Kerry pledges stronger US ties with reform-minded Sri Lanka

By Bradley Klapper, AP

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka–U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday championed the new Sri Lankan government’s push for democratic reform and promised closer ties with the strategically located Indian Ocean nation.

��In this journey to restore your democracy, the American people stand with you,�� said Kerry, on the first visit to the island in a decade by the top U.S. diplomat.

Kerry met with President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera. On Sunday, he planned to see leaders from the Tamil minority.

Sri Lanka’s government is determined to end years of international isolation linked to its long war with Tamil separatists, so it really rolled out the red carpet for Kerry. He entered the Foreign Ministry under a welcome sign bearing his image and was greeted by musicians playing horns and drums and dancers in silver breastplates as he proceeded down a long crimson rug.

��We intend to broaden and deepen our partnership with you,�� Kerry said.

He said the countries would start an annual partnership dialogue and that U.S. officials would provide technical assistance to Colombo on a range of matters, including anti-corruption efforts and returning stolen assets.

Samaraweera said that Kerry’s visit ��signifies our little island nation’s return to the center stage of international affairs.�� The minister said Sri Lanka would become a ��full-fledged parliamentary democracy�� and an ��investor’s paradise.��

The last American secretary of state to come to Sri Lanka was Colin Powell, in early 2005 after the Indian Ocean tsunami. That was before fighting intensified between Sri Lanka’s government and the Tamil Tiger rebels, who wanted to create an independent state. The military crushed the rebels in 2009 in a final offensive that left tens of thousands dead and the two sides trading accusations of war crimes.

The president at that time, Mahinda Rajapaksa, tightened his grip on power, weakening democracy and the rule of law and damaging Sri Lanka’s reputation internationally.

In January, however, Sirisena shocked Rajapaksa in a close election after pledging to overhaul a system widely seen as autocratic and suffocating for minorities.

This past week, the parliament voted nearly unanimously to endorse Sirisena’s proposals to clip the powers of the president that Rajapaksa had expanded significantly.

Encouraged by the new atmosphere, the United States helped in postponing for six months the publication of a U.N. inquiry into possible war crimes by Sri Lanka. The U.N. human rights chief is among those expected to visit the country soon.

U.S. officials have voiced optimism about the changes, saying they do not want to interfere with a ��domestic-led process of reconciliation�� underway.