No. 54, June 2013

No. 54
(June 2013):

Whose Agenda? US Strategic Interests, India, and Sri Lankan War Crimes

No political question can be entirely separated from the political economy of the country and that of the world. So too for the question of ‘human rights’: We need to look at who is raising the question, from what angle, and their position within the world order, in order to grasp the real significance of that particular development for the lives of the people.

The United States has circulated a proposed resolution against Sri Lanka at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in March 2013. A documentary by Britain’s Channel 4 (No War Zone – the Killing Fields of Sri Lanka) is to be screened at the UNHRC.This documentary is a follow-up to two earlier documentaries by the same channel. The first, titled Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields (June 2011), containing particularly shocking footage of war crimes, was screened at gatherings of representatives of different countries. The second, Killing Fields: War Crimes Unpunished (March 2012) systematically presented the evidence of the Sri Lankan government’s war crimes. An advance screening of the latest film was held at Delhi on February 2. In the words of the director of the film, “The new evidence in the film is certain to increase pressure on the Indian government not only to support a resolution on Sri Lanka and accountability, but also to ensure that it is robustly worded, and that it outlines an effective plan for international action to end impunity in Sri Lanka.”[1]

As we write this, it is reported that India is likely to vote in support of a US-backed resolution against Sri Lanka before the UNHRC in March 2013, as it did in 2012.

One revelation in the documentary has attracted particularly wide attention in India: pictures of the son of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) chief Velupillai Prabakaran, Balachandran, alive and unharmed in the custody of Sri Lankan troops. This is followed by a picture of the boy a few hours later, lying dead with five bullets in his chest: proof that he was killed in custody. These pictures have rekindled memories of the unspeakable horrors of 2009. But the knowledge of the horrors is in the main not new: The world had ample evidence of these as they were occurring.

The media have fostered the impression that the Indian government has been under pressure to vote in favour of the US-proposed resolution mainly because of the sentiments of its own Tamil population. It is of course true that the major parliamentary parties in Tamil Nadu have now been competing with one another to show their support for the resolution. Comparing the killing of Balachandran with the killing of Jews in Nazi Germany, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, J Jayalalithaa, demanded that the Indian government hold discussions with the US and like-minded countries and draft a U.N. resolution against Sri Lanka, and bring about economic sanctions against that country. For her part, she called off the 20th Asian Athletics Championships scheduled to be held in Chennai in July 2013, saying that Lankan players had no place in the state. Her opponent, DMK president M. Karunanidhi, was one with her on this question: It pained him that while Western countries were ready to support the US-sponsored resolution against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC, India was yet to announce its stand on the issue. Support for this stand came from other, unlikely, quarters as well: The Communist Party of India leader D. Raja and former Chief Justice of Delhi High Court and noted defender of human rights, Rajinder Sachar, demanded that India vote against Sri Lanka at the coming UNHRC session. The Tamil Nadu unit of CPI(M), too, demanded that India support the US-sponsored resolution.

The Rajapakse regime, for its part, continues to pursue its objectives. The Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapakse, in his recent address to the nation on the occasion of the Sri Lankan Independence Day (February 4), laid out his vision of the future for the Tamils of his country. “It is not practical for this country to have different administrations based on ethnicity.” In plain language, there is no scope for the Tamil minority to enjoy any political autonomy in the Tamil-majority provinces. Indeed large army camps remain in the erstwhile Tamil-controlled areas in the north and east of the country, where the 270,000-odd ‘re-settled’ Tamils live under close military monitoring, and there are reports that the Sri Lankan government is pursuing a policy of introducing Sinhala settlements in the region, not unlike the Israeli policy of settlements in the occupied West Bank. In response to Rajapakse’s recent speech, Karunanidhi called upon the Indian government to “wake up at least now and understand the true colours and motives” of Rajapakse; “during his rule”, says Karunanidhi, “lakhs of Tamils had been massacred; many uprooted from their soil and forced to lead a life of refugees and orphans in various countries…. He destroyed their livelihoods, appropriated the lands, homes and factories of Tamils in the North and East and deprived them of democratic rights…. The entire world views him as [an] international war criminal.”[2]

It is beyond doubt that the Sri Lankan Army committed war crimes on a very large scale, and that they did so on the instruction of, and with the protection of, Rajapakse. This makes him a war criminal, deserving of condemnation by the people of the world and punishment by the peoples of Sri Lanka. However, these war crimes did not come to light just now; nor in 2012, when the UNHRC passed its earlier resolution against Sri Lanka. They have been documented for many years. They reached their highest pitch in 2009; pressure at that time to prevent these war crimes could have saved tens of thousands of lives. The UN and the rulers of various countries, in particular the rulers of the US and India, were well aware of what was happening in real-time. They did not act then. Their feigned concern now has other motives. Rajapakse, for his part, poses as the man who fearlessly defends Sri Lankan interests, even at the cost of incurring the wrath of the West. However, his anti-imperialism is as fake as the imperialist powers’ concern for human rights in Sri Lanka.

Changed balance of forces in 2006
Let us recall: The US had declared the Tamil force, LTTE, to be a “Foreign Terrorist Organisation” 16 years ago, in 1997 itself; more importantly, it upgraded this characterisation to “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” status in 2001, as part of its ‘Global War on Terror’. In May 2006, under pressure from the US, the European Union too declared the LTTE a terrorist organisation. In a post-9/11 world, these were clear green signals to the Sri Lankan government to launch an offensive. The same year, the US took steps to cut off its supply of funds from the Tamil diaspora and arrested LTTE operatives engaged in procuring surface-to-air missiles; Canada and Europe immediately followed suit. In a very short space of time, the LTTE lost almost all its expatriate funding, which was critical to it (it had no funding from any State power). In 2004, a faction of the LTTE led by V. Muralitharan (“Col. Karuna”) split away from the parent body and, with its own military force and knowledge of the secrets of the LTTE, allied itself to the Sri Lankan government.

