[US Secretary of State John Kerry poses with Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena ahead of a meeting at the Presidential Secretariate in Colombo on Saturday.]
US Secretary of State John Kerry warned Sri Lanka on Saturday that “true reconciliation” with Tamils after the island’s devastating ethnic conflict will take time as he praised the new reformist government.
Kerry hailed President Maithripala Sirisena’s administration for reaching out to the Tamil minority after the end of a 37-year ethnic conflict that claimed more than 100,000 lives, saying Sri Lanka was at a “pivotal moment”.
“Peace has come but true reconciliation will take time,” Kerry said during a speech in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo.
He called for Sri Lanka to investigate the cases of thousands who went missing in the final stages of the brutal conflict in 2009 and find answers “however painful… the truth may be”.
Since coming to power in January elections, Sirisena, who took most of the Tamil votes in the polls, has vowed to pursue reconciliation efforts more vigorously than predecessor Mahinda Rajapakse, a hardline Sinhalese nationalist who oversaw the crushing of the Tamil rebels.
“They (Sri Lankan government) talked to me about a truth commission and other efforts developing the process, working with the UN, and I know they are really deeply committed to working this through,” Kerry said.
Sirisena has also begun delivering on his pledges to reduce some of the powers of the president, effectively reversing changes that Rajapakse had brought in to tighten his grip.
Lawmakers voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday in favour of restoring a two-term limit for the president and reviving independent bodies to manage key institutions such as the police and the judiciary.
“Today we have talked about the enormous progress Sri Lanka has made in just a few months,” said Kerry as he appeared alongside Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera.
“I’m here today because I want to say to the people of Sri Lanka that in (this) journey to restore your democracy the American people will stand with you,” added Kerry.
“There is progress on democratic institutions, progress on creating more accountable government, passage of (the) 19th amendment in which the president kept his promise to reduce powers of the presidency,” he said.
Colombo was now “laser focused” on improving human rights, he added.
“Until just recently, our diplomats routinely clashed with yours on this matter… but now with the new government we have an opportunity to turn the page and work together.”
Samaraweera, who was on hand to welcome Kerry at Colombo airport, had equally warm words for his guest, the first US secretary of state to visit Colombo in a decade.
“Today is the beginning of a very, very special friendship,” said the foreign minister.
“Today, Sri Lanka is well on its way to becoming a fully-fledged parliamentary democracy, laying the foundations for a new Sri Lanka, built on the pillars of democracy and ethnic harmony.”
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 the war between the Tamil Tiger rebels and government forces.
As Sri Lanka’s relations with the West and regional powerhouse India soured, 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.
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.
Kerry will meet the leaders of the main Tamil political group, the Tamil National Alliance, on Sunday morning before flying to the Kenyan capital Nairobi.