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Lankan foreign minister looks to repair ties with US

By Aziz Haniffa
Last updated on: May 26, 2010 12:10 IST
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The prime mission behind the new Sri Lankan Foreign Minister, Professor Gamini  Lakshman Peiris' meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is to repair the strained relations between the US and Sri Lanka, which took a beating last year when the Sri Lankan forces were crushing the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The US had alleged that there were large scale human rights violations during the military offensive against the tigers.

The Pentagon had seriously contemplated a rescue operation for civilians caught in the cross-fire, but gave up the idea when the Lankans--buoyed by massive military and economic aid from China and Iran told the US to back off and continued to bomb the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam into oblivion.

Peiris, at an appearance at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, hosted by erstwhile US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Teresita Schaffer, said he was looking forward to his meeting with Clinton, "I believe genuinely that the circumstances are propitious for a certain strengthening and deepening of the relationship between Sri Lanka and the United States."

"Now, we are not in any way resentful of the focus on human rights," he said. "That is understandable. We are not complaining about it, but we are making the point that the relationship should not be one dimension." Peiris said, "There are many other things that Sri Lanka and the United States can do together. In particular, as we open up the country, as we rebuild the infrastructure, there is a great deal of scope for American companies to come in and to participate fully in that exercise."

Peiris met several influential lawmakers, including the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Congressman Howard Berman, in meetings arranged by the Sri Lankan government's powerful lobbying firm in Washington, Patton Boggs.
He said that he had informed the lawmakers that with Sri Lanka taking over the chairmanship of the Group of 15 from Iran this year.

Peiris also acknowledged that he had appealed to the lawmakers to help repeal the Leahy Amendment--introduced an enacted a few years ago, by Senator Patrick Leahy--on the urging of the Tamil diaspora in the US who were major contributors to his campaign coffers, to deny Sri Lanka any kind of US military assistance or training because of its alleged human rights violations. "It may have had a rationale at one time, but it is today, working in a way that is really inimical to the interests not only of Sri Lanka, but to the United States as well," Peiris said.

He argued that "given the geopolitical realities in that part of the world, the United States…the Leahy Amendment prevents the United States from doing anything for Sri Lanka with respect to military training." Peiris said, "Now, today, there is no war in Sri Lanka and any kind of military assistance…Now, today military assistance would for the most part consist of training. Now, that is rigidly, inflexibly excluded by the Leahy Amendment as it stands at present."

"So, we would like some attention to be given to matters of this kind and to recognize the magnitude, the enormity of the changes that have taken place on the island within a relative brief time span. So our exhortation to American policymakers was that they take these circumstances into account in deciding whether a policy, which may have been supportable at one time needs to be modified in order to accord this supervening changes, which have occurred in Sri Lanka in the recent past, implored Peiris.

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Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC