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    South Asia
     May 12, 2009
Colombo sticks to its guns
By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE - Heady with its battlefield victories over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and buoyed by support from some of its Asian friends, the Sri Lankan government is thumbing its nose at sections of the international community. Not only has it categorically rejected calls for a ceasefire but it is continuing to use heavy weaponry in civilian-populated areas, in brazen disregard of international concern over the plight of Tamil civilians trapped in the combat zone.

Less than a fortnight ago, the Sri Lankan government announced that it was stopping the use of heavy weapons, artillery and air strikes in the combat zone. This was ostensibly in response to


Indian and Western demands for a pause or ceasefire in military operations.

But over Saturday night and Sunday morning, over 378 people were killed and some 1,100 injured in heavy shelling by the Sri Lankan armed forces in the combat zone where the LTTE leadership is believed to be hiding, and where some 50,000 civilians are still trapped.

Gordon Weiss, the United Nations spokesman in Sri Lanka, said on Monday that "The large-scale killing of civilians over the weekend, including the deaths of more than 100 children, shows that that [UN fears of a] bloodbath have become a reality."

The high civilian casualty rate - a UN report says that over 6,400 civilians have died in the fighting since January - has prompted aid groups and several countries, including India, the United States and United Kingdom, to call on the Sri Lankan government to stop its military operations.

The LTTE and its supporters are trying to influence international opinion by propagating lies and the rebels fired on fleeing civilians, Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa said, according to a statement on the governmentís Web site. Rajapaksa linked the timing of the claims with an informal session of the UN Security Council scheduled for today.

While the US, UK and the European Union (EU) have issued separate statements calling for an immediate ceasefire, the co-chairs of the Tokyo Conference on Reconstruction and Development on Sri Lanka, which includes Japan, the EU, US and Norway, have gone further. They have asked Colombo to offer amnesty to LTTE leaders, devise a clear resettlement plan, and open the way for a political dialogue. Furthermore, they have called on Colombo to allow the LTTE to surrender to a third party.

The calls for ceasefire from the West have come at a critical point in Sri Lanka's civil war. The government is on the verge of inflicting a crushing military defeat on the LTTE, an organization once believed to be militarily invincible. Colombo has said it is only a few days away from ending a three-decade-long civil war. It also claims to be just a few kilometers from capturing Velupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the LTTE.

The government and its hawkish supporters believe nothing or nobody should attempt to stop them at this juncture. The government's vote base lies outside Colombo, and the prevailing mood is to get the war over and done with once and for all. President Mahinda Rajapksa is playing to the sentiments of this section.

"His government doesn't want to be seen to be doing what other countries are counseling it to do, hence the muscle flexing vis-a-vis the West," a retired Indian diplomat told Asia Times Online.

The international calls for ceasefire have raised hackles in Sri Lanka.

Commentaries and editorials in local newspapers have been scathing in their criticism of countries and international and local non-governmental organizations that have called for a ceasefire. India too, which has called for a "pause" in operations, has been at the receiving end of some of the stinging attacks.

Speaking a day after visiting UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband and his French counterpart Bernard Kouchner called for a ceasefire, Rajapakse ruled it out, saying that it was his "duty to protect the people of this country".

"I don't need lectures from Western representatives," Rajapaksa thundered, drawing attention to the US-led coalition's bombing of civilians in Afghanistan. "We have seen how Afghanistan is bombed. Those who come to preach to us [have] seen how Afghanistan is bombed."

Members of the Jatika Hela Urumaya, a party of Buddhist monks that makes up part of Sri Lanka's ruling coalition, marched to the British High Commission in Colombo to protest against Miliband's call for a ceasefire and his "support of terrorism". Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, who was to accompany Miliband and Kouchner on their visit, was denied a visa.

