The price of ignoring Rajapaksa
By Grace Williams
As India and the United States prepare for President Obama’s trip, China’s expanding economic and military influence is at the top of the agenda. Nowhere is that influence more clear than in Sri Lanka, where its growing clout is leaving in its wake a weakened and corrupted democracy, diminishing respect for human rights, and increased ethnic tension.
Since the end of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009, China has quietly supported the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime, fostering a Sri Lankan government that emulates the most autocratic aspects of the PRC. Beijing’s financial offerings and unwavering support are a tacit endorsement of Rajapaksa’s hardline policies. These include the confinement of tens of thousands of Tamils in detention camps, policies to change the demography of the Tamil areas, systematic attacks on and arrests of the political opposition, suppression of the media, and a government packed with Rajapaksa family members and friends — making them more able to control the national economy in a way that is favourable to their new ally’s interests.
The US and India are wary of selling arms to a post-war Sri Lanka, hoping to encourage a rollback of the heavily-militarised security environment on the island. The US has stipulated in its budget that funding to Sri Lanka cannot go towards arms, while India has pledged to sell only defensive equipment.
China has no such qualms and has sold hundreds of millions of dollars of arms to Sri Lanka, including Jian-7 fighter jets, anti-aircraft guns and JY-11 3D air surveillance radars. As the rest of the world put loans and donations to Colombo on hold because of the government’s crackdown on civil liberties and political freedoms, China has stepped in to fill the gap, becoming Sri Lanka’s top donor.
China is building a second deep-water sea port in Sri Lanka, making the island nation the brightest pearl in China’s necklace of bases across the Indian Ocean. The “string of pearls” stretching across the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf positions China to increase its power in the region and ensure that American and Indian trade and diplomacy cannot compete.
A 2006 report from the Pentagon explained that “China’s approach to relations with states in the ‘String of Pearls’ region appears to be amoral or value-neutral,” focused only on “achieving practical strategic objectives and maintain[ing] favourable relations with ‘rogue states’ that have histories and reputations of behaviour objectionable to the world community.”
Beijing’s support for Sri Lanka is part of this larger effort to gather a group of like-minded nations that support Chinese initiatives without considering its record on human rights, freedom of speech, and environmental protection — issues of vital importance to both India and the US.
This strategy has attracted a self-selecting group of countries with similar poor regard for their citizens. China turns a blind eye to the oppressive activities of Myanmar, Pakistan, Sudan and Sri Lanka, and expects the same in return. This is the Chinese economic rise gone global: with no respect for values that the democratic world must uphold, these countries band together for short-term gain that will have long-term costs for the world’s democratic, free-market economies.
While India and Sri Lanka have a complicated history, it is time for India to realise that ignoring what is happening there puts India at a disadvantage in its own backyard. American efforts to strengthen ties to Asia will meet with no better results against the bag of Chinese favours.
The US and India must make it clear to China and to the world that fostering rogue states and autocratic governments is unacceptable. The rise of governments with no accountability to their citizens has consequences for the ability of both India and the US to compete economically and diplomatically. A reinvigorated and redirected American-Indian partnership can retake the reins of trade and development in the region and ensure that democracy is the model for Asia’s future.
The world’s two largest democracies should begin by encouraging Sri Lanka to strengthen democracy and lay the groundwork for real post-war reconciliation. Joint development funding could address the needs of those affected by war, including civilian Tamils in the north and the east. Aid could be conditioned to direct money towards resettling displaced Tamils in their homes, rebuilding Tamil schools and hospitals, and priming businesses and industries that Tamils and other Sri Lankan citizens can use to improve their standards of living. This will not happen so long as the Rajapaksa family colludes with the Chinese government for a fire-sale of resources and land in the former conflict area.
India in particular, has a vested interest in ending the disenfranchisement of Tamils and other Sri Lankans cause by poor governance. Only when an inclusive society is built from the ashes of the war can all parties in Sri Lanka overcome the past and move towards meaningful peace and stability. Government efforts to settle Sinhalese in traditionally Tamil areas should be discouraged. More constitutional guarantees for individual and collective rights are essential. Future electoral reform should guarantee Tamil and other minority rights and help stop intimidation and censorship. A good first step might be the full implementation of the 13th Amendment that grants more powers to the provinces, and the merger of the Northern and Eastern Province as agreed to in the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987.
China’s increasing power is no small issue to either the United States or India. The US is grappling with the debilitating effect of the undervalued yuan on the American economy. Likewise India is feeling the pinch of an infringing Chinese military presence on long-disputed borders. Americans and Indians share the values of democracy, freedom of speech, and pluralism — values which China disregards — and they should work together to ensure that these values are advancing, not retreating, on the subcontinent and across Asia.
Sri Lanka is not an easy subject for either the US or India to wade into. But a united focus to rebuild Sri Lankan democracy can be the basis for deeper democratic ties in the region and a true Indo-American strategic partnership.
The writer is a member of the Tamil American Peace Initiative