Even as the LTTE was thus weakened considerably, the Sri Lankan government embarked on a massive expansion of its armed forces. The Sri Lankan military budget rose by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2008, and the army’s size increased by 70 per cent.[3] Israel, a close ally of the US, supplied the Sri Lankan armed forces with combat aircraft and patrol craft.[4] India supplied patrol vessels and radars[5]; more importantly, the Indian Navy’s Southern Command helped the Sri Lankan navy cut off the LTTE’s supplies of arms (which were smuggled in by sea) and helped block the movement of LTTE naval vessels.[6] Pakistan supplied ammunition and hand grenades. China supplied vehicles, small arms, light weapons, artillery, and ammunition on a large scale; it also supplied some aircraft and one radar.[7] (China also stepped up its economic aid to Sri Lanka steeply, to $1 billion in 2007, replacing Japan as Sri Lanka’s biggest donor.) Foreign military training, including by the US, improved the capability of the forces. According a 2009 report of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations,

Sri Lanka continues to grant blanket over-flight and landing clearance to US military aircraft and routinely grants access to ports by US vessels. US military training and defense assistance programs have provided basic infantry supplies, maritime surveillance, and interdiction equipment for the navy and communications and mobility equipment to improve the Army’s humanitarian effort and UN peacekeeping missions, according to the Congressional Research Service. In 2007, the United States and Sri Lanka signed an Acquisition and Cross-Services Agreement, which created a framework for increased military interoperability. [8]

The Access and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) provides US military ships and planes access to Sri Lankan military facilities and fuel. In 2007, the US provided sophisticated radar equipment to help the Sri Lankan navy defeat the LTTE navy.[9] In brief, several powers played a critical role in changing the balance of forces in Sri Lanka – militarily choking off and weakening the LTTE, strengthening the Sri Lankan government, and thus encouraging the Sri Lankan government offensive. All of these powers have blood on their hands.

In July 2006, despite the existence of a cease-fire with the LTTE (which was the de facto government in the north and east of the country), the Government of Sri Lanka initiated a major offensive against first the east and then the north. Soon came a steady stream of reports by the UN and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) alleging that atrocities were being committed by the Sri Lankan armed forces and its armed ally, the “Karuna” group.[10] There followed abductions,torture, and extra-judicial killings of Tamil supporters of the LTTE, shelling and aerial bombing of LTTE-held areas, and the cutting-off of civilian supplies by land and sea to the north. Hundreds of Tamils were deported from Colombo and dumped in the war zones of the North and East. Throughout this period, the US government explicitly re-affirmed its support for the Sri Lankan government. Within a year, the Sri Lankan armed forces had re-captured the East, and imposed a military administration there. In November 2007, a targeted strike killed the LTTE’s top negotiator, S.P. Tamilchelvan, along with some other senior LTTE leaders. By this time the UN had ample evidence of the conditions in the east, including mass displacements and shelling of civilians.[11]

The UN and international human rights groups also accused the Sri Lankan armed forces of forcibly rounding up children to be drafted into the pro-government Karuna group.[12]

The assault on Vanni
In 2007 the Government launched its military campaign in Vanni, the last remaining area under LTTE control. (Some idea of the extent of coordination between the Sri Lankan government, the US, and India can be got from the leaked cable of the US embassy in Colombo, June 5 2007, reporting that the Indian navy had withdrawn its request for the proposed US-provided coastal radar to be moved to the south of the country.)[13]

In September 2008, as the conflict entered its final stages, the Sri Lankan government officially informed the UN it could no longer guarantee the safety of UN staff in Vanni. Within three weeks, the UN withdrew all international staff, effectively ending UN assistance operations in Vanni. As the UN prepared to leave, people in Vanni approached UN staff pleading with them to stay, saying: “Some families have come to Killinochchi town due to the presence of international organizations and the belief that this would provide some form of physical security”; “there is a concern that the moment that humanitarian organizations leave, the Government will begin bombing Killinochchi town and that the physical security of the civilian population will be at increased risk”; “… the absence of the UN would result in no one [being present] to bear witness to incidents…”[14]

These requests fell on deaf ears.

In October 2008, the Sri Lankan military began its final assault on Vanni. The LTTE was pushed step by step into a small strip of the northeast coast in Mullaitivu district, along with some 350,000 civilians of Vanni. By January the LTTE capital of Kilinochchi fell.

On January 6, 2009, the US embassy in Colombo issued a statement welcoming the fall of Kilinochchi, and hoping for a political solution that addressed “the aspirations of all Sri Lankans, including Tamils, Muslims, and Sinhalese.” At the same time, the US made clear that “The United States does not advocate that the Government of Sri Lanka negotiate with the LTTE, a group designated by the United States since 1997 as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.”[15]

The general tenor of US statements through the remainder of the war remained one of condemnation of the LTTE, combined with politely worded requests to the Sri Lankan regime: to avoid firing at civilians, to allow international humanitarian access to the trapped civilians, and for a post-war scheme power-sharing involving all Sri Lankan communities (but not the LTTE). This stance served to obscure the glaring truth that, irrespective of the actions or character of the LTTE, the “conflict” was not a battle between two armies to conquer Sri Lanka. It was an entirely one-sided drive by the Sri Lankan regime to annihilate the LTTE and wipe out any organised expression of the Sri Lankan Tamils’ aspirations. This has been amply borne out in the nearly four years since May 2009, after the LTTE has ceased to exist as an organised force.

Thus, on January 21, 2009, the Sri Lankan military declared a “safe zone” (or “no fire zone”, NFZ) for civilians of 32 sq km within that strip, whereupon civilians crowded into that strip; the Sri Lankan military proceeded to intensively shell this “no fire zone”. On February 12 it announced a new NFZ of 10 sq km, and for the next three months concentrated its fire on this tiny strip of land. The targets included camps of displaced persons and hospitals.

During this period, the Government of Sri Lanka systematically starved the Vanni region, and particularly the NFZ, of food and medical supplies. Starvation deaths began to be reported from the beginning of March 2009. People were reported at places to be crying for food and lying down by the side of the road, hardly able to move. Cases were reported of people falling into coma due to having eaten poisonous plants. By March emergency procedures like amputations were performed without any anaesthesia.[16]

In the final weeks of the conflict, doctors in the Mullivaikkal hospital had to operate with butchers’ knives and watered-down anaesthetics due to shortage of medical supplies. For lack of replacement blood, the staff filtered what they could from the patients through a cloth before feeding it back into their veins.[17] (The doctors and other medical staff displayed remarkable heroism in continuing to work under these conditions, despite being repeatedly targeted by Sri Lankan shelling.)

