No. 54, June 2013
Whose Agenda? US Strategic Interests, India, and Sri Lankan War Crimes
No political question can be entirely separated from the political economy of the country and that of the world. So too for the question of ‘human rights’: We need to look at who is raising the question, from what angle, and their position within the world order, in order to grasp the real significance of that particular development for the lives of the people.
The United States has circulated a proposed resolution against Sri Lanka at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in March 2013. A documentary by Britain’s Channel 4 (No War Zone – the Killing Fields of Sri Lanka) is to be screened at the UNHRC.This documentary is a follow-up to two earlier documentaries by the same channel. The first, titled Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields (June 2011), containing particularly shocking footage of war crimes, was screened at gatherings of representatives of different countries. The second, Killing Fields: War Crimes Unpunished (March 2012) systematically presented the evidence of the Sri Lankan government’s war crimes. An advance screening of the latest film was held at Delhi on February 2. In the words of the director of the film, “The new evidence in the film is certain to increase pressure on the Indian government not only to support a resolution on Sri Lanka and accountability, but also to ensure that it is robustly worded, and that it outlines an effective plan for international action to end impunity in Sri Lanka.”
As we write this, it is reported that India is likely to vote in support of a US-backed resolution against Sri Lanka before the UNHRC in March 2013, as it did in 2012.
The media have fostered the impression that the Indian government has been under pressure to vote in favour of the US-proposed resolution mainly because of the sentiments of its own Tamil population. It is of course true that the major parliamentary parties in Tamil Nadu have now been competing with one another to show their support for the resolution. Comparing the killing of Balachandran with the killing of Jews in Nazi Germany, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, J Jayalalithaa, demanded that the Indian government hold discussions with the US and like-minded countries and draft a U.N. resolution against Sri Lanka, and bring about economic sanctions against that country. For her part, she called off the 20th Asian Athletics Championships scheduled to be held in Chennai in July 2013, saying that Lankan players had no place in the state. Her opponent, DMK president M. Karunanidhi, was one with her on this question: It pained him that while Western countries were ready to support the US-sponsored resolution against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC, India was yet to announce its stand on the issue. Support for this stand came from other, unlikely, quarters as well: The Communist Party of India leader D. Raja and former Chief Justice of Delhi High Court and noted defender of human rights, Rajinder Sachar, demanded that India vote against Sri Lanka at the coming UNHRC session. The Tamil Nadu unit of CPI(M), too, demanded that India support the US-sponsored resolution.
The Rajapakse regime, for its part, continues to pursue its objectives. The Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapakse, in his recent address to the nation on the occasion of the Sri Lankan Independence Day (February 4), laid out his vision of the future for the Tamils of his country. “It is not practical for this country to have different administrations based on ethnicity.” In plain language, there is no scope for the Tamil minority to enjoy any political autonomy in the Tamil-majority provinces. Indeed large army camps remain in the erstwhile Tamil-controlled areas in the north and east of the country, where the 270,000-odd ‘re-settled’ Tamils live under close military monitoring, and there are reports that the Sri Lankan government is pursuing a policy of introducing Sinhala settlements in the region, not unlike the Israeli policy of settlements in the occupied West Bank. In response to Rajapakse’s recent speech, Karunanidhi called upon the Indian government to “wake up at least now and understand the true colours and motives” of Rajapakse; “during his rule”, says Karunanidhi, “lakhs of Tamils had been massacred; many uprooted from their soil and forced to lead a life of refugees and orphans in various countries…. He destroyed their livelihoods, appropriated the lands, homes and factories of Tamils in the North and East and deprived them of democratic rights…. The entire world views him as [an] international war criminal.”
It is beyond doubt that the Sri Lankan Army committed war crimes on a very large scale, and that they did so on the instruction of, and with the protection of, Rajapakse. This makes him a war criminal, deserving of condemnation by the people of the world and punishment by the peoples of Sri Lanka. However, these war crimes did not come to light just now; nor in 2012, when the UNHRC passed its earlier resolution against Sri Lanka. They have been documented for many years. They reached their highest pitch in 2009; pressure at that time to prevent these war crimes could have saved tens of thousands of lives. The UN and the rulers of various countries, in particular the rulers of the US and India, were well aware of what was happening in real-time. They did not act then. Their feigned concern now has other motives. Rajapakse, for his part, poses as the man who fearlessly defends Sri Lankan interests, even at the cost of incurring the wrath of the West. However, his anti-imperialism is as fake as the imperialist powers’ concern for human rights in Sri Lanka.
