In defiance of all predictions, the war was brought to a swift and bloody end. The plight of tens of thousands of Tamil civilians caught in the middle was brushed aside: a Chinese veto prevented the UN Security Council from even debating the issue, let alone sending monitors to investigate. Foreign journalists were barred both from the conflict zone and the prison camps set up for Tamil survivors, as was David Miliband when the then foreign secretary flew in to try to find out what was going on. Local journalists critical of government action were terrorised into silence.
Then on the morning of 19 May, after a final gun battle lasting an hour, the bodies of 18 of the top Tiger leaders were found sprawled among the mangroves. Among them was the supreme leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. The war was over.
It was a great victory, the emphatic end of a terrorist gang whom no one in their right mind would mourn. But it was achieved in the teeth of opposition from the US and its allies, and at appalling human and moral cost. How had it been allowed to happen?
The answer, in one word, is “China”. When the US ended direct military aid in 2007 over Sri Lanka’s deteriorating human rights record, China leapt into the breach, increasing aid to nearly $1bn (£690m) to become the island’s biggest donor, giving tens of millions of dollars’ worth of sophisticated weapons, and making a free gift of six F7 fighter jets to the Sri Lankan air force. China encouraged its ally Pakistan to sell more arms and to train pilots to fly the new planes. And, crucially, China prevented the UN Security Council from putting Sri Lanka on its agenda.