The Sri Lankan systematically excluded international aid workers and journalists from zone, so as to improve ‘deniability’. However, the US embassy continued to gather detailed information regarding these conditions throughout this period from various sources; apart from which, of course, it had access to satellite images.

Evidence available at the time to the UN, US, and other powers
Further, at the end of January, the UN was presented with incontrovertible evidence of the killing of civilians by shelling when the two UN international staff who had been forced to remain with a civilian aid convoy returned to Colombo with first-hand witness reports and documentation of the events that other sources were already reporting. A UN staff member’s February 9 mission report said “Estimates by UN agencies based on reliable [emphasis added] first-hand information, but not yet made public, suggest that at least 5,000 civilians, many of them young children, have been killed and injured … [including] at least 1,000 civilians … killed and almost 3,000 injured during the period 20 January–5 February alone… According to the UN’s data most casualties were caused by Government fire and included attacks on UN premises and hospitals.”[18]

As the 2011 Channel 4 documentary showed (and had already been reported at the time itself), the bombing of the makeshift hospitals was repeated and systematic. When the Red Cross provided the Sri Lankan government the global positioning coordinates of a hospital, these coordinates were actually used in order to target the shells more precisely at it.

According to the report of the UN Panel of Experts, “From as early as 6 February 2009, the SLA [Sri Lanka Army] continuously shelled within the area that became the second NFZ, from all directions, including land, sea and air. It is estimated that there were between 300,000 and 330,000 civilians in that small area. The SLA assault employed aerial bombardment, long-range artillery, howitzers and MBRLs [unguided missile systems] as well as small mortars, RPGs [Rocket Propelled Grenades] and small arms fire …”[19]

As noted by the UN’s Internal Review Panel (IRP) in November 2012, “Throughout the final stages, the UN issued many public statements and reports accusing the LTTE of committing human rights and international humanitarian law violations, and mentioning thousands of civilians killed. But… the UN almost completely omitted to explicitly mention Government responsibility for violations of international law.”[20]

In late April, satellite photographs of the Vanni region taken by UNITAR’s Operational Satellite Applications Programme (UNOSAT) became public, making it possible estimate afresh the number of people still in the Vanni region, and confirming that there was ongoing shelling by heavy artillery. However, as the IRP report notes, UN officials chose to downplay this information.[21] Meanwhile, the situation in the region deteriorated and there were reports of ever increasing numbers of civilian deaths.

From early May 2009 as the LTTE was nearing total defeat, some of its members contacted senior UN officials to ask for their help in facilitating a surrender. The UN Secretary General’s chief of staff, Vijay Nambiar, asked the Government to allow him to fly into the conflict zone to witness a surrender and act as a guarantor of safe passage. The Government refused.[22] By 18 May 2009 most of the remaining LTTE leadership was executed, including some who on the morning of May 18 had crossed into Government-held territory unarmed and with white flags. Channel 4’s documentary presents video evidence that Sri Lankan soldiers killed unarmed LTTE prisoners (men and women), and that they sexually abused many LTTE women soldiers before killing them. We see the soldiers laughing and making repugnant comments as they load onto a truck the naked corpses of women.This footage is in fact from ‘trophy videos’ filmed by the Sri Lankan soldiers themselves.

Death toll of the last stage
The US and other imperialist powers had ample evidence of the final slaughter even as it occurred. An investigation by The Times, London, published on May 29, 2009, revealed that aerial photographs, official documents, witness accounts and expert testimony presented clear evidence that more than 20,000 civilians were killed by Sri Lankan military shelling in the final stages of the war. (“Higher”, a UN source was quoted as saying by The Times.) An average of 1,000 civilians a day were estimated to have been killed by bombing and shelling from the end of April to May 19. UN satellite images leaked to the press documented the bombing of medical facilities.[23]

The UN’s Panel of Experts stated that “[a] number of credible sources have estimated that there could have been as many as 40,000 civilian deaths.”[24] The Internal Review Panel report cites other sources with credible information indicating that about 70,000 civilians of the Vanni region are unaccounted for.[25] World Bank population data for the north of Sri Lanka for 2007 and 2010, village by village, also indicate that over 100,000 persons are unaccounted for.[26]

UN blessings for internment camps
During the final months and then weeks of the conflict, civilians emerging from the conflict zone were severely malnourished, traumatized, exhausted, and often seriously injured. The security forces screened everyone for LTTE membership/sympathies, and detained 280,000 people in military-run closed internment camps – which the Government referred to as “welfare villages.” In the camps, IDPs were screened again and the military detained those suspected of LTTE affiliations in ‘surrendee’ camps. Channel 4 reported the horrific conditions in these camps: “bodies left for days; children crushed in the rush for food; the sexual abuse of women; disappearances.”[27] (The Channel 4 team was promptly expelled from the country.) Despite not being given access to the camps, the UN chose to support them and not criticise them.

Hardly had the blood dried at the scenes of the carnage when UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon travelled to Sri Lanka on May 22-23, overruling senior advisers who cautioned that his visit could be misconstrued as participation in the Government’s victory celebrations. In preparation for the visit, UN officials had briefed Ban’s chief of staff, Vijay Nambiar, that they estimated the civilian death toll at over 20,000, but Ban chose to maintain a discreet silence on this score.[28] He aerially surveyed the site of the worst massacres, and visited the largest internment camp, housing 220,000 people. The visit of Ban, the first major international figure to visit the country since the end of the conflict, was a propaganda coup for the Rajapakse regime. While alluding vaguely to the “suffering” of the survivors, Ban stressed: “The long conflict is over. Now is the time to heal – for all Sri Lankans to unite for a just and lasting peace. We must help seize this opportunity…. While the Government is doing its utmost, it lacks resources. There is a wide gap between what is needed and what is available.” He did call for the UN and other international humanitarian agencies to get “immediate and unimpeded access to the camps.”[29] The Sri Lankan government ignored this appeal; and the UN Secretary-General left it at that.

