By Bandu de Silva –
One might say it is too early to draw up the balance sheet of the CHOGM held in Colombo between 15th and 17th November 2013 and other events which were associated with it which the Government of Sri Lanka claimed were all part of the CHOGM programmme. This is because the results of some of the extraneous events like Commonwealth Investors’ [Business] Forum might take time to gestate and produce results. Many wheels would have to turn before the Investment Forum could bring results. What would have happened at the Forum is mere exploratory talk as usual with such events. One is familiar with BOI’s past claims and performance. If what was said by it all true this country would now be flooded with foreign investments. For example, how many investors’ forums have we had with the major investor country Japan in Asia but not a single full scale investment is yet to materialize from that country.
It is then just as well that with available information that one tries to draw up at least a tentative balance -sheet to see if the grandiose spectacle for whose success the government placed all its aces in recent times was not what our small time businessman would call “Jaan bera-gattha” or, on the contrary, “Athatath Paadu-una” affair, but one with rewarding results as the government might wont to present it. As some say, it has been very rewarding to a few. Let’s not talk about that here. For the risk taking business community, big or small ones, such risk-taking experiences are not unusual. They consider the risks are worth taking, “Giyoth Satha pahay: Aavoth JP Pattamay”, as our erudite scholar Late Prof G.P Malalasekera often repeated. In this case, of course, the ‘going” (giyoth) stakes were not “satha-paha” for the postage -stamp but billions of Rupees, enough to build two more sea ports or such big ventures, not forgetting the closed-down over hundreds of schools for lack of funds to maintain them; and “coming” (Avoth) is the far more prestigious Chair of CHOGM for two years. Cannot one see the accolades coming from the provincial politicos with their “maharajaneni” posters and full page newspaper advertisements, of course, done with tongue in cheek, hoping for a better pattama for them next time, like a promotion to central politics with a deputy Ministerial post at least, to start with. Such is the greed for power and climbing in the country. Remember the Sinhalese adage “Vaedi Aacharaya Hora”. That helps to understand the poster people today with their own picture (stamp size) down below that of the larger portraiture of the President leaving much climbing space in the means while, both literary and metopherically speaking.
For our current purpose, I shall take up a few issues where the results are already manifest. A number Ministers who Rambukwella and Peiris were prominent among them) tried to explain to the people the benefits of holding CHOGM in Colombo spoke mainly about peripheral matters such as economic [financial] benefits like increased hotel occupancy as a result of a large number of CHOGM delegates arriving. The expectation was about 4000 such delegates. Rooms in major Five Star Hotels in Colombo were block-reserved by the government accordingly, not permitting the Hotels to take in any other visitors during the period. A report published in Sunday Times of 17 November quoted the spokesperson of the Hoteliers’ Association saying that only 2000 rooms were occupied against the reservations which resulted in a loss of income by 50 per cent. The occupancy rate during the two previous months had been around 30 per cent and 40 percent respectively but during the CHOGM period the occupancy rate rose to 50 per cent. However, this gives a false evaluation, as the Association says, in the month of November the normal occupancy rate rises to between 70-75 per cent, this being the peak tourist arrival period. The block reservation by the government had deprived the hotels from accepting other clients.
Besides, the Hotels Association says hotels had had to incur heavy expenditure on refurbishing before CHOGM which would mean their loss in real terms would be greater. The hotels had also to restrict room charges to the level of those charged at the last two CHOGM venues. Whether this brought any advantages to the hotels is to be seen. It is 4 to 2 years since the last two CHOGMs were held and costs have increased since.
Another point about the Colombo CHOGM is that food and drinks were offered free to all delegates from participating countries. Since the food and beverages bills would be met by the government eventually and hotels will not be at a loss on that account, yet it is a loss to the government/country. This is a practice not followed by other CHOGM hosting countries. Could it be seen as extra hospitality offered by Sri Lanka, or as a wag says, a kind of bribery offered? Let us not speak about the food and beverages imported for the occasion, including Canadian Salmons and Tasmanian crayfish, river oysters and asparagus, just to mention a few items. Lets not forget the Burgundies and Cru Bourgeois Medocs from the best of Chateaus of Bordeaux, or the Grand Crux St.Emilions from Chateau La Fleur, or even Pommerel Espiciale for exclusive connoisseurs. All at state expense! Well stocked in advance. Hope Minister Peiris did not have to look for them in the Foreign Ministry wine-cellar maintained by one of his erstwhile predecessors who once reminded this writer when asked if he could order some wine for lunch at the restaurant, “What are you asking? Didn’t you know we are in a Muslim country?” I had to remind the Minister, Yes Sir, the best French wines are from Algeria and I learnt to choose wine from the Secretary of the Ministry of Justice in Algiers, who was my very good friend. Then I showed him waiters carrying wine to the tables. Before I could stop, came the order from him.” Then you order some wine. You know so much about it”.
It is yet to be seen if any of these benefits were offered to others participating in other events like Investors’ Forum and Youth Forum.
Consequently, what it points to is that what External Minister G.L Peiris and his colleague Keheliya Rambukwella repeatedly told the country about an immediate short term benefit of playing host did not materialize.
Youth and Peoples’ Forum
This was also an area on which the Sri Lankan leaders made much noise in advance. However, in the end it was reported that the Sri Lankans in the Drafting Group of the Declaration withdrew as the Declaration had been subverted by British interests. There has been very little comment on the outcome against early enthusiasm.
