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Story of Waning Western Influence in Sri Lanka Should Not Be Over Blown

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Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Basil Rajapaksa

by Alan Keenan

We need to be careful here. While there is some truth to some of the arguments in this piece and in the Washington Post article that inspired it, it misses some crucial points. To wit:

1. The trope of “Sri Lanka doesn’t need the West anymore, its support from China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, etc is enough” is now an old and tired one – first trotted out by the Sri Lankan government officials in 2007 when the brutality of their counterinsurgency strategy (e.g., hundreds of forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings of Tamil suspected of involvement with the LTTE and murders of journalists and dissenters) was first being challenged internationally.

Unfortunately, too many western diplomats and lazy journalists believed it, thus making it to some extent a self-fulfilling prophecy. So, first, the Washington Post story is an old one, well-worn by now.

2. The story is also not entirely true: it’s not true that “As Colombo readied itself for the final military solution to its problem with LTTE, it did not seek Western approval or assistance” or that “the West was not needed nor was its approval sought”.

In fact, the Sri Lankan government’s military strategy, with its scorched-earth counter-insurgency policy and flagrant disregard for international humanitarian law, had significant support from those countries now supposedly worried by growing Chinese support to and involvement in Sri Lanka.

US intelligence and naval support was crucial to the destruction of LTTE ships bringing in arms supplies and ammunition; India’s effective naval blockade of the northern coasts was also crucial to trapping the LTTE; western military equipment was sold to Sri Lanka throughout the war; the global crackdown on LTTE fundraising and other activities, a crackdown led by the US and implemented by a host of other western governments, was also a necessary part of the equation that ultimately destroyed the Tigers.

And finally, the slowness of western governments, and of the UN Secretary-General and UN bodies, to react to the slaughter of thousands of civilians (ultimately likely to be on the order of 30-40,000 in a span of four months!) was in large part due to the desire they all shared to see the destruction of the LTTE and its leadership.

As even former Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes admitted after the fact, the “international community”, including western governments, gave the green light to the Sri Lankan government’s brutal defeat-0f-the-LTTE at all costs, even if some among them weren’t very happy with just how bloody the process ended up being. Collectively they looked the other way and knew they were doing so at the time.

3. It is also simply not true that the Sri Lankan government, and in particular its ruling family, the Rajapaksas, doesn’t care what the West thinks now – or don’t desire that the west remains willing to prop up its flagging economy and fund its counter-productive and highly militarised “development” of the Tamil-majority northern province. This is true in numerous respects:

a) The Sri Lankan has survived the past three years only because of $2.6 billion in IMF funding (much of it from western taxpayers) that has prevented it from running out of foreign currency needed to purchase the imported goods the country, and especially its elite, survives on (both imported oil, needed by all, and expensive consumer goods for the urban middles-classes and elite).

b) The World Bank and Asian Development Bank are loaning the Sri Lankan government on the order of half a billion dollars each year – and constitute, together with the Indian government – as big a donor/lender as the Chinese.

c) two of the President’s brothers are US citizens: Basil Rajapaksa, minister for economic development and defacto prime minister, and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, secretary to the ministry of defence and chief architect and implementer of the military defeat of the LTTE and the tens of thousands of civilian deaths believed by many, and with good reason, to have been part and parcel of the LTTE’s destruction.

Both Basil and Gotabaya are liable under US law for a range of possible violations of US and international law. Both continue to return regularly to the US and own properties in California.

Both has a vested and very personal interest in maintaining decent relations with the US government. So, too, there are other high-ranking Sri Lankan officials with deep ties to western governments – e..g., the Australian citizen and Sri Lanka’s permanent representative to the UN in New York, Palitha Kohona.

What does all this add up to? The story of Sri Lanka as an example of the waning influence of the west has some truth. And to the extent that it is true, western government’s flagrant violation of basic international law in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Guantanamo have contributed much to undermining its ability to restrain the Sri Lankan military in 2008-9 or to hold it account after the fact.

But the story mustn’t be overblown. Should the west, and important international organisations, like the IMF, World Bank and various UN bodies that depend to a great degree on western money, decide to use their influence in a thoughtful, tough, and coordinated way in Sri Lanka, they could have some impact. They just have to decide to try.

To be most effective, western governments and international bodies would have to work closely with the Indian government (and ideally also the Japanese, who are traditionally one of Sri Lanka’s biggest lenders). Tough, but not impossible.

Indeed, the March 2012 passage by the UN Human Rights Council of a resolution critical of the continuing post-war human rights problems and lack of investigation into alleged war crimes was possible only because of a united western front supported by a number of African and Latin countries, and crucially, by India.

The success of the resolution, signals that patience with the Sri Lankan government has begun to wear thin in Washington, Brussels, London and Delhi and that there are tools this set of governments can still use to pressure Colombo.

A small step – but a step nonetheless, and a step that the Washington Post article and your treatment of it should have recognised and tried to make sense of.

(Alan Keenan who is with the International Crisis Group has long experience in, with and about Sri Lanka. This piece is his response to recent articles about Sri Lanka in “The Washington Post” newspaper and “kings of war” weblog)

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