COLOMBO: US Secretary of State John Kerry headed for talks with Sri Lanka's new President Maithripala Sirisena Saturday on a visit that caps the island's transformation from diplomatic pariah to a “beacon of democracy”.
The top American diplomat arrived early Saturday local time in Colombo and met with Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera. He then met President Maithripala Sirisena, and was to speak later with the prime minister and leading officials from the nation's Tamil minority.
He entered the Foreign Ministry under a welcome sign bearing his image and was greeted by musicians playing horns and drums and dancers in silver breastplates as he proceeded down a long crimson rug.
“In this journey to restore your democracy, the American people stand with you,” Kerry declared. “We intend to broaden and deepen our partnership with you,” he added, saying the two countries would start an annual partnership dialogue and that US officials from the Treasury and Commerce departments would provide technical assistance to Sri Lanka's government.
Kerry's trip, Samaraweera said, “signifies our little island nation's return to the center stage of international affairs,” vowing that Sri Lanka would become a “full-fledged parliamentary democracy” and an “investor's paradise."
Kerry's one-day visit will enable the top US diplomat to give the seal of approval to the change of regime after Sirisena ousted the hard-line incumbent Mahinda Rajapakse in January's presidential polls.
During Rajapakse's rule, Washington was close to slapping sanctions on Colombo for refusing to allow investigations into claims of mass killings and rights abuses at the end of Sri Lanka's Tamil separatist war.
As Sri Lanka's relations with the West and regional powerhouse India declined, Rajapakse turned increasingly to Beijing with Chinese-funded investments projects springing up across Sri Lanka.
Since coming to power, Sirisena has tried to reset the diplomatic balance, choosing New Delhi for his first foreign visit and offering the hand of friendship to other key players who fell out with his predecessor.
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Political analyst Victor Ivan said Sirisena realised it was vital for Sri Lanka to have better relations with the West as it had become dangerously dependent on China — both for loans and diplomatic cover.
"Mahinda thought he could depend on China and China alone," said Ivan, an editor at the Ravaya weekly newspaper. "That was a big mistake."
A senior State Department official said there had already been a change in the "tenor and tone" of Sri Lanka's dealings with the United Nations, which initiated its own investigation into war crimes last year after Rajapakse refused a domestic inquiry.
"We can foresee a future where we have a very good and mutually helpful relationship with a country that can be kind of a real beacon of democracy," he added on condition of anonymity.
Kerry was instrumental in persuading Rajapakse to accept the results of the January 8 election that brought an end to a nine-year rule marred by rampant nepotism and corruption allegations.
Amid rumours Rajapakse might try to cling to power by force, Kerry spoke to him at the time to press what he called "the importance of maintaining a peaceful process no matter what".
Kerry afterwards hailed the "peaceful change of power" in Sri Lanka, mindful of the contested outcome of several recent elections in South Asia.
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Sri Lankan officials say Kerry's visit, the first by a secretary of state in a decade, is a chance to build up trade and investments.
The US is already the largest single market for the island's clothes exports. Foreign Minister Samaraweera, who recently met Kerry in Washington, says there is enormous US goodwill towards the new government.
"Sri Lanka is keen to build upon this manifest goodwill," he said.
As well as meeting Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Kerry will deliver a speech on reconciliation in a country where at least 100,000 people died during a 37-year ethnic conflict that ended in 2009.
He will meet the leaders of the main Tamil political group, the Tamil National Alliance, on Sunday morning before flying to the Kenyan capital Nairobi.