26th October 1997

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Businesslike Commonwealth

Series of plebiscites

Businesslike Commonwealth

Two centuries ago when might was deemed right, a few thousands of Englishmen with their superior fire power and master manoeuvres in politics ruled over more than 400 million of the then South Asia. We saluted them in total servitude. Today when right is deemed right though only evident largely in diplomatic niceties we sit with our former colonial masters on equal footing, recognising the British monarchy only as the ceremonial head of a grouping called the Commonwealth.

The days when militarily weaker newly independent countries including Sri Lanka looked towards the Commonwealth for protection, were things of the past.

It is in this context that one questions today the relevance of the Commonwealth. Some want it to play a greater and assertive role in upholding democracy and human rights. But for the third world members of the Commonwealth, there is much at stake and much to gain at this week’s Edinburgh summit where leaders of some 54 countries representing a quarter of the world’s population have converged to make the group more meaningful in today’s context.

Investment and trade co-operation and combating poverty, the main themes of the Edinburgh summit, may stir hopes for Sri Lanka and other poorer members of the Commonwealth. But for tangible results, the Commonwealth should act more businesslike rather than as a cosy, ineffective and post-imperialist talking shop as it is often pooh-poohed by its critics.

We may be proud to claim that we are politically independent but with globalisation and free trade, the independence we have cherished for the past 50 years and the geographical boundaries are becoming virtually irrelevant.

Free trade, yes. But neo-colonialism through it should be checked. Here lies the virtue of the Commonwealth if it is concerned with minimum standards of democracy, human rights and a fair economic order.

The Edinburgh summit would be of added significance to Sri Lanka if President Kumaratunga and her Foreign Minister could use this opportunity to rally support against the LTTE and tell their Commonwealth colleagues that it is British sterling pound and Canadian dollars which go to buy RDX and TNT for Tiger bombs that kill the innocents indiscriminately in Sri Lanka.

Series of plebiscites

The President has gone on record say ing she will “review’’ or recon- sider the plans for a “series of referendums on the Eastern province.” There is a tale that hangs behind this Presidential statement.

The plans for a series of plebiscites to decide the political fate of the Eastern province were first revealed by Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs Dr. G. L. Peiris. The Minister made known the proposal rather dramatically at a press conference, with considerable panache as if he was pulling a rabbit out of a magician’s hat .

When journalists reminded the Minister that the political package was now almost three years old, the Minister was quick to retort. He said the plebiscites in the East were a sign of the resolve and the sincerity of the government in making sure that the proposals were translated into legislative fact.

Two weeks later, the Minister’s virtual “fait accompli’’ turned out to be something of a non-starter, as things turned out. The President , citing the “ground situation in the East”, said the referenda will be reconsidered. The details of that argument remain a mere detail in the light of the fact that such non-starters are not new to the story of the political package..

The government’s political package now hangs fire over the general political discourse. If the package is destined to be bogged down in detail, it’s reasonable that the long term role of the military onslaught be thoroughly reconsidered, for instance.

However, the government prefers to keep the package in a limbo, for reasons best known to its leadership. That presents a poser for all concerned, those who favour the package, or oppose it, or even neutral observers. No political package can please everybody, but the government seems to be wedded to the idea that there can be a final perfect document.

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