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China's Support to Sri Lanka- The Indian Dilemma

After considerable head scratching and soul searching, the Govt. of India decided to vote against Sri Lanka in the U.S. sponsored resolution in the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva , not without forcing an amendment to provide for concurrence and consultations with Sri Lanka . India tried to sooth the ruffled feathers of its small neighbour by saying that the Council has the responsibility to provide the time and space to achieve the objective of reconciliation and peace “rather than hinder it”. From all accounts the Srilankans were not satisfied with India as evident from its foreign minister’s veiled criticism that the “ most distressing feature was “ that voting was determined not by the merits of a particular issue but by the strategic alliances and domestic political issues in other countries “ – a bleak reference to the DMK’s pressure on the UPA Govt to vote in favour of the resolution – which in any case is non confrontational .

China not unexpectedly strongly supported Sri Lanka, opposed the US backed resolution and went on to say that Sri Lanka had made great strides in promoting human rights and towards achieving national reconciliation .The Chinese foreign office said that they are opposed to country specific resolution ( something which India held on to till the very end ) and certified that Sri Lanka is capable of looking after its own affairs.

Many strategic experts are concerned that the Indian vote would push Sri Lanka further into Chinese arms. It is well known that China supplied arms and ammunition for the Sri Lankan army to vanquish the LTTE. The two countries had pledged to deepen their strategic ties in a recent visit of Sri Lankan Defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse. The Chinese Defence minister stated on this occasion that China will continue to support Sri Lanka’s efforts to safeguard independence, sovereignty , and territorial integrity .

So , should India keep worrying about China and to a lesser extent about Pakistan gaining ground in Sri Lanka to the detriment of its relations with its smaller neighbour? The question is whether Sri Lanka would not have taken its relations closer to China even if India had not voted in favour of the resolution . Finally in what way India’s security is getting eroded by Colombo getting cosier with Beijing ?

The Chinese vote at the UNHRC was predictable. They vetoed resolutions in the UN Security Council against the Syrian Govt for its human right violations . China abhors any international action against human right violations in any country ever since the Tian An Men incidents in June 1989. Ever since the unraveling of the Soviet Union it abhors political liberalization with a Confucian psyche of fearing disorder in the society . On the top of it , China has its own problems of Tibet and Xinjiang where it has been putting down the local uprisings with firm hands with no concern for human rights. It does not want to be next in line by supporting the resolution against Srilanka in the UNHRC.

Some concerned individuals have raised the issue whether India would also not be exposing itself to similar resolutions on Kashmir? Definitely not . The situation in Sri Lanka and India are not similar . India has a number of safeguards against human right violations in any part of India and not only in Kashmir. We have a very vibrant National Human Rights Commission and number of NGOs clamouring whenever a suspected human right violation occurs in any part of India. Even if such a violation occurs we should be able to answer the international community and tell them the action we are taking. One cannot forget that Kashmiris have their own state , their own chief minister and are protected in many ways from majority aggression by Article 376. In contrast the Tamils of Sril Lanka have no safeguard what so ever. After all the UNHCR resolution is only asking for the report of their own commission to be implemented quickly . It is now over 3 years since the war ended and there is no move to give the Tamils of Sri Lanka their due.

An earlier UN Panel has said that nearly 40000 people / civilians died during last stages of the war , mainly due to Srilankan army’s intensive and deliberate shelling of areas that were packed with civilians, including hospitals and sites designated for food distribution. Even people in India who were neutral earlier due to their antipathy to the brutality of LTTE and the fact that it assassinated an important and young leader of modern India, Rajiv Gandhi , were shocked when they saw the video of Channel 4. What was the need to shoot in cold blood a teenage son of Prabhakaran ? India has been constantly frustrated by the Srilankan failure to keep up its promises to India to bring in genuine devolution of power and implementation of 13th amendment . President Rajapakse has a none too praiseworthy record of failing to implement the recommendations of previous commissions . It is obvious that the LLRC’s report will also be ignored in the same fashion. It is possible that President Rajapakse who has a larger than life figure of DuttuGemunu – the king who beat the Tamils – is hamstrung by pressure from Sinhala Nationalists and hence is not ready to use his preeminent position in Srilankan politics to extend the concessions to the Tamils. One cannot forget that it is Rajapakse who went to Geneva in late 80s and asked for international help to stop the human right violations in Sri Lanka when the Govt. of Sri Lanka was battling the JVP insurgents. Of course , the victims of Human right violations were members of the JVP who were mostly Sinhalese. Even the current UNHCR resolution will not change anything in Sri Lanka. This was evident when Mohan Peiris, chief legal adviser to the cabinet, said after the meeting of the Council that “It won’t change anything, we will just forge ahead as planned.” Srilankan intention to stone wall any criticism was evident when Navi Pillai a top official of the human right agency said that “there has been an unprecedented and totally unacceptable level of threats, harassment and intimidation directed at Sri Lanka activists who travelled to Geneva to engage in the debate, including by members of the 71-member official Sri Lankan delegation .” Two Tamil members of parliament were reported to have been stopped from boarding a flight to Geneva

The Govt. of India is to be praised for finally coming out of the “fear of China” in deciding its foreign policies .It goes with India’s new image of a self confident emerging economic power ready to play a regional if not a global role. It is also worth pondering whether only India should be sensitive to its neighbours’ concerns and whether the latter have no responsibility to take care of India’s concerns. While Govt. of India’s decision could very well have been influenced by Tamil Nadu politics , Sri Lanka also needs to take into account that there is an emotional tie between the Tamils across the Palk strait.

I recall reading a piece by a Sri Lankan editor years back how coincidentally the road between Sri Lankan High Commission in Delhi’s diplomatic enclave and its neighbouring Chinese Embassy is aptly named Kautilya Marg – a reference to Chanakya’s dictum that a neighbour’s neighbour is your friend ! Sri Lanka values Indian traditional values .Any number of their ministers visit Bodh Gaya and other places of Buddhist interest. They even visit Tirupati on thanks giving trip. On individual level they are wonderful friends and hosts .But suspicion about India lingers with memories of 7th century Chola invasion . This needs to go if genuine warmth is to be established between the two countries.

India’s vote may incite Sinhala Nationalism . India has to brace for it and deal with it as a mature nation.. China or no china India has rightly taken the moral high road. Let us not regret or have second thoughts .

( The writer,Mr S.Gopal, is former Special Secretary to the Government of India.Email –

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