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