The Indian Ocean island of Sri Lanka might seem an unlikely cockpit for a game of global power politics, but that is exactly what it has become.
Both India and the United States have tried to encourage Sri Lanka to respect human rights and promote post-war reconciliation three years after the end of a long-running civil war, but both countries are wary of pushing too hard.
Their greatest fear is that Sri Lanka will slide inexorably down the path followed by nearby Burma over the past five decades, of increasing isolation from the West and into the arms of their enemies and rivals.
India has watched with dismay as China’s influence has steadily grown on the island through a series of arms sales and major infrastructure investments in recent years.
The United States will have noted too how President Mahinda Rajapaksa traveled to Cuba last week to reaffirm his firm bonds with the government of Raul Castro.
A few days later, Rajapaksa was embracing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and complaining together about “arrogant” and “hegemonistic powers” who are trying to bully independent, sovereign nations.
“Sanctions and resolutions will not affect the nations’ desire to resist,” they defiantly declared.
There is no doubt that Colombo’s nose was put out of joint in March when the United States sponsored a resolution at the U.N. Human Rights Council meant to gently encourage Sri Lanka down the path of openness, accountability and reconciliation.
Protests were organized almost every day outside the U.S. Embassy in Colombo during the U.N. hearings.
But behind the rhetoric, U.S. officials say there are still reasons for hope. Sri Lanka, they say, may be resistant to America’s lecturing over human rights, but on the issue of Iranian sanctions at least, it did engage.
Sri Lanka has traditionally depended on Iran for almost all of its oil imports, but in the face of U.S. pressure, did reduce its imports from the Islamic Republic significantly this year. That allowed Sri Lankans to obtain a waiver last month from American financial sanctions.
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