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 Washington.

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 perspective.

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.