By Peter Lee –
China’s relationship with the regime of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa is rock solid. Chinese arms were instrumental in the defeat of the Tamil Tigers in 2009 that brought their insurgency to an end after 27 bloody years. China is the largest provider of foreign aid and investment to the island.
And on March 22, when the United Nations’ Human Rights Council (UNHRC) considered a resolution censuring Sri Lanka for shortcomings in its investigation of possible violations of international law during the war, and a deficit of credible post-conflict reconciliation initiatives, Beijing voted “no” – while India voted “yes”.
Thanks in significant part to India’s vote and example, the resolution – which the Sri Lankan government was extremely
anxious to see fail, and had dispatched a 72-person team to Geneva to lobby against – passed.
Sifting through the wreckage, Sri Lankan media noted that, if abstentions were counted with the “no” votes, the resolution had carried by only one vote – India’s.
As for China, as the Ceylon Daily News put it – albeit reporting on remarks of the less than influential “Listeners Association of China Radio International in Sri Lanka” – “China’s support at UNHRC highly appreciated”. 
By a calculus that was made with considerable frequency in the Indian media, the UNHRC vote was an own goal by India, needlessly antagonizing Sri Lanka and pushing it even more closely into the arms of China.
Some characterized the vote as little more than rather ignoble truckling to the Congress Party’s coalition partner, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), whose power base is the ethnically Tamil state of Tamil Nadu – the motherland of Sri Lanka’s Hindu Tamils, who have often been at loggerheads with the indigenous, Buddhist Sinhalese who make up 74% of Sri Lanka’s population. 
Supporting the narrative of Indian dithering was a letter from Prime Minister Singh to Rajapaksa stating that India had insisted that the resolution had been watered down, or as an Indian briefer told the media:
“We have always had a problem with the Western approach of telling countries that they ‘must accept’ or ‘must do’ something.” That is why India insisted that the language of the resolution be changed to remove that element,” he added. “Once we got that, we voted for it.” 
However, this picture of apparent Indian fecklessness is belied by the fact that the UNHRC resolution was tabled by the United States, which is eager to promote Indian interests in South Asia. The United States insistently lobbied India to vote for the resolution. The Tamil factor is virtually non-existent in American politics, so it can safely be said that the United States was not heedlessly hoisting India on a cleft stick in the service of some other American agenda.
The US initiative appears to have been a calculated effort to wean India away from fear of its neighbors playing “the China card” to extort diplomatic and economic concessions from New Delhi. What we seem to be seeing is New Delhi, under American tutelage, employing the Barack Obama administration’s preferred tactic for dealing with problematic regimes: identifying weak points to exploit, ratcheting up international and multilateral pressure on those points, and then balancing the pressure with occasional concessions and positive initiatives.
In other words, the old carrot and stick, with the stick coming first.
It means that, in a rather risky move, the United States and India are threatening to put Sri Lankan government’s intensely fraught relationship with its restive Tamil minority into play if Colombo does not direct its politics and diplomacy into channels that Washington and New Delhi deem appropriate – and Beijing regards with utter dismay.
Rajapaksa – and China – are to a large extent victims of their own success in utterly crushing the Tamil Tigers insurgency.
In 2009, the Sri Lankan army did not pursue an objective of defeat of the Tamil Tigers. Its goal was absolute annihilation.
In the end-game of the war, the Tigers – and hundreds of thousands of ethnic Tamil civilians – were cornered on a tiny spit of land on the northeast coast in the region of Vanni. Military targets, civilians and hospitals were pounded with artillery; then the army moved in from three sides and, according to credible reports and evidence, fought their way in with little if any regard for civilian casualties, resulting in perhaps as many as 40,000 deaths.
Vellupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Talim Eelam, or LTTE, and most of the top cadres died in battle or shortly afterward. For some, surrender does not appear to have been an option. Captured Tamil fighters and members of the Tiger political and bureaucratic apparatus – because the Tigers had exercised de facto control over a significant swath of territory at one time – were summarily liquidated. Victims included Prabhakaran’s 12-year-old son, who was apparently executed by the Sri Lankan army, together with five escorts who were trying to deliver him to safety or surrender.
The Western world and India were willing to turn a blind eye toward the bloody excesses of the Sri Lankan army in 2009 because the Tigers were a truly nasty bunch that had worn out its geopolitical welcome.
In the early years of the movement, Tamil self-determination had developed a significant international cachet along the lines of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. In 1987, India parachuted food parcels into the Tamil stronghold of Jaffna in order to help rebels withstand a Sri Lankan army siege.
India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) trained Tamil fighters – including the Tigers and five other groups that RAW, in its wisdom, decided it could play off against each other – in camps in southern India as part of a strategy to project Indian power into Sri Lanka.
Instead, the Tigers assassinated the leadership of the pro-Indian Tamil militants and absorbed their fighters into the LTTE. In 1987, India – with Sri Lankan consent – sent a peacekeeping force into northern Sri Lanka that quickly came into conflict with its erstwhile clients, the unrepentantly militant Tamil Tigers.
India fought a bloody and unsatisfying campaign against the Tigers before withdrawing in 1990. Subsequently, Prabhakaran ordered the assassination of premier Rajiv Gandhi. The killing – ironically carried out by a militant trained in a RAW camp – guaranteed the hostility of the Indian government toward the Tigers.
The LTTE allegedly pioneered the use of the suicide vest, engaging in almost 400 attacks over 20 years, including attacks that killed Gandhi and, in 1993, the president of Sri Lanka, Ranasinghe Premadasa. The LTTE ethnically cleansed the Muslim population of the areas it controlled, expelling an estimated 72,000 people.
In a notorious incident, LTTE cadres bound, blindfolded and executed 600 Sri Lankan police officers who had surrendered to them on the instructions of the Colombo government in a confrontation in 1990 during a ceasefire period. The LTTE’s sympathizers explained these incidents as matters of military and revolutionary necessity, but the fact remains that the LTTE, a militant organization organized along Leninist principles, were not loathe to take the bloodiest path out of their challenges.
European powers, especially Norway, still tried to broker a peace deal. However, after 9/11 armed struggles of national liberation were passe and the Tamil Tigers were slotted squarely in the terrorist category, classified as a terrorist organization by 32 nations including India, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the European Union. Their sources of funding and arms were attacked and, when the end came, the UN and the Western powers made only the most ineffectual efforts to broker a settlement that would forestall the utter destruction of the LTTE.
However, it was China and not the West that played the crucial role in supporting the final Sri Lankan army campaign against the Tigers.
Major Neil Smith, Operations Officer of the US Army and Marine Corps Counter-insurgency Center from 2007 through 2009, rather enviously described the no-holds-barred “Rajapaksa Model” and the Chinese support that it relied on:
Beginning in 2005, China stepped in to provide an additional $1 billion of military and financial aid annually, allowing the LTTE to sever the strings attached to Western aid regarding the conduct of anti-LTTE operations. In exchange for the aid, China received development rights for port facilities and other investments …
China’s aid enabled the Sri Lankan government to attain the military superiority needed to defeat the LTTE. The Sri Lankan military budget rose by 40 percent between 2005 and 2008, and the army’s size increased by 70 percent, an addition of nearly 3,000 troops per month.
China provided more than simple financial support. It and several other states furnished the government with crucial political cover in the United Nations. Western countries long demanded that Sri Lanka respect human rights and avoid civilian casualties as a condition of continued aid. The government viewed these conditions as a hindrance to its ability to defeat the LTTE. The substitution of Western military aid with that from China enabled the government to disregard Western concerns about human rights and pursue its campaign of attrition unimpeded. China prevented introduction of resolutions at the United Nations critical of Sri Lanka’s renewed offensive, giving it a free hand in the conduct of its operations despite the protests of human rights groups and Western governments. 
Cornered in Vanni in early 2009, the LTTE used the over 200,000 civilian refugees on the peninsula as human shields, stationing cadres to shoot those who tried to escape and forcibly impressing children as young as 14 into the Tigers for use as front-line cannon fodder.
The last weeks were a nightmare as the Sri Lankan army advanced behind barrages of artillery fire that, among other locations, apparently targeted the makeshift hospitals that, at the beginning, may have had wards for Tiger fighters but at the end were scenes of total chaos and undifferentiated horror as doctors, without antibiotics, anesthetics, or transfusion supplies, and no other means to treat many wounds other than amputation, hacked off limbs of shrapnel victims with butcher knives and stacked the arms and legs in piles.
Rajapaksa made the ludicrous claim that the final battle against the Tiger stronghold was “the biggest hostage rescue operation in the world”.
The Red Cross, whose attempts to deliver aid were largely frustrated by the Sri Lankan government, described the final days at Vanni as “an unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe”. 
Post-war, the dominant picture has been of Sinhalese dominance and Tamil subjugation.
After the fall of Vanni, 250,000 traumatized Tamil internally displaced people (IDPs) were herded into a gigantic camp called Menik Farm under miserable conditions for detention, screening, and, for the particularly unlucky, designation by balaclava-clad Tamil turncoats for harsh interrogation.
