Rajapaksa Using Sino-Indian Rivalry in Sri Lanka: Activist

By M.R. Narayan Swamy

New Delhi, Sep 16 (IANS) Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa is using the perceived Sino-Indian rivalry to keep at bay New Delhi's concerns over the Tamil community, says a leading rights activist from Colombo.

But India has many options to ensure that promises repeatedly made by Rajapaksa to Indian leaders are kept so that minorities feel a sense of equality, P. Saravanamuthu told a group of Sri Lanka watchers here late Wednesday.

Saravanamuthu, executive director of the Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternatives, said Rajapaksa was "cleverly" using contradictions in the international community - between the West and Asia, between China and India - to its political advantage.

"But the Rajapaksa regime needs to recognise that they can use the China card to a certain extent, not forever," Saravanamuthu said at a meeting organised here by the Sanchal Foundation.

In recent times, China and India have emerged as two of Sri Lanka's biggest economic partners. India is Sri Lanka's largest trade partner, and Beijing became Colombo's biggest single lender in 2009.

A section of India's strategic community is concerned over China's growing clout in Sri Lanka -- evident in its involvement in mammoth infrastructure projects and military ties with Colombo.

This has happened at a time when the US has scaled back military assistance to Colombo while Britain and Germany have pruned their economic aid because of unhappiness over the Rajapaksa regime's rights record.

Saravanamuthu said if India wants, it can assert itself, "and it has a lot more options". He noted that changes seemed to be coming about in India's stand from a time when it wholeheartedly backed the Rajapaksa regime.

India continues to harp on a political solution to the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka that ended in the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009. The conflict, one of the bloodiest in the world, claimed around 90,000 lives since 1983.

During a recent visit to Colombo, Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao emphasized that while development and rehabilitation of refugees were fine, Sri Lanka could not overlook "some of the needs of the minorities".

"You have a regime which is unable or unwilling to comprehend the post-war challenges," he said. "So the Tamil polity is left relying on Delhi...Delhi has a lot of catching up to do."

In an obvious reference to India's repeated calls for a united Sri Lanka, he said: "Can one have unity without reconciliation? Can one have reconciliation without accountability?"

Saravanamuthu pointed out that "there is a lot of militarisation" in Sri Lanka's northeast, the former war theatre, and Colombo had systematically undermined the provincial council in the country's eastern wing led by a former Tamil Tiger guerrilla.

The rights activist, who is also a keen political observer, said President Rajapaksa and his family were increasingly concentrating power in their hands.

"The Rajapaksa family is at the zenith of its power. They have tremendous control over the entire state apparatus. They will effectively own the state."

Earlier this month, the Sri Lankan parliament approved proposals removing the two-term cap for the country's president, giving him immunity, and vesting in him the final authority over all appointments in civil service, police and judiciary.

"It is an attempt to perpetuate dynastic rule," Saravanamuthu said.


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