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Global implications of Sri Lanka's civil war

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At first glance, Sri Lanka's vicious civil war might appear to have little consequence beyond the island's own teardrop-shaped shores.


But the conflict has rapidly come to reflect tectonic shifts in global power.


Since hostilities resumed in 2006, Sri Lanka's brutal attempts to crush the Tamil Tigers have brought its government into open confrontation with traditional Western allies and trading partners.


For the last two years America, the UK and the EU have all loudly decried Sri Lanka's atrocious record on human rights, repeatedly accusing the government of failing to live up to basic international obligations.


Last March a US State Department report accused the government, dominated by ethnic Sinhalese, of attacking civilians and practising "torture, kidnapping, hostage-taking, and extortion with impunity".


All requests to allow the UN commissioner on human rights to set up a mission in Sri Lanka have simply been shrugged off by Colombo, which was last May voted off the UN's high commission for refugees.


There was a time when such stinging rebukes from America and its Western allies in the international community would have forced restraint on a small, aid-dependent country like Sri Lanka. Not any more.


When EU countries, including Britain, tried to pressure Sri Lanka by freezing the development aid on which the country's inflation-wracked economy depends, the government quickly found that less picky friends, in the shape of China and Iran, were only too willing to help.


While Western politicians, like Britain's Lord Malloch Brown, the minister for south Asia, made statements condemning Sri Lanka at the United Nations, Sri Lanka cut the deals which have enabled it to ignore Western opinion.


After a visit to Beijing by the Sri Lankan President, Mahinda Rajapakse, last year, China's aid to Sri Lanka increased fivefold to almost £500 million a year, a move which deeply unsettled India which already resents China's strategic alliance with its northern foe, Pakistan.


For America, however, concerns over China's decision to fill the Sri Lankan aid vacuum have been eclipsed by Sri Lanka's blossoming relationship with Iran, which has pledged more than £900m in soft loans, grants and cheap oil, making it Sri Lanka's largest foreign donor overnight.


When President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Colombo earlier this year, the Sri Lankan capital was plastered with billboard photographs of the two presidents, smiling beneath the slogans "The Friendly Path to Progress" and "Traditional Asian Solidarity."


"In Asia, we don't go around preaching to our neighbours and our friends," said Sri Lanka's foreign secretary, Palitha Kohona, at the time. "This public naming and shaming process that seems to have become so popular in the West is really not so accepted here."


The message is clear. With friends like China and Iran behind them, Sri Lanka no longer needs to allow the human rights concerns of Western powers to stop it fighting to its bitter end by fair means or by foul.

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