Show­down or Clim­bup?

The Com­mon­wealth Heads of Gov­ern­ment Meet­ings have a sym­bolic sig­nif­i­cance in in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics. CHOGM 2013, how­ever, was a dif­fer­ent af­fair al­to­gether.

Southasia - - FRONT PAGE - By Jave­ria Shakil The writer is As­sis­tant Ed­i­tor at SouthAsia. She fo­cuses on is­sues of po­lit­i­cal and so­cial in­ter­est.

At present, the hap­pi­est man in Sri Lanka is its Pres­i­dent, Mahinda Ra­japaksa, as he has man­aged to do what seemed highly un­likely un­til a few weeks back: hold the Com­mon­wealth Heads of Gov­ern­ment Meet­ing 2013 in Sri Lanka and quite suc­cess­fully at that.

Al­though th­ese meet­ings have a sym­bolic sig­nif­i­cance, th­ese oc­ca­sions ev­ery two years are re­garded as se­date events in in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics. CHOGM 2013, how­ever, was a dif­fer­ent af­fair al­to­gether.

It ran into con­tro­versy right when the venue was an­nounced as Colombo two years ago. The host coun­try Sri Lanka has been fac­ing crit­i­cism for a long time from var­i­ous in­ter­na­tional quar­ters for the al­leged war crimes of its armed forces com­mit­ted dur­ing the last weeks of its fight against the LTTEled sep­a­ratist move­ment. It is said that more than 40,000 Tamils, mostly civil­ians, were killed in the last 100 days of the fight­ing.

The mass killings cre­ated a rift be­tween Sri Lanka and In­dia, whose Tamil pop­u­la­tion in the Tamil Nadu state shares close ties with the Sri Lankan Tamils. It is also al­leged that In­dia se­cretly sup­ported and trained the LTTE cadres. A self-pro­claimed re­gional su­per­power in South Asia, In­dia has been pres­sur­iz­ing Colombo over the is­sue.

But never was In­dia’s dis­plea­sure as ob­vi­ous as it was just a few days be­fore the Com­mon­wealth Sum­mit started. De­lib­er­a­tions took place on whether or not to send the In­dian prime min­is­ter to Colombo while Tamil Nadu Chief Min­is­ter J. Jay­alalithaa urged the Congress gov­ern­ment to com­pletely boy­cott the sum­mit to show “em­pa­thy and sol­i­dar­ity with Tamils, not only in Tamil Nadu but else­where.”

Canada had al­ready an­nounced that it would not send its del­e­ga­tion to the meet­ing while in the United King­dom, opin­ions on the coun­try’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the event were di­vided.

The visit of Navi Pil­lay, United Na­tions Hu­man Rights Chief, hardly two months ahead of the con­fer­ence did not help mat­ters ei­ther. Ms. Pil­lay,

who had vis­ited Sri Lanka to in­ves­ti­gate war crimes, lev­eled se­ri­ous al­le­ga­tion against the Sri Lankan gov­ern­ment of vi­o­la­tion of hu­man rights in her postvisit re­port. The gov­ern­ment of Sri Lanka strongly de­nied the ac­cu­sa­tions and re­futed Ms. Pil­lay’s claims.

It was against this back­ground that CHOGM 2013 was held. And, as a re­sult, sparks flew all around, mak­ing the sum­mit prob­a­bly the most hap­pen­ing event in the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s en­tire his­tory.

When In­dian Prime Min­is­ter, Man­mo­han Singh fi­nally an­nounced – just a day be­fore the con­fer­ence – that he would not go to Colombo, a war of words en­sued among gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials of both coun­tries. The flames of this war also en­gulfed other na­tions. Mau­ri­tius boy­cotted the meet­ing and while U.K. Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron at­tended, he left no stone un­turned in en­sur­ing that his visit give a rough ride to the host coun­try.

In a ges­ture that clearly showed where his coun­try’s align­ment in in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics lay, the U.K. prime min­is­ter vis­ited In­dia first and met with the In­dian PM, be­fore head­ing to Colombo. Dur­ing his In­dia so­journ he also made some pointed re­marks vis-à-vis the hu­man rights sit­u­a­tion in Sri Lanka. As if that were not enough, he vis­ited Jaffna, the war-af­fected north­ern prov­ince of Sri Lanka, on the first day of the sum­mit.

