US-Sri Lanka military pacts safe under incoming Rajapaksa-rule

By Daya Gamage – Asian Tribune Political Analysis

Washington, D.C. 10 August (Asiantribune.com): The Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) signed between the Governments of Sri Lanka and the United States in March 2007 which allowed both countries to transfer and exchange logistics supplies, support, and re-fueling services clearly benefitted the United States in its military operation in the Asia-Pacific region – specifically US Pacific Command (USPACOM) – which is now US Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) – but left Sri Lanka with absolutely no benefit from the U.S. at a time Sri Lanka was in an intense military battle with the separatist Tamil Tigers, two classified U.S. diplomatic cables the Asian Tribune had access reveal.

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Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in a Photo-Op with U.S. Ambassador Alaina Teplitz during their August 2019 meeting at former’s official residence in Colombo

The benefit Washington extracted from the 2007 ACSA was clearly stated in the diplomatic cables – one dated January 31 and the other on February 20 – dispatched by the U.S. Embassy in Colombo to the State Department before the agreement was signed in March 2007, officially attested by Gotabaya Rajapaksa as Sri Lanka’s defense secretary and Ambassador Robert Blake for the US Department of Defense.

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Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa with U.S. Ambassador Robert Blake

The reference was made to 2007 ACSA at the outset of this analysis because of Asian Tribune’s belief that the then defense secretary wouldn’t have been ignorant that the agreement could solely benefit Washington in its ‘Global War on Terror’. And now as he is positioning himself to be a serious stakeholder in Sri Lanka’s political leadership in this year of presidential election, he is confronted with embracing the enhanced 2017-signed 83-page ACSA – in contrast to the 8-page one he attested – to facilitate Washington’s militarization in the Indo-Pacific region designed to confront the Peoples Republic of China. As a serious stakeholder in the imminent Rajapaksa administration, he will be expected to finalize the Status of Foreign Forces (SOFA) arrangement, many consider inimical to Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. Does this scenario directly link to his success in the renunciation of his U.S. citizenship?

Despite Washington’s strong belief that the three Rajapaksa brothers and the head of the army Sarath Fonseka committed war crimes during the Eelam War IV (2006-2009) based on Colombo US diplomatic mission’s January 15, 2010 classified cable, and Colombo U.S. Embassy’s outright refusal to grant entry visas to many military personnel on the premise that they committed war crimes – although never established – Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was one of the planners who gave direct orders to the overall military offensive, never faced any obstacle when he applied to renounce his American citizenship, as it was accepted with no internal probe by the US Department of Homeland Security, which investigates human rights abuses and war crimes, on his role during the four-year military offensive against the separatist-terrorist Tamil Tigers.

This is a routine probe by the DHS when a US citizen born in another country apply for the renunciation of citizenship status.

The diplomatic cable authored by Ambassador Patricia Butenis declared “responsibility for many of the alleged crimes rests with the country’s senior civilian and military leadership, including President Rajapaksa and his brothers.”

In December 2009 the State Department’s Office of Global Criminal Justice had submitted its ‘War Report’ to the US Congress, as mandated by the legislature, accusing Sri Lanka of war crimes.

This columnist, at that time, critically analyzed that report.

With some intimate understanding of how the American system worked, this columnist who was a foreign service political specialist at the U.S. Department of State having worked at Colombo’s diplomatic mission, was well aware how Washington and its accredited diplomats in Colombo perceived the northern insurrection and its associated national issues: that the Tamil Tiger offensive was a ‘liberation struggle of the oppressed Tamil people’; ‘the Sinhalese army was killing the Tamils’; ‘Sinhalese chauvinism’ was denying the rightful place to ethnic Tamils; and that ‘war crimes’ are being committed declaring, in classified diplomatic cables sent from the US mission in Colombo to Washington, that the three Rajapaksa brothers and the hierarchy of the military were responsible for those.

After many long years, since Washington was instrumental in installing the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe administration in 2015, it is a foregone conclusion, due to vastly eroded mass support for the incumbent government, in the assessment of Washington, the Rajapaksas’ are destined to return to power this year-end securing the presidency, and a comfortable majority in the next legislature to which the polls are expected in mid-2020.

In 2007, when Gotabaya Rajapaksa signed the 8-page ACSA Washington was in a full-scale ‘Global War on Terror’. So was Sri Lanka combating a separatist terror movement which aimed at bifurcating the nation to establish an independent-separate state for the ethnic Tamil minority. Nevertheless, the 2007 ACSA unilaterally helped Washington in its worldwide military endeavor.

A month prior to the signing of the 2007 ACSA, the 20 February 2007 diplomatic cable dispatched to Washington signed by Ambassador Robert Blake stated:

(Quote) Sri Lanka, positioned astride major sea lanes and at the doorstep to India, can play a significant role in military readiness as political and military efforts shift focus on Asia in the new millennium.
The signing will expand DoD’s capacity and capability to conduct global operations by adding another logistical option in South Asia and provides flexibility to U.S. forces moving through the region.

