COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – John Kerry is making the first visit to Sri Lanka by a U.S. secretary of state in a decade, seizing a rare opportunity to champion democratic reform and to tighten ties at a strategic crossroads in the vast Indian Ocean.
The top American diplomat arrived early Saturday local time in Colombo, where he planned to meet with President Maithripala Sirisena and Sri Lanka's prime minister and foreign minister. He also planned to speak with leading officials of the island nation's Tamil minority.
Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Sri Lanka in early 2005, shortly after the deadly Indian Ocean tsunami. That was before fighting intensified between Sri Lanka's government and the Tamil Tigers fighting to create an independent state. The military crushed the rebels in 2009, but only after tens of thousands were killed and accusations of war crimes were made by both sides.
The victorious president at that time, Mahinda Rajapaksa, proceeded to tighten his grip on power, weakening democracy and the rule of law, which isolated Sri Lanka internationally.
In January, however, Sirisena shocked Rajapaksa in a close election after vowing to overhaul a system widely seen as autocratic and suffocating for minorities. Earlier this 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.
And in Washington, U.S. officials are voicing optimism about the changes and say they didn't want to interfere with a "domestic-led process of reconciliation" underway.
Some human rights campaigners believe the U.S. is congratulating Sirisena too soon.
Kerry's trip is "being read locally as an increasing stamp of approval for the new government," lamented John Sifton, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. He criticized the trip for not including a planned stop to the Tamil-majority north and said he viewed the omission as "an indication that the U.S. no longer really cares about the massive rights abuses that occurred there and the rights issues which are still relevant today."
The U.S. can gain from better relations with Sri Lanka, too.
American exports to Sri Lanka totaled $314 million in 2013, the last year for which the U.S. Trade Representative offers figures. That was 40 percent higher than the previous year, but still far below the potential value offered by a market of more than 20 million Sri Lankans, who on average have significant more spending power than their neighbors in India.
Sri Lankan exports to the U.S. were about $2.5 billion in 2013.
On a strategic level, Sri Lanka's geographical location along the maritime route between the manufacturing hubs of East Asia and the growing consumer markets of Africa and the Middle East present the United States with a compelling case for improving ties.
Rajapaksa had cultivated close ties with China, which provided financing for huge infrastructure projects amid allegations of Sri Lankan government corruption. Sirisena has pushed to recalibrate his predecessor's strongly pro-China policies and conduct a review of major Chinese projects.
Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington contributed to this report.