Sri Lanka’s elusive peace

In Asia’s longest civil war, peace more elusive than ever

With the world engrossed by pressing challenges and India marginalized, Colombo has displaced large numbers of Tamils with a brutal military campaign aided by Chinese and Pakistani arms supplies and media curbs

Brahma Chellaney

Asian Age, February 25, 2009

Sri Lanka, the once self-trumpeted “island of paradise,” turned into the island of bloodshed more than a quarter century ago. But even by its long, gory record, the bloodletting since last year is unprecedented, with the United Nations estimating that about 40 non-combatants are now getting killed each day, or 1,200 every month. Such is the humanitarian crisis that hundreds of thousands of civilians have fled their homes or remain trapped behind the front line.

Yet, with the world preoccupied by pressing challenges and India more marginalized than ever, President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother, Defence Minister Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, a naturalized U.S. citizen, press on with a brutal military campaign with impunity. There is no real international pressure on Colombo over an offensive that bears a distinct family imprint, with another brother the president’s top adviser.

Indeed, Chinese military and financial support — as in Sudan, Zimbabwe, Zambia, North Korea, Burma and elsewhere — has directly aided government excesses and human-rights abuses in Sri Lanka. The more Beijing insists that it doesn’t mix business with politics in its foreign relations, the more evidence it provides of cynically contributing to violence and repression in internally torn states. Sri Lanka is just the latest case demonstrating China’s blindness to the consequences of its aggressive pursuit of strategic interests.

No sooner had the U.S. ended direct military aid to Sri Lanka last year over its deteriorating human-rights record than China blithely stepped in to fill the breach. It began selling larger quantities of arms, and dramatically boosted its aid fivefold in the past year to almost $1 billion to emerge as Colombo’s largest donor. Its Jian-7 fighters, anti-aircraft guns, JY-11 3D air surveillance radars and other supplied weapons have played a central role in the Sri Lankan military successes against the Tamil Tigers.

The manner India has ceded strategic space in its backyard is evident from its declining role in states that traditionally have been in its sphere of influence. Bhutan now remains its only pocket of influence. In Sri Lanka, India has allowed itself to become a marginal player despite its geostrategic advantage and trade and investment clout over a cash-strapped economy that today is in search of an international bailout, with the war costing some $2 billion annually.


More than two decades after it militarily intervened in Sri Lanka at Colombo’s request to disarm the Tamil Tigers, only to make an ignominious exit after losing nearly three times the number of troops it did in the subsequent Kargil war, India today has to jostle for influence in that island-nation with other players, including archrivals China and Pakistan. Hambantota — the billion-dollar port Chinese engineers are building on Sri Lanka’s southeast — is China’s latest “pearl” in its strategy to control vital sea-lanes of communication between the Indian and Pacific Oceans by assembling a “string of pearls.”


Pakistan, too, has become actively involved in Sri Lanka, supplying multi-barrel rocket launchers and varied small arms and training Sri Lankan air force personnel in precision guided attacks. Such attacks have been critical to the recent battlefield triumphs. Pakistan’s sharply rising annual military assistance loans to Sri Lanka now total nearly $100 million.


In hindsight, the 1987-1990 peacekeeping operation in Sri Lanka cost India dearly, alienating Sinhalese and Tamils alike and undermining Indian interests. The disastrous foray into the civil war of another country also instilled a hands-off approach in Indian policy toward Sri Lanka. While other powers seek to advance commercial or strategic objectives in the country they intervene in, such as to gain access to oil and mineral resources or to effect regime change or to set up a strategic base, the Rajiv Gandhi government ingenuously intervened in Sri Lanka and the Maldives for altruistic reasons — and to earn goodwill.

Today, New Delhi itself advertises its waning influence in Sri Lanka through its unwillingness to exert leverage over a looming humanitarian catastrophe and its muted voice over the plight of Tamils trapped in the fighting or held incommunicado in evacuee camps — camps the New York-based Human Rights Watch calls “internment centres masquerading as ‘welfare villages’ … where entire families detained in these military-controlled, barbed-wire camps are denied their liberty and freedom of movement.”

Spurred on by the DMK threat to withdraw support to the UPA government, Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee did visit Colombo late last month. But other than a 48-hour civilian safe-passage ploy, his discussions with President Rajapaksa yielded little to arrest a worsening situation. A barren outcome also greeted National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan when he went to Colombo last year to voice concern that growing Chinese and Pakistani arms sales and strategic involvement could make Sri Lanka a springboard for anti-India manoeuvres.


Narayanan’s plea that Colombo rely on the main regional power, India, for its legitimate defence requirements was laughed off. After all, it is by turning to India’s enemies for weapons and training that Colombo unravelled the de facto state run by a group originally armed by the Indira Gandhi government.

Strangely, the more Colombo plays hardball, the more New Delhi seems willing to pander to it. Echoing the Rajapaksa brothers’ line, Mukherjee told the Lok Sabha last week that after “years of conflict, there is today a political opportunity to restore life to normalcy in the Northern Province and throughout Sri Lanka.” Actually, normalcy and peace are more elusive than ever, as Colombo wages a dual struggle to wipe out the Tamil Tigers and stay solvent in the face of a sinking economy.

With foreign-currency reserves that are, according to the last official disclosure, sufficient to fund just over seven weeks of imports, Colombo has no resources to take on the onerous task of post-conflict reconstruction. In development, the minority regions of the north and east lag the Sinhalese areas by several decades. There can be no enduring peace without addressing this gap and the Tamils’ genuine grievances.

But even amid military triumphs, Colombo is unable to define peace. Indeed, it is not even making an attempt to outline a political solution to the Tamils’ long-standing cultural and political grievances.

That is why Asia’s longest civil war is unlikely to end anytime soon. The Tigers’ retransformation from a conventional force to a guerrilla force seems inevitable, even if their chief gets killed.

The Rajapaksas’ military campaign is set to produce more than a new phase of protracted guerrilla warfare. A severely weakened and scarred civil society already is emerging. While abandoning the ceasefire in 2006 and the Norwegian-brokered peace process in early 2008, the brothers set in motion the militarization of society and control of information, best illustrated by the muzzling of the media and government-orchestrated murders of several independent-minded journalists.

While the Tigers have forced every Tamil family to send at least one member into battle, the government busily has been setting up village-level militias, especially in conflict-hit areas. Besides already training and arming 45,000 mostly Sinhalese villagers, the government is frenetically swelling the ranks of the military by one-fifth a year. With some 1,630 recruits now being added every week, the rate of army “surge” will further accelerate this year.

The Rajapaksas have shown the will to wage war but not to make peace. Through their hubris and an ever-larger war machine, they actually are girding Sri Lanka to be at war indefinitely.

(c) Asian Age, 2009.

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