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Belmont Club

Sri Lanka’s March to the Sea

May 17th, 2009 - 7:06 pm

The Christian Science Monitor reports that the LTTE Tigers are willing to surrender amid reports that they are down to a 1.2 square mile redoubt and rumors that 300 Tigers had committed suicide after being “zeroed in” by government forces. Al Jazeera video from early this year showed Sri Lankan Army units equipped with artillery systematically reducing the Tiger strongholds.

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But it may be the manner in which Colombo finished the Tigers that is the real news. UN and Western appeals to the Sri Lankan government to halt the fighting were disregarded; it also barred the Western Media from the battlefront and paid scarce attention to ‘international world opinion’. The New York Times reported, almost bitterly that Colombo had the temerity to win in violation of all the rules:

Assertions about fighting and casualties in the Sri Lanka war cannot be verified because the government severely restricts access by independent journalists. Several, including two from The New York Times, have been prohibited from entering the country, and one who flew late Sunday to Colombo, the capital, was ordered to leave on a return flight. … There is no doubt that Mr. Rajapaksa’s government appears poised to achieve what none of his predecessors managed in 25 years: to rout the Tamil Tigers, who controlled nearly a fourth of the island, and destroy their ranks as a conventional army. As the war’s climax approached, both sides had rebuffed repeated calls from the United Nations and several foreign countries to spare civilians caught in the war zone. The United Nations estimates that at least 7,000 have died since January.

But if the Sri Lankans found the West dispensible, they did not win the war without help. Earlier this month the Times Online ascribed the force behind Colombo’s offensive against the Tigers to Chinese money and political clout.

China has cultivated ties with Sri Lanka for decades and became its biggest arms supplier in the 1990s, when India and Western governments refused to sell weapons to Colombo for use in the civil war. Beijing appears to have increased arms sales significantly to Sri Lanka since 2007, when the US suspended military aid over human rights issues….

In April 2007 Sri Lanka signed a classified $37.6 million (£25 million) deal to buy Chinese ammunition and ordnance for its army and navy, according to Jane’s Defence Weekly. China gave Sri Lanka — apparently free of charge — six F7 jet fighters last year … “China’s arms sales have been the decisive factor in ending the military stalemate,” Brahma Chellaney, of the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi, said. “There seems to have been a deal linked to Hambantota.” [a Chinese naval base now building in Sri Lanka]

Since 2007 China has encouraged Pakistan to sell weapons to Sri Lanka and to train Sri Lankan pilots to fly the Chinese fighters, according to Indian security sources. China has also provided crucial diplomatic support in the UN Security Council, blocking efforts to put Sri Lanka on the agenda. It has also boosted financial aid to Sri Lanka, even as Western countries have reduced their contributions. China’s aid to Sri Lanka jumped from a few million dollars in 2005 to almost $1 billion last year, replacing Japan as the biggest foreign donor. By comparison, the United States gave $7.4 million last year, and Britain just £1.25 million.

“That’s why Sri Lanka has been so dismissive of international criticism,” said B. Raman of the Chennai Centre for China Studies. “It knows it can rely on support from China.”

This raises the question of whether the Western diplomatic model and NGO pressure has not gone down in defeat together with the Tigers in Sri Lanka; whether other countries experiencing problems with insurgents may conclude that they are better served dealing with China than with Washington, Europe and the NGOs. While it doesn’t necessarily follow that Western diplomacy should become as ruthless as China’s it does highlight the problem of “lawfare” which has affected the shape of the West’s response to piracy, the War on Terror and sundry other crises in the Third World. The West has to satisfy a very large and powerful liberal domestic constituency yet come up with realistic solutions to problems for which there may be no ideal solution. That may cause the West to behave erratically or irrationally in the eyes of its Third World allies. Has the West gotten the balance right or has China shown just demonstrated, in the jungles of Sri Lanka, how bankrupt Western “lawfare” has become? Will the issue even be debated in Western intellectual circles?

Update: The BBC reports that European governments have vowed to investigate any war crimes committed during the Sri Lankan civil war. Meanwhile, celebrations have erupted in Colombo as the population celebrates. Video at the link.


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