COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Secretary of State John F. Kerry on Saturday said the United States will send a wide range of advisers to help the island nation emerge from a devastating civil war and years of autocratic rule.
Kerry, the first secretary of state to visit Sri Lanka in a decade, said U.S. advisers will provide “technical assistance” to the newly elected government as it makes constitutional and democratic reforms.
Washington will also help Sri Lanka fight corruption and recover stolen assets if any are stashed in the United States, he said. And he announced that a new U.S. embassy will be built in the capital, Colombo.
In addition, he said, the Commerce and Treasury departments will send advisers to help develop a plan for more investment and economic growth. Colombo is undergoing a construction boom, and many parts of the island that were considered security risks during the civil war are now opening up to tourism. According to the State Department, Sri Lankan exports to the United States amount to $2.5 billion a year.
“I am here today because I want to say to the people of Sri Lanka that in this journey to restore your democracy, the American people will stand with you,” Kerry said after a meeting with Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera. “We intend to broaden and to deepen our partnership with you.”
Following years of tension with Sri Lanka over human rights abuses under former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, who lost to Maithripala Sirisena in a January election, the United States and Sri Lanka will renew their ties by establishing an annual dialogue, Kerry said. He repeated the message in meetings later in the day with Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
The diplomatic overtures from Washington are a striking turnaround in the U.S. attitude. During Sri Lanka’s 26-year-old military campaign against insurgents known as the Tamil Tigers, who sought to carve out an independent state on part of the island, accusations of human rights abuses were rampant on both sides. The Tamil separatists were crushed in 2009, but Rajapaksa’s autocratic tendencies raised concern in many capitals, including Washington.
Those concerns, however, were lifted virtually overnight with Sirisena’s surprise victory.
Building on Sirisena’s campaign promises, the government is moving to become more democratic. On Tuesday, Sri Lanka’s parliament voted to curb presidential powers and make the president answerable to parliament.
The last time a top U.S. diplomat visited Sri Lanka was in 2005, when then-Secretary of State Colin Powell stopped in briefly following a tsunami. Kerry’s two days of meetings with senior government officials appears to represent hopes that Sri Lanka’s international isolation may finally be coming to an end.
When Kerry arrived at the Foreign Ministry for a meeting, he was greeted by a large sign bearing the word “Welcome,” his photograph exhibited alongside that of Sirisena. A young girl placed an ornate flower necklace on him, and he walked toward the building, passing dozens of traditional drummers and dancers performing in his honor.
“I believe that this important visit signifies the return of our little island nation to the center stage of international affairs,” said Samaraweera, the foreign minister.
“Today, Sri Lanka is well on its way to becoming a fully fledged parliament democracy, laying the foundation for a new Sri Lanka, built on the pillars of democracy and ethnic harmony,” he added.
After meeting with the Sri Lankan president and prime minister, Kerry is scheduled to meet Sunday with leaders of the Tamil minority community.
In a speech he gave Saturday evening, Kerry struck a highly personal note as he urged Sri Lankans to seek out the truth about war atrocities. He also offered U.S. technical help in organizing reconciliation with the Tamils.
“Peace has come, but true reconciliation will take time,” he said.
To illustrate his point about reconciliation, Kerry recalled his Navy service in Vietnam, commanding a patrol boat in the Mekong Delta, and the return trips he made as a senator decades later, investigating rumors that American aviators shot down during the war were still alive and held in captivity. Although the Senate committee concluded there were no living MIAs held in Southeast Asia, their work helped pave the way for the normalization of diplomatic relations between the former enemies in 1995.
“We knew it was impossible for us to move forward if we didn’t try to find answers,” he said, estimating he made 17 to 20 trips back to Vietnam, in some cases talking with North Vietnamese generals who commanded the troops fighting the Americans. “We experienced the same emotions and the same search for answers present in your country today. . . . It’s an essential part of the healing process.”