Changed balance of forces in 2006
Even as the LTTE was thus weakened considerably, the Sri Lankan government embarked on a massive expansion of its armed forces. The Sri Lankan military budget rose by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2008, and the army’s size increased by 70 per cent. Israel, a close ally of the US, supplied the Sri Lankan armed forces with combat aircraft and patrol craft. India supplied patrol vessels and radars; more importantly, the Indian Navy’s Southern Command helped the Sri Lankan navy cut off the LTTE’s supplies of arms (which were smuggled in by sea) and helped block the movement of LTTE naval vessels. Pakistan supplied ammunition and hand grenades. China supplied vehicles, small arms, light weapons, artillery, and ammunition on a large scale; it also supplied some aircraft and one radar. (China also stepped up its economic aid to Sri Lanka steeply, to $1 billion in 2007, replacing Japan as Sri Lanka’s biggest donor.) Foreign military training, including by the US, improved the capability of the forces. According a 2009 report of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations,
The Access and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) provides US military ships and planes access to Sri Lankan military facilities and fuel. In 2007, the US provided sophisticated radar equipment to help the Sri Lankan navy defeat the LTTE navy. In brief, several powers played a critical role in changing the balance of forces in Sri Lanka – militarily choking off and weakening the LTTE, strengthening the Sri Lankan government, and thus encouraging the Sri Lankan government offensive. All of these powers have blood on their hands.
In July 2006, despite the existence of a cease-fire with the LTTE (which was the de facto government in the north and east of the country), the Government of Sri Lanka initiated a major offensive against first the east and then the north. Soon came a steady stream of reports by the UN and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) alleging that atrocities were being committed by the Sri Lankan armed forces and its armed ally, the “Karuna” group. There followed abductions,torture, and extra-judicial killings of Tamil supporters of the LTTE, shelling and aerial bombing of LTTE-held areas, and the cutting-off of civilian supplies by land and sea to the north. Hundreds of Tamils were deported from Colombo and dumped in the war zones of the North and East. Throughout this period, the US government explicitly re-affirmed its support for the Sri Lankan government. Within a year, the Sri Lankan armed forces had re-captured the East, and imposed a military administration there. In November 2007, a targeted strike killed the LTTE’s top negotiator, S.P. Tamilchelvan, along with some other senior LTTE leaders. By this time the UN had ample evidence of the conditions in the east, including mass displacements and shelling of civilians.
The UN and international human rights groups also accused the Sri Lankan armed forces of forcibly rounding up children to be drafted into the pro-government Karuna group.
The assault on Vanni
In September 2008, as the conflict entered its final stages, the Sri Lankan government officially informed the UN it could no longer guarantee the safety of UN staff in Vanni. Within three weeks, the UN withdrew all international staff, effectively ending UN assistance operations in Vanni. As the UN prepared to leave, people in Vanni approached UN staff pleading with them to stay, saying: “Some families have come to Killinochchi town due to the presence of international organizations and the belief that this would provide some form of physical security”; “there is a concern that the moment that humanitarian organizations leave, the Government will begin bombing Killinochchi town and that the physical security of the civilian population will be at increased risk”; “… the absence of the UN would result in no one [being present] to bear witness to incidents…”
These requests fell on deaf ears.
In October 2008, the Sri Lankan military began its final assault on Vanni. The LTTE was pushed step by step into a small strip of the northeast coast in Mullaitivu district, along with some 350,000 civilians of Vanni. By January the LTTE capital of Kilinochchi fell.
On January 6, 2009, the US embassy in Colombo issued a statement welcoming the fall of Kilinochchi, and hoping for a political solution that addressed “the aspirations of all Sri Lankans, including Tamils, Muslims, and Sinhalese.” At the same time, the US made clear that “The United States does not advocate that the Government of Sri Lanka negotiate with the LTTE, a group designated by the United States since 1997 as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.”
The general tenor of US statements through the remainder of the war remained one of condemnation of the LTTE, combined with politely worded requests to the Sri Lankan regime: to avoid firing at civilians, to allow international humanitarian access to the trapped civilians, and for a post-war scheme power-sharing involving all Sri Lankan communities (but not the LTTE). This stance served to obscure the glaring truth that, irrespective of the actions or character of the LTTE, the “conflict” was not a battle between two armies to conquer Sri Lanka. It was an entirely one-sided drive by the Sri Lankan regime to annihilate the LTTE and wipe out any organised expression of the Sri Lankan Tamils’ aspirations. This has been amply borne out in the nearly four years since May 2009, after the LTTE has ceased to exist as an organised force.
