Sri Lanka Perspectives July 2019: Politics of SOFA
by R Hariharan on 22 Aug 2019 0 Comment

Though three months have passed since the Jihadi terrorist attacks on Easter Sunday on April 21, Sri Lanka does not seem to have rectified the aberrations that led to the attacks, despite getting information on the impending attacks 12 days earlier. The Parliamentary select committee inquiry into the attacks has revealed damage done to national security apparatus and governance due to the continuing power struggle between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.


The President–PM cold war is likely to continue till November 2019 when the presidential elections are due. Former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) has emerged as a challenger in the presidential race, queering the pitch of the main contenders from the Sirisena-led Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the Wickremesinghe-led United National Party (UNP). The ruling UNP has formed the National Democratic Front (NDF) with existing partners, while talks will soon start for the SLFP to join hands with SLPP, which has already formed its own front.


As early as 2007 when the US war on terror was at its peak, it considered “Sri Lanka positioned astride major sea lanes and at the doorstep to India, can play a significant role in military readiness as political and military efforts shift focus on Asia in the new millennium”, according to a US diplomatic cable from Colombo. China is now firmly established in Sri Lanka and in South Asia. PLA Navy warships are seen in increasing numbers in the Indian Ocean.


This has increased the importance of building close security relations with Sri Lanka for furthering the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy. Many consider the US had a hand in the forming of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe alliance to thwart President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s bid for a third tenure during the 2014 Sri Lanka presidential election. Since then, the US has carefully nurtured its relations with Sri Lanka. The US is probably concerned at the break-up of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition, after President Sirisena’s abortive bid to replace PM Wickremesinghe with Mahinda Rajapaksa in October 2018.  


Notwithstanding this, US-Sri Lanka relations have been growing, thanks to PM Wickremesinghe’s interest to build the country’s relations with the US, perhaps as a counterpoise to China now entrenched firmly in Sri Lanka. In June 2019, US Coast Guard gifted a decommissioned cutter to Sri Lanka which has been commissioned as SLNS Gajabahu in Sri Lanka Navy. It is interesting to note that in the same month, China handed over P-625, a 2300-tonne frigate built in 1994, to Sri Lanka Navy in Shanghai.


Given this complex security and political environment, PM Wickremesinghe had been facing a lot of flak from the opposition over two US-agreements: the proposed Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) and signing of the $ 480-million Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) grant from the US.


The SOFA, though not a military agreement, is a security arrangement to protect the rights and privileges of US military personnel stationed in the host country i.e., immunity from prosecution by the host country. The US has signed SOFA with a number of countries where US forces are stationed. So SOFA is seen as preparatory to US building a base in Trincomalee, if we go by media speculations.


The idea of signing SOFA was mooted after Sri Lanka foreign ministry renewed the Acquisition and Cross Service Agreement (ACSA) with the US in August 2017. But it was renewed without consulting the service chiefs who are directly affected by the agreement.  The agreement was originally signed by Sri Lanka in March 2007 as an operational expediency before major offensive was launched against the LTTE in the North. The US had blocked the supply of vital aircraft spares, without which SLAF’s aircraft of Israeli and US origin were grounded.


After the signing the ACSA, US supplies were resumed and Sri Lanka was able to pursue its operations successfully. The US also provided real time information on LTTE’s floating armouries which enabled SLN to destroy them. Now ACSA comes in handy for US military logistics in the long haul across the Indo-Pacific; of course, it facilitates American troops to freely interact with Sri Lanka armed forces and take part in joint training exercises.


However, President Sirisena has openly opposed the signing of SOFA; he has also expressed reservations about the MCC agreement. According to a report in Sunday Times, Colombo, when Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana was in Washington DC for talks on SOFA with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, President Sirisena directed that Sri Lanka should not sign the SOFA. State Minister for Defence Wijewardene made clear it that President’s approval was necessary for the agreement and it would be signed by the Defence Secretary.


However, US Ambassador to Colombo Ms Alaina B Teplitz has emphatically said that the US had no intention of building a base in Sri Lanka. Explaining the rationale behind US security efforts in Sri Lanka, she said in her US Independence Day message, “the sea lanes that pass beside Sri Lanka are important for many nations”, which was why the US was helping Sri Lanka’s capacity to protect its coast waters. The ambassador referred to the gifting of the USCG cutter in June and said the US military cooperation was “open and mutually beneficial.” She further added that every joint exercise and training in disaster response was done at the invitation of Sri Lanka.


PM Wickremesinghe had informed parliament that no new agreement had been signed with the US, “but we have been discussing a draft [SOFA].” He assured that he would not sign anything to “harm our independence and sovereignty.” The PM also referred to the letters exchanged between President JR Jayawardane and Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi in 1987, in which it was stated “Trincomalee or any other port in Sri Lanka will not be available for military use by any other country.” 


India has maintained a studious silence on the SOFA controversy. It is interesting to note that India has not signed SOFA. However, India-US strategic security relations started going on a high trajectory after India signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) with the US during PM Narendra Modi’s first term. It is part of an agenda to address a broad range of defence and security issues, including defence technology collaboration, expanding military-to-military exchanges and the designation of India as a Major Defense Partner.


Does Sri Lanka need SOFA? Sri Lanka’s Chief of Defence Staff Admiral Ravindra Wijegunaratne has put the ACSA and SOFA in the perspective of Sri Lanka’s national interest. Speaking in a TV interview, he said both agreements are controversial. However, the Indian Ocean can be easily controlled from Sri Lanka. “It is our responsibility to protect this important location. Therefore, Sri Lanka should not be a playground where international groups engage in their power struggles.” Under such circumstances the foreign affairs ministry and politicians have a huge responsibility to sort out this matter. The Admiral stressed “we cannot forget America” as it had helped during the Eelam War. “While we need not agree everything, we should find a middle ground before signing the agreement and involve security forces in such discussions”.


The MCC agreement is less controversial, compared with the SOFA. The MCC was created by the US Congress in January 2004 with strong bipartisan support to deliver smart US foreign assistance. MCC provides time-limited grants promoting economic growth, reducing poverty, and strengthening institutions. These investments not only support stability and prosperity in partner countries but also enhance American interests.  US ambassador Ms Teplitz has clarified that $480-million grant under the agreement will address weaknesses in infrastructure and land administration identified by Sri Lanka as key constraints to the country’s economic growth. She said, “Under this agreement, Sri Lanka will retain oversight and control of all aspects of the proposed projects. The US will not own, control or in any way administer any land under this agreement.”


The moot point is will President Sirisena and PM Wickremesinghe set aside their personal polemics and political priorities to address key national security concerns? The success of the SOFA and ACSA would depend upon how best they use it to serve Sri Lanka’s national interests.


Col R Hariharan, a retired MI officer, served as the head of Intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka from 1987 to 90. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies, South Asia Analysis Group and the International Law and Strategic Analysis. Courtesy

Courtesy: South Asia Security Trends, Aug 2019, 

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