The US: critical noises, real concerns
The US, for its part, now changed its stance. It made increasingly critical noises as the conflict reached its final stages, demanding the protection of civilians and calling for international access to them. Obama issued his first statement on the issue on May 14, 2009, expressing concern regarding civilian casualties, and calling for Sri Lanka to conclude a peace that is “grounded in respect for all of its citizens.”[30] The US Ambassador to Sri Lanka also called for “bold actions” to share power and “to assure all of Sri Lanka’s communities a future of hope, respect and dignity.”[31]

However, as every child knows, the US does not stop with making such vague appeals when it is determined to prevent or bring about some development. It intervenes, as it has been doing in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and the Central African Republic and other places in multiple ways. Where it decides not to send its troops, it frequently supplies arms, training, and logistical support to opposition forces, and applies severe pressure such as sanctions. When Russia and China blocked a resolution in the UN Security Council which sought to condemn the Syrian government, the US formed an international “Friends of Syria” group to apply pressure on the Syrian government and to support the Syrian opposition. The absence of support from Russia and China in the Security Council similarly has not deterred the US from unilaterally imposing sanctions on Iran on the pretext of its nuclear programme. It is worth noting, in passing, that the Sri Lankan president’s brother, defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse, continues to be a US citizen; another brother, Basil Rajapakse, the president’s top adviser, continues to be a US green card holder. (In particular, Gotabaya Rajapakse is directly linked to war crimes such as the execution of unarmed LTTE captives by testimony of senior Sri Lankan army officials, including the chief of the army during the war, Sarath Fonseka.)

Thus the US began expressing concern about Sri Lankan war crimes more insistently only after the slaughter was over, and the LTTE was wiped out. Its real concern has little to do with human rights. Since 2005, particularly with Rajapakse’s presidency, ties between the Sri Lankan regime and China have grown closer. A 2009 report of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations (chaired by the present US Secretary of State, John Kerry), notes that

The Sri Lankan Goverment says American attitudes and military restrictions led it to build relationships with China, Burma, Iran, and Libya. The Minister of Science and Technology and All-Party Representative Committee Chairman Tissa Vitarana Minister told committee staff, “We have the United States to thank for pushing us closer to China.” According to Vitarana, President Rajapaksa was forced to reach out to other countries because the West refused to help Sri Lanka finish the war against the LTTE. These calculations – if left unchecked – threaten long-term U.S. strategic interests in the Indian Ocean. (emphasis added)[32]

Apart from providing weapons, China has also provided substantial economic aid and is constructing several large infrastructural projects. Most important are the massive port complex and airport at the southern town of Hambantota, from where Rajapakse hails. China has also secured deals for the country’s largest rail and road projects. As a result, there are reportedly between 10,000 and 16,000 Chinese engineers, tradesmen and technical specialists at present working in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka plans to open a direct air link with southern China’s Yunnan province.[33]

The infrastructural projects China is building in Sri Lanka appear to be strictly commercial, not military. There does not seem to have been substantial advance in military and strategic ties between Sri Lanka and China. Nevertheless, this has not deterred Indian and US commentators from referring to Hambantota as one of China’s “String of Pearls”.

The US military contractor Booz-Allen-Hamilton first coined the phrase “String of Pearls” to describe China’s emerging maritime strategy, in a US Department of Defense-commissioned 2005 report “Energy Futures in Asia”. The phrase has since been used freely by US and Indian strategic analysts as if it were an expression coined by China itself to describe its own strategy. “Even for those that dismiss China’s ‘string of pearls’ strategy as overblown,” says the Committee on Foreign Relations, “there is concern about growing Chinese influence on the Sri Lankan government.”[34] A US Army War College study explains:

What is the string of pearls? Each ‘pearl’ in the ‘String of Pearls’ is a nexus of Chinese geopolitical influence or military presence. Hainan Island, with recently upgraded military facilities, is a ‘pearl’. An upgraded airstrip on Woody Island, located in the Paracel archipelago 300 nautical miles east of Vietnam, is a ‘pearl’. A container shipping facility in Chittagong, Bangladesh, is a ‘pearl’. Construction of a deep water port in Sittwe, Myanmar, is a ‘pearl’, as is the construction of a navy base in Gwadar, Pakistan.[35] Port and airfield construction projects, diplomatic ties and force modernization form the essence of China’s ‘String of Pearls’. The ‘pearls’ extend from the coast of mainland China through the littorals of the South China Sea, the Strait of Malacca, across the Indian Ocean, and on to the littorals of the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf. China is building strategic relationships and developing a capability to establish a forward presence along the sea lines of communication (SLOCs) that connect China to the Middle East.[36]

“Globally, China is increasingly active in striving for energy security in ways that portend direct competition for energy resources with the United States”, claims the US-China Commission in its 2005 Report to the US Congress. “This is producing a possibility of conflict between the two nations.”[37] The Commission’s 2012 Report indicates how China’s vulnerability can be exploited by the US: “China’s leaders view China’s growing dependence on foreign energy as a strategic vulnerability…. China also relies heavily on maritime trade routes for its energy imports, exposing China’s energy trade to crucial chokepoints like the Strait of Malacca and the Strait of Hormuz.”[38]

Sri Lanka’s strategic significance arises from its location. The Congressional Research Service notes that “Chinese activity in the region appears to be seeking friends like Sri Lanka to secure its sea lines of communication from the Straits of Hormuz and the western reaches of the Indian Ocean region to the Strait of Malacca to facilitate trade and secure China’s energy imports.”[39]

Pivot to Asia
Freud called the mechanism of pre-emptively attributing one’s own faults to others, “projection”; and indeed the “String of Pearls” thesis does a neat job of projecting the US’s own Asia strategy onto China. For more than a decade, the George Bush and Obama administrations have been building US ties and presence in precisely this arc from Northeast Asia to the Indian Ocean. More recently, the US has made this more explicit. In November 2011, addressing the Australian parliament, Obama stated that his goal was to ensure that “the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region [the Asia-Pacific] and its future.”[40] In June 2012, US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told the annual Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore that the US was “re-balancing” its forces towards Asia: “By 2020, the navy will reposture its forces from today’s roughly 50-50 split between the Pacific and the Atlantic to about a 60-40 split between those oceans. That will include six aircraft carriers in this region, a majority of our cruisers, destroyers, combat ships and submarines.”[41] Taking longstanding allies such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the Philippines as the starting point, the US is forging new alliances with all countries which have contentions with China.

