COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – John Kerry made the first visit to Sri Lanka by a U.S. secretary of state in a decade on Saturday, championing the new government's fresh effort at democratic reform and promising to deepen ties with a country that sits at a strategic crossroads in the vast Indian Ocean.
The top American diplomat arrived early Saturday local time in Colombo and met with Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera. He was to speak later with President Maithripala Sirisena, the prime minister and leading officials of the nation's Tamil minority.
Sri Lanka's government, determined to end years of international isolation linked to its long war with Tamil separatists, rolled out the red carpet for Kerry — literally. 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.
"In this journey to restore your democracy, the American people stand with you," Kerry declared.
"We intend to broaden and deepen our partnership with you," he added, saying the two countries would start an annual partnership dialogue and that U.S. officials from the Treasury and Commerce departments would provide technical assistance to Sri Lanka's government.
Kerry's trip, Samaraweera said, "signifies our little island nation's return to the center stage of international affairs," vowing that Sri Lanka would become a "full-fledged parliamentary democracy" and an "investor's paradise."
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 Tiger rebels, who had sought 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 victorious president at that time, Mahinda Rajapaksa, proceeded to tighten 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 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 have voiced optimism about the changes, saying they don'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 visit 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 tightening ties.
Rajapaksa had cultivated close relations 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.