By Dharisha Bastians -
For the Sri Lankan Government and the Commonwealth Secretary General, the absence of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at CHOGM 2013 will be keenly felt
The decision by Indian Premier Manmohan Singh to remain mysterious about his CHOGM attendance, with the summit getting underway in two weeks, is causing nervous flutters in uncanny places. The first of these, although appearances can be deceptive, is Temple Trees – the unofficial residence of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
In reality, the Rajapaksa administration has much to crow about in terms of VIP attendance at its showpiece summit next month. After leading a year-long call for a major boycott or CHOGM venue change, Canada issued a blistering critique of Sri Lanka’s rulers and the Commonwealth Secretariat, threatened to cut funding to the 53-member body, and retreated into the shadows. A low-level Parliamentary Secretary will attend on Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s behalf, but for President Rajapaksa, it is not an absence that will be keenly felt.
Britain, which is the Commonwealth’s top donor, will send its Prime Minister David Cameron, despite strong opposition in that country to the high level representation. Australia has shown unwavering solidarity with the Sri Lankan Government on its CHOGM quest since calls began for greater scrutiny of the Rajapaksa administration’s rights record and a rethink of the summit venue. Desperate for Colombo’s cooperation to block illegal migration to its shores, Canberra has been firmly on Sri Lanka’s side at the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) and elsewhere, blocking moves by Canada and other member states from getting anywhere close to placing the country on a ‘watch-list’ over the state of its democracy or its commitment to protecting the human rights of its citizens.
Good roll call
As for the rest of the organisation’s membership, with the exception of those who are unavoidably detained elsewhere, most heads of state will arrive in Sri Lanka on 14 November for the two-day summit. For a troubled and controversial summit, it will be an impressive roll call when CHOGM opens at the Mahinda Rajapaksa Nelum Pokuna Auditorium on 15 November.
But not even the presence of the bulk of the Commonwealth heads of government will take away the sting of Prime Minister Singh’s absence and the scaled-down representation from New Delhi that is likely at the crucial meeting of world leaders. The snub will be keenly felt, not only in Colombo’s governing circles, but also thousands of miles away in Malborough House London, the home of the Commonwealth Secretariat headed by Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma.
India was not only the crowning jewel of the British Empire, but the Secretary General is also the first Indian to hold the top position at the helm of an organisation that comprises mostly former British colonial territories. First elected as Secretary General at the 2007 CHOGM in Kampala, Uganda, Sharma’s name was proposed for re-election in 2011 at CHOGM in Perth by India and unanimously accepted. CHOGM is a landmark event in the Commonwealth calendar and for Sharma, who is a former member of the Indian Foreign Service, the absence of his country’s Head of State at a summit organised and facilitated by his office will be keenly felt.
Concern for Sharma
The former Indian diplomat has reigned over the Commonwealth for five years now and will remain in office for three more. Never in his tenure at the helm of the Commonwealth has Sharma faced such a relentless hailstorm of criticism and opposition over the decision to go through with CHOGM in Colombo despite the country’s democratic health and abysmal human rights record.
Four months after the summit, the Commonwealth headed by Kamalesh Sharma, with its stated core values of democracy, human rights and good governance, will have to endure the disgrace of watching its Chair-in-Office berated over its rights record at the world’s leading body to monitor human rights.
When Sri Lanka is likely served with a third Resolution calling for concrete action on alleged violations of humanitarian law and making peace with the country’s Tamil minority at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in February 2014, it will be as the presiding member state of the Commonwealth.
But these post-CHOGM concerns are backburner issues for Sharma and the Secretariat, bogged down with logistical preparations ahead of the major summit which gets underway in two weeks. What Colombo and the Secretariat desperately do not want is for Prime Minister Singh to boycott the meeting on grounds that Sri Lanka has made no progress in addressing the grievances of the Tamil minority community or allegations of mass civilian deaths in the final phase of the war.
The announcement of Singh’s boycott would portend a damaging news cycle days before CHOGM and threaten to recall all the issues the Secretariat has strived hard to sweep under the carpet in the lead-up to the summit. When South Asia’s most powerful nation stages a partial boycott on grounds that Colombo has failed to live up to its post-war promises on human rights and reconciliation, it calls into question again the Secretary General’s own failure to ensure Sri Lanka gets its house in order ahead of CHOGM.