Thus, on January 21, 2009, the Sri Lankan military declared a “safe zone” (or “no fire zone”, NFZ) for civilians of 32 sq km within that strip, whereupon civilians crowded into that strip; the Sri Lankan military proceeded to intensively shell this “no fire zone”. On February 12 it announced a new NFZ of 10 sq km, and for the next three months concentrated its fire on this tiny strip of land. The targets included camps of displaced persons and hospitals.
During this period, the Government of Sri Lanka systematically starved the Vanni region, and particularly the NFZ, of food and medical supplies. Starvation deaths began to be reported from the beginning of March 2009. People were reported at places to be crying for food and lying down by the side of the road, hardly able to move. Cases were reported of people falling into coma due to having eaten poisonous plants. By March emergency procedures like amputations were performed without any anaesthesia.
In the final weeks of the conflict, doctors in the Mullivaikkal hospital had to operate with butchers’ knives and watered-down anaesthetics due to shortage of medical supplies. For lack of replacement blood, the staff filtered what they could from the patients through a cloth before feeding it back into their veins. (The doctors and other medical staff displayed remarkable heroism in continuing to work under these conditions, despite being repeatedly targeted by Sri Lankan shelling.)
The Sri Lankan systematically excluded international aid workers and journalists from zone, so as to improve ‘deniability’. However, the US embassy continued to gather detailed information regarding these conditions throughout this period from various sources; apart from which, of course, it had access to satellite images.
Evidence available at the time to the UN, US, and other powers
As the 2011 Channel 4 documentary showed (and had already been reported at the time itself), the bombing of the makeshift hospitals was repeated and systematic. When the Red Cross provided the Sri Lankan government the global positioning coordinates of a hospital, these coordinates were actually used in order to target the shells more precisely at it.
According to the report of the UN Panel of Experts, “From as early as 6 February 2009, the SLA [Sri Lanka Army] continuously shelled within the area that became the second NFZ, from all directions, including land, sea and air. It is estimated that there were between 300,000 and 330,000 civilians in that small area. The SLA assault employed aerial bombardment, long-range artillery, howitzers and MBRLs [unguided missile systems] as well as small mortars, RPGs [Rocket Propelled Grenades] and small arms fire …”
As noted by the UN’s Internal Review Panel (IRP) in November 2012, “Throughout the final stages, the UN issued many public statements and reports accusing the LTTE of committing human rights and international humanitarian law violations, and mentioning thousands of civilians killed. But… the UN almost completely omitted to explicitly mention Government responsibility for violations of international law.”
In late April, satellite photographs of the Vanni region taken by UNITAR’s Operational Satellite Applications Programme (UNOSAT) became public, making it possible estimate afresh the number of people still in the Vanni region, and confirming that there was ongoing shelling by heavy artillery. However, as the IRP report notes, UN officials chose to downplay this information. Meanwhile, the situation in the region deteriorated and there were reports of ever increasing numbers of civilian deaths.
From early May 2009 as the LTTE was nearing total defeat, some of its members contacted senior UN officials to ask for their help in facilitating a surrender. The UN Secretary General’s chief of staff, Vijay Nambiar, asked the Government to allow him to fly into the conflict zone to witness a surrender and act as a guarantor of safe passage. The Government refused. By 18 May 2009 most of the remaining LTTE leadership was executed, including some who on the morning of May 18 had crossed into Government-held territory unarmed and with white flags. Channel 4’s documentary presents video evidence that Sri Lankan soldiers killed unarmed LTTE prisoners (men and women), and that they sexually abused many LTTE women soldiers before killing them. We see the soldiers laughing and making repugnant comments as they load onto a truck the naked corpses of women.This footage is in fact from ‘trophy videos’ filmed by the Sri Lankan soldiers themselves.
Death toll of the last stage
The UN’s Panel of Experts stated that “[a] number of credible sources have estimated that there could have been as many as 40,000 civilian deaths.” The Internal Review Panel report cites other sources with credible information indicating that about 70,000 civilians of the Vanni region are unaccounted for. World Bank population data for the north of Sri Lanka for 2007 and 2010, village by village, also indicate that over 100,000 persons are unaccounted for.
