In view of its strategic location in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka is of interest to both Washington and Beijing as they seek to increase their presence in the Indian Ocean. Washington’s latest attempt to improve its position in Sri Lanka involves renegotiating the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) originally signed in mid-1995 when Beijing was not on the scene.
However, opposition to the renewed SOFA within Sri Lanka has been intense on the grounds that it would involve establishing U.S. bases in the island and thus compromise the country’s sovereignty. Indeed, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s decision to cancel his visit to Colombo on June 27 has been attributed to rising local opposition against the signing of SOFA. Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, who heads the centrist Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), has been forthright in ruling out the presence of any American troops or base on the island. Sri Lankan Army Commander Mahesh Senanayake is similarly inclined, telling local media that he would not sign the SOFA. Sri Lankan Defense Secretary Gen (Rtd) Shantha Kottegoda also objected to the SOFA, saying that foreign troops were not needed in Sri Lanka. Opposition to SOFA has also been expressed by Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP), an Sinhala ultra-nationalist party closely aligned to Rajapaksa-led Sri Lanka People’s Party (SLPP) and the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who heads the right-leaning United National Party (UNP) that enjoys a majority in parliament, is responsible for renegotiating the SOFA. On July 10, Wickremesinghe told parliament that the proposed SOFA “was not a military pact but only an agreement establishing the rights and privileges that U.S. military personnel would enjoy if they were in the country,” according to Reuters. “The SOFA is a peacetime document,” he said. Wickremesinghe then went onto reassure parliament he would not support any agreement that threatens Sri Lanka’s sovereignty.