For most of the world, the Sri Lanka policy is dictated or framed extensively on the basis of New Delhi’s current view of things. A no-show by the Indian Premier would erode the legitimacy of this summit that is being held at the insistence of Colombo and the Commonwealth Secretariat that Sri Lanka was well on its way to progress in the post-war phase.
Govt. in overdrive
For Sharma’s sake and because Singh’s absence would put a significant dampener on all things CHOGM related, the Government this week went into overdrive, insisting New Delhi should send full representation to the summit. In the lead-up to the November meeting, the Rajapaksa Government gritted its teeth and followed through on several key fronts.
Firstly, when New Delhi and Tamil Nadu erupted over the moves, it shelved what it viewed as an all-important plan to dilute the powers of the provinces, granted by the 13th Amendment ahead of the northern election in which it was assured defeat. Secondly, it conducted the northern provincial elections, fulfilling a major promise to India and the international community in adherence to a deadline set unofficially in the March 2013 UNHRC resolution sponsored by the US. Thirdly, earlier this month the Government signed the Sampur Power Project agreement with New Delhi despite opposition within the ruling alliance and experts, who insist the plant will bring more problems than solutions once commissioned.
And yet, Singh will not come.
The Rajapaksa administration with its nationalist outlook on governance has a complex relationship with its giant neighbour. The geopolitics of the region and India’s increasingly influential position with the West means that despite all its natural inclinations, the Government cannot afford to lose New Delhi’s support entirely. Yet it continues to build stronger ties with Beijing and Islamabad in a bid to balance an all-pervasive Indian role in Sri Lanka, especially with regard to its treatment and concessions to the minority Tamil community. The ruling administration certainly will stop short of looking desperate for India’s support, at least in the public domain.
Gestures for New Delhi
For the past week therefore, the State-owned media has provided the most significant clue as to how badly the regime wants to ensure the Indian Premier is pressured into participating in CHOGM. The State-owned print media has published as lead stories successive editorials by Indian newspapers urging Singh to attend the summit, carrying the editorials in full elsewhere in the newspaper. Yesterday the Jaffna Magistrate also set free 19 fishermen from Tamil Nadu who will be returned to India later this week. And in a strange eleventh hour twist, reports from India earlier this week stated Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa would be in New Delhi for crucial talks two weeks before the summit. The Defence Secretary’s visit remains an unofficial matter and is being referred to as a ‘private visit,’ but some official meetings on the sidelines of his trip seem certain.
Since the final phase of the war, Sri Lanka has dealt with India’s Congress Government largely through President Rajapaksa’s handpicked emissaries Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa and Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga. Despite the apparent strictures against Colombo from New Delhi, the Government of India still maintains an easy rapport with Basil Rajapaksa and Weeratunga, who are seen as amiable and understanding representatives of the Rajapaksa administration. The changing of the emissary at a crucial stage signals that Colombo might be willing to make one last grand gesture to the Indian Government to seal the Premier’s attendance at CHOGM.
New Delhi is nowhere near as comfortable with the Defence Secretary who has never undertaken an official visit to India and has been vocally critical of New Delhi’s role in the Sri Lankan conflict and its involvement in the process to grant devolution to the Tamil people of the north and east. But despite this strained relationship, the powerful Defence Secretary is increasingly seen as the chief mover and shaker in the ruling regime, a role that many diplomats and UN high officials are uncomfortable with but believe may be necessary to engage.
The advantage of the Defence Secretary being the President’s envoy to New Delhi could be that he would be in the best possible position to offer a deal – on the release of Tamil Nadu fishermen and the 42 boats currently in Sri Lankan Government custody for instance or a scaling down of the military presence in the north – that Singh may find difficult to turn down.
An assurance from the powerful official will also provide the Indian Government with a much-needed selling point to justify pursuing a strategy of engagement with Sri Lanka instead of pushing the Rajapaksas into a corner, analysts say. Despite the conduct of the northern poll and seemingly overt gestures of goodwill regarding the new Tamil provincial administration in the North, negative reports persist regarding the Government’s policies towards the Tamil-dominated region.