UN blessings for internment camps
Hardly had the blood dried at the scenes of the carnage when UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon travelled to Sri Lanka on May 22-23, overruling senior advisers who cautioned that his visit could be misconstrued as participation in the Government’s victory celebrations. In preparation for the visit, UN officials had briefed Ban’s chief of staff, Vijay Nambiar, that they estimated the civilian death toll at over 20,000, but Ban chose to maintain a discreet silence on this score. He aerially surveyed the site of the worst massacres, and visited the largest internment camp, housing 220,000 people. The visit of Ban, the first major international figure to visit the country since the end of the conflict, was a propaganda coup for the Rajapakse regime. While alluding vaguely to the “suffering” of the survivors, Ban stressed: “The long conflict is over. Now is the time to heal – for all Sri Lankans to unite for a just and lasting peace. We must help seize this opportunity…. While the Government is doing its utmost, it lacks resources. There is a wide gap between what is needed and what is available.” He did call for the UN and other international humanitarian agencies to get “immediate and unimpeded access to the camps.” The Sri Lankan government ignored this appeal; and the UN Secretary-General left it at that.
The US: critical noises, real concerns
However, as every child knows, the US does not stop with making such vague appeals when it is determined to prevent or bring about some development. It intervenes, as it has been doing in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and the Central African Republic and other places in multiple ways. Where it decides not to send its troops, it frequently supplies arms, training, and logistical support to opposition forces, and applies severe pressure such as sanctions. When Russia and China blocked a resolution in the UN Security Council which sought to condemn the Syrian government, the US formed an international “Friends of Syria” group to apply pressure on the Syrian government and to support the Syrian opposition. The absence of support from Russia and China in the Security Council similarly has not deterred the US from unilaterally imposing sanctions on Iran on the pretext of its nuclear programme. It is worth noting, in passing, that the Sri Lankan president’s brother, defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse, continues to be a US citizen; another brother, Basil Rajapakse, the president’s top adviser, continues to be a US green card holder. (In particular, Gotabaya Rajapakse is directly linked to war crimes such as the execution of unarmed LTTE captives by testimony of senior Sri Lankan army officials, including the chief of the army during the war, Sarath Fonseka.)
Thus the US began expressing concern about Sri Lankan war crimes more insistently only after the slaughter was over, and the LTTE was wiped out. Its real concern has little to do with human rights. Since 2005, particularly with Rajapakse’s presidency, ties between the Sri Lankan regime and China have grown closer. A 2009 report of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations (chaired by the present US Secretary of State, John Kerry), notes that
Apart from providing weapons, China has also provided substantial economic aid and is constructing several large infrastructural projects. Most important are the massive port complex and airport at the southern town of Hambantota, from where Rajapakse hails. China has also secured deals for the country’s largest rail and road projects. As a result, there are reportedly between 10,000 and 16,000 Chinese engineers, tradesmen and technical specialists at present working in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka plans to open a direct air link with southern China’s Yunnan province.
The infrastructural projects China is building in Sri Lanka appear to be strictly commercial, not military. There does not seem to have been substantial advance in military and strategic ties between Sri Lanka and China. Nevertheless, this has not deterred Indian and US commentators from referring to Hambantota as one of China’s “String of Pearls”.
The US military contractor Booz-Allen-Hamilton first coined the phrase “String of Pearls” to describe China’s emerging maritime strategy, in a US Department of Defense-commissioned 2005 report “Energy Futures in Asia”. The phrase has since been used freely by US and Indian strategic analysts as if it were an expression coined by China itself to describe its own strategy. “Even for those that dismiss China’s ‘string of pearls’ strategy as overblown,” says the Committee on Foreign Relations, “there is concern about growing Chinese influence on the Sri Lankan government.” A US Army War College study explains:
“Globally, China is increasingly active in striving for energy security in ways that portend direct competition for energy resources with the United States”, claims the US-China Commission in its 2005 Report to the US Congress. “This is producing a possibility of conflict between the two nations.” The Commission’s 2012 Report indicates how China’s vulnerability can be exploited by the US: “China’s leaders view China’s growing dependence on foreign energy as a strategic vulnerability…. China also relies heavily on maritime trade routes for its energy imports, exposing China’s energy trade to crucial chokepoints like the Strait of Malacca and the Strait of Hormuz.”