In a rare and sur­pris­ing dis­play of newly ac­quired po­lit­i­cal mus­cle, the Sri Lankan pres­i­dent gave fit­ting replies to the com­ments made by in­ter­na­tional del­e­gates as well as the me­dia. An­swer­ing a ques­tion posed by a for­eign jour­nal­ist, Pres­i­dent Mahinda Ra­japaksa said, "I would not shake his (Prince Charles’) hands, I will say Ayubowan whether it’s a King, Queen or beg­gar. That is the way I would greet the Prince. Since he is com­ing to see me, we will not only talk about what hap­pened in 2009, but the en­tire 30-year con­flict. I also have some ques­tions to ask." De­fence Sec­re­tary, Gotab­haya Ra­japaksa al­leged that the U.K. gov­ern­ment was act­ing “as if Sri Lanka were still a Bri­tish colony.”

The Sri Lankan gov­ern­ment, es­pe­cially the pres­i­dent and his de­fense sec­re­tary, con­tin­ued to fight the coun­try’s bat­tle on the diplo­matic front. “It was a mat­ter of life and death for us. We had to face LTTE ter­ror for thirty years. They killed in­no­cent civil­ians, chil­dren and even preg­nant women. No one gets killed in Sri Lanka to­day. There is peace and har­mony," the pres­i­dent said on one oc­ca­sion.

He claimed that his gov­ern­ment had re­ha­bil­i­tated and re­leased the LTTE’s child sol­diers about a month af­ter the con­flict had con­cluded, while 14,000 of its cadres had been re­united with their fam­i­lies within three years.

To prove to the world that its hands were clean, the Sri Lankan gov­ern­ment al­lowed jour­nal­ists from the U.K.’s Chan­nel 4 – the net­work that aired a num­ber of doc­u­men­taries on the al­leged war – to come to Sri Lanka for the cov­er­age of the con­fer­ence. Jour­nal­ists rep­re­sent­ing the chan­nel were also granted per­mis­sion to visit the north­ern parts of Sri Lanka. But the visit couldn’t ma­te­ri­al­ize due to ‘demon­stra­tions’ against Chan­nel 4 by ‘pro-gov­ern­ment el­e­ments’.

The coun­try which came to Sri Lanka’s de­fense in the sit­u­a­tion was Aus­tralia whose Prime Min­is­ter, Tony Ab­bott, ex­pressed his sup­port in no un­cer­tain terms. “We are here as much as to praise as to judge. It is im­por­tant not to iso­late coun­tries emerg­ing from con­flicts. Sri Lanka’s will­ing­ness to host this Com­mon­wealth shows its com­mit­ment to demo­cratic plu­ral­ism and free­dom based on the law and ought to as­sure all its ci­ti­zen­ship that just as to­day is bet­ter than yes­ter­day, tomorrow will be bet­ter than to­day,” he said in his open­ing speech.

While Aus­tralia pro­vided diplo­matic sup­port, Sri Lanka ex­ploited its grow­ing trade ties with China to send the mes­sage across that it may be a ‘teardrop’ in the In­dian Ocean, but it has the back­ing of world gi­ants.

On the side­lines of the Com­mon­wealth Sum­mit, the coun­try’s Board of In­vest­ment made some ex­tra­or­di­nary deals with a Chi­nese com­pany which has pledged to in­vest USD 1,300 mil­lion to de­velop Colombo. The most sig­nif­i­cant part of this deal is that the China Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Con­struc­tion Com­pany will in­vest this money to re­claim 233 hectares of land sur­round­ing the sen­si­tive area of the Colombo Port.

The real achieve­ment of the host coun­try, how­ever, was some­thing else: the fi­nal com­mu­niqué re­leased at the end of CHOGM 2013. It was this im­por­tant dec­la­ra­tion that de­ter­mined what Sri Lanka had achieved on the diplo­matic front.

And, as turned out, the coun­try emerged quite suc­cess­ful as the com­mu­niqué men­tioned only slightly the is­sue of hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions that had be­come a night­mare for the Sri Lankan gov­ern­ment.

In­ter­na­tion­ally, CHOGM 2013 will be re­mem­bered for the con­tro­ver­sies it threw up while re­gion­ally it is ex­pected to set a new course for the ex­ist­ing and would-be re­gional pow­ers.

Now that Pres­i­dent Ra­japaksa is the new chair of the Com­mon­wealth, what steps he takes to sat­isfy the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity on the hu­man rights is­sue and what be­comes of the March 2014 dead­line given by U.K. Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron to in­ves­ti­gate war crimes, re­mains to be seen.

Mean­while tough times seem­ingly lie ahead for the Sri Lankan masses that may have to bear the brunt of the huge loans taken by their gov­ern­ment to meet the sum­mit’s ex­pen­di­tures.

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