Colombo: For 25 years, the dirty little war on this island in the Indian Ocean has stretched its octopus arms across the world.
The ethnic Tamil diaspora has provided vital funding for separatist rebels; remittances from Sri Lankan workers abroad have propped up the economy; the government has relied on foreign assistance to battle the insurgency.
Today, a shifting world order is bearing new fruits for Sri Lanka. Most notably, China’s quiet assertion in India’s backyard has put Sri Lanka’s government in a position not only to play China off against India, but also to ignore complaints from outside Asia about human rights violations in the war.
New aides: Sri Lanka’s foreign secretary Palitha Kohona says Chinese assistance to the island nation has grown five-fold in the last year.
The timing is propitious. The government jettisoned a five-year ceasefire this year, and is now banking on a military victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. In so doing, it has faced a barrage of criticism over human rights abuses and has lost defence aid from the US and some other sources. And, in recent months, government officials have increasingly cosied up to countries that tend to say little to nothing on things like abductions and assaults on press freedom.
Sri Lanka’s foreign secretary Palitha Kohona put it plainly when he said that Sri Lanka’s “traditional donors”—the US, Canada and the European Union—had “receded into a very distant corner”, to be replaced by countries in the East. He gave three reasons: The new donors are neighbours; they are rich; and they conduct themselves differently.
“Asians don’t go around teaching each other how to behave,” he said. “There are ways we deal with each other—perhaps a quiet chat, but not wagging the finger.”
The Tamil Tigers, for their part, have been classified as a terrorist group in many countries, including the US, Canada and the EU, making it harder for the guerrillas to raise money abroad.
At the same time, according to Kohona, Chinese assistance has grown five-fold in the last year to nearly $1 billion (Rs4,050 crore), eclipsing Sri Lanka’s long-time biggest donor, Japan. The Chinese are building a highway, developing two power plants and putting up a new port in the hometown of Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Sri Lanka also buys a lot of weapons from China and China’s ally, Pakistan.
Chinese diplomacy in South Asia, grounded as it is in a policy of “harmony” and deep pockets, is of obvious concern to India. So are the sentiments of Tamils at home. Overt support from India for the Sri Lankan counter-insurgency programme can be explosive among India’s Tamils. But coming down hard on the government here could push Sri Lanka deeper into China’s embrace. “There is little choice,” said Ashok Kumar Mehta, a retired general who was a leader of an Indian peacekeeping force in Sri Lanka nearly 20 years ago. “India’s policy is virtually hands off.”
Kohona, the Sri Lankan foreign secretary, noted that India’s contributions had also grown, to nearly $500 million this year. India is building a coal-fired power plant and Indian firms have been invited to build technology parks and invest in telecommunications. New Delhi, like Washington, has shut the tap on direct military support, but it can still help with crucial intelligence, particularly in intercepting weapons smuggled by sea.
The picture in Sri Lanka is emblematic of a major shift from 20 years ago, when India was the only power centre in the region. Now come China’s artful moves in India’s backyard.
As C. Raja Mohan, an international relations professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, points out, China has started building a circle of road-and-port connections in India’s neighbouring countries, and it has begun to eye a role in the Indian Ocean, as its thirst for natural resources makes it more important to secure the sea lanes.
That offers countries like Sri Lanka ample opportunities. “Now the smaller countries have increasingly turned to China to influence India’s strategic interests, and thus silence it on human rights issues,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch.
She cited Myanmar (formerly Burma) where, in the 1990s, India pressed for democracy and watched the military junta sidle up to Beijing. “Now India is concerned about China’s role in Sri Lanka because of control over the Indian Ocean,” she said.
Iran is the latest entrant. Late last year came the promise of a whopping $1.6 billion line of credit, primarily to help Sri Lanka buy Iranian oil.
Washington still counts. Sri Lanka is sore at losing US military aid and development assistance. The US has also irritated the government by pressing for UN human rights monitors after the visit last October of the UN high commissioner for human rights Louise Arbour. She said at the end of her visit that “the weakness of the rule of law and prevalence of impunity is alarming”.
That infuriated the government. Sri Lanka’s mission in Geneva sent out acerbic opinion pieces published in Sri Lankan newspapers. One, an editorial in the pro-government newspaper, The Island, declared that “those UN knights in shining armour tilting at windmills in small countries should be told that the protection of human rights is next to impossible during a fiercely fought war”. Still, criticism over human rights continues to dog Sri Lanka.
Last Thursday, a report by Human Rights Watch blamed the government for a pattern of disappearances. The same day, an international Group of Eminent Persons that the government had invited to monitor Sri Lankan investigations into human rights violations said it was leaving; it cited “a lack of political and institutional will”.
The attorney general’s office responded by saying that the government would reconstitute the panel with “an alternate group of eminent persons”.
But, however free Sri Lanka feels to dismiss Western concerns about human rights these days, there are still long-range costs it may find itself confronting one day. The real Achilles heel for the government is looming economic trouble, as its war chest expands and inflation reaches double digits.
And in that, the world matters. For its failure to ratify certain international conventions, Sri Lanka already risks losing trade preferences with the EU at the end of this year. And, however much China has risen in importance, Europe remains this country’s largest trading partner.
©2008/THE NEW YORK TIMES