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Desai enters the scene to manage US-Sri Lanka relations

| by Upul Joseph Fernando

( January 3, 2014 - Colombo - Sri Lanka Guardian) US President Barack Obama's Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Nisha Desai Biswal, will make her debut in this country in January 2014, most probably on 10 January, according to diplomatic sources.

Her first overseas assignment after taking over her new post was to travel to Bangladesh to help work out a solution to the political dilemma facing the country at the moment.

Below is an excerpt of the speech she made at the swearing-in ceremony: "And finally, I want to introduce my family, who has stood by me, encouraged me, put up with long nights, late nights, long absences. First, my husband Subrat, my soul mate, my conscience, my toughest critic and my strongest supporter. And my daughters, our daughters, Safya and Kaya, who remind me every single day why we do what we do, what the stakes are, and why we must strive to do better.

"My parents, Kanu and Late Desai and my father and mother-in-law, Nilambar and Anu Biswal, and my brother Pinank Desai, who's here. My parents and my in-laws lived the classic immigrant experience as they left India in search of opportunity. And, in so doing, they fulfilled their dreams and found that their dreams are the American dream, and their experience is the American experience.

"Throughout my childhood and throughout my life, I have sought the opportunity to serve my country, the United States of America, in the way that my grandparents, who were freedom fighters in India, served their country and to be part of something that is greater than myself. And that is why I am so honoured by the responsibility that has just been invested in me. As the Secretary noted, and as Denis noted, it is indeed a high honour to represent the United States and to lead our engagement with such a vital region that is shaping global politics and economics for the 21st century."

Second generation immigrant
Asst. Secretary of State Desai is a second generation immigrant of Indian-American origin. Rationale for her appointment to the relevant post could perhaps have been her Asian roots, in particular her connection to India by birth. Eminent personnel of Indian origin are holding high posts in various powerful international organizations and quite frequently too. When such persons find themselves engaged in playing important roles touching on Sri Lanka, quite too often they get blamed for being either too lenient or outright partial in their actions. A case in point in international diplomatic engagement in recent times with a direct bearing on Sri Lanka was the role played by Vijay Nambiar during the last phase of the war with the LTTE.

Nambiar was UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's Chief of Staff, when he was posted here to look after civilian safety in the war ravaged North. His engagement in this role has come under severe criticism by international human rights organizations, who faulted him for his inaction in ensuring the safety of the civilians. He has also drawn criticism for his negative role in respect of the white flag case, which surfaced during this period. International human rights organizations accused him of being used as a cat's paw by India to mislead the UN on the war situation, because India badly wanted to decimate the LTTE once and for all. India acted as an intermediary in encouraging Nambiar to go along with Sri Lanka at this crucial time of the war.

Kamalesh Sharma, Secretary General of the Commonwealth, another Indian top level international diplomat, who played a decisive role in enabling Sri Lanka to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), drew flak from international human rights watchdogs, who accused him of being partial to Sri Lanka despite its record of alleged serious violations of international human rights norms. Critics of Sharma's role directly accuse India of spearheading actions to enable Sri Lanka to host CHOGM 2013 using Sharma as its agent.

More seriously, Sharma has been accused of burying Commonwealth Lawyers' Association report pinpointing glaring irregularities in the impeachment process followed by the government. This highlights the factuality of the contention that Indian international diplomats act with partiality towards Sri Lanka in their engagements with the country.

Attitude towards Sri Lanka

How Biswal will act towards Sri Lanka in her new role remains uncertain as of now. However, it could be presumed that she will act without causing any undue disturbance to the Indian strategic interests in the region and in the world. Obama must have been aware of the important role India plays in the region; hence, Biswal's appointment to the key position in Asia. Biswal's visit to Sri Lanka comes at a time when forecast of a gathering storm in Geneva in March is gaining currency among the country's political authorities. Some even predict Geneva sessions could throw up some sanctions against the country, especially the withdrawal of GSP plus facility. It would be a big blow to Sri Lanka. Probably, Biswal's visit, timed as it is to be closer to the start of Geneva sessions, is indicative of a mission to warn Sri Lanka that it could no longer avoid acting on recommendations made to it at the last Geneva sessions.

In one of her recent statements she made after assuming the new post she had given a clear indication that she is not in agreement with international supporters of Sri Lanka, who profess that the country should be given more time and space to act on reconciliation matters raised by the international community.
Her statement quoted here is self explanatory: "The US has warned Sri Lanka that the patience of the international community could wear thin if the Rajapaksa Government does not take steps to address the issue of human rights, accountability and reconciliation process.

"The United States and all of our friends across the international community have underscored the need for Sri Lanka to make progress on issues of reconciliation, on issues of accountability and on issues of human rights – ongoing concerns about the political space and human rights in the country.
"We are committed to working with our friends in Sri Lanka to see that progress," she said in response to a question, adding that the US would like to see Sri Lanka address these issues through its own processes.

"We hope that, that can in fact be the case. I think that the patience of the international community if real progress is not seen, particularly on issues of accountability, that patience will start to wear thin. And so we urge our friends in Sri Lanka to use the opportunity to show some concrete steps that their own, you know, processes have yielded.

"Through the LLRC (Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission), there are a set of recommendations. I think that those are exactly the points that we'd like to see progress on, and we've encouraged them to do that," the top US official said.

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