|A new US envoy
and new hopes
In the usual course of
events an ambassador presenting credentials to the
President of this country, is a mere formality. But
last Thursday when Patricia A. Butenis presented her
credentials to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, it
represented more than that, for we live in unusual
times in this nation.
Butenis succeeds the controversial Robert O.
Blake whose tenure in Colombo was marked by more
than a little controversy. Many were those who were
happy to see Blake leave, even if it was as
Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs
at the United States Department of State in
Washington, being in effect the superior to whom
Butenis would report to.
We do not intend to pick a bone of contention
with Blake in these columns. It suffices to say that
the outspoken envoy was a firm believer in a
political approach in dealing with the Liberation
Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and said as much. When
the Rajapaksa government embarked on a militaristic
strategy, he made his displeasure known and his
popularity ratings did not climb as a result.
When the LTTE was finally defeated in May, Blake
shifted his attention to the internally displaced
persons in the North and his comments on related
issues have not been generally perceived as friendly
or helpful in the corridors of power in Colombo.
Indeed, Blake has continued to be strident in his
criticism even after taking up his new job in
In a sense, we do sympathise with Blake. He
happened to be the wrong man in the wrong place in
much the same way Jyotindra Nath Dixit was India’s
High Commissioner to Colombo in the late eighties
when the Indo-Lanka Accord was signed by then
President J.R. Jayewardene and the Indian Peace
Keeping Force (IPKF) arrived in the country shortly
afterwards. In those days, Dixit was the man
everyone loved to hate. Blake appears to have taken
on Dixit’s role in the past few months.
This is the context in which Patricia Butenis
assumes duties here. She is the representative of
the most powerful country in the world in Colombo.
But the new envoy is also in a new country, a nation
different from the land that Robert Blake set foot
in September 2006 for Sri Lanka now is a free
country, a country free from the scourge of
terrorism and it is an achievement to be proud of
for it is a boast that even the United States cannot
lay claim to.
Recent times have seen a war of words between Sri
Lanka and some Western nations. The issues concerned
have ranged from providing visas to various
individuals to the facilities accorded to the
internally displaced persons in the North. The West,
generally perceived as being soft on the LTTE
despite experiencing the menace of terrorism in
their own countries, has been unrelenting in its
criticism of Sri Lanka in the post-war period.
This is precisely why Patricia Butenis would have
her work cut out in Colombo. Her arrival here
represents a window of opportunity both for the
United States as well as Sri Lanka to reconcile the
past and work for a better future, both in terms of
allaying the ethnic grievances in the country as
well as forging better relations between the two
nations which will then undoubtedly permeate to the
rest of the West as well.
We are not naive enough to suggest that Colombo
should embark on a confrontational course with
either the United States or the West. Geopolitical
realities dictate that this small country of twenty
million people and sixty five thousand square
kilometres cannot take on the most powerful nation
on earth. Nevertheless, that does not mean that Sri
Lanka should surrender her unity, sovereignty and
territorial integrity according to the whims and
fancies of powerful nations.
Patricia Butenis can surely take a leaf out of
New Delhi’s book. In the eighties, the Indira Gandhi
led Congress governments in India were rabidly
anti-Sri Lankan and actively nurtured the LTTE. In
the final Eelam battle though, the Congress led
government of Manmohan Singh supported Colombo with
its policy of non-interference with the war effort
while at the same time providing assistance in the
naval blockade of the LTTE, an acknowledged crucial
factor in the final rout of the Tigers.
Cynics will argue that New Delhi did this after
having learnt a bitter lesson from the assassination
of Rajiv Gandhi. Nevertheless, New Delhi did have
the courage to turn a new leaf in its relations with
Colombo because it came to terms with the prospect
of a Sri Lanka sans the LTTE and found it to be a
more secure state of affairs from its own
That indeed must be food for thought for Patricia
Butenis. The diplomat who is no stranger to trouble
spots having served in Dhaka, Islamabad and most
recently in Baghdad, we hope, will approach Colombo
with an open mind and we wish her well.