In North Carolina, he’s known as a Congressman. In Tennessee, he’s known as a quarterback. But in Sri Lanka, Rep. Heath Shuler is known as an ally.
Over the past three years, the Democrat has quietly built a reputation as a top Congressional booster of the small South Asian country, grabbing headlines there last week when he returned for his second Congressional delegation trip in about as many years.
It was almost by happenstance that the former Tennessee Volunteer standout quarterback and now-Blue Dog Democrat became the most outspoken Congressional detractor of the Tamil Tigers. But the tale also shows how active constituents can sway a Member.
In March 2009, Shuler signed on to a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressing concerns that the Sri Lankan government was ignoring the civil rights of many of its citizens in the final stretch of a civil war with the separatist military group the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, also known as the Tamil Tigers.
Shuler’s signing of the letter concerned some in the “small but active Sri Lankan-American population in Western North Carolina,” he said in an email.
“A few of my constituents who happen to be of Sri Lankan descent reached out to me because they were concerned I wasn’t hearing the whole story,” Shuler said. “I met with them to hear their concerns, and then met with the Sri Lankan ambassador and the U.S. State Department.”
Among the constituents who reached out was Waynesville, N.C.-based attorney David Wijewickrama. He did not return several requests for comment, but press releases from the Sri Lankan government and Shuler’s office show that he traveled with both CODELs to Sri Lanka. Wijewickrama also donated $2,400 to Shuler’s re-election campaign in late 2009, Federal Election Commission records show.
Shuler said the 2009 trip to Sri Lanka allowed him to see the full story of the aftermath of Sri Lanka’s 26-year-long civil war against the Tigers, which has been classified as a terrorist organization by the international community.
“Taking the trip in 2009 allowed me to see the whole story, not just the one side I was hearing in Washington,” Shuler said. “What I saw on the ground when I went in 2009 was optimism and hope for reconciliation and a new start.”
Shuler said he has followed the country’s progress, and he returned for a follow-up visit last week, along with Reps. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) and Ben Chandler (D-Ky.).
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.