Sri Lanka pursues (some) diplomacy amidst confusion in Trump White House
Sri Lanka’s ambassador to the United States Prasad Kariyawasam is treading the most difficult path of diplomacy since January 20 this year when a multi-faceted Donald J. Trump was inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States.
A majority of professional positions in the Department of State, the public diplomacy-public affairs arm of the Government of the United States, still remain unfilled as Mr. Trump approaches his 100 days in the Oval Office; foreign policy issues, their formulation and execution have been ‘hijacked’ by a handful of Trump acolytes – led by alt-right Stephen Bannon, 31-year old inexperienced Miller and president’s son-in-law Kushner; so far, the Trump White House has no clear foreign policy understanding – angering the immediate neighbor Mexico, insulting Australia, distancing Britain and Germany; the US withdrawal from the Geneva-based UNHRC is in the air; Trump White House budget proposals to the Congress has slashed the state department budged by 29%; America’s global leadership for a century on human rights, good governance, rule of law seem to have been put in the back burner by the Trump White House ‘Trio’.
It is under this confused scenario that Sri Lanka’s envoy to Washington Mr. Kariyawasam is treading his way in the dark but using his diplomatic prowess gained in his long career.
Reading the events and talking to some of the state department colleagues who worked with this writer in the latter part of the last millennium who are still in professional business of public diplomacy and public affairs, this writer strongly feels that even a savvy diplomat of the caliber of Prasad Kariyawasam is unable to comprehend what policies the Trump White House and the ‘depleted’ state department will pursue on issues close to Sri Lanka: Accountability, human rights, rule of law, Sri Lanka’s participation in the UNHRC and US seriousness of all these issue.
Nevertheless, Ambassador Kariyawasamin, recently, used his diplomatic skills to continue his dialogue with some of the key US Congressmen, both in the House and Senate, may be, to get an understanding of what direction Sri Lanka needs to take under unclear circumstances that the Trump administration brought to Washington.
The experience this writer, who worked within the State Department system for 25 years in the areas of public affairs, public diplomacy and strategic communication, had when Sri Lankan officials met with American diplomats or lawmakers the Americans dig into Sri Lankan issues to improve their knowledge than Sri Lankans endeavored to understand what directions the American were treading to adjust their policy stances.
The Asian Tribune is already carrying a report how the former Obama administration ‘tamed’ the new Sirisena administration. This writer’s understanding talking to those who are knowledgeable is that the Trump administration may not go that far to embarrass Sri Lanka in the eyes of the professional operatives within the Tamil Diaspora who were elevated by the ‘Liberals’ in the state department under President Obama and the Liberal-leaning Obama advisers within the West Wing as influential political lobbyists.
It is well known fact that the Trump candidacy did not gain minority – Black, Latina and Asian – vote, and it was also known that the Sri Lankan Tamils, in groups in several states, politically and monetarily backed Hillary Clinton candidacy at the last November US presidential election.
Whether Sri Lanka could grab this moment is another question altogether, and Ambassador Kariyawasam has a lot to do in this area.
With this scenario Mr. Kariyawasam met with the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Ed Royce, with whom close colleagues of this writer domiciled in California maintain contacts to feed what’s going on in Sri Lanka (Royce represents a district in California in the House of Representatives) and Ted Yoho, Chairman of the (most important) subcommittee of the foreign relations committee monitoring Asia and Pacific region.
Another good move by Ambassador Kariyawasam was his meeting with the newly-elected (Democratic) US Senator from Massachusetts Chris Van Hollen. Incidentally, the senator’s father, Christopher Van Hollen Snr. was the American ambassador to Sri Lanka in the mid-1970s when this writer was engaged in his public affairs program as an Information Assistant. The senator is a fast moving personality in the Democratic Party leadership who is quite aware of the issues Sri Lanka faces.
When this writer had a hour-long conversation with US Congresswoman Dina Titus, a member of the sub-committee of South and Central Asian Affairs, in January this year, she was skeptical how the Trump White House would handle the global projects undertaken by the House Democracy Partnership – to which Sri Lanka was added to promote rule of law, good governance, reconciliation and accountability –as President Trump and his chief strategist Stephen Bannon ,who occupies a coveted seat in the White House National Security Council, have totally different outlook of world affairs.
Ambassador Kariyawasam met with House Member David Price who is a member of the Partnership in Washington. Sri Lanka, at present, is in a dilemma whether to honor the undertakings it took (in the form of September 2015 UNHRC joint US-Sri Lanka joint resolution) during the time ‘Liberals’ were running the State Department under Obama-Power duo’s control of the affairs in the West Wing.
If Ambassador Prasad Kariyawasam could comprehend the ‘real’ direction of the Trump West Wing, which is under Bannon-Kushner-Miller trio, it could help Sri Lanka’s Sirisena administration to steer clear of pitfalls the professional operatives within the Tamil Diaspora have laid to de-stabilize this South Asian nation as an initial move to have a referendum in the north-east region of the country, build a structure under a federal constitutional setup on the long road to the bifurcation which the LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran failed to achieve due to his military defeat in May 2009.
In the month of February, two congressional delegations of U.S. House of Representatives visited Sri Lanka. The first was a bipartisan four-member delegation of the House Democracy Partnership (HDP) Committee led by Chairman Peter Roskam and Ranking Member David Price. An eight-member bipartisan delegation led by the House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte immediately followed.
- Asian Tribune -