The “Pivot to Asia” policy was spelt out most elaborately in November 2011 in an article by then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “America’s Pacific Century” (which appeared in the journal Foreign Policy)[42]:

As the war in Iraq winds down and America begins to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, the United States stands at a pivot point…. One of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade will therefore be to lock in a substantially increased investment — diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise — in the Asia-Pacific region…. The Asia-Pacific has become a key driver of global politics. Stretching from the Indian subcontinent to the western shores of the Americas, the region spans two oceans — the Pacific and the Indian — that are increasingly linked by shipping and strategy…. (emphasis added)

This is necessary in order to preserve US global leadership, which, according to her, the region has been hungering for:

[O]ur post-World War II commitment to building a comprehensive and lasting transatlantic network of institutions and relationships [with Western Europe] has paid off many times over — and continues to do so… The time has come for the United States to make similar investments as a Pacific power…. Harnessing Asia’s growth and dynamism is central to American economic and strategic interests and a key priority for President Obama….

The region is eager for our leadership and our business — perhaps more so than at any time in modern history. We are the only power with a network of strong alliances in the region, no territorial ambitions, and a long record of providing for the common good. Along with our allies, we have underwritten regional security for decades — patrolling Asia’s sea lanes and preserving stability — and that in turn has helped create the conditions for growth…. A strategic turn to the region fits logically into our overall global effort to secure and sustain America’s global leadership…. (emphasis added)

The military build-up promised by Panetta would be accompanied by an aggressive diplomatic drive:

What does that regional strategy look like? For starters, it calls for a sustained commitment to what I have called “forward-deployed” diplomacy. That means continuing to dispatch the full range of our diplomatic assets — including our highest-ranking officials, our development experts, our interagency teams, and our permanent assets — to every country and corner of the Asia-Pacific region. Our strategy will have to keep accounting for and adapting to the rapid and dramatic shifts playing out across Asia…. Our challenge now is to build a web of partnerships and institutions across the Pacific that is as durable and as consistent with American interests and values as the web we have built across the Atlantic…. Our treaty alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand are the fulcrum for our strategic turn to the Asia-Pacific.

Now the US wishes to increase its presence in the Indian Ocean, and connect it with its Pacific forces:

Asia’s remarkable economic growth over the past decade and its potential for continued growth in the future depend on the security and stability that has long been guaranteed by the U.S. military…. We are modernizing our basing arrangements with traditional allies in Northeast Asia — and our commitment on this is rock solid — while enhancing our presence in Southeast Asia and into the Indian Ocean. How we translate the growing connection between the Indian and Pacific oceans into an operational concept is a question that we need to answer if we are to adapt to new challenges in the region. Against this backdrop, a more broadly distributed military presence across the region will provide vital advantages. The United States will be better positioned to support humanitarian missions; equally important, working with more allies and partners will provide a more robust bulwark against threats or efforts to undermine regional peace and stability.

Clinton makes the usual noises about hoping to engage positively with China, but the obvious question is: Who is the target of this military-diplomatic drive, which tracks exactly China’s shipping routes? She warns that “The United States and the international community have watched China’s efforts to modernize and expand its military, and we have sought clarity as to its intentions….” By contrast, India’s power aspirations are benign in US eyes:

President Obama told the Indian parliament last year that the relationship between India and America will be one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century, rooted in common values and interests. There are still obstacles to overcome and questions to answer on both sides, but the United States is making a strategic bet on India’s future — that India’s greater role on the world stage will enhance peace and security…. So the Obama administration has expanded our bilateral partnership; actively supported India’s Look East efforts, including through a new trilateral dialogue with India and Japan; and outlined a new vision for a more economically integrated and politically stable South and Central Asia, with India as a linchpin. (emphasis added)

In this strategic drive to get control of Asia, the issue of “human rights” is to be an important weapon:

But even more than our military might or the size of our economy, our most potent asset as a nation is the power of our values — in particular, our steadfast support for democracy and human rights. This speaks to our deepest national character and is at the heart of our foreign policy, including our strategic turn to the Asia-Pacific region.

As we deepen our engagement with partners with whom we disagree on these issues, we will continue to urge them to embrace reforms that would improve governance, protect human rights, and advance political freedoms. We have made it clear, for example, to Vietnam that our ambition to develop a strategic partnership requires that it take steps to further protect human rights and advance political freedoms. Or consider Burma, where we are determined to seek accountability for human rights violations. We are closely following developments in Nay Pyi Taw and the increasing interactions between Aung San Suu Kyi and the government leadership. We have underscored to the government that it must release political prisoners, advance political freedoms and human rights, and break from the policies of the past.

This kind of pivot is not easy, but we have paved the way for it over the past two-and-a-half years, and we are committed to seeing it through as among the most important diplomatic efforts of our time.

‘Human rights’ question used to detach Burma from Chinese influence
The template for the US’s cynical use of ‘human rights’ in this region has perhaps been set by developments in Burma. Burma has been under US sanctions since 1997 for its overturning of the election verdict, arrest of political opponents, and imposition of military rule. These sanctions by the US and its allies led the Burmese military rulers to strengthen ties with China, which became overwhelmingly the main foreign investor and source of financial aid, constructing a number of infrastructure projects. Particularly important among these is a Chinese-built port at Sittwe in the south, and a pipeline to carry oil to southern China – thus avoiding the choke-point of the Malacca Straits through which ships traveling to China must pass, and giving greater security to Chinese oil supplies. (The Chinese-built port at Gwadar, in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, is intended to serve the same purpose.) Thus the Chinese have not only very large economic stakes in Burma, amounting to tens of billions of dollars, but vital strategic stakes as well.

