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Sri Lanka relations with West sour over rights abuses

Amid tension between Sri Lanka and western countries over Colombo's treatment of defeated presidential candidate Sarath Fonseka questions are being asked about the country's relations with the West.

COLOMBO // Amid tension between Sri Lanka and western countries over Colombo's treatment of defeated presidential candidate Sarath Fonseka - following much western censure over the government's war with Tamil Tiger rebels - questions are being asked in Sri Lanka about the country's relations with the West.

On Tuesday, the US assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, Robert Blake, urged Sri Lanka not to try Mr Fonseka - who the government accuses of planning a coup d'etat - before a military tribunal, but rather in a civil court. In a strong rebuke, the media minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardana told reporters on Wednesday that Mr Blake should not dictate terms to Sri Lanka. It followed an accusation made earlier this month by defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa in a Singaporean newspaper that the US and Norway had backed Mr Fonseka's presidential campaign, a charge both countries angrily denied.

Despite the acrimony, Nanda Godage, a retired Sri Lankan diplomat and newspaper commentator on foreign affairs, believes the US will eventually resume a more stable relationship with Sri Lanka. "For the US, Sri Lanka is too important a country to be dumped. Sri Lanka's strategic location in the Indian Ocean and growing ties with China, will ensure a US return to an active role politically and economically," he said adding that Beijing's growing relations with Colombo is a "never-ending" worry to the US.

The US and some European states were critical of Sri Lanka's conduct in its fight against Tamil Tiger rebels, a battle it eventually won last May, ending 30 years of war. During the last stages of the conflict, reports of large-scale civilian deaths prompted the US and its allies to intervene in the crisis. They were hoping to invoke the "responsibility to protect" principle - that if a state is unable to protect its people, the international community can intervene, first diplomatically and then with sanctions or force .

But Mr Godage said China and Russia, with backing from India, protested against the plan brought to the UN Security Council. "Since then officials like Blake and [secretary of state] Hillary Clinton have been hostile to Sri Lanka. But there are other friends in the US [government] who are more balanced towards Sri Lanka," he said. Echoing that view, Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said that the US department of defence was "steadfast" in its support for Sri Lanka.

The US and its European allies have attempted numerous ways of punishing Sri Lanka for alleged human rights abuses, even calling for a war crimes investigation. But apart from a recent decision by the European Union to suspend tax-free imports from Sri Lanka, other efforts have not managed to cripple the country. Angry with the West, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa has resorted to a non-aligned foreign policy, counting China, India, Iran, Russia and Libya among its allies.

But critics say the country's strategy is confusing. Dayan Jayatilleka, Sri Lanka's former permanent representative to the United Nations in Geneva, said Sri Lanka's foreign policy lacks co-ordination and coherence. He pointed to the handling of the Fonseka case as an example of something that damages Sri Lanka's image abroad. And the West, Mr Jayatilleka said, is still crucial to Sri Lanka. "India and China are of growing importance in the world economy and therefore in Sri Lanka's economic growth... [but] we must not underestimate the continuing importance of the West in terms of access to export markets, development funds and financial facilities from multilateral institutions."

Mr Fonseka, a former army commander who led the military in its victory against the Tamil Tigers and who lost last month's presidential race to the incumbent, Mr Rajapaksa, has been detained by the military for allegedly attempting to overthrow the government in a military coup and an alleged assassination plot against the president, charges he has vigorously denied. Initial streets protests against Mr Fonseka's arrest and detention have fizzled out.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae