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Sri Lanka’s aggressive foreign policy pays off

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Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse's foreign policy based on an aggressive display of nationalism appears to be paying off.

In the two years Rajapakse has been in power, the government has taken on the UN and the West and has rapped multilateral bodies on the knuckles for being soft on the Tamil Tigers.

It has also demonstrated closeness to China and Pakistan regardless of how India, the only neighbour, may view it.

But Colombo has been none the worse for all the boldness, even if it has smacked of adventurism and abrasiveness at times.

There has been consistent and strident international criticism of the way the regime is handling the ethnic crisis, especially the huge humanitarian problem unending fighting has triggered.

But foreign governments and multilateral organisations have been reluctant to translate expressions of displeasure into corrective action.

As an analyst put it, 'The international community has barked, but not bitten.'

Western governments and West-based international organisations had got into the habit of making unsolicited comments on the internal affairs of Sri Lanka, often lecturing to its leaders on good governance, democracy and prudent political management.

Not surprisingly, Sri Lankans find this condescending and annoying.

Under the regime of Rajapakse, the popular trend here is to launch hostile campaigns against foreign governments and international bodies including those affiliated to the UN. At times, cabinet ministers and leading lights in parliament spearhead these campaigns.

Surprisingly, the responses of the affected governments and organisations have been tepid.

There has been no threat of withdrawal from the country by any group. Nor has there been any significant reduction of aid, on which Sri Lanka is so heavily dependent.

Some time ago, Britain and Germany had announced cuts in their aid, citing the continued conflict and slow progress in the peace process. But the amounts were small.

And Japan, the single largest donor, has stated that it will continue to aid Sri Lanka despite the human rights violations, because stoppage of aid will only harm the innocent poor in the country.

Although depending on the US for help to fight the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) globally, Rajapakse recently paid a state visit to Iran, America's enemy. The visit was a success in terms of project aid, as Iran gave Sri Lanka what Rajapakse asked for.

At the Commonwealth summit at Kampala, the Sri Lankan stand on Pakistan's expulsion was at variance with that of the others, including Britain, Canada and Australia whose help too is vital to break the LTTE's global links.

Sri Lanka went out of the way to tout Pakistan's case even at the risk of alienating India. But Colombo was none the worse for all that. It was made part of a group charged with the task of talking to Pakistan.

Rajapakse's highly publicised support to Pakistan at Kampala was an expression of gratitude for helping out Sri Lanka with urgent military aid in 2000 when the LTTE was knocking at the gates of Jaffna and India failed to respond to cries of help.

Sri Lankans never tire of pointing out that it was to India that they had turned first but all that New Delhi offered was help to evacuate the beleaguered Sri Lankan troops.

The president has cleverly made use of both Pakistan and India in his fight against the LTTE.

While the Indians have been made to supply 'defensive' equipment like radars, Pakistan has been involved in the enhancement of the strike capability of the Sri Lankan Air Force. Successful air actions have helped curb the LTTE.

Regardless of possible repercussions for India, Rajapakse had got China to fund a major development project with international strategic implications. Chinese help for a mega international port at Humbantota in the south did set off alarm bells in India but New Delhi did little to prevent the president's lurch towards Beijing.

The success of Sri Lanka's aggressively independent stance was reflected in the outcome of the 6th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva that concluded Friday.

To the great embarrassment of Sri Lanka, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, declared that the Colombo government's human rights enforcement machinery was ineffective and urged the setting up of a UN rights monitoring office in the country.

Arbour's call came in the context of the fact that, through 2006 and 2007, 290,000 civilians, mostly Tamils and some Muslims, had been displaced by the war and over 3,500 were killed.

Attacks, extortions, abductions, disappearances and arbitrary detentions were going on, sometimes with state backing and aided by the tough anti-terror law made in December 2006.

The delegations of the US, EU, France, South Korea, Sweden, Canada and New Zealand voiced support for Arbour's call to set up a UN monitoring office in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka seemed to be isolated, but it fought the move tooth and nail -- and succeeded in scuttling it.

Talking the battle into the adversary's territory, its ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Dayan Jayatilleke, said his country did not want to be 'preached' by states whose human rights record was 'far from perfect'.

Sri Lanka would take advice from international bodies only when these had 'transparency of funding' and when their agendas were 'not donor driven', he declared brazenly.

Sri Lankan officials had kept hammering the point that their country could not be asked to observe Queensberry Rules in a war-cum-insurgency situation in which a beleaguered state was battling one of the most ruthless and well-organised insurgent groups in the world.

They accused the UN agencies and international rights organisations of not taking adequate note of the LTTE's rights violations or rapping it hard enough.

To the delight of Sri Lankan delegation and disappointment of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, the UN council concluded its deliberations without passing the expected resolution castigating Sri Lanka.

Japan, India and the Philippines had thrown their weight behind Sri Lanka at the council.

Clearly, the LTTE's behaviour since the Norway-sponsored ceasefire agreement in 2002 had helped the Sri Lankan government bolster its case against censure.

The LTTE had scuttled peace talks, provoked the government to take military action, bombed civilians outside the war zone and assassinated political leaders by using suicide bombers.

While Colombo's case at the Human Rights Council may have some merits, the persistent attacks against UN organisations and international NGOs seem to be needlessly confrontational.

But here again, there has been no backlash of any kind from the affected parties.

UNICEF has come in for much flak both in parliament and outside for having, in its offices, 'Ready to Eat' food packets supplied by a French military contractor. It was alleged that the packets were meant for the LTTE's fighting units!

UNICEF explained that such packets were routinely distributed among its offices in conflict areas across the globe as part of a survival kit. But the government remained unconvinced and police sleuths were told to probe the allegation.

International NGOs working in the conflict zone routinely face hostility, both in word and deed.

British High Commissioner Dominic Chilcott appealed to Sri Lankans not to demonise UN organizations, but this fell on deaf ears. At any rate, Chilcott had spoilt his case by saying that the LTTE's demand for an independent 'Eelam' was not 'illegitimate'.

The government not only summoned him for a dressing down but also announced that it would complain to the Foreign Office in London.

Earlier, in August, cabinet minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle called the UN Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, John Holmes, a 'terrorist who had taken money from the LTTE'. Holmes had said that Sri Lanka was a 'risky' place for aid workers.

When UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described Fernandopulle's remark as 'unacceptable and unwarranted', the minister made it plain that he did not 'care a damn.'

The UN's response to this was silence.

P.K. Balachandran can be contacted at [email protected]

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