Sri Lanka, when Resistance Becomes Irrelevant

May 1, 2009

After weeks of denying that it had launched attacks on civilians in the “no-fire zone” in Sri Lanka’s north-east, the government has now admitted that it did bomb the zone, although it continues to claim that the attacks were “proportionate” and “perfectly legitimate.”

The government would not have admitted to any of this without the leaking of United Nations satellite photographs that clearly show bomb craters in the civilian zone, although the government argues that the craters were made during the targeting of LTTE heavy artillery before civilians streamed into the area.

The admission lends more credibility to claims that Sri Lanka’s government has been responsible for the death of thousands of Tamil civilians through wholesale military slaughter.

According to Human Rights Watch’s Meenakshi Ganguly, it also shows that Colombo “deliberately deceived the international community when they expressed concern about the situation.”

But since the controversy erupted this week, public access to the UN photos has been mysteriously curtailed. A PDF analysis of the pictures linked to by HRW and hosted by the UN has now been taken offline. There appears to be an internal struggle in the UN over how much we should know, and what we should think, about Sri Lanka’s civil war.

There is also a division amongst the “international community” with some nations calling for a ceasefire and others implicitly urging Colombo to carry its war to an even bloodier conclusion.

India, a key regional player, has sent envoys to the island and its foreign ministry now states that “We are very unhappy at the continued killing in Sri Lanka. All killing must stop.”

After weeks of inaction, despite growing and impressive Tamil protests outside parliament, British Foreign Secretary David Milliband has also visited Sri Lanka and called for a ceasefire, along with France and Sweden.

Why it took so long for Britain to show opposition to a nation which has banned aid agencies and journalists from reporting within the war zone is another mystery.

Washington has also been prodded into action. For months, the United States has been pushing an IMF loan on Sri Lanka despite the deteriorating human rights record of its government. But now, that $1.9 billion loan may be delayed. It may be delayed, but Washington has been extremely loathe to criticize Colombo, which is an important regional ally and investor in the “war on terror.”

The fine words are all too little too late. The are also deeply hypocritical, as Britain and the U.S. have played key roles in strengthening the government’s hand in recent years. For example, as the Stockholm Peace Research Institute reported this week, while the attacks were planned and developed, Britain’s arms exports to Sri Lanka rose from £1 million to £1.4 million over the past year.

Even now that Britain is giving money to relief efforts in Sri Lanka, there are suspicions that such funds will not be used simply to temporarily house those evicted by military action. The camps, which the Times labels as “internment” facilities, are also being used to weed out potential rebels. They are, effectively, concentration camps.

And despite their protestations, western governments have been told to mind their own business by Sri Lanka. Colombo even opted to deny Sweden’s Foreign Minister entry to the country, humiliating his travel partners David Milliband and Bernard Kouchner.

The bankruptcy of western powers is clear from the comments of Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa, who told the nation that “we have seen how Afghanistan is bombed. Those who come to preach to us [have] seen how Afghanistan is bombed. It must be made clear that before accusing others, you must have the strength to know what you do yourself.”

There is also no reason to believe that expressions of concern are genuine. As the WSWS argues, “No one should place any faith in the imperialist powers’ intervention to halt the war. Their attitude was revealed in the UN Security Council presidential statement issued last week. Far from condemning the Rajapakse government for its war crimes or threatening action if it failed to stop the fighting, the declaration demanded that the LTTE lay down its arms and surrender.”

The WSWS also notes astutely that the western powers are “all hovering around Sri Lanka to stake their claim in the new environment created in the wake of the LTTE’s defeat.”

They are less concerned with civilian deaths than with access to military exports, the deep water port of Trincomalee and, consequently, with ensuring control of the Indian Ocean.

This is particularly important given that as conventional oil supplies are stretched, China will depend more and more upon shipment via sea from Middle Eastern producers. The Indian Ocean will become a natural, and critical, choke-point.

It is fast becoming a crucible for international competition. China, far from holding back from Sri Lanka, has signed an agreement with Colombo to develop its own port facility at the southern port of Hambantota. India and the U.S. are focusing on the country’s north and securing the Straits of Jaffna, a goal for which the elimination of LTTE resistance is extremely important.

The civilians of Sri Lanka’s north have been caught in the middle, and the LTTE has been powerless to resist. No nation has been willing to stand up for them, however mildly, as their strategic relevance is now zero. Hence the worldwide approval for the orgy of state-dispensed violence that we have seen for the past few months.

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