By Patricia Lee Sharpe
The U.S. ambassador called on the Sri Lankan foreign minister last week. It seems that Sri Lanka has a new friend, and badmouthing the U.S. is taking place at very high levels. To understand some of the psychology here, it might be worthwhile to start with the mythic history of this island nation.
Today the ruler of Sri Lanka is President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who feels that he is being demonized by the West even as his Singalese followers worship him as the hero who delivered the island from a demonic insurgency. Thus Rajapaksa becomes Ram, and Tiger leader Prabakaran is the Ravana who had to be (and was) slain.
But wait! There’s another possible demon in the piece. China. In this case, Sri Lanka becomes Sita the lovely bride who is stolen from the West by the dragon from the East in the current war of nerves between the U.S. and China.
Now Ravana, in the mythical epic, is a slippery character with nine heads, not easy to deal with, not easy to kill, and Mahinda Rajapaksa’s character is no less elusive. On the one hand, he is utterly ruthless. On the other, he may have preserved the unity of Lanka. He speaks of democracy, but he is also a nasty electoral opponent. These many faces were in play last week as his government skirmished with the American ambassador.
The Strings on the Money BagAcording to the Congressional Research Service, US officials cited “human rights concerns” to slash U.S. assistance to Sri Lanka beginning in 2007. The government in Colombo had decided to wage all out war against the remnants of the Tamil Tigers. The process was not pretty, which is why good journalists found themselves vulnerable to reprisals, including assassination, another black mark against the Rajapaksa regime.
USAID in 2005 had been $20.6 million. By 2007 it had been reduced by half and even that sum was scheduled to be whittled to a mere $6 million by 2009. That’s a drop in the bucket, a loss hardly worth crying over, monetarily. Taken as a snub, however, it’s considerable.
Other long standing international donors joined the U.S. in suspending aid or withholding new commitments. It didn’t seem to matter that the Tigers had been nil respecters of human rights themselves. Nor should it have. Brutality is brutality, and governments are rightly held to a higher standard.
The CRS report continues:
Needless to say, President Rajapaksa and his belligerent brother (the demon Ravana had brothers as allies, too) also resent the unsuccessful but energetic efforts by the U.S. and others to have the U.N. Security council censure Sri Lanka for its refusal to heed calls for a cease fire in the waning days of the war. Those wily Tigers! They were using thousands of Tamil refugees as human shields to keep their cadres from being slaughtered or driven into the sea. Conditions in the post-war refugees camps were also severely criticized on humanitarian grounds. More grist for the resentment mill.
President Rajapaksa has responded with defiance, saying that his country is not dependent on foreign aid and can go it alone, if necessary. Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the president’s brother, has decried the “international bullying” on human rights.