Sri Lanka turns to less critical donors

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) -- Sri Lanka hailed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit Monday as an important step in cementing closer ties between the two nations.

Ahmadinejad arrived Monday evening on a special flight, said M.R. Hassan, an official at Sri Lanka's Foreign Ministry.

He is scheduled to meet with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the two men will sign economic and cooperation agreements, according to a statement by the Sri Lankan government.

But the trip also highlights Sri Lanka's slow turn from the West, which has expressed increasing concerns about Colombo's human rights record and its embrace of donors less critical of its escalating war against ethnic Tamil rebels.

"In Asia, we don't go around preaching to our neighbors and our friends," said Sri Lanka's foreign secretary, Palitha Kohona. "This public naming and shaming process that seems to have become so popular in the West is really not so accepted here."

As if to drive home the point, the capital city of Colombo was plastered Sunday with posters showing smiling photos of Ahmadinejad and Rajapaksa over the slogans: "The Friendly Path to Progress" and "Traditional Asian Solidarity."

State television also broadcast all of Ahmadinejad's movements live, and the government controlled Daily News called it "epoch-making."

In the past 18 months Rajapaksa has visited China twice, dropped in on neighbors India and Pakistan and traveled to Iran in November.

During that trip, Iran pledged $1.9 billion in soft loans and grants to Sri Lanka to help it expand its only oil refinery, develop an irrigation and hydropower project and buy Iranian oil, Kohona said.

"It is the biggest development assistance package for Sri Lanka at the moment," he said.

It is money Sri Lanka desperately needs as it continues to wage civil war with the Tamil Tiger rebels - a fight projected to cost $1.5 billion this year.

Ahmadinejad was expected to meet top officials and tour several development projects during his two-day visit. He held a prayer ceremony with the country's Muslim community on Tuesday. It has not been announced whether he will come bearing further aid for the South Asian nation.

China is also giving about $1 billion in aid for a massive new port, an arts center, a power plant and other development projects, Kohona said.

Meanwhile, Western nations have been giving far less money and much heavier criticism of Sri Lanka's conduct of the war.

A State Department report issued in March accused the government and allied militias of attacking civilians and practicing "torture, kidnapping, hostage-taking, and extortion with impunity."

A European Union delegation that visited last month said it had "very serious concerns" about reports of human rights abuses. It implied that if the situation did not improve, Sri Lankan exports could lose a lucrative tariff exemption.

Some Western nations and United Nations officials have also called for a U.N. human rights monitoring mission to be sent to the South Asian island. The government has rejected the idea as a breach of its sovereignty.

Kohona brushed off much of the criticism, saying the government had made improvements but was also in the middle of a war.

"I think it's a little unfair to beat up on a small democracy that is struggling to fight back a bitter and brutal terrorist organization," he said.

Underscoring that claim, police defused a time bomb found at a bus station about 60 miles north of Colombo on Monday. It had been set to explode at the height of the morning rush hour, the military said in a statement.

Sri Lanka's increasingly close ties with less traditional donor nations are allowing it to resist the Western pressure on its rights record, analysts say.

"It is sending a message to the international community ... that the government does have other options to keep its development policies kicking along, and those options come from its new allies," said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Center for Policy Alternatives, a Colombo-based think tank.

But he warned that while Sri Lanka has always had good relations with Iran and China, it could be taking a risk by too closely embracing countries with shaky reputations of their own in the West, which remains Sri Lanka's most crucial trading partner.

Sri Lanka exported more than $2 billion worth of goods to the United States last year and $1.7 billion worth of goods to the European Union in 2006. Sri Lanka also relies on loans from international financial institutions and the sale of bonds, which also require good relations with the West, Saravanamuttu said.

Kohona said Sri Lanka had no intention of shunning the U.S. and Europe.

"Aid from the West is appreciated. Our relationships are valued and we would like to continue those relationships," he said.

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