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Sri Lanka: shed a tear for the teardrop island February 11, 2010

Posted by southasiamasala in : Gordon, Sandy, Sri Lanka , trackback

Sandy Gordon

While no reasonable person would shed too many tears for the passing of the Tamil Tigers (except for the number of civilian deaths involved), we should, perhaps, shed some tears for Sri Lanka itself.

A generation ago Sri Lanka had an ambition to become another ‘Asian Tiger’.  And it had every prospect of so doing had not the vicious civil war intervened.

Since then, much has changed.  The Sri Lankan economy, beset by the costs and instabilities of war, has not expanded as hoped.  At least some of the ‘Asian Tigers’, such as Taiwan and South Korea, have liberalised their political dispositions.  Others, like Singapore and Malaysia, still run relatively ‘controlled’ versions of democracy.

For some time now, Sri Lanka’s version of democracy has increasingly taken on some of the hues of the more repressive models of East and South East Asia.  This process has involved an aggressive use of incumbency, emergency powers and extra-judicial activities rather than the derogation of the Constitution itself. Journalists and the free press in particular have suffered through a series of thuggish attacks, killings and ‘disappearances’ that predate the election of President Rajapaksa in 2005 but continue to this day. The situation now is that many journalists and editors are afraid to speak out, with several brave exceptions.

Equally worrying is the arrest of the opposition leader, retired general, Sarath Fonseka.  Tellingly, General Fonseka’s arrest came immediately after he threatened to ‘tell all’ to any war crime tribunal that might be convened. This was not a particularly astute move on his part because it was not only extremely threatening towards the Government, but also promised to attract the ire of many ‘patriotic’ Sri Lankans, thus further weakening his position.

Although possibly technically correct according to black letter law (the Government claims General Fonseka was still under military law – a point to be tested in the Supreme Court on Friday 12 February) the arrest was highly vindictive.  In dissolving parliament and announcing new elections (scheduled for 8 April) the President is also technically correct: but coming hard on the heels of Fonseka’s arrest the move smacks of abuse of power.

So we now have the impression of a triumphant, triumphalist President who will ruthlessly use the benefits of incumbency and who has little incentive to compromise with his political foes in Sri Lanka, the Tamil community or those foreign (mostly Western) powers urging reconciliation with the Tamil community and adherence to human rights norms.


As the civil war drew to its bloody close, the West attempted to apply pressure on the Sri Lankan government to pause in the fighting to enable civilians caught in the war zone to be moved to safety.  That they did not, and that they fought the Tigers ‘into the ground’ is now history.  Nobody knows how many civilians died as a consequence.  But what is clear is that it was the Tamil Tigers who brought them there and used them, in effect, as ‘human shields’ and that the Sri Lankan government was never going to allow any portion of the Tigers’ fighting force to slip out of its hands no matter what the civilian cost.

Besides the terrible loss of life, what is interesting about the bloody denouement of the civil war is that the West’s threatened financial pressure was wholly ineffective. Sri Lanka had by now tapped into Chinese and Pakistani arms, Chinese and Middle Eastern finances and Iranian oil.  Even after the conclusion of the war, when the US apparently tried to pressure Sri Lanka on human rights in the context of a forthcoming, and much needed, IMF loan, it did not succeed.

India too remained stymied as China, Pakistan and others moved in to fill the vacuum. India had effectively had its hands tied in relation to Sri Lanka ever since its disastrous intervention (1987-90).

Meanwhile China, possibly as part of its quest for oil route security, has been funding the development of the substantial port of Hambantota on the south coast.  Astride the main oil route from the Middle East to Asia, this port will handle 20 million twenty-foot equivalent units ((TEUs) per annum.  It will have a tank farm, a bunkering facility, a gas fired power station and an oil refinery.  It will position Sri Lanka to be an important player in the vital Indian Ocean oil transit and trade routes.  It is part of a much wider program of infrastructure development now under way.

So perhaps the time has come when Sri Lanka will emerge from under the shadow of the Tamil Tigers to become something more like a true ‘Asian Tiger’.

But then again, perhaps the triumphalism of the Rajapaksa government will also prevent a true process of reconciliation with the Tamils.  So far, the President has shown little interest in a meaningful reconciliation process.  The fact that most Tamils in the north evidently either stayed away from the polls or voted for General Fonseka will not help.  It still remains to be seen whether the Government will pursue any program of reconciliation after the April election, but that does not seem likely given its track record.

That will mean that the Tamil Tigers, which still possess substantial resources overseas, will have a strong incentive to mount a new campaign of terror – this time one that relies on pure terrorism rather than a ‘menu’ of terrorism and insurgency.  That would in turn mean a continuation of the debilitating state of emergency on the Island and a further slide into a quasi-authoritarian regime.

In turn, any such developments would have implications for the West, and especially Australia.  The latter is on the end of a ‘receiving line’ of Tamil asylum seekers who may have a stronger case than ever for asylum and who may be forced to leave in larger numbers.  It is, moreover, an Indian Ocean power.  But the West’s options to apply pressure are ever more limited, as witnessed by President Rajapaksa’s visit to Russia, where he was at the time of General Fonseka’s arrest.

So however matters unfold in Sri Lanka, the geo-strategic imperatives in the Indian Ocean are changing and Sri Lanka is an important component in that change.


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