With just weeks to go for the biggest international conference to be hosted in Sri Lanka since the NAM summit in 1976 – the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) – the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) is obviously anxious about making the event a success. GoSL is concerned about the possibility of non-attendance by [...]


CHOGM: To go or not to go?


With just weeks to go for the biggest international conference to be hosted in Sri Lanka since the NAM summit in 1976 – the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) – the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) is obviously anxious about making the event a success.

GoSL is concerned about the possibility of non-attendance by any heads of government or down-grading of their delegations, and the possibility of unwanted attention to Sri Lanka’s messy domestic politics. It appears to be less concerned about the reasons for the unwanted attention. If there are some last minute trade-offs, the question arises as to whether they are being made more in order to appease some reluctant foreign invitee, than to address real issues that concern the Sri Lankan citizenry. After the glitter of CHOGM has faded, the GoSL will still have to brace itself for the UN Human Rights Council session in March 2014, which will be the real test in terms of foreign relations. 

After Canada announced a boycott, the Ministry of External Affairs is now up against the possibility that the all important (and only) neighbour may not be represented at the highest level. As head of the main regional power Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s participation is seen to be vital to the summit’s success.

A variety of entities lobbying for an Indian boycott of CHOGM have stepped up their campaigns. They include rights groups like Human Rights Watch and the sections of the Tamil diaspora in the West. In Tamil Nadu, not only M Karunanidhi’s DMK party and Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK, but also Congress party members in that state have sought to dissuade Singh from attending the conference. Responding to the demands of Congress’s one-time coalition partner the DMK, Singh wrote a letter, cited in Indian media, where he said: “I wish to inform you that a decision on the issue of my participation in the CHOGM conference will be taken only after considering all relevant factors, including the sentiments of your party and the Tamil people.”

Indian commentator Venkat Narayan sees this as a hint that Singh will not attend. He said a senior Congress leader hinted that India might be represented by Vice-President Hamid Ansari and External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid. But the ‘Times of India’ quoted a South Block official saying “The Ministry of External Affairs and the Indian High Commission in Colombo are in favour of the visit and argue that it would cement India’s status as a regional power reflect its commitment to not only to the island nation but also its Tamil minority community.” It is argued that the Indian central government also would not want its prerogative in the matter of foreign policy to be usurped by regional politics.

Reports say Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister Jayalalithaa demands that India should not participate in the conference at any level, prime ministerial or other, citing ‘genocide, war crimes and human rights abuses’ against the Tamil minority. Jayalalithaa’s heartache over Sri LankanTamil minority rights however is yet to extend to its Northern fisher communities that are being systematically impoverished by the activities of poachers from Tamil Nadu, who operate with her blessings and protection in the Palk Bay area. 

A similar tug-of-war between government and other groups prevails in the UK it appears. The House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee – a multi-party group — in a report has called for Britain to boycott the event. But a spokesperson for the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office has reportedly replied asserting Britain’s intention to attend in order to deliver a clear message to Sri Lanka that it needs to make ‘concrete progress on human rights.’

This position was reiterated by British High Commissioner John Rankin when he addressed the Foreign Correspondents’ Association (FCA) in Colombo on Wednesday. Rankin said they would also be looking for progress in the case of Khuram Shaikh, a British national who was killed while on holiday in Sri Lanka in 2011. His girlfriend was sexually assaulted in the murderous attack, in which the Tangalle Pradeshiya Sabha’s ruling party chairman is a key suspect. Under pressure in Parliament at question time British Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to take up the matter with President Rajapaksa during the summit. 

Shortly after, there were media reports that Britain’s Prince Charles would ‘help’ in pursuing justice in this case. The Attorney General’s decision to order ‘direct indictment’ and fast track the case was reported in Sri Lankan media on the same day it was reported that Prince Charles would be attending the summit. It’s anyone’s guess as to whether this outcome had anything to do with the fact that the British MP who took Cameron to task in parliament had been insisting that Cameron boycott the meeting unless there was ‘clear progress in the stalled murder investigation.’ For Sri Lankans, the question arises as to whether it requires an international conference to be in the balance, every time they want to see justice done in relation to some gruesome crime involving a politician or his henchmen.

Differences over CHOGM also seem to be part of the schizophrenic manifestations within the Opposition Tamil National Alliance (TNA). The TNA’s spokesman Suresh Premachandran told AFP the party wanted David Cameron to visit Jaffna and “see for himself and meet the thousands who lost their children.” MP M. A. Sumanthiran meanwhile reportedly told a news conference in Jaffna that the party was opposed to holding CHOGM in Sri Lanka as the government had violated Commonwealth principles. 

Members of the Tamil coalition ever since they swept the polls in the Northern Provincial Council election held last month, have been publicly pulling in different directions over everything ranging from where /before whom the new councillors should take their oath, to whether or not they want to be part of Sri Lanka.

Share This Post

comments powered by Disqus

Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.