THE WORLDPOST
08/09/2011 04:09 am ET Updated Oct 08, 2011

War crimes heat on, Sri Lanka's Rajapaksa goes back to China

By C. Bryson Hull

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa landed in China Tuesday in search of support against an aggressive Western push for a probe into war crimes allegations and tighter economic ties in a stormy financial world.

Rajapaksa was due to attend the Universiade sporting event in Shenzhen and will later meet President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in Beijing. The Sri Lankan leader Monday said economic cooperation was his focus.

China is Sri Lanka's largest bilateral donor and in June committed $1.5 billion to Sri Lanka's $6 billion post-war rebuilding plan, having already financed a power plant and new port in Rajapaksa's southern Hambantota electorate.

"They want to make sure the same magnitude of money flows in, in times of insecurity," said a Colombo-based diplomat on condition of anonymity, referring to the global debt turmoil that has hit world markets.

That, however, is not likely to be at the top of his list.

"The fact is he is awfully disturbed by the pressures he is getting from the Western hemisphere on the war crimes issue," said Kusal Perera, a political analyst at The Center for Social Democracy.

Sri Lanka is now in its third year of peace after destroying the Tamil Tiger separatists, listed by more than 30 nations as a terrorist organization.

But ethno-political reconciliation is still distant and the island nation is facing an aggressive campaign to probe civilian deaths at the end of the quarter-century conflict in May 2009, when China, Russia and neighboring India stood by Rajapaksa's prosecution of the war to a bloody finish.

Now Rajapaksa, whose victory brought him immense popularity at home, is up against a coordinated push from the West, rights advocates and a well-financed global network of former Tiger supporters for a probe into war crimes allegations.

"The heat is on and they feel it very much and I think he is trying to see whether he could get China to mobilize support at the September U.N. Human Rights Council session," Perera said.

Washington has told Colombo it wants the findings of Sri Lanka's internal probe, the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission, to be submitted to U.N. Human Rights Council session after they are given to the government on November 15.

That would open up a host of material critical of Sri Lanka's handling of the war that could end up before the rights council at its March session, and give momentum to calls for an external probe to which Sri Lanka has refused to submit.

WANTED: BEIJING BACKING

A U.N.-sponsored report found "credible evidence" that Sri Lankan forces and the Tigers committed war crimes including killing possibly thousands of civilians, but the separatists' elimination means only Sri Lanka can be held to account.

Sri Lanka has acknowledged some civilian deaths but says the allegations in the U.N. report first emanated from Tamil Tiger propaganda operations, and lack any real proof.

Chinese support appears likely. Both China and Russia usually oppose foreign intervention in domestic conflicts, and both held off U.S.-British attempts at the U.N. Security Council to get a ceasefire at the end of the war.

China faces ethnic unrest in its western regions, where Tibetans and Uighurs have resisted Beijing's control, and Russia has battled Chechen separatists. Both conflicts on the surface mirror Sri Lanka's civil war with ethnic minority Tamils.

"For China, it's a two-for-one. They like to annoy India, and (separatism) is a core issue for them," said a former Western diplomat involved with Sri Lanka.

India is wary of China's influence with the Rajapaksa administration, as it considers Sri Lanka in its sphere of influence and is concerned Sri Lanka's Chinese-financed Hambantota port is part of a Beijing strategy to encircle it.

Further, India's central government must reckon with the state government of Tamil Nadu, home to about 60 million Tamils who are sympathetic to their Sri Lankan cousins.

That has produced a consistent message from New Delhi that Rajapaksa must reach political reconciliation with Tamils, which hit a roadblock last week with a threatened walkout from talks.

Given India's historic intervention in Sri Lanka's civil war to suit its own domestic political needs, Delhi's admonitions have often unsettled Colombo, despite close and warm ties.

"China is the only all that doesn't talk about these things. China is the only safe haven for this regime. India is not so sure for them as it is right now," Perera said.

(Additional reporting by Chris Buckley and Michael Martina in Beijing; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)