The Indian Ocean is one of the most contested regions in the world today. China, the United States, India, and also Japan, Saudi Arabia and other rich and powerful states are struggling for influence over Sri Lanka, located in the geographical heart of the Indian Ocean. Sea lanes of the Indian Ocean are considered to be the busiest in the world with more than 80% of global seaborne oil trade estimated to be passing through them.
Sri Lanka is a participant in the Maritime Belt and Silk Road Initiative, China’s extensive network of ports and maritime facilities connecting the Pacific and Indian Oceans. In a controversial move in January 2017, the Sri Lankan government granted China a 99-year lease of Hambantota Port in exchange for U.S. $1.1 billion in debt relief. China is also developing other projects in Sri Lanka, such as, the U.S. $1.4 billion ‘Port City’ in Colombo, on land reclaimed from the Indian Ocean.
To curtail Chinese expansion across Asia, the U.S. is turning strategically located Sri Lanka into a ‘Military Logistics Hub’, and the center of its ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific Region Policy.’ Moreover, the U.S.-Japan-Australia-India alliance is seeking to involve Sri Lanka in taking on the Chinese challenge.
Control of Sri Lanka has become more urgent for the U.S. since the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled in February 2019 that U.S. occupation of the Indian Ocean Chagos islands is illegal, and that the islands be handed back to Mauritius ‘as rapidly as possible.’ The Diego Garcia military base was established there after Britain—which ‘owns’ Chagos—forcibly removed its inhabitants between 1968 and 1973. Diego Garcia is one of America’s ‘most important and secretive’ military bases, and has been central to launching invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan and flying missions across Asia, including over the South China Sea. If the islands go back to Mauritius, and the Chagossians who sued for their right to return are allowed back, the U.S. will require an alternative base. This could be Sri Lanka.
In January 2015, a U.S.-backed Sri Lankan government replaced the former Mahinda Rajapaksa government, who had defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the separatist conflict. Soon thereafter, the new government and the U.S. co-sponsored a United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution in Geneva. Calling for accountability for alleged war crimes and missing persons in the final stages of the war against the LTTE, the UNHRC resolution pressured the Sri Lankan government to make significant changes, including the dismissal and imprisonment of its intelligence officers and army personnel. These measures weakened Sri Lankan intelligence and security, paving the way for the Easter Sunday carnage by Islamic terrorists.
The same Easter attacks are now being used to justify acceleration of U.S. intervention in Sri Lanka, which had already been increasing over the last few years. However, the three main bilateral agreements the U.S. has deployed to assert its political, economic and military control over Sri Lanka—the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Compact, the Acquisition and Cross Services Agreement (ACSA) and the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA)—are facing massive local opposition.
The Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact
The MCC, a United States foreign aid agency established by the U.S. Congress, is pressuring to sign a ‘Compact’ with Sri Lanka to facilitate private sector investment and economic growth. Based on a ‘constraints analysis’ completed by the Center for International Development at Harvard University, the Compact identifies three binding constraints to growth in Sri Lanka: policy uncertainty; poor transportation and logistics and inadequate access to land, especially “the difficulty of the private sector in accessing state land for commercial purposes.”
The MCC Compact would undertake transportation and land management in return for a grant of U.S. $480 million to Sri Lanka. The Transport Project will include advanced traffic management, bus transportation modernization and a central ring road network connecting the Central, Sabaragamuwa and the Eastern Provinces to the Western Provinces. The Land Project would include a state land inventory, deeds registration improvement, land valuation improvement, land grants registration and deed conversion and land policy and legal governance.
Two new laws, the State Land Bank Bill and a Land (Special Provisions) Bill, are to be enacted in conjunction with the MCC Compact. The proposed Land Bank would bring all publicly owned land under a single entity, making it available to private investors, including foreign parties. The proposed Land (Special Provisions) Bill would grant absolute title to state lands held by citizens holding land grants, with validity for seven years. Proponents claim that the distribution of one million deeds granting outright ownership is a poverty-alleviation measure. However, critics—such as the Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform (MONLAR)—see a set up for a massive land grab, displacement and pauperization:
Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry is attempting to hand over the task of drawing land survey maps, and creating a streamlined database of 3.6 million parcels of state owned land, to a U.S.-based geological information system and mapping firm, Trimble Inc., in a fifteen year contract. Survey Department trade unions have gone on strike opposing this move, which the local surveyors see as a threat to their employment and national security, and also a wasteful expenditure.