However, as with Sri Lanka, Chinese economic ties with Burma were narrow and brittle: they consisted largely of export of raw materials from Burma and import of Chinese manufactured goods, extractive projects and certain infrastructure designed to serve China’s economic interests. (These reflect capitalist China’s requirements, as determined by its place within the world capitalist order.) Chinese trade and aid were not able to protect the Burmese economy from one-sidedness and acute crisis. The Burmese military rulers were looking for a rapprochement with the US. The Obama administration, too, as part of its “pivot to Asia” policy, began discreet discussions, in which the Indian government (which maintained ties with Burma) may have played a role.

In 2008, the regime imposed a sham Constitution which effectively protects the power of the military. Of the 440 seats in the parliament, 110 were reserved for sitting army officers; the head of state was to be an army officer, who would appoint ministers and supreme court judges; the commander of the army would choose the security minister; and so on. A clause preventing convicted persons from contesting elections effectively prevented most of the leaders of the Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD), including Suu Kyi herself, from contesting. The NLD boycotted the 2010 elections held under this Constitution. However, Thein Sein, the former army officer ‘elected’ president, began discreet discussions with the US and Suu Kyi (a favourite of the US). As a condition for lifting sanctions against Burma, the US demanded the amendment of provisions that were preventing the NLD from contesting elections; the release of political prisoners; and the end of conflict with ethnic minorities. However, behind this human rights agenda, the real push was for Burma to pivot away from China.

This was clear from the developments that proceeded very rapidly thereafter: the release of Suu Kyi and hundreds of other political prisoners in 2011; the visit of the Burmese foreign minister to Washington in September 2011; the cancellation of the Chinese-financed Myitsone dam project in northern Burma; and the visit of Hillary Clinton to Burma in December 2011, the first by a US Secretary of State in 50 years. By April 2012 the US eased travel bans and sanctions on the Burmese regime, and Clinton applauded Thein Sein and his colleagues for their “leadership and courage”. The US dropped its objection to the participation of Burma in multilateral financial institutions, opening up the prospect of aid from the IMF and World Bank; the Bretton Woods twins promptly began drawing up plans for the sweeping transformation of the Burmese economy along the usual neo-liberal lines. Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh visited Rangoon and signed a deal for Indian aid and infrastructure. The US military began discreet discussions regarding reviving military cooperation, and the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), David Petraeus, committed to visiting Burma in 2012. In June 2012, the US restored full diplomatic relations by sending an ambassador to Rangoon.

The clause barring convicted persons from contesting elections was dropped, the NLD dropped its objections to the 2008 Constitution, and won 43 of 46 seats in the 2012 by-elections. Suu Kyi conducted a hectic tour of the US in September 2012, where she met virtually all important leaders, including Obama, and was universally held up as an ‘icon’ of democracy and human rights.

Indeed, now Suu Kyi acted as perhaps the best advertisement for the Burmese regime, praising Thein Sein and the army itself. “I am fond of the army”, she confessed. “People don’t like me saying that. There are many who have criticised me for being what they call a poster girl for the army, but I think the truth is that I am very fond of the army, because I always thought of it as my father’s army.”[43]

That proprietorial affection for the armed forces is not shared by all sections of Burmese society. In June 2011, even as the regime began returning to the embrace of the ‘world community’ (i.e., the US), the Burmese military started an offensive against the Kachin regions (bordering China) under the control of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). In recent months, the military offensive has taken the form of bombing the Kachin region with fighter jets and and shelling with heavy weapons. In February 2013, the UN Special Rapporteur for Burma expressed concern regarding “the ongoing practice of arbitrary arrest and torture during interrogation by the military of Kachin men accused of belonging to the Kachin Independence Army. Furthermore, the ongoing large military presence which remains beyond the reach of accountability mechanisms, means that serious human rights violations are continuing there [in Kachin state]”.[44] Human Rights Watch (HRW) claims that the Burmese military “has attacked villages and committed extrajudicial killings, forced labor, torture, rape, and pillage. The number of internally displaced people in Kachin State has reached an estimated 90,000 this year. The government has largely denied humanitarian access to displaced people in KIA-held territory.”[45]

Even as the war on the Kachins intensified, violence erupted in another region. In June 2012, clashes began in Burma’s Rakhine province between the Arakan people and the Rohingyas. The latter are a Muslim minority who, despite being native to Burma, are not treated as citizens, but are referred to by the Buddhist majority as ‘Bangladeshis’. From June 10 Rakhine province came under military rule. The security forces acted in a blatantly partial manner against the Rohingyas, — for example, failing to prevent large-scale arson of Rohingya houses, but instead firing upon Rohingyas who tried to douse the flames. Hundreds of Rohingyas are reported to have been killed in the violence; many more have become refugees.[46] The UN estimates that in 2012 13,000 Rohingyas were forced to flee in rickety smugglers’ boats, as a result of which hundreds have died in transit; yet many more thousands have already attempted the same voyage in 2013.[47] According to HRW, “State security forces failed at the outset to protect either community from violence and then increasingly targeted Rohingya in killings, beatings, and mass arrests.” Over 110,000 displaced Rohingyas are living in refugee camps which the UN Special Rapporteur has compared to prisons. Government restrictions on humanitarian access to the Rohingyas, says HRW, “have left many in dire need of food, adequate shelter, and medical care. The authorities also indefinitely suspended nearly all pre-crisis humanitarian aid programs to the Rohingya, affecting hundreds of thousands who remain in their homes.”[48] A fresh bout of abuses by state security forces began in October 2012; thus when, in November 2012, Obama became the first sitting US president to visit Burma, he could not avoid the Rohingya question. Nevertheless, he restricted himself to calling for an end to the violence by both communities, without criticising the Burmese security forces – even as he lavished praise on Burma’s “remarkable journey” of democratic reform.[49]