For the Indian Government led by Sonia Gandhi’s Congress Party, there was a period just like this one back in 2009. Its policy decisions during that season would go on to frame India’s difficult relationship with the Rajapaksa Government in the post-war years.
The ‘special relationship’ between the Congress Party and Rajapaksa regime in Colombo had contributed significantly to Sri Lanka’s ability to militarily defeat the LTTE in May 2009. The defeat coincided with the Congress Party’s return to power in the Indian general election season that also concluded in May of the same year. As Tamil Nadu went to the polls in April, the Sri Lankan security forces enforced a three-week ceasefire with the rebels and claimed to have stopped the use of heavy weapons by February 2009, aimed at turning down the heat in the emotive Southern Indian state and Congress ally DMK would not suffer badly at the polls.
Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga publicly admitted this quid pro quo some months later, only to withdraw his statement given its diplomatic implications. Weeratunga in an interview with a local newspaper said President Rajapaksa had helped the ruling Congress Party to win the Indian elections by agreeing to stop using heavy weapons during the last stages of the war.
Not much about this special relationship has changed except that the Rajapaksa regime has grown increasingly intractable in the four years since the war ended. By consistently reneging on promises made to India about making peace with the Tamil community by offering more than the 13th Amendment, the Rajapaksa administration has made life increasingly difficult for the Indian Government.
With Tamil Nadu baying for blood, the Congress Party remains reluctant to further jeopardise its chances at next year’s Parliamentary poll. The Congress Party has seen its support wane in the face of several corruption scandals and it remains jittery about the crucial 40 seats Tamil Nadu will bring when the time comes for alliance building in the aftermath of the April-May polls. And despite its reservations about the Indian Government in general, the Rajapaksa regime realises that a return of Congress to the helm of Indian politics next year will work in its favour, where a Narendra Modi-led BJP with its greater sympathy with the Tamils of Sri Lanka will toughen positions across the Palk Straits.
Despite the reservations of the party, at heart, the Indian bureaucracy and even the Prime Minister favour attendance at CHOGM rather than a boycott, say analysts. The Indian Premier himself is an economist turned bureaucrat and may favour engagement with Colombo over making a stand. But with the election only seven months away, the big question remains whether the Premier’s Party will risk the move unless Sri Lanka rolls out an offer it just cannot refuse.
For the moment, New Delhi will content itself with waiting for the very last moment to announce a decision on its Premier’s presence at the Colombo summit. It is India’s small concession to Colombo every time it finds its hands tied by domestic politics and a strategy it has employed for two consecutive years now at the UNHRC in Geneva each time the resolution against Sri Lanka gathers momentum.
By leaving its attendance at the summit ambiguous till the very last minute, New Delhi will ensure that no other Commonwealth member states will be provoked to take similar action. At the UNHRC this strategy works against support for the US-backed resolutions, analysts say, because other Council member states who wish to be led by India regarding a position on the issue are often left uncertain of which way to swing.
None of these gestures however will get much traction in Colombo – as New Delhi has experienced after each UNHRC session in Geneva. The Government media, now working overtime to make the case for Singh’s attendance, will turn its guns on the Indian Government if the Prime Minister avoids the summit and sends Vice President Mohammed Hamid Ansari, as conventional wisdom suggests at the moment.
In the meantime, the Sri Lankan Government, with CHOGM safely secured, is already signalling a return to business as usual. This week alone the military commenced the demolition of civilian houses in Valikamam North in Jaffna, a former High Security Zone, while thousands of legal cases are pending by civilians claiming the land was acquired by the Government illegally. In a further return to the status quo, a 30-year-old Hindu Kovil in Dambulla – where the presence of a small mosque became a major controversy only last year – was completely demolished by a group led by Buddhist monks on Tuesday night. And in the face of international calls for a scaling down of the military in the Northern Province and a damning report by the Commonwealth monitors at the recently-concluded polls in the region about the adverse role of militarisation in the election process, President Rajapaksa ruled out the withdrawal of troops at a convocation ceremony at the Kotalawela Defence Academy two days ago. Yesterday the Government decided to grill and deport two international media activists for attending a media rights workshop in Colombo on a tourist visa.
For the moment, as the Rajapaksa administration readies for its showpiece summit, the international community led by officials like Kamalesh Sharma appear to be willing to look the other way.
Courtesy Daily FT