Sri Lankan resistance to MCC
Neither the MCC Compact, nor the new Sri Lanka Physical Plan (2018-2050) associated with the Compact have yet to be made public. The State Land (Special Provisions) Bill, due to its alleged connection to the Compact, has also not been submitted to Cabinet for approval. This lack of transparency has raised grave concerns and fears among the Sri Lankan public and the diaspora regarding U.S. control of vital resources, land and transportation and its ‘impact on the local economy, the environment, and social and cultural norms’.
A projected Physical Spatial Structure Map for 2050 and details leaked to the public have raised alarm that the ‘economic corridor ’proposed by the Compact and the Trincomalee-Colombo highway could ‘splinter Sri Lanka into two separate entities under the control of the United States resulting in the loss of sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka
The U.S.-backed Sri Lankan Prime Minster Ranil Wickremesinghe has reportedly signed the MCC Compact, but President Maithripala Sirisena has refused to do so. The U.S. Ambassador in Sri Lanka, Alaina Teplitz, has written to the president urging him to sign. The U.S. seems to be in a hurry to seal the deal before a new government that is less-friendly towards the U.S. might come into office by 2020.
Meanwhile, local activist groups, such as the National Joint Committee and Sri Lanka diaspora activist groups, and the Society for Peace, Unity and Human Rights for Sri Lanka (SPUR) are demanding that “the government immediately reveal the contents of the agreement without any redactions to the general public”. They are encouraged by the July 2019 decision of the Sri Lankan Supreme Court that the State Lands (Special Provisions) Bill be referred to provincial councils. As the coalition of expatriate groups ‘Sri Lankans in USA / Amerikawe Api’, put it:
The Acquisition and Cross Services Agreement (ACSA)
The previous Sri Lankan government signed an ACSA with the United States, without parliamentary approval, during its armed conflict with the LTTE. The U.S. Defense Department and the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defense entered into another ACSA on August 4, 2017. While the 2007 ACSA was valid only for seven years, the new agreement is open-ended. While the 2007 ACSA permitted U.S. military vessels to enter Sri Lanka ports on a ‘one-off’ basis, the 2017 ACSA appears to be open-ended. Whereas the 2007 ACSA was only eight pages, the 2017 ACSA is said to be 83 pages long with over 50 annexures listing U.S. commands and military establishments allowed to use Sri Lanka’s airports and sea ports.
The 2017 Agreement is designed to facilitate reciprocal logistic support between the U.S. and Sri Lanka for use “during combined exercises, training, deployments, port calls, operations, or other co-operative efforts, or for unforeseen circumstances or exigencies in which one of the parties may have a need for Logistic Support, Supplies and Services.”It is reported to allow “every single security or military apparatus in the United States access to Sri Lanka”, making Sri Lanka the “main supply hub for U.S. armed forces in the Indo-Pacific region.” Analysts argue that, if fully implemented “it will effectively undermine the Chinese share of geopolitical control in Sri Lanka, by way of [U.S.] military presence in the country”.
The Cabinet hastily approved ACSA 2017 without careful examination or discussion, under pressure from U.S.-backed Sri Lankan officials. It was approved without thorough study by armed forces commanders and officials, who have expressed serious reservations over some of its provisions. ACSA was also not presented to the Sri Lankan Parliament. President Sirisena’s Cabinet memorandum of June 30, 2017 in Sinhala had only a brief nine pages, and no annexures. Having signed it, President Sirisena is now opposed to ACSA—in addition to his opposition to SOFA and the MCC Compact—and claims that he did not know the difference between the 2017 and 2007 agreements when he signed it.
The signing of ACSA 2017 was shrouded in secrecy, without media coverage or publicity, reportedly as directed by Atul Keshap, U.S. Ambassador in Sri Lanka at the time. It has not been made public, despite requests for transparency by opposition political parties, the President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), amongst others. The Joint Opposition in Parliament, the JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna) and Yuthukama civil society organization “strongly protested against the signing of…ACSA.”
The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA)
The third currently contested agreement, SOFA, was originally signed by the Sri Lankan and U.S. governments in 1995, to facilitate training of Sri Lankan security forces by U.S. officials. The United States has requested a new SOFA, expanding the original with an annexure, Annex B. Unlike the already signed ACSA, the newSOFA will not be limited to purchases of goods and services, but will include rules governing U.S. military personnel in Sri Lanka.
The Sunday Times published the draft SOFA on June 30, 2019, revealing that it would provide full diplomatic immunity, not only to any member of U.S. armed forces, but also to its contractors and employees, operating in Sri Lanka. SOFA, as drafted, would allow U.S. army personnel the right to:
- Be in any part of Sri Lanka, without restriction;
- Carry arms in uniform;
- Only need U.S. identification to enter and leave Sri Lanka; i.e. do not need passports or visas;
- Exemption from Sri Lankan law, and not liable for criminal offenses in the country;
- Exemption from all taxes; and
- Exemption from customs checking at ports of entry and exit to the island.
