| by Upul Joseph Fernando
( January 2, 2013, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The government entertains certain misgivings about the ‘silent observer’ role of the current US Ambassador in Sri Lanka, Michele Sison. “She does not depend on NGO sources very much as other Ambassadors did before her. She only uses them as information sources and nothing more. She prefers to meet the activists in grassroots organizations herself and get firsthand information.” That is how a senior official at the foreign office had described her activism in so far as diplomacy is concerned, according to reports reaching the government.
Even before her arrival in the country, the popular view among certain political analysts, based on her previous diplomatic roles, was that she would create controversy in her interaction with the government. However, these predictions have proved wrong, i.e. after many a month since she arrived in the country as US Ambassador, she is strangely playing a silent diplomatic role.
At the time Patricia Butanis was appointed as US Ambassador in Sri Lanka, political analysts who were familiar with her overt political role in Bangladesh, where she was instrumental in engineering a suitable background for a democratic government, strongly held onto the view that she would do a similar thing here and try to engineer a regime change. But she did nothing of the sort.
However, as a result of certain remarks she made and also due to certain Wikileaks revelations, her relations with the government soured, thus making her diplomatic clout lose its effect severely. With the revelation of her antagonistic remarks, her relations with the government also soured badly and thus, as a diplomat who was successful in Bangladesh, she failed in Sri Lanka. That said, she was however, successful in one instance; that of America spearheading the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution against Sri Lanka in Geneva.
Michele Sison, the current US Ambassador assumed her diplomatic assignment here at a time when relations between the US State Department and Sri Lanka were at low ebb. Ambassador Sison is a Filipino-American by birth and the first serving US Ambassador of that ethnicity, with strong Asian links. Having worked under Asst. State Secretary Richard Armitage, as Principal Deputy Asst. Secretary of Bureau of South Asian Affairs in charge of Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, India and Nepal, she was well-informed of the ethnic problem and the 2002 peace agreement.
Armitage was avidly committed to promoting peace in the country and he was ably supported by Sison in his efforts. She has already visited the country on several occasions and had also visited the North in the company of Armitage, in addition to taking part in many discussions with government officials as well as LTTE higher ups. She was also associated in discussions with the political leadership of the North and the South and had developed an official network via the American Embassy to gather information about the political situation in the country to assist Armitage.
Until now, the widely held view by many was that Robert Blake was the best-informed American diplomat on Sri Lankan affairs. Though the belief still holds true to a certain extent, the manner in which Sison gained knowledge of Sri Lankan affairs is somewhat different. Whereas Blake acquired his knowledge about all things Sri Lankan while serving as Ambassador here, Sison came here with the knowledge she had already acquired on Sri Lankan affairs.
Human right, civil society, media
In this context, her statement to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, even before she took up her diplomatic posting here, bears careful scrutiny. She said, “I will absolutely commit to you that the human rights issue, civil society and the media will be on top of my agenda and I do believe that we can have a constructive dialogue to keep human rights protection, rule of law at the forefront.”
This is the first time an American Ambassador has spoken about fortifying rule of law as a diplomat accredited to Sri Lanka. Other diplomats who came here before her have made reference to human rights issues but not of rule of law. At a time when rule of law in this country is under real threat, the Ambassador’s remark assumes much relevance.
Another noteworthy fact is before her Sri Lankan assignment, Sison had served in Pakistan, Lebanon and Iraq, where rule of law was under serious threat. In Bagdad, Iraq, she has held the diplomatic position of Assistant Chief of Mission for Law Enforcement and Rule of Law Assistance. A little incident worth recalling is that on 18 June 2008, when Sison was on a visit to an American project in Iraq, stones were thrown at her car by anti-American elements.
Her bio-date makes it amply clear that she is the best suited Ambassador in view of the law and order situation prevailing in the country at present. At a time when the government has challenged the rule of law by bringing an impeachment motion against the Chief Justice, American Ambassador Sison’s future role, albeit a silent one at present, will be avidly watched by the judges, lawyers and the entire judiciary as well as the law abiding people of Sri Lanka.
( The writer is a senior journalist with the Ceylon Today, where this piece was originally appeared)