By Malinda Seneviratne –
Sri Lanka is heading into the last week before the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 2013, which Colombo is hosting. The run-up to CHOGM has been fraught with barbs from the usual voices in the anti-Sri Lanka chorus. The attendant wailing and calls for boycott began the moment Sri Lanka was ‘awarded’ CHOGM 2013 and followed similar whines when Colombo was considered as host city.
Barbs notwithstanding, CHOGM will take place, whether or not Manmohan Singh attends due to pressure from potential coalition partner in next year’s election, Jayalalithaa, Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. As for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, he will not be missed. The Tamil National Alliance, trying hard not to show fracture, has its leader asking India to boycott and the Chief Minister, Northern Province, elected on the TNA ticket, C.V. Wigneswaran saying that boycotting does not help. He has acknowledged Tamil Nadu’s concerns for Sri Lankan Tamils, but has firmly said resolving issues was a matter for the Tamils in Sri Lanka and no one else.
There are noises about what will happen during the CHOGM. British Prime Minister David Cameron has said he will use CHOGM to raise issues. Australia and New Zealand, largely in response to Canada’s boycott and call for other countries to boycott, have got away with the ‘better to engage’ line. It is good to ‘engage’.
First of all, following the rumor that Kenya was considering a boycott because the Commonwealth. That rumor had a basis. A boycott call made sense in terms of rallying opposition to the International Criminal Court (ICC) at a forum outside the African Union (AU). Kenya already has substantial support among AU countries. Since one third of the member states of the Commonwealth of Nations are from Africa, any call for boycott would not go unheeded in the continent. Kenya will participate but notwithstanding that fact, the ‘Kenyan Issue’ is something that the Commonwealth can take up. CHOGM 2013 can deliberate on the worth of this gathering of nations if it remains silent when members destabilize other members (like India did and does to Sri Lanka) and when other multilateral bodies haul member states over the coals, so to speak.
With respect to Sri Lanka and in light of British, Australian and Kiwi noises, President Mahinda Rajapaksa can welcome criticism, never mind the indecency of insulting host, and take up the never taken up matter of reparations for crimes against humanity committed by certain ‘decent’, ‘civilized’ nations who are claiming robbed moral high ground protected by gun, bullet and dollar (!) as private property with ‘No Trespassing’ sign to boot. He could mention ‘Wellassa’ or talk about Britain’s involvement in illegal invasions and complicity in drone attacks. He has a thick portfolio to draw from.
Apart from all that, President Rajapaksa can educate noise-makers about Sri Lanka. He can speak about the anxieties of all communities. Since the Tamil anxieties are well-known he could talk about the sentiments of the Sinhalese, for example, pointing to a sense of cultural and linguistic isolation, and detail the context of historical aggression from South India leading to the drift of that community south of Polonnaruwa. He can mention how the LTTE eliminated Tamil politicians, intellectuals and priests and how Sinhalese leaders were assassinated. He can talk about his responsibilities to allay the fears of all communities in the process of post-conflict nation-building, not just those of Tamils. He can elaborate on the difference between constructive and destructive criticism.
Meanwhile it has been revealed that the Colombo Spoilers Club, led by FGOs (Foreign Government Organizations, an apt re-name for NGOs by H.L.D. Mahindapala) are planning a ‘show’ along with ‘journalists’ so-called from rogue stations such as Channel 4 joining the party.
Lost in all this and probably to the utter joy of Ranil Wickremesinghe is the post-election dadi-bidi within the UNP. The leadership issue, which saw an open-ended meeting between Wickremesinghe, Karu Jayasuriya and Sajith Premadasa, has been effectively overtaken by controversies yielded by the home-and-home in Matara where Mangala Samaraweera’s men are alleged to have attacked an anti-Ranil protest march. Samaraweera, a spin-master of considerable repute, is now claiming that there’s a conspiracy to murder him, prompting lampooning in the form of the former right-hand man of Chandrika Kumaratunga attacking himself with a cinnamon club.
The party, as a result of all this, does not seem to have much to say about the political issues pertaining to CHOGM. Instead it talks of costs, which is of course quite legitimate since the economic benefits of hosting are at best claims with hardly anything to suggest that relevant sheets will be balanced.
The political issues have been literally and metaphorically been cosmeticized by a speed-up of ongoing city beautification programs. Ordinary people see CHOGM signage while the politics of that less than august body don’t seem to concern them. The perception was beautifully captured in a Facebook status message thus: ‘It’s all well and good that the country, at least Colombo, is being made up for CHOGM. But just as a woman with too much make up looks hideous, Colombo too is starting to look fake and headache-inducing!’
There’s a lot of road work and landscape development, necessary no doubt with pardonable inconveniences thrown in, but right now and probably until the 10th of November, it is more fake and headache-inducing than anything else. Fortunately, as far as the majority of commuters are concerned, the Katunayake-Colombo expressway didn’t get in the way; it got built and at a pace that no one really knew about or cared.
Just like the BMICH (which has got a ‘new look’ by the way) which was a concrete and valuable ‘remainder’ of the Non-Aligned Summit 1976, long after everyone has forgotten CHOGM 2013 and long after the Commonwealth ceases to exist (like the Non-Aligned Movement) except in name, we will have the roads, a better-looking Vihara Maha Devi Park and some other ‘abiding’ benefits.
The entirety of CHOGM, however, i.e. politics and landscaping, history and invective, barb and counter-barb is best captured in a wonderful observation, again a Facebook status update, by Apsara Karunaratne, borrowing from the currently popular theme song of Jayantha Chandrasiri’s ‘Samanala Sandviniya’ (Butterfly Symphony), ‘ikigasaa andana atheethayaka’. The line from the song goes like this: mata mage novana magema aadarayak thibuna (And I had a love that belonged only to me but was not mine).
This is what Apsara wrote: අපිට අපේ නොවන අපේම CHOGM එකක් තියෙනවා! That’s in the present tense, but it works in ‘past’ and ‘future’ too. This is what it means: ‘There is a CHOGM that is our and ours alone, but does not belong to us’.
*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com