Monday, June 21, 2010

The new battle for Sri Lanka

By Harsh V Pant - On the face of it, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s visit to New Delhi last week was rather successful. India and Sri Lanka signed a range of agreements including loans for major infrastructure projects, sharing of electricity and boosting of cultural exchanges.

India has extended a line of credit of $200 million to assist in the setting up of the NTPC-CEB Joint Venture of a 500MW thermal power plant at Trincolamalee. The two nations also decided to set up an annual defense dialogue and increase high-level military exchanges. A treaty on mutual legal assistance in criminal matters and an MoU on sentenced prisoners was also agreed upon by the two sides. India has agreed to construct a rail link between Talaimannar and Madhu in the Northern Province in Sri Lanka.

However, in the southern Indian states and especially in Tamil Nadu, anger at the Rajapaksa government’s conduct during the war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) still remains high.

Just recently, pro-LTTE activists blasted a railway track in Tamil Nadu and pamphlets condemning Rajapaksa’s visit to India were found at the site. A delegation of Indian lawmakers from Tamil Nadu met Rajapaksa regarding the delays in rehabilitating Lankan Tamils displaced by the civil war. The president acknowledged the delay and suggested that those staying in relief camps would be resettled within three months.

The political parties in Tamil Nadu might be tempted to play the Lankan Tamil card with an eye on state elections in a year’s time even though the issue had little resonance in the Lok Sabha elections last year.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also emphasized the need for urgent steps to resettle the internally displaced persons and urged the government to undertake speedy rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. Singh underlined the need for a meaningful devolution package, building on the 13th amendment that would create the necessary conditions for lasting political settlement. Rajapaksa, however, was largely non-committal on this.

The Sri Lankan president is at the height of his power after having defeated the LTTE and winning an overwhelming mandate for himself and his party. Yet his government’s human rights record is under critical scrutiny in the West and clearly a visit to India would have helped him in underlining New Delhi’s backing for his government to the world.

But beyond that symbolic value, Sri Lanka is rapidly slipping out of India’s orbit. India failed to exert its leverage over the humanitarian troubles facing the Tamils trapped in the fighting. New Delhi’s attempts to end the war and avert humanitarian tragedy in north-east Sri Lanka proved utterly futile.

Colombo’s centrality between Aden and Singapore makes it extremely significant strategically for Indian power projection possibilities. After initially following India’s lead in international affairs, even demanding that the British evacuate their naval and air bases at Trincomalee and Katunayake in 1957, Colombo gradually gravitated towards a more independent foreign policy posture. And it was India’s enthusiasm for China that made Sri Lanka take China seriously; however, after the Chinese victory in its 1962 war with India, Colombo started courting Beijing much more seriously.

And today China has displaced Japan as Sri Lanka’s major aid donor with an annual aid package of $1 billion. Bilateral trade between China and Sri Lanka has doubled over the last five years, with China emerging as Sri Lanka’s largest trading partner. China is now supplying more than half of all the construction and development loans Sri Lanka is receiving.

Chinese investment in the development of infrastructure and oil exploration projects in Sri Lanka has also gathered momentum. China is providing interest-free loans and preferential loans at subsidized rates to Sri Lanka for the development of infrastructure.

China is the first foreign country to have an exclusive economic zone in Sri Lanka and is involved in a range of infrastructure development projects there– constructing power plants, modernizing railways, providing financial and technical assistance in launching of communication satellites.

China is financing more than 85 percent of the Hambantota Development Zone to be completed over the next decade. This will include an international container port, a bunkering system, an oil refinery and international airport, and other facilities. The port in Hambantota, deeper than the one at Colombo, is to be used as a refueling and docking station for its navy.

Though the two sides claim that this merely a commercial venture, its future utility as a strategic asset by China remains a real possibility to India’s consternation. For China, Hambantota will not only be an important transit for general cargo and oil but a presence in Hambantota also enhances China’s monitoring and intelligence gathering capabilities vis-√†-vis India.

Indian has expressed its displeasure about growing Chinese involvement in Sri Lanka on a number of occasions. In 2007, India’s then-national security advisor had openly criticized Sri Lanka for attempting to purchase a Chinese-built radar system on the grounds that it would “overreach” into the Indian air space.

Yet Sri Lanka has emerged stronger and more stable after the military success in the Eelam war and two national elections. To counter Chinese influence, India has been forced to step up its diplomatic offensive and offer Colombo reconstruction aid.

With the LTTE now out of the picture, New Delhi is hoping that it will have greater strategic space to manage bilateral ties. However, where New Delhi will have to continue to balance its domestic sensitivities and strategic interests, Beijing faces no such constraint in developing even stronger ties with Colombo. As a consequence, India is struggling to make itself more relevant to Sri Lanka than China.

Colombo matters because the Indian Ocean matters. The ‘great game’ of this century will be played on the waters of the Indian Ocean. Though India’s location gives it great operational advantages in the Indian Ocean, it is by no means certain that New Delhi is in a position to hold on to its geographic advantages. China is rapidly catching up and its ties with Sri Lanka are aimed at expanding its profile in this crucial part of the world. Indian policymakers realize that unless they are more proactive they might end up losing this ‘game’ for good.

Harsh Pant is a lecturer at King's College London. His research interests include WMD proliferation, US foreign policy and Asia-Pacific security issues. He is also presently a Visiting Fellow at CASI, University of Pennsylvania.