Since this agreement primarily benefits U.S. forces, we think there are strong arguments to proceed with signing the agreement. (End Quote)

The 31 January 2007 diplomatic cable dispatched to Washington was even more revealing: (Quote) The USG faces some risk that the Government of Sri Lanka might seek to exploit the signing to convey the USG’s support for possible ongoing offensive military operations.

The USG has informed the GSL that we oppose large scale offensive military operations because we believe the Government should focus on developing a power-sharing proposal that can form the basis for peace negotiations with the LTTE. (End Quote)

The 2017-extended ACSA and the still negotiating Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), Washington is recruiting ‘willing’ literal states in South Asia as partners – Sri Lanka being one because of its strategic location – to enhance its military presence in the Indo-Pacific region.

Since the advent of the Trump administration in February 2017, the United States has been strengthening its military might in this region coercing Sri Lanka to get in line with American military maneuvers.

In the Pacific with the role of the United States growing more visible and prominent, the importance of USPACOM’s force sustainment plans and procedures during the time Sri Lanka entered into ACSA in 2007 was crucial. And now with the Trump Administration using the Congress-ratified ‘Asia Reassurance Initiative Act’ the US Indo-Pacific Command needs logistic support to combat Chinese military and political expansion in the East, South and Central Asian regions. It is in this context that Sri Lanka has become crucial to Washington.

The question is: will the incoming Rajapaksa administration be tied up in adhering to the implementation of the 83-page 2017-signed ACSA and be compelled to accept Washington terms in the SOFA agreement.

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Gotabaya Rajapaksa holds the symbol of the SLPP – Flower Bud – accompanied by his brothers Mahinda and Basil

Since the newly-formed Rajapaksa-backed Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) had a landslide at the February 2018 nationwide local government elections with more than forty percent island wide endorsement, Washington was convinced the imminent return of the Rajapaksas’ and that the former defense secretary could be a significant stakeholder in that administration.

The manner in which Gotabaya Rajapaksa received the renunciation of his American citizenship, despite previously being declared in official United States Government documents of his and his brothers’ complicity in human rights violations and war crimes in comparison to how Washington treated Sri Lankan military commanders, including onetime army commander Sarath Fonseka, all of whom served under the command of the defense secretary Rajapaksa, in refusing entry to the United States over war crimes allegations, and rejecting some Sri Lanka Defense Ministry nominees from the military for training in the United States for their alleged involvement in human rights abuses and war crimes speaks volumes of Washington’s mind-set, quite familiar to this columnist, and its future projections and maneuvers taking into account the military build-up in the Indo-Pacific region to combat Chinese expansion.

Washington is well aware that the imminent return of the Rajapaksas’ could be crucial to its operation in the Indo-Pacific region considering the strategic location of Sri Lanka, and toward that an ACSA, SOFA and many other military agreements are vital components to achieve military supremacy.

It is in this context that one could see the one-hundred-and-eighty-degree turn of Washington to safeguard its national security interests. Washington’s projections, possible assurances by the Rajapaksas’, and the U.S.’ strong commitment to militarize the region using recruited ‘willing’ partners in the Asian region led Washington to take a totally different attitude toward Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s request for the renunciation of his U.S. citizenship in contrast to the strong-arm policy it adopted toward many senior incumbent and retired military officers, who happened to serve under Mr. Rajapaksa’s command and directives, in its forthright refusal to grant entry visas to the United States on the premise they committed war crimes and violated international humanitarian law (IHL) during the final (2006-2009) years of the Eelam War IV.

It should be noted here that those whose entry visas were rejected by the U.S. diplomatic mission in Colombo on Washington’s specific instructions had not been found guilty of any crime. Since they were not American citizens, they do not come within the jurisdiction of the U.S. investigative judicial system to ascertain their culpability or not. The former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka lost his Permanent Residency Permit (Green Card) as he could not visit the U.S. to renew it – where the law requires the renewal every six months – as the US diplomatic mission refused to grant entry visa.

But as a United States’ citizen, former Sri Lanka defense secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa came well within the investigative judicial system when applying for the renunciation of his citizenship. It is a practice, and the law, that a US citizen born in another country applying for renunciation such person undergoes a thorough scrutiny in the US Department of Treasury and the Department of Homeland Security.

Taking into account his previous role in Sri Lanka, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was directly liable under the War Crimes Act – a legal windfall for any US effort to investigate him across international borders. His citizenship also expands US policy space – by reducing US vulnerability to accusations of meddling if US goes after one of its own. Such investigations take many months to ascertain a person’s culpability or not. Taking into account the diplomatic cables that reached Washington and the published unclassified (USG) documents about Sri Lanka’s Eelam War IV and the role played by defense secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, one of the principal architects of the offensive against the Tamil Tigers, the responsibility of probing an American citizen’s involvement – amid serious allegations – rests with the US Department of Homeland Security. In the DHS, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) operates the Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Unit (HRVWCU) within the National Security Investigations Division (NSID).