Sri Lanka’s strategic significance arises from its location. The Congressional Research Service notes that “Chinese activity in the region appears to be seeking friends like Sri Lanka to secure its sea lines of communication from the Straits of Hormuz and the western reaches of the Indian Ocean region to the Strait of Malacca to facilitate trade and secure China’s energy imports.”
Pivot to Asia
The “Pivot to Asia” policy was spelt out most elaborately in November 2011 in an article by then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “America’s Pacific Century” (which appeared in the journal Foreign Policy):
This is necessary in order to preserve US global leadership, which, according to her, the region has been hungering for:
The military build-up promised by Panetta would be accompanied by an aggressive diplomatic drive:
Now the US wishes to increase its presence in the Indian Ocean, and connect it with its Pacific forces:
Clinton makes the usual noises about hoping to engage positively with China, but the obvious question is: Who is the target of this military-diplomatic drive, which tracks exactly China’s shipping routes? She warns that “The United States and the international community have watched China’s efforts to modernize and expand its military, and we have sought clarity as to its intentions….” By contrast, India’s power aspirations are benign in US eyes:
In this strategic drive to get control of Asia, the issue of “human rights” is to be an important weapon:
‘Human rights’ question used to detach Burma from Chinese influence
However, as with Sri Lanka, Chinese economic ties with Burma were narrow and brittle: they consisted largely of export of raw materials from Burma and import of Chinese manufactured goods, extractive projects and certain infrastructure designed to serve China’s economic interests. (These reflect capitalist China’s requirements, as determined by its place within the world capitalist order.) Chinese trade and aid were not able to protect the Burmese economy from one-sidedness and acute crisis. The Burmese military rulers were looking for a rapprochement with the US. The Obama administration, too, as part of its “pivot to Asia” policy, began discreet discussions, in which the Indian government (which maintained ties with Burma) may have played a role.
In 2008, the regime imposed a sham Constitution which effectively protects the power of the military. Of the 440 seats in the parliament, 110 were reserved for sitting army officers; the head of state was to be an army officer, who would appoint ministers and supreme court judges; the commander of the army would choose the security minister; and so on. A clause preventing convicted persons from contesting elections effectively prevented most of the leaders of the Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD), including Suu Kyi herself, from contesting. The NLD boycotted the 2010 elections held under this Constitution. However, Thein Sein, the former army officer ‘elected’ president, began discreet discussions with the US and Suu Kyi (a favourite of the US). As a condition for lifting sanctions against Burma, the US demanded the amendment of provisions that were preventing the NLD from contesting elections; the release of political prisoners; and the end of conflict with ethnic minorities. However, behind this human rights agenda, the real push was for Burma to pivot away from China.
This was clear from the developments that proceeded very rapidly thereafter: the release of Suu Kyi and hundreds of other political prisoners in 2011; the visit of the Burmese foreign minister to Washington in September 2011; the cancellation of the Chinese-financed Myitsone dam project in northern Burma; and the visit of Hillary Clinton to Burma in December 2011, the first by a US Secretary of State in 50 years. By April 2012 the US eased travel bans and sanctions on the Burmese regime, and Clinton applauded Thein Sein and his colleagues for their “leadership and courage”. The US dropped its objection to the participation of Burma in multilateral financial institutions, opening up the prospect of aid from the IMF and World Bank; the Bretton Woods twins promptly began drawing up plans for the sweeping transformation of the Burmese economy along the usual neo-liberal lines. Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh visited Rangoon and signed a deal for Indian aid and infrastructure. The US military began discreet discussions regarding reviving military cooperation, and the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), David Petraeus, committed to visiting Burma in 2012. In June 2012, the US restored full diplomatic relations by sending an ambassador to Rangoon.
The clause barring convicted persons from contesting elections was dropped, the NLD dropped its objections to the 2008 Constitution, and won 43 of 46 seats in the 2012 by-elections. Suu Kyi conducted a hectic tour of the US in September 2012, where she met virtually all important leaders, including Obama, and was universally held up as an ‘icon’ of democracy and human rights.
Indeed, now Suu Kyi acted as perhaps the best advertisement for the Burmese regime, praising Thein Sein and the army itself. “I am fond of the army”, she confessed. “People don’t like me saying that. There are many who have criticised me for being what they call a poster girl for the army, but I think the truth is that I am very fond of the army, because I always thought of it as my father’s army.”