A part of the reason for Sri Lanka's prickliness to international advice has to do with post-colonial sensitivities, and its response to foreign or Western intervention in the ethnic conflict and the war is not new. Sinhala-Buddhist hardliners - Rajapaksa's support base - were at the forefront of the opposition to Indian intervention in the conflict and the deployment of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka in the 1980s. These sections were also opposed to Norway's role as a facilitator in the 2002 peace process, perceiving it as partial to the LTTE. The collapse of the peace process was blamed on the failure of the peace process' external supporters - the West - to rein in the LTTE.

It is in this context that the current hostility to the West should be seen. Many people feel that as these nations did not contribute positively to conflict resolution in Sri Lanka, that they should not meddle now that the war is nearing its end.

A report in The Times newspaper quoted Western diplomats as saying that the US is threatening to block a $1.9 billion emergency loan to Sri Lanka from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Apparently, the US, Britain and others are unwilling to unconditionally bail Colombo out of its financial crisis when it has dismissed outright their concerns about civilian casualties in the combat zone.

The Sri Lankan economy is in severe crisis, caused in part by the global financial crisis but triggered mainly by the government's profligate spending on defense over the last couple of years.

In March, the government decided to turn to the IMF for help, two years after it had parted ways with the financial institution. Rajapaksa said his government would not accept any conditions on the IMF loan. "We will not pawn or sell our motherland to obtain any monetary aid," he said. The IMF usually attaches conditions onto emergency loans.

There are indications now that the IMF will delay its loan to Sri Lanka. It is under pressure to do so from the West. Why is the government defying the West at a time when it needs its support the most? Post-war reconstruction work will require billions of dollars.

It appears that the government is looking to some of its Asian friends for help through these trying times. China, which has come out in full support of Colombo's ongoing military operations in the north, has been generous in its sale of weapons to Sri Lanka, meeting Colombo's wish list without asking uncomfortable questions or imposing unwanted conditions. Its financial aid to Sri Lanka touched $1 billion in 2007, and it is building and funding an array of large projects across the island, including a port in southeastern coastal town of Hambantota and a coal power plant at Norochcholai, in the island's western Puttalam district.

Unlike India or the West, which have frustrated the Sri Lankan government on humanitarian issues, China has ignored Colombo's human-rights record. It is expected to bail out Sri Lanka should the ongoing war appear on the agenda of the UN Security Council and step up financial support in the coming months. An opportunity to enhance its presence and position of influence on an Indian Ocean island - and one that is so close to India's southern shores - is not one that Beijing will pass on.

And then there is Pakistan, Iran and Libya. Pakistan's supply of weaponry to Sri Lanka has played an important role in the government's victories over the LTTE. Islamabad might not be in a position to bail out Colombo, given its own financial problems and shaky security situation, but "the Islamabad card will come in handy for Sri Lanka to use to get India to hike its support," pointed out the Indian diplomat.

As for Iran, it is Sri Lanka's main supplier of oil, a big investor in oil refineries in the island, and has been providing Colombo low-interest credit for its arms purchases. It is expected to supply oil to Sri Lanka on easier terms in the coming months.

Then there is Libya. Rajapaksa suceeded in getting a $500 million soft loan from the Libyan government during his visit to Tripoli late last month. The president is on the lookout for more countries to bail his country out - he is currently in Jordan and is expected to drop in on other Asian friends.

Sri Lankan officials believe that "after the LTTE is knocked out, the government can cut back on defense expenditure" providing it with some relief on the economic front. Besides, for all their pressure on the human-rights situation, Western countries will come around and help Sri Lanka. Their quarrel with the government is after not over its war against the LTTE, but the ensuing civilian death toll. Once the war ends, the government is confident that the West will not deny Sri Lanka much-needed humanitarian assistance and respond positively to UN appeals for humanitarian assistance for Sri Lanka's internally displaced.

For now, Colombo is focused on finishing off the LTTE. The faster it does so, the quicker it can get the West off its back. For the past several weeks it has been saying that the end of the war is days, if not hours away. That seems a job easier claimed than completed.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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