The International Crisis Group recently described the situation in the defeated Tamil territories:
The slow but steady movement of Sinhala settlers along the southern edges of the province, often with military and central government support and sometimes onto land previously farmed or occupied by Tamils, is particularly worrying. These developments are consistent with a strategy – known to be supported by important officials and advisers to the president – to change “the facts on the ground”, as has already happened in the east, and make it impossible to claim the north as a Tamil-majority area deserving of self-governance.
Deepening militarization of the province presents a threat to long-term peace and stability. Far in
excess of any legitimate need to protect against an LTTE revival, the militarization of the north is generating widespread fear and anger among Tamils: indeed, the strategy being executed runs the risk of inadvertently resurrecting what it seeks to crush once and for all – the possibility of violent Tamil insurrection. The construction of large and permanent military cantonments, the growing involvement of the military in agricultural and commercial activities, the seizure of large amounts of private and state land, and the army’s role in determining reconstruction priorities are all serious concerns. 
Today, Rajapaksa presides over a triumphalist Sinhalese state that is largely defined by its near-total victory over the Tamil Tigers, a heavy handed occupation of Tamil regions in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, a reputation for dispatching unmarked white vans to disappear critics, and a commitment to manipulating and intimidating the press that places it in the unenviable position of 163rd on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index. 
Its primary public relations preoccupation is deflecting attention from the civilian victims at Vanni, since acknowledgment of their victimhood and the circumstances behind it would quite possibility implicate the Sri Lankan Army and its entire command structure up to the president in complicity in war crimes.
In March of 2011, the United Nations made a powerful effort to breach the political and legal defenses of the Rajapaksa government with its “Report of the Secretary General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka”.
In addition to persuasively documenting the suffering at Vanni, the report made the explosive assertion that, because of the inadequacies of the government’s quaintly named Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission in particular (deficient in “best practices of truth seeking”; “deeply flawed … does not meet international standards for an effective accountability mechanism” sniffed the report) and the Sri Lankan legal system in general in getting to the bottom of the war crimes issue:
The Secretary General should immediately proceed to establish an independent investigative mechanism … to monitor and access the extent to which the Government of Sri Lanka is carrying out an effective accountability process … conduct investigations independently into the alleged violations … collect and safeguard for appropriate future use provided to it that is relevant to accountability for the final stages of the war … 
In other words, the recommendation is that the UN conduct an independent investigation that undermines the claims of the Rajapaksa administration as the savior of Sri Lanka, openly discredits the military and threatens its personnel with prosecution … and preserves the dossier for “appropriate future use” ie criminal prosecution against Rajapaksa and his associates for war crimes if and when they leave office, no longer enjoy immunity, and are vulnerable to the judicial attentions of an unfriendly, opportunistic, or righteous successor government.
No wonder the Rajapaksa government fought the March 22 UN Human Rights Council resolution that uses the expert’s report as its foundation: if implemented, it is not only a gun to the head of Sri Lanka’s government and military elite; it is an attack on Sinhalese chauvinism that would provide desperately needed political oxygen to the Tamil opposition.
International pressure on the Sri Lankan government was intensified by the release and extensive international circulation of two documentaries in 2011 and 2012 by Britain’s Channel 4 on the theme of “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields.” Non-Governmental Organizations arranged screenings of the original program for US, British, and EU parliament politicians. 
The programs appeared to be the result of close synergy between Channel 4 and sources in the UN, with the documentaries replicating the narrative of the expert’s report and intensifying it through the presentation of horrific videos, including trophy footage of summary executions and the apparent aftermath of rape-murders taken by Sri Lankan army soldiers.
Chinese support in the Security Council should protect the Rajapaksa government from international war crimes prosecution. However, the main threat of the human rights campaign is political, not legal.
With the Tigers and the moral and political conundrum of their enthusiastic commitment to terrorism out of the way and the focus lasered on the brutality of the Sinhalese regime, Sri Lanka’s embattled Tamils – and the vociferous Tamil diaspora – are once again advancing their claims to improved treatment, greater political autonomy … and meaningful support from the international community.
It is a call that New Delhi, now that Sri Lanka’s Tamil community has shed the hateful incubus of the anti-India LTTE, is prepared, however cautiously, to heed.
It is a call that the United States, for its usual complicated reasons, appears ready to echo.