That proprietorial affection for the armed forces is not shared by all sections of Burmese society. In June 2011, even as the regime began returning to the embrace of the ‘world community’ (i.e., the US), the Burmese military started an offensive against the Kachin regions (bordering China) under the control of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). In recent months, the military offensive has taken the form of bombing the Kachin region with fighter jets and and shelling with heavy weapons. In February 2013, the UN Special Rapporteur for Burma expressed concern regarding “the ongoing practice of arbitrary arrest and torture during interrogation by the military of Kachin men accused of belonging to the Kachin Independence Army. Furthermore, the ongoing large military presence which remains beyond the reach of accountability mechanisms, means that serious human rights violations are continuing there [in Kachin state]”. Human Rights Watch (HRW) claims that the Burmese military “has attacked villages and committed extrajudicial killings, forced labor, torture, rape, and pillage. The number of internally displaced people in Kachin State has reached an estimated 90,000 this year. The government has largely denied humanitarian access to displaced people in KIA-held territory.”
Even as the war on the Kachins intensified, violence erupted in another region. In June 2012, clashes began in Burma’s Rakhine province between the Arakan people and the Rohingyas. The latter are a Muslim minority who, despite being native to Burma, are not treated as citizens, but are referred to by the Buddhist majority as ‘Bangladeshis’. From June 10 Rakhine province came under military rule. The security forces acted in a blatantly partial manner against the Rohingyas, — for example, failing to prevent large-scale arson of Rohingya houses, but instead firing upon Rohingyas who tried to douse the flames. Hundreds of Rohingyas are reported to have been killed in the violence; many more have become refugees. The UN estimates that in 2012 13,000 Rohingyas were forced to flee in rickety smugglers’ boats, as a result of which hundreds have died in transit; yet many more thousands have already attempted the same voyage in 2013. According to HRW, “State security forces failed at the outset to protect either community from violence and then increasingly targeted Rohingya in killings, beatings, and mass arrests.” Over 110,000 displaced Rohingyas are living in refugee camps which the UN Special Rapporteur has compared to prisons. Government restrictions on humanitarian access to the Rohingyas, says HRW, “have left many in dire need of food, adequate shelter, and medical care. The authorities also indefinitely suspended nearly all pre-crisis humanitarian aid programs to the Rohingya, affecting hundreds of thousands who remain in their homes.” A fresh bout of abuses by state security forces began in October 2012; thus when, in November 2012, Obama became the first sitting US president to visit Burma, he could not avoid the Rohingya question. Nevertheless, he restricted himself to calling for an end to the violence by both communities, without criticising the Burmese security forces – even as he lavished praise on Burma’s “remarkable journey” of democratic reform.
Suu Kyi’s silence, and her statements
Eventually Kachin organisations demonstrated in Bangkok with a picture of Suu Kyi, her mouth taped shut. Stung, Suu Kyi made a belated response on January 17, 2013, with a call for a ceasefire in Kachin province, and resolution of the questions by negotiation. She made this call on the anniversary of the day in 1947 her father had signed the Panglong agreement with the majority of Burma’s ethnic minorities, which set the framework for a federal state. It should be noted that the 2008 Constitution, under which Suu Kyi contested the by-election in 2012, directly violates the 1947 Panglong agreement.
The Rohingyas appealed to Suu Kyi in June 2012 itself, a few days after the outbreak of violence, to intervene; she chose to remain silent. When she finally broke her silence regarding the Rohingyas, her statement had a more sinister implication. In response to a query from the Indian news channel NDTV, she chose to place equal blame on the Rohingyas: “don’t forget that violence has been committed by both sides.” Then she questioned the citizenship of the Rohingyas and pinned the blame for the entire problem on “illegal immigration”, in a vein that would do Narendra Modi proud:
In fact, as the UN High Commission for Refugees has reported, the truth is exactly the other way about: there are some 2,30,000 Rohingya refugees in the border regions of Bangladesh, who fled Burma from waves of persecution in earlier decades.
In short, US policy toward Burma shows us how genuine questions of human rights can be used by the dominant powers, such as the US, as points of pressure against a third world country in order to get it to change its strategic alignment (and open up its economy to boot); once that end is achieved, the human rights situation may even deteriorate, yet will not invite US opprobrium. While we are all familiar with the use of ‘human rights’ as an instrument of US foreign policy in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and so on, Burma provides an example of how the US can secure its objectives without ‘regime change’, but merely through ‘regime realignment’.