© International Relations and Security Network

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Monday, June 21, 2010

Japan says UN panel should 'not interfere' with Sri Lanka's probe into alleged rights abuses

A planned U.N.'s panel look into alleged rights abuses committed during Sri Lanka's quarter-century civil war should not interfere with the government's internal investigation, a Japanese envoy said Sunday.

A U.N. panel to be announced next week will advise Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon "on the way forward on accountability issues" related to Sri Lanka's conflict that killed more than 80,000 people.

Both government forces and the Tiger Tamil rebels have been accused of committing human rights abuses.

The civil war ended in May 2009 when government forces crushed the rebels who had fought for a separate state in the north for ethnic minority Tamils, claiming decades of discrimination by the Sinhalese majority.

Sri Lanka strongly opposes the U.N. panel's formation, with President Mahinda Rajapaksa in March calling it "totally uncalled for and unwarranted."

Rajapaksa last month appointed the "Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission" to investigate alleged human rights abuses during the war, but officials have refused calls to establish an international tribunal.

Japanese envoy Yasushi Akashi, who concluded a six-day visit to the island Sunday, said the U.N. panel would be useful as it could provide "insights" into the conflict. However, he said it "should not interfere with Sri Lanka's commission, but offer ideas and suggestions, if needed."

Sri Lanka has faced growing international criticism for not examining abuses allegedly committed during the last phase of the war. According to U.N. documents, more than 7,000 civilians died in the last five months of the conflict. Rights groups say they have photographic and video evidence and have called for war crime investigations.

Government troops were accused of shelling a small strip of land where hundreds of thousands of people were boxed-in during the war's final stages. The rebels were accused of killing noncombatants trying to leave the area they controlled and firing artillery from civilian-populated regions that led to retaliatory military fire.

Rajapaksa denied Friday that civilians were targeted during military operations.

© The Canadian Press

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Monday, June 21, 2010

Sri Lanka in the Dock

Mark Seddon - Two days ago the streets of the capital of Sri Lanka, Colombo, played host to a thundering parade of military hardware, as the Government of President Mahindra Rajapaksa celebrated the first anniversary of the defeat of Tamil Tiger rebels. The conflict, which has estimated to have killed more than 80,000 people ended last year, when Government forces finally crushed the rebels who had fought for a separate state for ethnic minority Tamils after decades of discrimination by the majority Sinhalese.

With thousands of troops, helicopters and navy gunship patrolling the harbour, the President dismissed claims of war crimes by his Government. “Not a single bullet was fired at civilians from your weapons” he told cheering crowds. Yet the United Nations appears not to agree with Mr President. It says 7,000 civilians died in the last five months of the conflict, with Government troops accused of shelling a small strip of lands where thousands of people were faced by the rebels on one side and the army on the other.

One man who might have expected to have been at the parade was the General who led his forces to victory over the Tamil Tigers, General Sarath Fonseka. But unfortunately for him he is being held in custody facing court martial for allegedly planning to run for the Presidency himself, while still in uniform. For good measure Fonseka also appears to concur with some of the UN’s findings – having infuriated the President whom he seeks to topple by agreeing that the army did indeed shell civilians in those final days.

And now the United Nations is proposing to set up its own independent Commission of Investigation, which will infuriate the Sri Lanka Government further. Not surprisingly perhaps the UN is not exactly convinced that the President’s own internal inquiry into what went on will be quite as unbiased and truthful as the Government claims.

While there is a huge degree of international relief that the vicious civil war is over – for now at least, there does appear to be an international consensus that the deeds of the Sri Lanka Government cannot be over looked. There is a feeling abroad that if the Sri Lankans do not face up to what was done in the name of the State, and if it does not seek to redress the very real grievances of the Tamil minority, the while spiral of conflict will begin all over again.

Which all goes to make the position being taken by the European Union, the biggest donor and assister of Sri Lanka all the more bizarre. A decision whether or not to withdraw special trade dispensations for Sri Lanka was expected to take place in August, with a good deal of pressure from human rights groups, trades unionists and NGOs for the European Union to suspend what is known as GSP+ special status for Sri Lanka. But suddenly the European Union Commission seems to have gone all cold, and the timetable is slipping. In truth key EU Commission officials don’t seem to want to rock the boat, and seem content to accept that limited reforms offered by the Sri Lanka Government are the harbinger for something much bigger.

Judging by President Mahindra Rajapaska’s speech to his troops, there is not only an unwillingness to confront the real truth, but anyone who dares try and speak it potentially faces a term of imprisonment.

Those who might accuse the United Nations of being toothless and frequently failing to act in other parts of the World might like to look at the Sri Lanka experience, and ask themselves whether this time it is Europe that is planning to turn a blind eye to humanitarian abuses on the island whose name is a literal translation of ‘Island of Splendour’.

© Big Think

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Monday, June 21, 2010

EU to grant 60 million Euros to Sri Lanka

The European Union has allocated an indicative budget of 60 million euros in grants, as the second part of the EU country strategy for Sri Lanka.

The EU delegation states that through this program it is focusing on the needs of vulnerable communities in particular those affected by the conflict which was brought to an end last year, while it supports positive developments towards peace, consolidation and reconciliation.

The program will mainly focus on medium term assistance in the North and the East of the country.

During the period 2007-2010, the EU's project work included socio-economic measures to support conflict-affected returnees and host communities in Sri Lanka.

Ongoing or foreseen activities aim mainly at improving livelihood opportunities and rehabilitation.

Together with complementary EU funds for housing and food security, the overall portfolio of projects decided in 2008 and designated as the "EU-Assistance to Conflict Affected People" (EU-ACAP) amounts to 53.2 million Euros.

© Asian Tribune

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