How China and India displaced the West in Sri Lanka

Sunday, 10 October 2010 21:54 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Amantha Perera

TIME: As a Sri Lankan military offensive destroyed the last remnants of the Tamil Tiger separatist insurgency in May last year to end a quarter century of bloody civil war, the country faced a problem at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva:

The European Union (EU) was trying to move a resolution critical of Sri Lanka, and calling for an investigation into rights violations during the offensive. Sri Lanka’s representative at the Council, Dayan Jayatilleka reached out for support from two friendly nations, India and China.

The result was that instead of a resolution censuring Sri Lanka, 29 members in the 47 member Council adopted a resolution commending the Government. Only 12 voted against it, and six abstained.

“We did not totally rely on the support of India and China, but their support did have a ripple effect” that neutralised the EU resolution, Jayatilleka who is currently a visiting lecturer at the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore told TIME.

Support from China and India was critical during the bloody final three years of the conflict, as the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa faced increasing criticism from Western nations on the conduct of a military campaign that was gaining the upper hand over the Tigers. China was also one of Sri Lanka’s main arms suppliers.

“Without their help, I don’t think we could have ended the conflict,” Jayatilleka said. China, together with Russia, ran interference for Sri Lanka at the UN Security Council, and according to another Sri Lankan diplomat, former Additional Foreign Secretary Nanda Godage, they also warned Western powers against any unilateral action in Sri Lanka.

More than a year after the conclusion of the war, the support of the two Asian powerhouses has not waned, with India and China having become two of Sri Lanka’s major donors. India has committed $ 800 million in low-interest loans to assist the redevelopment of the war-ravaged north and east, and has undertaken to fund the construction of 50,000 new houses in the former conflict-zone — almost a third of the 160,000 new houses the UN estimates are needed.

Indian companies have been among the first to line up to take advantage of Sri Lanka’s expected post-war economic boom.

“The situation between 2006 and 2009 held us back, we need get back on the horse here,” Raymond Bickson, CEO of Taj Hotels, India told TIME. The Taj group is exploring the possibilities of acquiring a hotel property just outside Colombo’s international airport and undertaking a 100 room redevelopment project.  The Chinese have not been far behind with at least $500 million in assistance to develop infrastructure, ports, the power grid in the south and the construction of highways in the east. The assistance has come during a time when Western powers continue to call for international investigations into the final phase of the war.

On 15 August, the EU suspended a concessionary tariff applied to Sri Lanka, which had made Europe the single largest market for the country’s exports, on the grounds Sri Lanka was allegedly contravening human rights conventions. But on the same day that the EU suspension came into effect, President Rajapaksa was opening the $ 350 million port at Hambantota, which was mostly financed by China.

India has long been the pre-eminent player in Sri Lankan affairs, having had thousands of its own troops deployed there to help fight the Tigers between 1987 and 1990. India lost 1,200 personnel in that counterinsurgency effort, and a Tamil Tigers suicide bomber assassinated then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in May of 1991. China’s growing role is a relatively new development.

Both Jayatilleka and Godage feel that when pressure by the Western block mounted, Sri Lanka simply revitalised strong ties with the two giants dating back to the 1950s. Jayatilleka told TIME that Sri Lanka acknowledged the growing global importance of the two but never forgot that they were Asian powers.

“In Asia there is an understanding that the state should be powerful enough to withstand (internal threats),” he said.

Godage told TIME that Sri Lanka has so far adroitly juggled the two regional powers, whose relationship is often tenuous. “We continue to cultivate the closest relationship with China while keeping India happy.”

The diplomatic juggling act could also potentially lure critical Western powers into once again backing the Rajapaksa Government. “The Americans would want to counter Chinese influence,” Godage told TIME.

A recent meeting between Rajapaksa and Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg on the sidelines of last month’s UN General Assembly sessions could be the first signs the icy relations are thawing. Norway’s previous role in Sri Lanka was as the facilitator of the disastrous 2002 peace accord between the Tigers and then Sri Lankan Government.

Rajapaksa scrapped the accord in 2008 before the Army launched into the final strongholds of the Tigers. “Having them (Norway) in our corner will to an extent neutralise Western hostility,” the former diplomat said.