Suu Kyi’s silence, and her statements
Suu Kyi at first maintained complete silence on the Kachin question. According to the Independent, “While the KIA was being bombed out of its mountain redoubt at Hka Ya on Saturday, Ms Suu Kyi was  addressing a televised luncheon in Hawaii, at which she made no mention of the war raging in her country’s second-largest state. ‘Her focus is collecting awards and becoming President, rather than the suffering of our people’ said Khon Ja, the founder of the Kachin Peace Network, which organises aid for the displaced. ‘Kachin community leaders have been asking to meet her for over a year, but she has continuously refused.’”[50]

Eventually Kachin organisations demonstrated in Bangkok with a picture of Suu Kyi, her mouth taped shut. Stung, Suu Kyi made a belated response on January 17, 2013, with a call for a ceasefire in Kachin province, and resolution of the questions by negotiation.[51] She made this call on the anniversary of the day in 1947 her father had signed the Panglong agreement with the majority of Burma’s ethnic minorities, which set the framework for a federal state. It should be noted that the 2008 Constitution, under which Suu Kyi contested the by-election in 2012, directly violates the 1947 Panglong agreement.[52]

The Rohingyas appealed to Suu Kyi in June 2012 itself, a few days after the outbreak of violence, to intervene; she chose to remain silent. When she finally broke her silence regarding the Rohingyas, her statement had a more sinister implication. In response to a query from the Indian news channel NDTV, she chose to place equal blame on the Rohingyas: “don’t forget that violence has been committed by both sides.” Then she questioned the citizenship of the Rohingyas and pinned the blame for the entire problem on “illegal immigration”, in a vein that would do Narendra Modi proud:

This is a huge international tragedy and this is why I keep saying that the government must have a policy about the citizenship laws. We do have a citizenship law and all those who are entitled to citizenship under the law must be given citizenship. We have said this very clearly. Now there are quarrels about whether people are true citizens under the law or they will come over as migrants later from Bangladesh. One of the very interesting and rather disturbing facets of this whole problem is that most people seem to think, and still there was one country involved in this world issue, there are two countries on the one side and there is Burma on the other and the security of the border surely is the responsibility of both countries. And at the moment is just seems that everybody thinks that the border is totally the responsibility of Burma.

NDTV: What would be the best solution, what would be the way out of this impasse?

Aung San Suu Kyi: First of all they’ve got to do something about law and order. We’ve got to stop violence from breaking out again, which means adequate security measures and then I think the citizenship law really must be looked in to. And those who are entitled to citizenship, must be not only given the citizenship but given the full rights of citizens. And then I think they have also to look to the immigration issue. There’s a lot of illegal crossing of the border still going on that they have got to put a stop to, otherwise there will not be an end to the problem, because Bangladesh will say all these people have come over from Burma and the Burmese say all these people have come over from Bangladesh. And where is the proof either way?[53]

In fact, as the UN High Commission for Refugees has reported, the truth is exactly the other way about: there are some 2,30,000 Rohingya refugees in the border regions of Bangladesh, who fled Burma from waves of persecution in earlier decades.[54]

In short, US policy toward Burma shows us how genuine questions of human rights can be used by the dominant powers, such as the US, as points of pressure against a third world country in order to get it to change its strategic alignment (and open up its economy to boot); once that end is achieved, the human rights situation may even deteriorate, yet will not invite US opprobrium. While we are all familiar with the use of ‘human rights’ as an instrument of US foreign policy in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and so on, Burma provides an example of how the US can secure its objectives without ‘regime change’, but merely through ‘regime realignment’.

After the killings
To return to the more complex case of Sri Lanka: As we have seen, the US (and its close ally, Israel) also provided significant assistance and encouragement to Rajapakse’s offensive. During the last stage of the war, the US restricted itself to general appeals, but carefully avoided using language that would send a clear signal to Rajapakse.[55] Once the massacre was over, evidence of the massacre could serve as a handy instrument with which to bring about a strategic realignment of the Sri Lankan regime.

Of course, it may not be as smooth sailing for the US in Sri Lanka as in Burma. The Burmese regime lacked mass support, and it feared popular unrest; Sri Lanka’s Rajapakse on the other hand has enjoyed till now significant mass support based on Sinhala chauvinist sentiment (indeed, he uses the fact of external pressure to bolster his domestic image as a defender of Sinhala interests). A further significant factor is that Sri Lanka’s economic and political ties with the US are considerably broader than Burma’s were.

The stick may be more prominent at the moment in US dealings with Sri Lanka, but the carrot is not far behind. The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, chaired by Kerry, warned in 2009 itself against an exclusive focus on Tamil refugees: “Sri Lanka has grown politically and economically isolated from the West. This strategic drift will have consequences for US interests in the region…. Sri Lanka is located at the nexus of crucial maritime trading routes in the Indian Ocean connecting Europe and the Middle East to China and the rest of Asia…. The United States cannot afford to ‘lose’ Sri Lanka.” Rather than be driven “solely by short-term humanitarian concerns”, US policy should “Take a broader and more robust approach to Sri Lanka that appreciates new political and economic realities in Sri Lanka and US geostrategic interests.” The report recommends, among other things, that the US Congress should “Authorize the US military to resume training of Sri Lankan military officials to help ensure that human rights concerns are integrated into future operations and to help build critical relationships.”[56]

Tamil sentiment not a factor in Indian rulers’ shift
The claim that the Indian government has voted against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC under pressure from the Tamil population is hardly tenable. Tamil sentiment in 2009, at the time of the massacre itself, did not prevent the Indian government from actually stepping up naval deployment against the LTTE’s navy in the last stage of the war (albeit on the condition that Colombo should not reveal this till India’s general elections of May 2009 were over).[57]

Nor need the protests of the two leading parties of Tamil Nadu, the DMK and the AIADMK, be taken seriously. The DMK was in power in Tamil Nadu in May 2009, and was an ally of the ruling UPA government at the Centre; it did not withdraw from the alliance, despite the UPA’s known support for the war. Not even DMK cadre could have been much impressed by their supremo K. Karunanidhi’s fast-unto-death against the war, which started on the morning of April 28, 2009, and ended before lunch the same day.