As the Sri Lankan situation evolved, the US State Department gently prodded the Sri Lankan government on the issue of reconciliation and kept a wary distance from Tamil politicians. As late as November 2011, the State Department snubbed a delegation from the Tamil National Alliance, which has disavowed Tamil independence and represents Tamil interests in the Sri Lankan parliament. UN chief Ban Ki-moon did not meet with the delegation, either.
This was apparently a demonstration, sincere or not, of US and UN willingness to let Sri Lanka put its own house in order before tabling the UNHRC resolution.
However, by late February 2012 the Obama administration’s key point man for Sri Lanka, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert Blake met with the “Tamils for Obama”, a rather marginal and misnamed political grouping whose primary enthusiasm is for Tamil independence rather than President Obama’s policies:
“We also handed him a copy of our Referendum in Sri Lanka to Gain Self-determination for Tamils,” said a press spokesman for Tamils for Obama, “It is modeled on the one that was recently voted on in southern Sudan, and which led to the creation of the new country of South Sudan. We hope for a similar referendum and result in northeastern Sri Lanka.
“We also gave him a second copy which we asked him to pass along to Secretary of State Clinton. He promised it would be done, and immediately passed the copy along to a subordinate official to take to Secretary Clinton.” 
As to where all this combination of domestic oppression and righteous international finger-wagging might lead, maybe it is “Springtime in Colombo”, as the Lanka Standard speculated on February 20:
There is also a growing apprehension within the government that they are at the receiving end of a possible strategy of “Regime Change” propelled by external intervention. Government members have been seeing a foreign hand not only in the issue of war crimes but also behind the economic unrest that is growing amongst the general population …
In his Independence Day speech, President Rajapaksa warned against those who aspired for an “Arab Spring” type of uprising… 
An Arab Spring-style eruption against Rajapaksa is unlikely in the short term. Despite his government’s excesses, he still basks in the aura of the victory over the Tigers and strong support from a Sinhalese majority that has limited sympathy for the Tamils. At the same time, he is headed into a political cul-de-sac.
His government lacks the credibility, will, and resources to achieve reconciliation with the Tamils. If the Sri Lankan government’s callous policy of oppression of the Tamils and military occupation and creeping Sinhalization of the Tamil homelands backfires and a new political crisis erupts, any attempt to repeat the military solution of 2009 will be met with a united chorus of international condemnation and Chinese arms and support will avail him little.
It will be India that possesses the ability to act as an honest broker and offer a measure of protection, support, and a future to the embattled Tamils of Sri Lanka.
This Indian role – and displacement, at least in part, of Chinese influence in Sri Lanka – is something the United States will be keen to promote, using its ability to orchestrate pressure on the Sri Lankan regime.
One gets a picture of the levers available to the United States when one considers that Sri Lanka purchases over 90% of its oil from Iran and currently relies on a waiver graciously granted by the United States in order to continue its imports without suffering sanctions to its banking system.
America’s benevolence has its limits, however.
Assuming that Rajapaksa continues with his current policies of Sinhalese chauvinism and political repression, whatever he tries to do in the area of reconciliation will probably be judged inadequate by the United States – until he is enticed into a process of reconciliation that place India’s good offices, and its ability to manage the Tamil brief more effectively than the Sri Lankan government itself – at the center of Sri Lanka’s ethnic politics.
Ironically, it may be China’s contribution to the destruction of the Tamil Tigers that opens the door to New Delhi’s return to a position of significant influence in Sri Lanka and a decline in Beijing’s clout.
1. ‘China’s support at UNHRC highly appreciated’, Daily News, Mar 29, 2012.
2. Karunanidhi’s ‘Eelam dream’ is a curse on Lanka Tamils, FirstPost, Mar 23, 2012.
3. Resolution ‘balanced’, Manmohan tells Rajapaksa, The Hindu, Mar 24, 2012.
4. Understanding Sri Lanka’s Defeat of the Tamil Tigers, NDU, 4th Quarter, 2010.
5. Report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka, UN, Mar 31 2011.
6. Sri Lanka’s North I: The Denial of Minority Rights, Crisis Group, Mar 16, 2012.
7. Sri Lanka’s sinister white van abductions, BBC, Mar 14, 2012.Sri Lanka drops in World Press Freedom Index, Colombo Page, Jan 26, 2012.
8. Report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka, UN, Mar 31 2011, Page 120.
9. Sri Lanka’s killing fields, Channel4, mar 14, 2012.
10. Tamils For Obama Meets With Blake On 29th Feb, Colombo Telegraph, March 27, 2012.
11. Sri Lanka: Government fears strategy of “Regime Change” through external intervention, Lanka Standard, Feb 20, 2012.
Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy.