Why the West ignored the Tamils' pleas

Brian Stewart on the West's waning influence on Sri Lanka.

Western leaders seemed genuinely surprised at the rapid end to Sri Lanka's 25-year-old internal war and the collapse of the Tamil Tiger insurgency.

Not so taken back, however, that the Canadian, U.S. and European governments did not know, virtually in unison, what approach to take: do as little as they could semi-decently get away with.

It was just such diplomatic minimalism that compelled Tamil demonstrators in Toronto and elsewhere to take to the streets in rage and frustration. Still, for all the attention their flag-waving and traffic-blocking protests received, there was no way it was going to change the approach of the West.

Canadian Tamils protesting on Parliament Hill in May 2009. Large protests also took place in many European capitals and at the UN in New York. (Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press)

These countries had their own agenda and it did not involve any efforts to use diplomatic or economic leverage to force the Sri Lanka government to accept yet one more ceasefire in this seemingly endless war.

However cold-blooded it may have seemed, it was clear in diplomatic circles that the dictates of realpolitik and national self-interest would trump humanitarian calls to action.

What the world saw was foot-dragging in its purest diplomatic form.

A checklist for non-action

A lame European call for the Sri Lankan government to hold off "a final assault" was still only in draft form when representatives of the 27 European Union governments broke for the weekend, just as the fighting entered its last 48 hours.

"So far there have been only statements issued by the most powerful bodies in the world, the UN the EU, G8 and Western governments. But here has been no follow through in terms of action," observed David Poopalalillai of the Canadian Tamil Community. "The international community has failed the Tamils by not fulfilling its obligation to protect civilians caught in this armed conflict."

Why did this happen, despite a sympathy that exists in international circles for the Tamil sense of abandonment?

There's a rather long checklist of reasons for the non-action of Western governments.

First, there was consensus that anything that ended Sri Lanka's brutal, on-and-off-again civil war would be far better than letting the conflict continue.

Diplomats may have seemed deaf to humanitarian calculations, but they had their own numbers in mind: this war had already killed more than 80,000 people, had forced hundreds of thousands to flee and had become a permanent blight on Sri Lanka's hopes to develop economically and politically.

In this Sri Lanka government photo, a soldier carries a young Tamil boy near the town of Mullaittivu, the area of the final fighting between the government and the Tamil Tigers. (Sri Lanka military/Reuters)

Also, past international attempts to broker progress during three former ceasefires had crumbled to dust in the breakdown of talks between the Tamil minority, the insurgent Tamil Tigers, and the Sinhalese and Buddhist majority.

Ceasefires can be very dangerous in some conflicts. As was the case in Sri Lanka in the past, they can leave the warring sides more intransigent and better armed than before, which makes any eventual resumption of fighting all the bloodier.

No sympathy for the Tigers

Add to this the view that the Tamil Tigers were seen as a deeply dangerous force wedded to terrorism, assassination and the use of child soldiers. Its very presence was yet another potential explosive charge in the tinderbox of South Asia's hostilities.

Then take the tactical situation on the ground. The Sri Lankan military was so close in the last weeks to capturing the final Tamil Tiger positions that few world leaders, whatever their public posture, could really blame the Sri Lankan government for trying to seize a final victory.

As a Canadian source close to the conflict told me: "Let's be blunt, in their position we'd have done the same thing, and even used the example of Lincoln ending the U.S. Civil War as an historic justification."

The Western calculation was that outside pressure would best be employed in the aftermath of the fighting to ensure Sri Lanka acted to heal the wounds and deal honourably with the Tamil community.

That may be just wishful thinking, of course, especially given the very low opinion in the West of Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa, a hardline Sinhalese nationalist with little regard for world opinion or, seemingly, human rights.

Relief groups in the country remain properly more skeptical about the president and are already complaining that their repeated attempts to help Tamil refugees are being blocked by the authorities.

China's hand

Still, in this post-George W. Bush world, Western government are keenly aware that there is a new power reality surrounding certain events, such as this final, bloody confrontation in Sri Lanka.

Rajapaksa simply didn't have to worry much even if Western displeasure or criticism had surfaced with force because he had two allies that matter to him far more: China and India.

India, the closest neighbour, offered quiet, but critically important support, including using its efficient navy to block arms shipments to the Tamil Tigers (the group behind the assassination of then Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991).

It was China's support, however, that proved decisive. Expanding its clout across Asia at dizzying speed, China has positioned itself as a warm, uncritical friend of Sri Lanka at all international gatherings, including the UN, which is a place where no one wants to offend Beijing.

In return, Sri Lanka has agreed to host a huge, Chinese-built port at Hambantola, currently under construction. It will be the third, large Chinese port being built at strategic locations across the Indian Ocean, including one in Myanmar and another in Pakistan.

Though planned in large part for civilian traffic, the Sri Lanka port will give China's expanding navy an extraordinarily valuable base overlooking South Asian trade routes and make Sri Lanka a firm and well rewarded ally.

Limited influence

In moving forward from here, Western governments will undoubtedly have some say when it comes to Sri Lanka's post-war recovery because they are still large aid donors and trading partners.

But, flush with victory and happily in bed with its new big-power partner in Beijing, Sri Lanka now delights in telling the West that its influence has strict new limits and that these limits apply especially to countries such as Canada that permitted large Tamil protests in recent weeks.

One of the sad ironies of the Tamil protests in Canada is that the more the marchers demanded this country use its influence on their homeland, the less influence Canada was being accorded in any peace effort there.

This new chill in relations with the West is worrisome precisely because Sri Lanka has such a strategic location in the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean.  Militaries and strategic think tanks here are strongly telling Western governments that they cannot let Sri Lanka slip into a future, Chinese-power orbit, which is another reason why our leaders were so anxious to avoid a direct clash with Sri Lanka over this war and why they went out of their way to shun Tamil protesters in Canada and Europe.

Tamils around the world were trying to push foreign governments into a showdown with Sri Lanka at the very time that these governments were trying to win back whatever diplomatic footholds they still had there.

This is not meant to defend diplomatic behaviour, simply to explain it and to note why these Tamil protests seemed so especially forlorn given the new power realities reshaping our world.


Brian Stewart

Canada and abroad

Brian Stewart is one of this country's most experienced journalists and foreign correspondents. He sits on the advisory board of Human Rights Watch Canada. He was also a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Munk School for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. In almost four decades of reporting, he has covered many of the world's conflicts and reported from 10 war zones, from El Salvador to Beirut and Afghanistan.