In fact, the graph of AIADMK leader Jayalalitha’s responses roughly tracks the shifts in US policy, albeit in a more exaggerated and extreme form. Well-known for her overt hostility to the LTTE, her initial stance was of tacit support of Rajapakse’s war. In January 2009 she declared: “Today, the need of the hour is a ceasefire. How can this be brought about? This can be achieved only with the LTTE laying down arms and surrendering.”[58] However, by March 10, she went on a one-day fast (till 5 p.m.) in support of the Sri Lankan Tamils’ “demand for self-determination statehood within the country’s constitution”, and criticised the Karunanidhi government and the Central Government for their apathy towards the fate. By May 10, Jayalalitha said: “Tamil Eelam is the only solution to the sufferings of the Tamils. There is no change in my opinion. I will send the Indian Army to Sri Lanka just as late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sent it ito East Pakistan to create Bangladesh.”[59] Thus, within four months, she moved from calling on the LTTE to lay down arms before the Sri Lankan army to demanding that the Indian army pick up arms to establish Eelam.

In June 2011, Hillary Clinton, on her visit to India, met Jayalalitha. According to the US State Department, the two discussed Sri Lanka. Later, delivering a lecture at the Anna Central Library, the US Secretary of State said pointedly that “The United States and India can work together to advance democratic values in the region.” Specifically, she asked for India’s help in “shaping positive changes” in Burma; “We encourage India not just to look east but also act east”.

The United States has always been a Pacific power because of our very great blessing of geography, and India, straddling the waters from the Indian to Pacific Oceans, is with us a steward of these waterways. Will these regions follow the rules of the road? Will they build institutions that will enforce international rules? India with its Look East policy can answer these questions. We are both deeply interested in shaping the future of the rapidly changing region they connect.[60]

US pressure on Sri Lanka has been stepped up since 2011, and Jayalalitha has since then kept up a sustained stridency on the question of Sri Lankan war crimes, her histrionics overshadowing Karunanidhi’s.

The Indian government has been balancing two considerations, neither of which has anything to do with the fate of the Tamils.

On the one hand, it is alarmed by Chinese influence in a region it considers its zone of influence. When, in early 2007, Sri Lanka acquired a Chinese-built JY-11 3D radar system, India’s National Security Adviser MK Narayanan protested it on the grounds that it would overarch Indian airspace: “It is high time that Sri Lanka understood that India is the big power in the region and ought to refrain from going to Pakistan or China for weapons, as we are prepared to accommodate them within the framework of our foreign policy,” he said.[61] The implication was that Sri Lanka should come instead to India for weapons. In line with this, India voted in support of the Sri Lankan regime at the UN Human Rights Council in 2009. On the other hand, it appears that the US has now both applied sufficient pressure on, and promised sufficient rewards to, the Indian rulers for their cooperation in bringing about ‘regime realignment’ in Sri Lanka. Thus India, which had supported the Sri Lankan regime in the UNHRC in 2009, voted against it in 2012.

Any genuine demand for punishment of war criminals in Sri Lanka must be made completely independently of, and demarcating from, all those who belong in the dock themselves



[3] “Understanding Sri Lanka’s Defeat of the Tamil Tigers”, Neil A. Smith, Joint Force Quarterly, Sept. 2010, National Defense University. (back)

[4] Arms Trade with Sri Lanka: Global Business, Local Costs, Jonas Lindberg, Camilla Orjuela, Siemon Wezeman, Linda Åkerström, p.48. (back)

[5] Ibid., p. 47. (back)

[7] Arms Trade with Sri Lanka, pp. 46-47. (back)

[9] Arms Trade with Sri Lanka, p. 45. (back)

[10] Report of the Secretary-General’s Internal Review Panel on United Nations Action in Sri Lanka (hereafter “IRP”), United Nations, November 2012, pp. 41-42. (back)

[11] IRP, p. 42. (back)

[12] “Karuna Group Abducts Children for Combat”, 25/1/07, ; and “Karuna Group and LTTE Continue Abducting and Recruiting Children”, Human Rights Watch, 30/3/07, (back)

[14] IRP, p. 50. (back)

[15] U.S. Embassy Colombo Press Statement, 6/1/09. (back)

[16] “Report to the Congress on Incidents during the Recent Conflict in Sri Lanka”, US Department of State, 2009, p. 55. (back)

[17] Reported by a witness in Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, Channel 4, 2011. (back)

[18] IRP, p. 64. (back)

[19] Report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka (hereafter PoE), United Nations, 2011, p. 28. (back)

[20] IRP, p. 12. (back)

[21] Ibid., pp. 12-13. (back)

[22] Ibid., p. 13. (back)

[23] The Times (London) reports were summarised in the Times of India, 30/5/09 and 31/5/09. (back)

[24] PoE, pp. 39-41. (back)

[25] IRP, p. 14; see also p. 38. (back)

[26] “One hundred thousand Tamils missing after Sri Lanka war”, Frances Harrison,Huffington Post, 17/12/12, (back)

[27] “Journalist who reported on internment camps in Sri Lanka tells his story”,Guardian, 10/5/09, (back)

[28] Times (London) report summarised in the Times of India, 31/5/09. (back)

[33] “Another bead in the ‘String of Pearls’? Interpreting Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy Realignment”, Sergei De Silva-Ranasinghe, China Security, Issue 19, 2011, World Security Institute, (back)

[34] Ibid. (back)

[35] Sic; Gwadar is actually a commercial port. (back)

[36] “String of Pearls: Meeting the Challenge of China’s Rising Power across the Asian Littoral”, Christopher J. Pehrson, 2006, Strategic Studies Institute (US). (back)

[37] Report to the Congress of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 2005, p. 171, (back)

[38] Report to the Congress of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 2012, p. 17, (back)

[55] How little real objection the US had to Rajapakse’s war crimes can be seen from the fact that it championed the cause of Sarath Fonseka, the army chief who advertised his Sinhala chauvinism during the war. After retiring from the army, Fonseka challenged Rajapakse for the presidency in 2010; he was jailed by Rajapakse, and only released two years later on the US’s insistence. (back)

[59] The Hindu, 11/5/09. (back)

[61]“Another bead in the ‘String of Pearls’?” , op. cit. (back)


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