By Malinda Seneviratne –
If last week has a name it is CHOGM. A wit quipped, ‘CHOGASM’, and that would be an appropriate descriptive, for multiple reasons and multiple forces including those at odds with one another.
The side events took center stage in the early parts of the week. There was much pomp and pageantry, heart-warming speeches, deliberation and ‘final documents’. The Youth Forum was inspiring, the Business Forum was as expected pragmatic with little concern about the political shenanigans surrounding the main event, and the People’s Forum marked with all the intrigue, backstabbing and sleight of hand that is par for the course when it comes to ‘civil society’ operations.
Then there were the other side events. Prince Charles and his birthday party. The stand-in for the Queen was offered a kevum or traditional oil cake by President Rajapaksa which he (Charles) was obliged to nibble. When he turned, he was accosted by the First Lady Shiranthi Rajapaksa who offered him kalu dodol, which too he couldn’t decline. He was also obliged to follow suit when the President offered a banana to an elephant. He took it all in good spirits and delivered a decent enough speech at the Opening Ceremony that was quite in contrast to the choreographed utterings of the Prime Minister of his country yesterday (16). We’ll get to that later.
The week was also hogged by the self-labeled ‘journalists’, representing a self-labeled ‘media’ outfit called Channel 4, Callum Macrae and Jonathan Miller. Ill-willed, selectively informed, lacking in the most basic of journalistic skills (verification, checking source-reliability, letting fact speak instead of cut-paste exercises of de-contextualization), they came to turn CHOGM into circus. Macrae was honest in one thing. He said ‘I will make more films’. Film is what he does; ‘documentary’ is what he calls what he does.
The United National Party predictably got itself into another mess thanks to its fixation with the idea that power is something that only someone like David Cameron can deliver to them. Since the Camerons of this world have found ready and slavish allies in dollar and euro dependent NGOs, it was probably ‘sensible’ to show linkages and get into some serious mutual back-scratching. This was done. When it backfired, an UNP stalwart is reported to have said ‘we just rented our premises,’ another senior, Gamini Jayawickrama Perera was appalled by the excuse.
The Bodu Bala Sena, which stormed UNP party headquarters, ‘Sirikotha’, as is now a matter of habit, got into fisticuffs. This bull-in-China-shop operation, coming at a time where prudence should be privileged over emotional outburst, did neither government nor country any favors. BBS has a pattern of stirring things up at critical moments; for example it whipped up anti-halal fervor during the UNHRC sessions in Geneva.
Chief of the UNP’s Leadership Council, Karu Jayasuriya, who has a good reputation for not having any truck with terrorists and their proxies, local or foreign, has remained silent on the issue as has sidelined leader-wannabe Sajith Premadasa. In the end the party decided to boycott the CHOGM and the only ‘jumbos’ seen at the BMICH were the highly decorated four-legged variety brought in especially to add pomp to the event.
There was another gate-crash of sorts. During the closing ceremony of the Commonwealth People’s Forum (CPF) in Hikkaduwa, Hugo Swire, Britain’s Minister in Charge of the Commonwealth Office, was smuggled into the hall by the Commonwealth Foundation without informing the Sri Lankan team involved in the organizing until the eleventh hour. Swire indulged in a Cameron-like Sri Lanka bashing. His antics quite overshadowed what was generally seen as a highly productive Commonwealth People’s Forum.
Channel 4 aside, the media operations during the week have been utterly fascinating. Australia’s ABC was unabashed in its anti Sri Lanka bias, openly lying about India’s non-participating, attributing reasons that no responsible Indian politician or official had uttered. They were big, like BBC and Channel 4, on ‘Human Rights’ and ‘allegation’, but silent on context and fact. They distracted from important topics such as poverty alleviation, following the colonial line of their ancestors. Who sent or facilitated the sending of food to the conflict areas, did these people wonder? Were children vaccinated and were they attending school? If not, why not? These are relevant questions. As for war crimes, the evidence is on the table: there was nothing systemic in any transgressions that may have taken place, although the likes of Frances Harrison are trying to make ‘systemic’ the second Goebbelsian element of their campaign, the first being the Goebbelsian arithmetic, ’40,000 killed’; all to buttress the rump of the Tamil Pop Pot Velupillai Prabhakaran’s terrorist outfit, the LTTE.
ABC did not catch the importance of elections and the overwhelming victory of the TNA. ABC quoted a lot of people but not a single member of the Northern Provincial Council.
By the way, there were two individuals who dominated CHOGM-related news over the past several months, Manmohan Singh and Stephen Harper. No one seems to have missed either of them.
David Cameron played the ‘Empire’s Minority Card’, in the classic exercise of divide and rule. It was all about going to Jaffna. No one heard him thanking the Government for getting rid of the LTTE so he could actually go that part of the island; the TNA didn’t prompt him either, for they can’t really say that and please the LTTE groups abroad whose pawns they are. The TNA played along. But Cameron pretty much undressed himself in Colombo yesterday at a stage-managed media conference. He preempted any hard questions by reserving two entire rows for ‘friendly’ journalists. Given that human shield of sorts, Cameron opened fire. He didn’t have to dodge any bullets, for he orchestrated a no-fire zone by refusing to let anyone but his buddies ask questions.
And the man had the gumption to talk the language of democracy, freedom of expression, media rights etc.!
A local journalist had to shout as this dodgy politician strutted away, ‘what are you going to do about the Chilcot Report?’ Not a word, not a murmur. His ears may have stung and gone red when they were grazed by a bullet called ‘HYPOCRITE!’ but few would bet on it.
The President seemed to take all this in his stride, good-humoredly taking all questions. In stark contrast to Cameron’s disgraceful and cowardly behavior, the President, in a joint press conference with Commonwealth Secretary Kamalesh Sharma, went out of his way to solicit questions from the Channel 4 ‘journalist’, Jonathan Miller.
The agenda for CHOGM proper was set by President Rajapaksa during the opening ceremony. He pointed out that before talking about the ‘common wealth’, the gathering must discuss ‘common poverty’. The following excerpts are of particular relevance.
‘I am extremely thankful to all of you who have been firm in your support and understanding, of the related complexities in Sri Lanka’s post conflict phase. This confidence reposed by you in my country will greatly assist me in steering the Organization’s future in the best interest of our peoples.
‘We in Sri Lanka are stepping into a new era of peace, stability and renewed economic opportunities that have been long denied to my people, due to the menace of terrorism that existed for nearly three decades. In ending terrorism in 2009, we asserted the greatest human right, the right to life. I am happy to state that in the past four years, there hasn’t been a single terrorist related incident, anywhere in Sri Lanka.
‘There is a multitude of global challenges, arising from the uncertainty of the socio economic conditions, faced by our nations today. We, in the Commonwealth, must therefore collectively find means of effectively addressing these challenges to safeguard the values we hold dear.
‘It is in recognition of the urgent need to address the burning issues connected to growth and development, which directly impinge on the lives of our peoples, that Sri Lanka proposed the theme, “Growth with Equity: Inclusive Development” for this CHOGM.
‘We believe that this theme has broad relevance to the larger Commonwealth, and highlights the importance of equity in economic development, particularly in view of the existing disparities in the distribution of wealth, and economic benefits. Inclusive development promotes progress and contributes towards achieving Millennium Development Goals.
‘In the case of Sri Lanka, our current policy agenda, the Mahinda Chinthana, Vision for the Future, spells out clear strategies of improving the livelihoods of our people, ensuring that economic and social benefits reach every strata of society, and more importantly, taking Sri Lanka into the future, by aiming to be the ‘Wonder of Asia’.
‘I am happy to say that Sri Lanka has achieved success on a range of social indicators that comprise the MDGs, despite being a lower middle income country. Absolute poverty in Sri Lanka declined from 15.2 per cent in 2007 to 6.5 per cent in 2012, surpassing the MDG mid-term target. While reaching out to care for all our people’s needs, the Government has also taken a pro-active approach, to post-conflict reconstruction and reconciliation.’
President Rajapaksa posed some questions for the heads of governments and their representatives present in Colombo:
Can we realistically say that the need for basic facilities, healthcare, education, productive employment, access to food and safe drinking water, eradication of poverty and hunger, are of lesser importance than political concerns?
Should not the Commonwealth, collectively strive towards the realization of development goals, to enable its member countries to reap economic benefits?
Shouldn’t we be addressing more vigorously the issue of ‘common poverty’ before we talk about ‘common wealth’?
He seemed to have anticipated the kinds of antics that Cameron was to indulge in:
‘If the Commonwealth is to remain relevant to its member countries, the Association must respond sensitively, to the needs of its peoples and not let it turn into a punitive or judgmental body. We must also collectively guard against bilateral agendas being introduced into the Organization, distorting Commonwealth traditions and consensus. The strength of the Organization lies in keeping the member countries together, helping one another in a spirit of partnership, making the Commonwealth truly unique.’
He quoted the Buddha Siddhartha Gauthama:
Na paresaa vilomani – na paresam katakatam; Attanova avkkheyya – katani akatani ca
[‘Let not one take notice of faults of other’s or what they have done or not done. Let one be concerned only about what one has done and left undone.’]
Clearly the Commonwealth or rather its vulgar elements which re-defined several times over what crimes against humanity, cultural erasure, genocide and grand theft really meant in the century or so that came before the ‘Commonwealth’ was formed, did not have ears to hear these words.
Not that anyone is really surprised. Sri Lanka proved to be an exemplary host; David Cameron an uncivilized guest who embarrassed his Queen.
One question remains: ‘What has changed?’
*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com