No CHOGM had enlisted one hundred per cent participation at the highest level, i.e Head of State or Head of Government level but the degree of participation had varied from venue to venue. CHOGM held in South Africa attracted one of the highest participation at highest level. That was understandable after South Africa gained release from Apartheid rule and under President Nelson Mandela embarked on the path of reconciliation. Next CHOGM event well represented was held in Edinburgh. The CHOGM held in Perth, the Capital of a state in the Commonwealth of Australia too enlisted a large number at the highest level. The Colombo CHOGM was attended by 26 Heads of states or Heads of Government, which is the lowest on record so far. (Two countries of Africa, Uganda and Nigeria sent their Vice Presidents).
This should not be taken as a reflection on the hosting country but in changing circumstanes and ecconomi woes of many member countries including Britain. It cannot be denied that Canadian Prime Minister’s declared opposition to the holding of CHOGM in Sri Lanka on grounds of alleged human rights violations as well as Indian Prime Minister’s intransigence over attendance and the refusal of Prime Minister of Mauritius which was the next agreed country to hold CHOGM (since withdrawn the offer) could not have had some effect on the level of participation. Canadian Prime Minister, Harper, was seen a few months earlier visiting a number of Caribbean and other states in the neighbourhood though it was not clear if he engaged in anti Sri Lankan politics. These states are increasingly coming for attention as recipients Canadian aid. A zone of Canadian influence is in the making. The lower level representation from these countries at the Colombo CHOGM except for Bahamas which was represented by its Prime Minister cannot be missed.
External Minister Peiris’s wooing of African countries too does not seem to have yielded much positive results. South African President’s participation cannot be attributed to his efforts. The South African leadership has to be credited for it. Both Ugandan President’s excuse that his brother ‘s illness has to be accepted if the recent exchange of visits at heads of level between the two countries are to be remembered. He was represented by the Vice President. Nigeria too which country vowed to have close relations with Sri Lanka recently after it had voted for the US Resolution in Geneva, was represented by the Vice President. If there had not been pressing local compulsions or special reasons to frown at CHOGM as Kenya had reasons for, it would appear that Minister G.L.Peiris’ recently commenced Africa policy has not brought the intended results. Diplomacy cannot be started overnight. Sri Lanka has lost the credibility she once enjoyed as a leading NAM nation!
The lower level of representation need not be seen so much as a protest against the host country, but a growing realisation that the organization is rapidly losing its relevance and the frequent meetings are longer a reason for member countries to give priority over their domestic issues. The learned Editor of Sunday Island thought these meetings was too close apart and might be spaced out to once in four years. There is a truth about this suggestion when one considers that nothing much really happens by way of progress to be reviewed at the fooling summit.
The diminishing attention/interest was clear of from the absence of India’s Prime Minister, as much as of Canada’s Prime Minister though the latter was trying to hide it under Human rights issue. Maldives had her domestic reasons not to be present at all. Even if the incumbent President could not have left in view of impending second count of the Presidential elections, why even the High Commissioner in Colombo did not represent the country is puzzling. Mauritius can be discounted as a client state of Tamil Nadu.
A popular view
The government itself would be reeling with satisfaction at the way the ceremonial part of the extravaganza proceeded without any hi-cups from the grand opening ceremony at Nelun Pokuna to the end. Even the elephants assembled to greet the visitors at BMICH grounds, each decked in the colours of participating states saluted in perfect unison. This is what the Sri Lankans always take pride.
The cost was very high, nevertheless. The Colombo Mayor is waiting to receive a promised cheque from the Ministry of External Affairs for over 800 Million Rupees spent on City and Road beautification programme. That is only part of it. He has carried on the work taking Bank Credit. I doubt if the results could be reduced to Cost-Benefit ratio type of analysis. As some say, “Keeya giyath wede lassanata keruna ne.” (Already “Maharajaneni” Advertisements have appeared in newspapers and posters published by psychopath politicians who want to climb up on the President’s popularity are appearing in the streets eulogizing the President for “bringing the world to Sri Lanka’s door-step”).
There is a point about the admiration expressed about the spectacle. I do not think any CHOGM extravaganza anywhere reached such spectacular proportions. For this all who were concerned deserve credit. That said, was CHOGM all celebrations but without content? That is to be seen, after taking into account the Colombo Declaration, and how the CHOGM Charter adopted last time would be implemented under the new Chair of President Rajapaksa. A dissenting villager, however, might quote the old adage “Loketa parakase, gederata mara gathe.” The country will be eventually paying for the debts incurred. This is already to be seen from the Annual Budget that was presented. Take a small example. Senior pensioners are to reeive Rs.350 increase in C>O.L. allowance. But it has been taken away from the other hand by increasing the price of karavadu(dried fish) and dried Sprats and pulses (Mung eta) which form the main items of daily meal of these pensioners. So there we are! Real “gederata maragate” situation!
Human Rights issue
The human rights issue, by raising which the British Prime Minister tried to play spoil sport, though effectively retorted by the President, the rhetoric on both sides had not kept this matter having reverberation at the Colombo summit. This is seen from the report that the Human Rights Commission is to be reactivated soon to receive complaints on human rights violation (torture) and a Commonwealth team of experts is to arrive soon to set up the machinery. This points to serious deliberations having taken place between the Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma and the Sri Lankan government on the side lines on this issue. Advice would have also come from well-meaning Commonwealth leaders about the need for putting this issue behind for the Sri Lankan government to move on progressively towards development goals. A point to be taken note of is China’s unexpected statement advising Sri Lanka to address the human rights issue. As a friendly country, China‘s advice might be in consideration of the fact she see this issue having an eroding effect on Sri Lanka’s progress, however, stubbornly Sri Lanka may be wanting to resist it.
This is not to speak having had to yield ground to India on the issue of abolition of the 13th Amendment on which the govt. vexed eloquence and had to hold NP elections before CHOGM in order to save it. That is now a foregone conclusion. To what result? To have Indian P.M boycotting the summit! Deyyo Saakki!