Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David Ranz begins engagement with South Asia

Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David Ranz discussed with Sri Lankan experts that country's role in the Indo-Pacific region and the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Trump administration has said it’s “looking forward to working and continuing to engage” with Sri Lanka Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was reinstated on Dec. 16, two months after he was sacked by President Maithripala Sirisena, shocking the island nation, India, the region and igniting a constitutional crisis.

The newly minted Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs, David Ranz, recently back from Sri Lanka and the Maldives, in a interaction with a small group of South Asian journalists based in D.C., on Dec. 19, lauding the Supreme Court ruling that found Sirisena’s action a blatant violation of the constitution, compelling him to reinstate Wickremesinghe. "We are pleased to have seen the democratic, constitutional processes play out through the courts in Sri Lanka, ultimately addressing the political crisis in keeping with democratic and constitutional norms,” Ranz said.

Ranz said the Trump administration anticipates that the Sri Lankan government “will focus on taking steps to bolster the economy and restore Sri Lanka’s international standing, which will allow us to continue our cooperation on a number of important projects.” 

Acknowledging that it was and “interesting time to be in Colombo to say the least,” the senior State Department official said, "During my visit, I conveyed that, as a friend and partner of Sri Lanka for 70 years, the United States wished to see the political crisis resolved in a manner befitting Sri Lanka's democratic traditions and in keeping with its status as South Asia's oldest democracy.”

When asked by India Abroad of how the U.S. viewed the resolution of the crisis without any violence and with the non-interference of the Army, which remained in its barracks even at a time when Sri Lanka’s constitution seemed to be unraveling and the situation ripe for a military take-over, Ranz said, “The resolution of the political crisis demonstrated the durability of Sri Lanka’s democratic institutions.”

However, he noted, “Obviously, we have to see how it plays out in the next couple of weeks — but it is fair to say that this is a victory for democracy and the rule of law in Sri Lanka.”

Ranz also said that “there is a huge amount that the government of Sri Lanka needs to do on the reconciliation, accountability, and human rights agenda.  But I have to say, even during the political crisis, some important steps were taken, such as the arrest of Chief of Defense Staff Wijeguneratne for protecting navy personnel who kidnapped and murdered 11 Tamil students in 2009.”

Ranz, who led an interagency delegation to the Maldives that included senior officials from the Department of Justice, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, and officials from the South Asia bureau, said, “The purpose of our visit was to examine ways we can expand our partnership with Maldives in pursuit of a free and open Indo-Pacific, including how we can be supportive during their critical transition period.”

“As you know, the election of President (Ibrahim Mohamed) Solih and subsequent peaceful transition of power was a major democratic moment, and one that the United States views as profoundly significant for the broader region,” he said.

Ranz said the administration welcomes India's "reinvigorating" ties with Maldives, and his remarks came two days after New Delhi announced a $1.4-billion financial assistance to Male, which is drowning under the weight of its virtual ‘debt bondage’ to China in the wake of mounting Chinese debts.

The Trump administration showering kudos on India also coincided Solih’s three-day visit to India, during which the Maldivian president described India as his “country's closest friend” and "largest trading partner.”

During the discussions, both Delhi and Male also agreed to remain mindful of each other's concerns and “aspirations for stability in the strategic Indian Ocean Region” and boost maritime cooperation.

Ranz said, "We welcome India reinvigorating its ties with Maldives and note the many positive announcements that came out of Prime Minister Solih's recent visit to India.”

He said that New Delhi shares Washington’s view of Maldives' critical role in the security of the Indo-Pacific and the importance of offering support during this transition period.

Solih's visit to India hardly a month after taking over the reins of the presidency is being viewed in diplomatic circles in Washington as an expeditious efforts to repair its ties with India following the often strained ties with New Delhi during the tenure of his predecessor Abdulla Yameen, who had turned to China for massive amounts of aid and become beholden to Beijing as the island nation’s debts mounted to unprecedented levels in excess of $3 billion.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi told Solih there are "infinite possibilities" between the two neighbors, and assured Solih, "India will always stand by you in your government's ambitious efforts to change the lives of the Maldivian people.”

“For the social and economic development of Maldives, India will extend budget support, currency swap and lines of credit worth $1.4 billion," Modi said.

Ranz said the purpose of his visit was to examine ways the US can expand its partnership with Maldives in pursuit of a free and open Indo-Pacific.

"The election of President Solih and subsequent peaceful transition of power was a major democratic moment, and one that the United States views as profoundly significant for the broader region," he said.

Ranz said, "The United States is looking to providing assistance in the areas of debt analysis and sustainability, justice-sector capacity building, civil society support, and environmental aid all areas the Maldivian government has identified as priorities in its 100-day plan.”

Acknowledging Maldives' strategic location on key sea lanes, he said, the U.S. had already committed $10 million to Maldives in security assistance.

“Of course, Maldives occupies a very important geostrategic position in the Indo-Pacific given the volume of trade that transits through the sea lanes it sits astride.  With its recent return to a democratic path, we see Maldives as a country that can tap the initiatives we are rolling out across the Indo-Pacific and become a valuable partner in realizing a secure, strong, and prosperous Indo-Pacific region,” Ranz predicted.

Ranz noted that in August, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had “launched the security pillar, including significant new foreign military financing for Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Maldives as part of our Bay of Bengal Initiative to improve maritime security, humanitarian assistance/disaster relief, and peacekeeping capabilities.”

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