Washington formulates its national policies in the interest of its national security and trade and economic benefit. Washington, to its advantage, obviously linked the militarization of the Indo-Pacific region to Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s application for the renunciation of the U.S. citizenship as it was well aware that if it delayed the renunciation in prolonging a DHS probe based on the reports the Departments of State received – however much there may be weak or no justification of war crimes and human rights abuses – it would have been detrimental to his political aspirations. The gamble Washington took in a speedy resolution of his citizenship issue in linking it to ACSA and other proposed military agreements such as SOFA is its overall militarization of the Indo-Pacific region which the Trump administration launched since its advent in early 2017. Washington needs Sri Lanka as a military hub as opposed to opening a military base to execute its Indo-Pacific regional militarization plan. The speedy resolution of the citizenship issue is well linked to America’s strategy to use Sri Lanka in such a manner under a Rajapaksa administration.

The Perennial Use of Sri Lanka

The United States and Sri Lanka’s incumbent governments are in agreement to make the entire island nation a military logistic hub. The phrase ‘military hub’ was used in the official statement of the American Embassy in Colombo dated 23 January (2019) recognizing the US-Sri Lanka collaboration to provide logistic support to the United States Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM).

The U.S. diplomatic mission’s official statement acknowledges that the cooperation between the two nations has converted Sri Lanka to a “military logistic hub” and, in the words of the embassy “using the island’s location” – Sri Lanka’s strategic location.

On December 31, President Trump signed the ‘Asia Reassurance Initiative Act’. The Act, specifically, calls for America’s increased engagement in the Indo-Pacific region and strengthened support, including arms sales, for U.S. allies in the region. The act develops a long-term strategic vision and a comprehensive, multifaceted, and principled United States policy for the Indo-Pacific region.

Establishing a logistic hub at the Trincomalee harbor and the use of the Bandaranaike International Airport in the out skirts of the capital city Colombo for logistic operation comes at a time the Trump administration puts into law Asia Reassurance Initiative Act to strengthen US strategic positions in the Asia-Pacific region against China.

Grant G. Grady, Mass Communication Specialist on board USS John C. Stennis in a dispatch to the US Navy official web portal wrote: “The cumulative efforts of numerous stakeholders to facilitate the logistic hub in Sri Lanka will pay dividends for all future transiting units in addition to make our Navy more sustainable and a more formidable force throughout the Pacific theater,” quoting Cmdr. Frederick Espy, Commander Task Force 70 Maintenance, Material, Logistics, Readiness representative.

He further said – according to the U.S. Navy web portal – “The log hub is a great opportunity to leverage private industry in Sri Lanka to enhance the U.S. Navy’s operational reach. We are generating standard operating procedures to optimize our supply chain to be more agile and mobile and utilize strategic locations in the Indian Ocean.”

Conclusion

Washington’s forward look to use entire island of Sri Lanka as a military hub to which the incumbent Sirisena-Wickremasinghe administration put a firm foundation in agreeing to the 83-page ACSA in August 2017 was a promising forward step in roping a ‘willing partner’ toward its militarization in the Indo-Pacific region. The secretive nature of the manner in which the ACSA was negotiated and broadened from 8 pages to 83 pages and maintaining it as a classified document speaks volumes to what extend the United States has benefited. The SOFA, which is now on hold due to widespread opposition, is another arrangement that facilitate the activation of the ACSA. Washington needs assurance from Sri Lanka’s next administration that these military agreements – which are useful links to the overall Indo-Pacific military endeavor – stay its course. Working two-an-a-half decades in professional capacity for the U.S. Department of State at its diplomatic mission in Sri Lanka, this columnist has a fair understanding how the Washington mind-set works, its priorities – known to the wider world but mostly classified – its maneuvers some of which are fully unfathomable to outsiders (even this columnist understood some with great difficulty after specialized scrutiny) to shape the domestic and foreign policy in their respective nations, and the difficulty for the Third World leaders and politicians to get some understanding of Washington’s behavior to avoid pitfalls.

The speedy resolution of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s US citizenship renunciation, if linked to Washington’s military strategy in the Indo-Pacific region, is something that needs special attention. This warrants some explanation. In the near past Washington used human rights and war crimes as issues to deny senior military personnel – both serving and retired – of entry to the United States. Most of whom the visas were denied – during the Eelam War IV – served under defense secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa who was one of the few directed the operation. Was Washington’s interests made the difference? It was reported that some of the nominees of Sri Lanka’s Defense Ministry for training in the United States were refused visas implicating them, with no cogent evidence, for those violations. Washington often uses scenario and developments for its own advantage. It took different approaches to the 1988-1989 JVP youth insurrection in which thousands of youths were tortured and killed in the view of American diplomats accredited to Colombo and the GSL offensive against the lethal separatist Tamil Tigers.

It seems that Washington has strategically used its diplomatic maneuvers to get a foothold in the Island of Sri Lanka which is strategically located at the center of U.S. military interest in the Indo-Pacific region.

A Colombo American Embassy diplomat who wished to remain anonymous told a group of hand-picked-invited media personnel two months ago that the agreements to which Sri Lanka has already entered into with the United States should be observed by future Sri Lanka governments. Was it a threat or a covert diplomatic arrangement?

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