The defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in May brought an end to Sri Lanka's civil war. But the conflict also shed light on a bitter geopolitical struggle taking place against the backdrop of the declining influence of the West and the emerging influence of India and China. Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe explores the implications of Sri Lanka's evolving foreign policy.
Sri Lanka’s foreign policy tilt away from the West has taken on a new dimension in recent years, especially since President Mahinda Rajapakse’s coalition government was elected to office in November 2005.
When full-scale hostilities with the LTTE commenced in July 2006, Western pressure on Sri Lanka — specifically from the European Union and the United States — increased markedly, with substantial reductions in aid coming amidst demands for a ceasefire and resumption of peace talks.
Yet there was more to Western demands than just a push for peace — the measures also reflected implicit Western disapproval of Sri Lanka’s growing ties with China and Iran, which had been fostered not only as a means of enhancing economic growth, but also to provide a counter-weight to such pressure that ultimately gave Sri Lanka the strategic autonomy to defeat the LTTE.
‘Sri Lanka, confronted with the choice of economic blackmail or finding an accommodation with terrorism, had to strengthen its ties with alternative partners,’ Dr. Palitha Kohona, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Secretary, told BBC News. Consequently, while China’s importance grew, so did that of Iran, which provided soft loans and investment in major infrastructure projects such as the US$450 million Uma Oya hydroelectric project and the US$750 million upgrade of Sri Lanka’s only oil refinery at Sapugaskande.
In its efforts to defeat the LTTE, Sri Lanka moved to strengthen bilateral relationships with countries outside the Western axis to reduce Western political and economic pressure (which was seen as supporting the bifurcation of Sri Lanka and as largely sympathetic to the Tamil diaspora and the LTTE) while also containing India — including pressure from Tamil Nadu — to avoid a scenario like Operation Liberation in 1987, when India extended a lifeline and prevented the defeat of the LTTE.
As the conflict drew to a close in the first half of 2009, there were a spate of diplomatic incidents that reflected growing tensions between Sri Lanka and the West. Sri Lanka rejected Britain’s appointment of Des Browne as Special Envoy to Sri Lanka and declined entry to Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt. In addition, a joint visit in April 2009 by British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner to secure a ceasefire led to a further souring of relations. Meanwhile, in April 2009, Sri Lanka’s application for a US$1.9 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund met with US resistance. ‘We have raised questions about the IMF loan at this time. We think it is not an appropriate time to consider that until there is a resolution of the conflict,’ said US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the time.
Sri Lanka, for its part, felt that after nearly three decades of conflict, and the deaths of 100,000 people, that it had good reason to reject any developments that could have prevented the total defeat of the LTTE, something that could have occurred with Western support for a ceasefire or evacuation of the LTTE leadership.
In addition, with the LTTE on the verge of defeat, there were determined attempts by the West, led by the EU, to table a resolution against Sri Lanka at the UN Security Council, a move that China and Russia vetoed on all five occasions.
Following the LTTE defeat in May, the EU sought to pursue a motion against Sri Lanka for war crimes investigations at the UN Human Rights Council, which collapsed when 29 countries of the 47 member council voted in solidarity with Sri Lanka. India itself came out strongly in support of Sri Lanka at the Council and later even criticised the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.