After the killings
Of course, it may not be as smooth sailing for the US in Sri Lanka as in Burma. The Burmese regime lacked mass support, and it feared popular unrest; Sri Lanka’s Rajapakse on the other hand has enjoyed till now significant mass support based on Sinhala chauvinist sentiment (indeed, he uses the fact of external pressure to bolster his domestic image as a defender of Sinhala interests). A further significant factor is that Sri Lanka’s economic and political ties with the US are considerably broader than Burma’s were.
The stick may be more prominent at the moment in US dealings with Sri Lanka, but the carrot is not far behind. The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, chaired by Kerry, warned in 2009 itself against an exclusive focus on Tamil refugees: “Sri Lanka has grown politically and economically isolated from the West. This strategic drift will have consequences for US interests in the region…. Sri Lanka is located at the nexus of crucial maritime trading routes in the Indian Ocean connecting Europe and the Middle East to China and the rest of Asia…. The United States cannot afford to ‘lose’ Sri Lanka.” Rather than be driven “solely by short-term humanitarian concerns”, US policy should “Take a broader and more robust approach to Sri Lanka that appreciates new political and economic realities in Sri Lanka and US geostrategic interests.” The report recommends, among other things, that the US Congress should “Authorize the US military to resume training of Sri Lankan military officials to help ensure that human rights concerns are integrated into future operations and to help build critical relationships.”
Tamil sentiment not a factor in Indian rulers’ shift
Nor need the protests of the two leading parties of Tamil Nadu, the DMK and the AIADMK, be taken seriously. The DMK was in power in Tamil Nadu in May 2009, and was an ally of the ruling UPA government at the Centre; it did not withdraw from the alliance, despite the UPA’s known support for the war. Not even DMK cadre could have been much impressed by their supremo K. Karunanidhi’s fast-unto-death against the war, which started on the morning of April 28, 2009, and ended before lunch the same day.
In fact, the graph of AIADMK leader Jayalalitha’s responses roughly tracks the shifts in US policy, albeit in a more exaggerated and extreme form. Well-known for her overt hostility to the LTTE, her initial stance was of tacit support of Rajapakse’s war. In January 2009 she declared: “Today, the need of the hour is a ceasefire. How can this be brought about? This can be achieved only with the LTTE laying down arms and surrendering.” However, by March 10, she went on a one-day fast (till 5 p.m.) in support of the Sri Lankan Tamils’ “demand for self-determination statehood within the country’s constitution”, and criticised the Karunanidhi government and the Central Government for their apathy towards the fate. By May 10, Jayalalitha said: “Tamil Eelam is the only solution to the sufferings of the Tamils. There is no change in my opinion. I will send the Indian Army to Sri Lanka just as late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sent it ito East Pakistan to create Bangladesh.” Thus, within four months, she moved from calling on the LTTE to lay down arms before the Sri Lankan army to demanding that the Indian army pick up arms to establish Eelam.
In June 2011, Hillary Clinton, on her visit to India, met Jayalalitha. According to the US State Department, the two discussed Sri Lanka. Later, delivering a lecture at the Anna Central Library, the US Secretary of State said pointedly that “The United States and India can work together to advance democratic values in the region.” Specifically, she asked for India’s help in “shaping positive changes” in Burma; “We encourage India not just to look east but also act east”.
US pressure on Sri Lanka has been stepped up since 2011, and Jayalalitha has since then kept up a sustained stridency on the question of Sri Lankan war crimes, her histrionics overshadowing Karunanidhi’s.
The Indian government has been balancing two considerations, neither of which has anything to do with the fate of the Tamils.
On the one hand, it is alarmed by Chinese influence in a region it considers its zone of influence. When, in early 2007, Sri Lanka acquired a Chinese-built JY-11 3D radar system, India’s National Security Adviser MK Narayanan protested it on the grounds that it would overarch Indian airspace: “It is high time that Sri Lanka understood that India is the big power in the region and ought to refrain from going to Pakistan or China for weapons, as we are prepared to accommodate them within the framework of our foreign policy,” he said. The implication was that Sri Lanka should come instead to India for weapons. In line with this, India voted in support of the Sri Lankan regime at the UN Human Rights Council in 2009. On the other hand, it appears that the US has now both applied sufficient pressure on, and promised sufficient rewards to, the Indian rulers for their cooperation in bringing about ‘regime realignment’ in Sri Lanka. Thus India, which had supported the Sri Lankan regime in the UNHRC in 2009, voted against it in 2012.