SOFA also decrees that the U.S. Department of Defense may not be subject to any local taxes for any material, supplies, equipment and services (including construction) they contract in Sri Lanka. They would also be allowed to operate their own telecommunication systems in Sri Lanka, without cost to the U.S. Government.
The Draft SOFA, sent by the U.S. Embassy on August 28, 2018 to the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry, stated that the acceptance of the draft ”shall constitute an agreement between the two Governments, which shall enter into force on the date of Ministry’s reply.” This meant that the agreement is effective as soon as the Sri Lanka’s Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs says ‘yes’.
This leaves no room for SOFA to be discussed by Sri Lanka’s defense officials or debated in the parliament. Currently, the agreement is temporarily stayed (i.e. postponed) by the Sri Lankan President. With ACSA already signed and SOFA pending, U.S. security companies, notably Sallyport Global, are already advertising to recruit U.S. citizens with “active TOP secret clearance” to work for U.S. defense operations in Sri Lanka.
There is increasing outrage over, and opposition to, the blatant violation of Sri Lanka’s independence and sovereignty that SOFA, ACSA and the MCC Compact represent. It comes from all strata and sectors of Sri Lankan society; for example, the Chief of Defense Staff, the Chamber of Commerce, and the President of the BASL, have all warned of the dangers SOFA poses to national interests. The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party and the newly formed STOP USA Campaign are organizing media briefings and mass rallies calling for transparency and accountability in making international agreements.
In response to the rising opposition, the U.S. has attempted to ‘rebrand’ SOFA as a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). Engaged in a social media campaign to protect the Agreements, U.S. Ambassador Teplitz has stated that the U.S. has “no intention to build a military base or establish a permanent military presence in Sri Lanka.” However, as Sri Lankan President’s Counsel M.M. Zuhair warns: “With SOFA in hand, the Americans do not require a military ‘base’ in Sri Lanka…, because the whole island will be a U.S.-controlled super-state operating above the Sri Lankan laws and state…“
The Way Forward
While the U.S. expects future Sri Lankan governments to respect international obligations taken on by the current U.S.-backed government, the very legitimacy of the MCC Compact, ACSA and SOFA is widely questioned. As eminent analyst Neville Ladduwahetty argues: the Supreme Court must rule on procedures to be followed when agreeing to bilateral treaties determining if the “procedures adopted are consistent or not with the hard core principles of the Constitution”, regardless of the contents, or with whom the agreements are made. Laduwahetty also strongly believes that all agreements must have the consent of parliament:
Notwithstanding the violation of people’s rights and illegitimacy of the proposed amendments, Sri Lankans recognize the importance of maintaining good relations with the USA, China, India and other countries. However, they do not wish to sacrifice sovereignty, democracy and the rule of law in doing so. In light of the dangers, there are calls to reassert the policy of non-alignment that the small nation of Sri Lanka championed during the Cold War. The National Joint Committee expresses this call in a letter it has written to the Sri Lankan Prime Minister regarding the MCC Compact:
External aggression—and internal resistance to that aggression—are embedded in Sri Lanka’s historical trajectory. Transcending party politics and ethnoreligious ‘divide and conquer’ policies promoted by external interests, Sri Lankans have to come together at this critical juncture to protect our precious, beautiful island home.
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About the Author
Asoka Bandarage was educated at the University of Sri Lanka, Bryn Mawr College and at Yale University where she received a Ph.D. in Sociology. Ms. Bandarage has served on the faculties of Brandeis University, Georgetown University and Mount Holyoke College.
Dr. Bandarage is the author of numerous books including: Colonialism in Sri Lanka: The Political Economy of the Kandyan Highlands, 1833–1886; Women, Population and Global Crisis: A Politico-Economic Analysis; The Separatist Conflict in Sri Lanka: Terrorism, Ethnicity and Political Economy; Sustainability and Well-Being: The Middle Path to Environment, Society and the Economy.
In addition to numerous other publications, Dr. Bandarage has given hundreds of presentations, including keynote lectures at South Asian Studies Conferences. Asoka has given numerous media interviews on CNN, Al Jazeera, BBC, NPR and Bloomberg News. In addition to her columns in the Huffington Post, Bandarage serves on the boards of a number of publications and organizations including Critical Asian Studies and Interfaith Moral Action on Climate. See her website for more information.