Friday, August 19, 2011

India leery of neighbor's new squeeze

By Sudha Ramachandran | Asia Times

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa would have returned from China a relieved man. The Chinese promised Sri Lanka more investment in infrastructure projects and to enhance two-way trade and strengthen cultural and personnel exchanges.

More important for Rajapaksa was Beijing's assurance of "fullest support in all necessary situations to Sri Lanka in international forums".

It means that the Sri Lankan president can count on the Chinese to come to his rescue should allegations of war crimes against his regime come up for consideration in international bodies like the United Nations Security Council and the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). He can expect Beijing to use its clout to dilute resolutions unfavorable to Colombo or veto any possible UN security council resolution referring Sri Lanka to the International Criminal Court.

The Sri Lankan civil war came to an end in May 2009, when the Sri Lankan armed forces inflicted a comprehensive defeat on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Although both sides committed atrocities throughout the 25-year-long war, the period from January 2009 till the war's culmination was particularly brutal.
While allegations of war crimes by the Rajapaksa regime were leveled by the Tamil Diaspora and international human rights groups within weeks of the war's end, it was the findings of a report by a panel appointed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that has provided renewed momentum to the international campaign for trial of key persons in Sri Lanka's political and defense decision-making structures on war crimes charges.

The UN panel said it found "credible allegations, which if proven indicate that a wide range of serious violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law was committed both by the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE, some of which would amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity".

Since the publication of the UN panel report, several other reports and documentaries, such as "Sri Lanka's Killing Fields" by Channel Four of the UK, have revealed in graphic detail the execution of LTTE's political leaders and their families when they surrendered to the Sri Lankan armed forces and the horrific rape, torture and killing of Tamil civilians. These have evoked widespread outrage and clamor for a credible international probe into the final stages of the war, for a trial of the Rajapaksa regime over war crimes and for the imposition of economic sanctions on Sri Lanka.

Responding to calls for an inquiry into allegations of war crimes, the Sri Lankan government set up a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in May 2010. The UN panel rejected its credibility saying it "fails to satisfy key international standards of independence and impartiality."

The United States has stepped up pressure on Sri Lanka in recent months. If Colombo failed to put in place a credible internal inquiry into allegations of war crimes expeditiously, "Then we reserve the right to discuss international mechanisms," US State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland warned last week.

It does seem that Sri Lanka will figure on the agenda of the upcoming session of the UNHRC.

Washington is reported to have issued Colombo a demarche to place the findings of the LLRC before the UNHRC. Sri Lankan newspaper the Sunday Times, reported concern in the Sri Lankan government that such a step would open the door to discussions on the UN panel report's allegation of war crimes, the Channel Four documentary and so on.

However, Sri Lankan diplomats are said to have warned their Ministry of External Affairs that there is the possibility of "a more damaging" resolution being tabled by a US ally if Colombo fails to place the LLRC findings before the UNHRC. According to the Sunday Times, "There are fears there could be calls for an ‘international investigation', sanctions and travel bans on those identified in the UN Panel report."

It is in the context of these developments that Rajapaksa's recent visit to China, his second in a year, should be seen.

In May 2009, deft Sri Lankan diplomacy resulted in the UNHRC dropping a Swiss-EU draft resolution calling for an investigation into possible war crimes and adopting instead another resolution that praised Sri Lanka for its victory over the LTTE. China, Russia, India and Pakistan were among the countries that supported Colombo then.

It is not clear this time around just how much support Sri Lanka will be able to rally as evidence of war crimes has mounted since the 2009 vote and is far too damning.

It is uncertain what position India will take. Delhi has run out of patience trying to get the Sri Lankan President to implement the 13th amendment to the Constitution in the North and East. Besides, horrific details laid bare in the Channel Four documentary of the violence perpetrated in the final stages of the war has stirred unrest in the southern state of Tamil Nadu and calls for a tough Indian response, including economic sanctions on Sri Lanka.

That India's stance could be hardening vis-a-vis Colombo was evident early this month when its External Affairs Minister S M Krishna told parliament that he had stressed to his Sri Lankan counterpart the need for "investigations into allegations of human rights violations".

Yet there is concern in India over how a tough new approach will play out in terms of regional strategic equations.

Sri Lanka's rapidly expanding cooperation with China is of mounting concern to India. Beijing is Sri Lanka's largest aid donor and investor. It is involved in infrastructure building on the island in a big way. Among the projects it is executing in Sri Lanka is a giant port project in Hambantota. It is also constructing an airport in Hambantota, a coal-fired power plant at Norochcholai, an oil bunkering facility and a performing arts center in Colombo.

There are parallels between India's troubles in Myanmar today and those that are emerging in Sri Lanka.

It was China's generous extension of military and economic assistance and the protection it gave Myanmar's junta as a veto-wielding member of the UN security council that drew Myanmar firmly into Beijing's orbit. That evoked acute anxiety in India as China's heightened influence and presence in neighboring Myanmar made India's eastern flank vulnerable.

Some Indian analysts have warned that Myanmar's dependence on China could result in it conceding to Chinese demand for naval bases in Myanmar, providing Beijing with presence in the Indian Ocean.

With its location on India's doorstep, Sri Lanka holds similar attractions for India as Myanmar does for China.

Should Sri Lanka's international isolation increase, its dependence on China will grow especially since Beijing, unlike Delhi, holds a security council veto. Will the Chinese demand a naval presence in Hambantota as quid pro quo for bailing out Rajapaksa in international forums?

Much of the international community turned a blind eye when Sri Lanka brazenly violated its obligations under the Geneva conventions and other international laws post-2006. Some countries like India issued statements calling for restraint but did not do enough to stop Colombo's aerial bombing of Tamil civilians. Many, including the US and the European Union, had banned the LTTE and quietly watched its elimination.

India is in a dilemma over an international probe of allegations of Sri Lanka's war crimes. Like China, it is opposed to international interference in domestic issues and sees this as a violation of sovereignty. It is deeply aware of the West's selective use of the war crimes weapon.

This is a weapon that the West uses only against unfriendly regimes. India is conscious too that it is because Sri Lanka's growing proximity to China is problematic for the West that it is now expressing anguish over war crimes.

If Delhi joins the West in putting pressure on Rajapaksa in order to rein him in from his excessive pro-Chinese tilt, it could just end up pushing a defiant and isolated Colombo into a closer embrace of China.

Between 1988 and 1993, India joined the West in its vociferous criticism of the Myanmar junta. In December 1992, it even sponsored a UN resolution calling on the military to respect the will of the people expressed in the 1990 election and to take all necessary steps towards the restoration of democracy. Two decades on, Delhi is still unable to break China's stranglehold over its neighbor.

Indian policymakers see that as a mistake and will be keen to avoid repeating it in Sri Lanka. They would not want another neighbor to slip into the Chinese sphere of influence.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.

© Asia Times

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