The London meeting of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) last week has cleared the path for the holding of the CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting) in Sri Lanka as scheduled in November this year. It seems it was, eventually, a storm in a tea cup. The Government made an issue that any doubts [...]


CHOGM: Beware of what happened after 1976


The London meeting of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) last week has cleared the path for the holding of the CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting) in Sri Lanka as scheduled in November this year.

It seems it was, eventually, a storm in a tea cup. The Government made an issue that any doubts relating to the holding of the summit in Sri Lanka owing to the country’s chequered good governance track record was not on the agenda, but it turned out that CMAG had no mandate to change the venue anyway.

This did not, however, mean that the subject never arose. Canada, a frontline state opposing CHOGM-Sri Lanka did raise the issue and this comes out from the news conference chaired by the Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma and the CMAG Chairperson and Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister Dipu Moni. Here, the Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird himself was present casting aside protocol, acting as a media-man to raise a question from the persons with whom he sat when CMAG met.

The Canadians wanted to make it known to the public through the media that they had raised the issue of Sri Lanka hosting CHOGM. Then, the Canadian Minister went the extra mile, so to say, by walking across ‘Marlborough House’ where CMAG met to press the flesh of those outside from the Tamil Diaspora who were protesting against Sri Lanka. So much for Commonwealth values.

The Government has clearly got hold of a proverbial ‘koti walige’ or ‘Tiger’s tail’. The offer to host CHOGM came before the end of the ‘war on terror’ in 2009 and the defeat of the LTTE, whose sponsors in Europe and North America smarting over the defeat applied pressure on their local politicians in their adopted homelands in those continents to take up cudgels against the Sri Lankan Government.

It seems to have been a decision taken at the time to prop up the country’s international image. That there was an element of egoistic self-glorification in the exercise for the country’s leaders cannot be ruled out. But was there an in-depth assessment of the spin-off, and more essentially the cost-benefit factor factored into this offer to host leaders of 54 countries of the world? Surely not.

The Commonwealth is a spent force in world affairs today. It does not take collective decisions on global issues despite the numerical strength it has with more than a quarter of the nations of the world represented in it. Even Britain gives it step-motherly treatment most of the time. The Queen of England being the head of the Commonwealth represents a sense of nostalgia for the glorious past, but in effect for the present and the future she has abandoned that ‘club’ a long time ago in favour of Europe and the US to which Britain is now more closely linked.

So now, if one were to use another local idiom, ‘Bandha bere gahannai vennai’ – which loosely translated means ‘one has to beat the drum one has tied on oneself’. The Government will have to go through with hosting the summit of an organisation whose shelf-life has long expired.

One of the key objections to Sri Lanka being the venue for CHOGM 2013 is also the fact that Sri Lanka will lead the Commonwealth for the next two years and President Mahinda Rajapaksa will be, in terms of the office he holds, the chair-in-office of the group. The Opposition parties, of course, have a different view. They point out to what happened in 1976 (at the Non-Aligned Summit) where the then Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike became as was claimed the leader of two-thirds of the world ( the Non-Aligned Movement had more than 100 member-states then), but lost the 1977 general elections and with it the mantle to J.R. Jayewardene for the balance period. Ms. Bandaranaike received all the criticism for wasting public funds on the tamasha and Mr. Jayewardene ran away with the title.

As the Government changes gear to organisational mode now that the path to CHOGM-Sri Lanka has been cleared, there will be a need for a sense of austerity particularly at a time when the ordinary citizenry is undergoing more and more hardship. The Government will have to ‘cut the coat’ accordingly and not make a splash with borrowed money. This will be manna from heaven for ‘commission agents’ and can leave the country in even greater debt and earn the Government the ire of the people. The lessons of 1976 and then 1977 are well worth learning.

What was the price we paid?

According to our Political Editor last week, an influential Commonwealth member, not in the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), played a significant part in swinging CHOGM-Sri Lanka in our favour amidst rumblings from some member-states. Bangladesh played a useful role as the Chair of CMAG to ensure that the anti-Sri Lanka campaign ended as a damp squib. But it was India that set in motion the covert diplomatic moves that tilted the balance Sri Lanka’s way.

That the Secretary General of the Commonwealth Secretariat was a former Indian diplomat and close friend of the Rajiv Gandhi family was a happy coincidence. That he had that much confidence in the Commonwealth convincing the Rajapaksa Government to abide by Commonwealth values on good governance in the run-up to the summit through workshops is hopefully, not wishful thinking.

The question is whether the Government entered into a quid-pro-quo deal for that support. Was the Northern Provincial Council election in September the sop? India may want to win back lost ground in the sphere of influence over Sri Lanka from China (and Pakistan that supported Sri Lanka at the UNHRC in Geneva), but if so, is hosting the CHOGM in return for the implementation of the 13th Amendment a fair exchange? If so, is the Government playing its cards with high stakes?

There is great concern over the holding of the Northern Province elections, not least from very high persona at the Defence Ministry, particularly security concerns. The geo-political consideration with a hostile South Indian state is another. The nexus between the likely winner of those elections and India is yet another. The whole question of Provincial Councils as an efficient system of devolution, is still another.

One just hopes that the holding of these elections was not an exchange for a mess of pottage in hosting the CHOGM Summit.

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