Updated April 25, 2019​ 

Sri Lanka Express

Reading the tea leaves on ex CIA analyst Lisa Curtis, Trump's point person for S. Asia

Lisa Curtis (Heritage Foundation photo)
 By Hassina Leelarathna 
April 8, 2017

Lisa Curtis a senior research fellow of the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation, also a former CIA analyst and a leading subscriber to Washington’s narrative that the 2015 regime change saw the birth of democracy in Sri Lanka, will be joining the National Security Council as Senior Director for South Asia.

In this position (not yet officially confirmed by the White House) she will be exerting considerable influence on President Trump’s South Asian policies, including future US-Sri Lanka relations.

An expert on South Asian affairs at the Asian Studies Center, Ms. Curtis writes and comments for the media on developments in South Asia.  In analyses on Sri Lanka, she has been critical of President Rajapaksa while welcoming the election of President Sirisena in January 2015, and the subsequent election of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe in August of that year, as an opportunity to strengthen US-Sri Lanka ties.

“The U.S. can now breathe a sigh of relief with relative confidence that the positive changes begun under Sirisena will continue,” a clearly upbeat Curtis said in a report published by the Heritage Foundation in August 20, 2015, days after the parliamentary elections that brought Wickremasinghe and the UNP to power.   She urged Washington to take advantage of the major opening presented by the
election of the UNP coalition in Sri Lanka.   “It is an opportunity for Washington to encourage peace, reconciliation, and stability ina country occupying a pivotal position in the Indian Ocean region.”

Commenting on Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera visit to Washington to participate in the “first ever U.S.-Sri Lanka Partnership Dialogue” in February 2016, she said relations between the two nations “have been on an upswing” since the ouster of Rajapaksa.

“Sirisena was elected to power last year on a pledge to revive the country’s democratic process and to promote ethnic reconciliation. This marked a significant departure from the Rajapakse regime’s triumphalism after it defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009 and its autocratic tendencies, which led to stifling of media freedom, judicial interference, and wide-scale nepotism,” she said.

In the same commentary, Curtis called the passage of Article 19 which curbed some of the powers of the presidency “a watershed moment for Sri Lankan democracy.”

As Trump’s point person for South Asia, she’s expected to shake things up by advocating  a hard line on Pakistan for failure to curb terrorism and, more importantly,  promoting Indian influence to counter the Chinese presence  in the region.   
Sinhalese barred.    Dr. Arul Karunyan (in blue shirt) denied them entry to meeting for LTTE supporter Fr. Emmanuel in Reseda, CA , Feb. 2014.   Ironically,  Karunyan was the only "Sri Lankan" panelist at the AEI discussion on "the road ahead" and "peacebuilding in Sri Lanka" led by Lisa Curtis.  Photo by Hassina Leelarathna

Towards that end, Curtis who believes that Sri Lanka “with its strategic location, economic potential, and deep ties with Asia’s two rising giants–China and India–Sri Lanka is too important to ignore” is banking on the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe government to help put the brakes on Chinese influence.  

In her comments on the months following Sirisena’s ascent to power in 2015, she was seeing a “significant departure from Rajapaksa’s pro-China policies” which, she said, had “alarmed Indian officials, who are wary of China’s increasing influence in their back yard.”   She was confident the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government would put  “ties with India, China, Japan, and Pakistan on equal footing,” and take a balanced approach  “to avoid antagonizing India.”

As for how Ms. Curtis might approach the lingering Tamil Eelam issue, if the panel discussion held in February 2011 by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), also a right-wing think tank, is any indication it doesn’t bode well for Sri Lanka.  Besides Curtis, the lead speaker representing the Heritage Foundation,, there were three others participating in the discussion  titled   “Sri Lanka: The Road Ahead:”  Jennifer Leonard, International Crisis Group, Don Camp, Former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, and  Karunyan Arulanantham, M.D., Tamil American Peace Initiative.

 The only “Sri Lankan” on that panel awas Dr. Karunyan from Lancaster, California, a city whose name is shorthand in the community for “Tamil Tigers” due to compelling allegations of financial support to the LTTE by its Tamil residents.  Dr. Karunyan himself is strongly anti-Sinhalese, even going to the extent once of denying admission to anyone with a Sinhalese name who had turned up to a meeting he and other Tamils had organized for LTTE supporter Fr. S.J. Emmanuel, head of the Global Tamil Forum.    

The absence of a representative from the majority Sinhalese community in the AEI discussion on Sri Lanka’s “road ahead” is noteworthy when reading the tea leaves on Ms. Curtis and the future of US-Sri Lanka relations.