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.).
He said he relishes his role as a booster for the developing country.
“After being there only days after the end of their civil war and then again two years later, I see my role as someone who can talk about the very real progress Sri Lanka has made and how it impacts the United States,” he said. “I want to give the real story about what’s actually happening in Sri Lanka today.”
The desire to help has earned him accolades overseas. Shuler “has a degree of expertise” about the country, Kingston said. “If you’re a Member of Congress and you develop an expertise on any country, then that country does love you because countries, particularly a smaller country like Sri Lanka, look up to America.”
Sri Lankan Ambassador to the United States Jaliya Wickramasuriya said Shuler’s visits have helped him see the progress the country has made.
“Rep. Shuler has sought out both top government officials, opposition members of parliament and ordinary Sri Lankans, allowing him to get a strong sense of Sri Lanka’s democratic, economic and civil progress,” he said in a statement. “Rep. Shuler’s visits to Sri Lanka, I feel, have given him a first-hand look at the destructive forces of terrorism, the progress we have made, and the challenges we face in redeveloping conflict-affected areas and the reconciliation of our communities after years of strife and a broader knowledge of vital trade and security issues in South Asia.”
But that’s not to say his involvement with the country has pleased everyone, especially when he said in 2009 that Sri Lanka was the only democracy that has defeated terrorism.
Amnesty International spokesman Adotei Akwei said the human rights community is concerned about potential abuse of Sri Lankan citizens that occurred toward the end of the conflict and would like to see an international inquiry into the situation.
“The danger here is that a Member of Congress may inadvertently or unknowingly be supporting a totalitarian or very abusive country,” Akwei said. “We will continue to engage with Mr. Shuler’s office to show him our evidence to indicate there really is something there that needs to be investigated.”
Other Members are now bringing the message to the Capitol.
On Nov. 2, Reps. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), the co-chairmen of the Congressional Caucus on Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan Americans, will show a documentary to their colleagues giving the other side of the story.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.