional Assembly’ to draft a new constitution for the country.
The professional operatives of the Tamil Diaspora in their dialogues with the officials of the state department and Obama White House have been contending that the best solution to redress Tamil grievances was a constitutional arrangement devolving administrative and development powers to the ‘Tamil Homeland’.
Global Tamil Forum met with US Assistant Secretary Blake (center) at his state department office in Washington, D.C. 28 March 2011 as it continues to engage the Global community to bring focus to the resolution of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. The GTF delegation led by its President, Rev. Father S.J. Emmanuel (Germany) (4th from Left) included President of the US Tamil Political Action Committee (USTPAC) Dr. Elias Jeyarajah (2nd from Left), Mrs. Grace Williams (USA) (Extreme Left) and Suren Surendiran (UK) – Extreme Right. The meeting was organized by USTPAC.
Dr. Power, since 2012, was instrumental in getting the UN Department of Political Affairs (DPA) to come out with a plan to re-structure several developing Third World nations’ constitutional arrangements to impose federalism as an answer to ethnic minority grievances. The U.S. and UN started it in Nepal as a test case.
The DPA for decades has been under the effective control of the State Department. The Under- Secretary-General (Political) in the UN, the second most senior office holder next to the Secretary-General, has always been a former state department official. Currently, it is headed by Jeffrey Feltman, the former assistant secretary who had served the state department for more than two decades. Mr. Feltman too visited Sri Lanka since the advent of the Sirisena administration.
It is in this context that the visit of Power in late November 2015 to Sri Lanka was so crucial to the existence of Sri Lanka as a united nation. Ambassador Keshap’s dialogue with Minister Ranawaka on 18 December was a follow-up sequence.
The UN, since 2012, has been holding a number of closed-door meetings and seminars at which the partition of UN member states has been discussed. Most of the meetings have been held under the direction of the UN Inter-agency Framework for Coordination on Preventive Action (the Framework Team or FT). The FT is directly under the control of Under- Secretary-General (Political Affairs). retary-General (Political) B. Lynn Pascoe, another retiree from the U.S. State Department. The holder of this position as the head of the Department of Political Affairs (DPA) advises the UN Secretary-General on peace and security issues globally, while overseeing “good offices” initiatives and field-based political missions carrying out peacekeeping, preventive diplomacy and peace-building activities. The incumbent also oversees the UN electoral assistance provided to dozens of its member states each year.
The dialogue between Ranawaka and Keshap is the continuation of these developments, most importantly Keshap having ‘an audience’ with a nationally-known Sinhalese nationalist is undoubtedly aimed at neutralizing him to pave the way for a conducive atmosphere at the forthcoming Constitutional Assembly to start a discourse on bringing in federal features to a new Sri Lanka constitution. Starting a discourse on bringing federal features is a diplomatic breakthrough for the U.S. State Department. If that happens, the classified diplomatic cable to Washington will note Ambassador Atul Keshap’s ‘Evidence of Effectiveness’.
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