During a recent visit to China, Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa signed an agreement to give China 1200 acres of land in the Trincomalee area on a long term lease for “defence-related development”.
Part of this land is occupied by temples, mosques, schools and houses. The Tamilnet website said about 450 families will lose their homes. Those affected are mainly Tamil-speaking Muslims.
China’s plans for the area are unknown. However, Trincomalee’s renowned natural harbour, situated on the north-east coast of the island of Sri Lanka, was used as a naval base by the British.
China has already built a new port at Hambantota in the south of Sri Lanka, close to China’s trade routes across the Indian Ocean to Africa and the Middle East.
China's desire for a military presence in Trincomalee is probably related to its rivalry with other countries ― especially the United States and India ― for influence in the broader Indian Ocean region.
The Sri Lankan government takes advantage of this rivalry. It offers access to land, ports, resources and investment opportunities in return for aid.
However, this aid is often in the form of loans that must be repaid with interest. Sri Lanka is heavily in debt to China and the US-dominated International Monetary Fund.
Sajin de Vass Gunewardena, coordinating secretary to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, recently said that China has an advantage over the US in making agreements with Sri Lanka, as China does not talk about human rights.
It is true the US hypocritically pays lip service to human rights. But the US and its allies, such as Israel and Britain, played a key role in supporting the Sri Lankan government’s war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who were fighting for an independent Tamil homeland in the north and east of the island.
In reality, the Sri Lankan government was waging war against the Tamil people, culminating in the genocidal massacre of 2009.
Now that the war is over, the US has stepped up its rhetoric on human rights. This annoys the Rajapaksa government, but the US may calculate that the Rajapaksa government will not last forever, and when it falls, the US will have more influence if it is seen as having been critical of the former regime.