Sri Lanka, the once self-trumpeted “island of paradise,” turned into the island of bloodshed more than a quarter-century ago. But even by its long, gory record, the bloodletting since last year is unprecedented. The United Nations estimates that some 1,200 noncombatants are getting killed each month in a civil war that continues to evoke a muted international response even as hundreds of thousands of minority Tamils have fled their homes or remain trapped behind the front line.
With the world preoccupied by pressing challenges, President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother, Defense Minister Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, a naturalized U.S. citizen, press on with their brutal military campaign with impunity. The offensive bears a distinct family imprint, with another brother the president’s top adviser.
Chinese military and financial support — as in Sudan, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Uzbekistan, North Korea, Burma and elsewhere — has directly aided government excesses and human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. But with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly emphasizing that the global financial, climate and security crises are more pressing priorities for U.S. policy than China’s human rights record, which by her own department’s recent admission has “remained poor and worsened in some areas,” Beijing has little reason to stop facilitating overseas what it practices at home — repression.
Still, the more China insists that it doesn’t mix business with politics in its foreign relations, the more evidence it provides of cynically contributing to violence and repression in internally torn states. Sri Lanka is just the latest case demonstrating Beijing’s blindness to the consequences of its aggressive pursuit of strategic interests.
No sooner had the United States ended direct military aid to Sri Lanka last year over its deteriorating human rights record than China blithely stepped in to fill the breach — a breach widened by India’s hands-off approach toward Sri Lanka since a disastrous 1987-90 peacekeeping operation in that island-nation.
Beijing began selling larger quantities of arms, and dramatically boosted its aid fivefold in the past year to almost $1 billion to emerge as Sri Lanka’s largest donor. Chinese Jian-7 fighter jets, antiaircraft guns, JY-11 3D air surveillance radars and other supplied weapons have played a central role in the Sri Lankan military successes against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (or “Tamil Tigers”), seeking to carve out an independent homeland for the ethnic Tamils in the island’s north and east.
Beijing even got its ally Pakistan actively involved in Sri Lanka. With Chinese encouragement, Pakistan — despite its own faltering economy and rising Islamist challenge — has boosted its annual military assistance loans to Sri Lanka to nearly $100 million while supplying Chinese-origin small arms and training Sri Lankan air force personnel in precision guided attacks.
China has become an enabler of repression in a number of developing nations as it seeks to gain access to oil and mineral resources, to market its goods and to step up investment. Still officially a communist state, its support for brutal regimes is driven by capitalist considerations. But while exploiting commercial opportunities, it also tries to make strategic inroads. Little surprise thus that China’s best friends are pariah or other states that abuse human rights.
Indeed, with its ability to provide political protection through its U.N. Security Council veto power, Beijing has signed tens of billions of dollars worth of energy and arms contracts in recent years with such problem states — from Burma and Iran to Sudan and Venezuela.
In the case of Sri Lanka, China has been particularly attracted by that country’s vantage location in the center of the Indian Ocean — a crucial international passageway for trade and oil. Hambantota — the billion-dollar port Chinese engineers are now building on Sri Lanka’s southeast — is the latest “pearl” in China’s strategy to control vital sea-lanes of communication between the Indian and Pacific Oceans by assembling a “string of pearls” in the form of listening posts, special naval arrangements and access to ports.
China indeed has aggressively moved in recent years to build ports in the Indian Ocean rim, including in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma. Besides eyeing Pakistan’s Chinese-built port-cum-naval base of Gwadar as a possible anchor for its navy, Beijing has sought naval and commercial links with the Maldives, Seychelles, Mauritius and Madagascar. However, none of the port-building projects it has bagged in recent years can match the strategic value of Hambantota, which sits astride the great trade arteries.
China’s generous military aid to Sri Lanka has tilted the military balance in favor of government forces, enabling them in recent months to unravel the de facto state the Tamil Tigers had run for years. After losing more than 5,594 square km of territory, the Tigers now are boxed into a 85-square-km sliver of wooded land in the northeast.
But despite the government’s battlefield triumphs, Asia’s longest civil war triggered by the bloody 1983 anti-Tamil riots is unlikely to end anytime soon. Not only is the government unable to define peace or outline a political solution to the Tamils’ long-standing cultural and political grievances, the rebels are gearing up to return to their roots and become guerrilla fighters again after being routed in the conventional war.
While unable to buy peace, Chinese aid has helped weaken and scar civil society. Emboldened by the unstinted Chinese support, the government has set in motion the militarization of society and employed control of information as an instrument of war, illustrated by the muzzling of the media and murders of several independent-minded journalists. It has been frenetically swelling the ranks of the military by one-fifth a year through large-scale recruitment, even as it establishes village-level civilian militias, especially in conflict-hit areas.
With an ever-larger, Chinese-aided war machine, the conflict is set to grind on, making civil society the main loser. That is why international diplomatic intervention has become imperative. India, with its geostrategic advantage and trade and investment clout over a war-hemorrhagic Sri Lankan economy that is in search of an international bailout package, must use its leverage deftly to promote political and ethnic reconciliation rooted in federalism and genuine interethnic equality. More broadly, the U.S., European Union, Japan and other important players need to exert leverage to stop the Rajapaksa brothers from rebuffing ceasefire calls and press Beijing to moderate its unsettling role.
Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.
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