Any genuine demand for punishment of war criminals in Sri Lanka must be made completely independently of, and demarcating from, all those who belong in the dock themselves
 http://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/SriLanka/Prabhakaran-son-s-death-Sri-Lanka-dismisses-photos/Article1-1013842.aspx (back)
 “Understanding Sri Lanka’s Defeat of the Tamil Tigers”, Neil A. Smith, Joint Force Quarterly, Sept. 2010, National Defense University.http://ndupress.ndu.edu/lib/images/jfg-59/JFQ59_40-44_Smith.pdf (back)
 Arms Trade with Sri Lanka: Global Business, Local Costs, Jonas Lindberg, Camilla Orjuela, Siemon Wezeman, Linda Åkerström, p.48.http://www.svenskafreds.se/sites/default/files/arms-trade-with-sri-lanka_0.pdf (back)
 Ibid., p. 47. (back)
 Arms Trade with Sri Lanka, pp. 46-47. (back)
 Arms Trade with Sri Lanka, p. 45. (back)
 Report of the Secretary-General’s Internal Review Panel on United Nations Action in Sri Lanka (hereafter “IRP”), United Nations, November 2012, pp. 41-42. (back)
 IRP, p. 42. (back)
 “Karuna Group Abducts Children for Combat”, 25/1/07,http://www.hrw.org/news/2007/01/23/sri-lanka-karuna-group-abducts-children-combat ; and “Karuna Group and LTTE Continue Abducting and Recruiting Children”, Human Rights Watch, 30/3/07, http://www.hrw.org/news/2007/03/27/sri-lanka-karuna-group-and-ltte-continue-abducting-and-recruiting-children (back)
 IRP, p. 50. (back)
 “Report to the Congress on Incidents during the Recent Conflict in Sri Lanka”, US Department of State, 2009, p. 55. (back)
 Reported by a witness in Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, Channel 4, 2011. (back)
 IRP, p. 64. (back)
 Report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka (hereafter PoE), United Nations, 2011, p. 28. (back)
 IRP, p. 12. (back)
 Ibid., pp. 12-13. (back)
 Ibid., p. 13. (back)
 The Times (London) reports were summarised in the Times of India, 30/5/09 and 31/5/09. (back)
 PoE, pp. 39-41. (back)
 IRP, p. 14; see also p. 38. (back)
 “One hundred thousand Tamils missing after Sri Lanka war”, Frances Harrison,Huffington Post, 17/12/12, http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/frances-harrison/one-hundred-thousand-peop_b_2306136.html (back)
 “Journalist who reported on internment camps in Sri Lanka tells his story”,Guardian, 10/5/09, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/may/10/channel-4-sri-lanka (back)
 Times (London) report summarised in the Times of India, 31/5/09. (back)
 “Another bead in the ‘String of Pearls’? Interpreting Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy Realignment”, Sergei De Silva-Ranasinghe, China Security, Issue 19, 2011, World Security Institute, http://www.chinasecurity.us/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=492&Itemid=8 (back)
 Ibid. (back)
 Sic; Gwadar is actually a commercial port. (back)
 “String of Pearls: Meeting the Challenge of China’s Rising Power across the Asian Littoral”, Christopher J. Pehrson, 2006, Strategic Studies Institute (US). http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pdffiles/pub721.pdf (back)
 Report to the Congress of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 2005, p. 171, http://origin.www.uscc.gov/sites/default/files/annual_reports/2005-Report-to-Congress.pdf (back)
 Report to the Congress of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 2012, p. 17, http://origin.www.uscc.gov/sites/default/files/annual_reports/2012-Report-to-Congress.pdf (back)
 How little real objection the US had to Rajapakse’s war crimes can be seen from the fact that it championed the cause of Sarath Fonseka, the army chief who advertised his Sinhala chauvinism during the war. After retiring from the army, Fonseka challenged Rajapakse for the presidency in 2010; he was jailed by Rajapakse, and only released two years later on the US’s insistence. (back)
 The Hindu, 11/5/09. (back)
“Another bead in the ‘String of Pearls’?” , op. cit. (back)
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