EU Pushing Sri Lanka Toward China

Recent Features

Features | Security | South Asia

EU Pushing Sri Lanka Toward China

Western pressure on Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa over the defeat of the Tamil Tigers risks creating another Burma.

That old habits die hard is clear from the way in which the European Union has been seeking to corner Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa for daring to defeat the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, rather than heeding their advice to call a ceasefire when the army had overrun the last sliver of territory controlled by the LTTE.

With each advance the army made in early 2009, the demands for a ceasefire grew more strident. Once it became clear that Rajapaksa wouldn’t bow to Washington and Brussels, punitive measures were imposed on Colombo that continue today, the most recent being the US-EU withdrawal of the Generalised Scheme of Preferences for Sri Lankan textiles in August.

It’s clear Sri Lanka is becoming another Burma—to be subjected to isolation and sanctions—all in the name of human rights and democracy. And, as in the case of Burma, the major beneficiary of the Western boycott will be the same—China.

China has already displaced India as the country of consequence for Sri Lanka. The distancing of Colombo from Delhi began in 1999, when the then Bharatiya Janata Party-led government refused urgent requests for military assistance. The LTTE had been inflicting defeats on a demoralised Sri Lankan army, which was running out of ammunition and weapons. When it became clear that India would refuse assistance because of its own political compulsions (the BJP was being supported by the DMK, a Tamil party that has backed an independent ‘Tamil Eelam’ homeland carved out of Sri Lanka), the Pakistanis stepped in, providing generous dollops of military assistance that enabled the Sri Lankan army to fend off the LTTE.

Ten years later, history repeated itself. This time around, the DMK was a partner of the Congress Party, and was therefore able to ensure that no help was forthcoming from Delhi in the war against the LTTE. Once again, Pakistan stepped in, joining the Chinese in pumping weapons into Sri Lanka. In early 2009, when India’s parliamentary election was to take place, the Manmohan Singh government demanded Rajapaksa call a halt to the offensive—just a week before the capture and killing of LTTE Velupillai Prabhakaran. Since then, it has been the China-Pakistan duo that have become the partners of choice for Sri Lanka (although some care is still taken to avoid making this too obvious lest it provoke an Indian reaction).

But apart from pandering to the political demands of the DMK, another factor that would have weighed on the minds of the Singh government would have been the fact that the EU has in essence been a de facto protector of the LTTE. Led by Norway, a country whose propensity for aggressively backing lost causes seems to rise in proportion to its oil income, Europe enforced a ceasefire in 2002 between then-Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe and the LTTE. This gave the latter effective control over the north and east of the country, and helped ensure the eventual defeat of Wickremesinghe and his United National Front at the polls.

Rajapaksa, who succeeded Wickremesinghe as prime minister before being elected president in 2005, was unique in that he was the first representative of the rural Sinhala Buddhist underclass to
become president of the country. His coming to power by no means scared Prabhakaran, who after all had seen off several heads of state (and dispatched at least one, Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was killed by a car bomb in 1993).

Prabhakaran saw Rajapaksa as less able to rally international support for a united Sri Lanka than rival Ranil Wickremasinghe, and indeed facilitated his 2005 election victory by enforcing a poll boycott in the Tamil areas. But one of Prabhakaran's earlier strengths turned into a weakness—his inability to stop short of the jugular. Although Wickremasinghe had effectively conceded autonomy to him in the north and east of the country (even allowing the LTTE to conduct political campaigns in government-held areas without the government having the right to similarly enter LTTE-held areas), he wanted the Sri Lankan prime minister to concede full independence to the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka, something that was an impossibility. In a miscalculation that was to cost him his life four years later, he regarded Rajapaksa as more likely to help secure ‘Eelam,’ a presumption that seemed to be borne out during the first eight months of the new president’s term, when numerous LTTE attacks went unanswered.

However, during this period, it became clear that Rajapaksa was merely trying to get the measure of his enemy, personally attending each Security Council meeting for an insight into what needed to be done to ensure the defeat of the LTTE. A campaign was quietly launched to burnish the reputation of the army, and within a year of taking office, Rajapaksa had approved an overall increase of 300,000 in army personnel, of which 50,000 were to be recruited ‘immediately.’ Requests were also sent to India for weapons and equipment, but when these were turned down, Pakistan was asked to fill the gap, something that Islamabad (and its ally Beijing) did with zeal.

By mid-2007, the eastern provinces had been cleared of the LTTE, and this time around, the militia wasn’t allowed to return. While army units were sent further north, units from the police, navy and the air force were drafted to ensure that the LTTE cadres were denied entry into the eastern provinces. Slowly, Prabhakaran was being encircled.

It was around this time that the EU, led by Norway (which had built up a close rapport with the LTTE since the 1990s) began demanding that Rajapaksa call off his offensive and agree to peace talks. Until now, every Sri Lankan government since the J R Jayewardene administration in 1978 had been responsive to ‘advice’ from the United States and the EU (in the process setting off India's Indira Gandhi, who began backing the LTTE in 1980 as a counter to Jayewardene's ‘softness’ towards the imperialists). Each time the Sri Lankan army had pushed the LTTE into a corner, professional peacemakers had stepped in and halted its operations, thereby giving the organisation time to recover and to once again emerge as a deadly force.

But this time around, Rajapaksa turned a deaf year to the peaceniks in the EU, India and the US, who were united in asking that he declare a ceasefire. Instead, he publicly assured the armed forces that this time around, he wouldn’t stop ‘until the LTTE was eliminated.’

As in India, Sri Lanka has numerous ‘peacemaking’ NGOs, each of whom are quick to come up with reasons why military force ought not to be used, even in cases where there’s an armed attack on the unity and integrity of the state. In both countries, these are led by well-meaning idealists from the upper echelons of society. While the Singh government has been very receptive to such voices, several times pulling up the armed forces, the Rajapaksa team has ignored them—much to the anger of the NGOs and their diplomatic backers.

But the substantial military assistance given by Pakistan and China allowed the Sri Lankan army to finally destroy the LTTE by the middle of May 2009. Since then, India has accepted the inevitable, while the EU has led on the imposition of sanctions on Sri Lanka. All this has had the (hopefully unintended) effect of drawing Colombo ever closer to Beijing.

There’s little doubt that the ‘beautiful people’ of Colombo dislike the feisty, rural Rajapaksa. However, the reality remains that the president is a hero among the 70 percent of the population that’s both rural and Sinhala. Now that the war against the LTTE has been won, the key is to ensure that the Tamil community is given the opportunity to participate in the political and economic life of the country without discrimination (something that’s still a work in progress).

Meanwhile, with each call from European leaders for  a ‘war crimes’ inquiry for Rajapaksa and his close associates, the attraction of China becomes ever greater. It’s ironic that the European Union—and to a lesser extent the United States—is pushing away a country that’s potentially among the most West-friendly on the globe.

Looking at the impasse between Rajapaksa and Brussels, it would seem that Sri Lanka is on the way to becoming another Burma—a country firmly in the orbit of China.