COLOMBO, SRI LANKA - John Kerry wrapped up the first visit to Sri Lanka by a U.S. Secretary of State in 43 years, during which he praised the country's democratic reforms and said Washington is looking to broaden bilateral ties with the country.
Before departing for Africa, Kerry held talks Sunday with the leaders of the Tamil National Alliance, the main party of Sri Lanka's minority Tamil population.
Kerry met Saturday with Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and other government officials.
Kerry said Saturday it will take time for Sri Lanka to reach true reconciliation following its decades-long ethnic conflict with Tamil separatists. He added that lasting peace, especially after a civil conflict "requires polices that foster reconciliation, not resentment."
He also called for an investigation into the cases of thousands of Tamils who went missing during the conflict.
Sirisena took office in January on a pledge to reduce presidential powers, promote human rights and roll back other authoritarian-like measures enacted by his predecessor, who consolidated his grip on power near the end of the country’s long civil war against Tamil Tiger rebels.
Support for economic integration
Discussing trade, Kerry said South Asia is one of the world’s least economically integrated regions. He said the U.S. is backing economic integration among countries in South and South East Asia, as a way to strengthen local economies.
“Trade among its countries amounts to some five percent of total trade and the cost of doing business across borders due to non-tariff barriers, import duties and bottlenecks at border crossings is a huge impediment to growth, “ Kerry said.
The United States has been promoting the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor, a trade plan designed to spur growth in both regions.
In addition to promoting regional trade, Kerry said the United States is also looking to broaden bilateral ties with Sri Lanka.
Kerry said that he and Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera had agreed to establish an annual partnership dialogue between the two governments.
“I have also asked teams from across our government to mobilize quickly in order to provide technical assistance,” said Kerry.
'Investor's paradise' sought
In a joint news conference with Kerry, Samaraweera said his country is seeking foreign investment help and technical expertise.
“Sri Lanka has been considered a paradise for tourists for many years but our government is now also keen to make Sri Lanka an investor’s paradise,” he said.
The U.S. is trying to do a balancing act with Sri Lanka, said Teresita Schaffer, a former U.S. ambassador to the country.
Schaffer, a South Asia analyst at the Brookings Institution, said the U.S. wants to offer help but does not want to appear to be meddling.
“In this initial three-month period, the United States has been trying not to go too far in the direction toward trying to micromanage how a new government in Sri Lanka manages a very difficult political situation with a very diverse population,” Shaffer said.