By Jehan Perera –
Doubts are being cast on Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh’s willingness to participate in the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting to be held in November in Sri Lanka. Indian spokespersons have been very circumspect on the issue. Without committing themselves or giving an indication of whether the answer will be in the affirmative or negative, they merely say that the level of Indian representation has yet to be decided on. Indian politics is always full of issues that require the full time attention of its government leadership. Later this year, and coinciding with CHOGM there will be several important Indian states that will be going to the polls for state level elections. However, the most likely cause of the Indian Prime Minister’s indecision to visiting Sri Lanka is the opposition to Indian participation that has been emanating from the state of Tamil Nadu.
During the last phase of the war which ended in 2009, emotions in Tamil Nadu escalated to fever pitch over India’s support to Sri Lanka to militarily defeat the LTTE at a very high human cost. This led the Indian government to seek out and obtain pledges from its Sri Lankan counterparts that priority would be given to ensuring the safety of the civilian population trapped in the war zones. In addition, India sought and obtained pledges from the Sri Lankan government that it would implement a political solution after the war that would satisfy the aspirations of the Tamil people. Not only did the Sri Lankan government agree to implement a political solution, it also assured India that it would go beyond the existing framework of devolution of power to an undefined 13 Amendment Plus.
What makes the situation difficult for the Indian government in dealing with the demands emanating from Tamil Nadu is that the Sri Lankan government’s implementation of its promises has been like the proverbial Curate’s Egg, which was good and bad in parts. Sri Lanka continues to be condemned by the international human rights community and by some Western governments on its treatment of the civilian population during the war, and even after the war. The Canadian government’s decision to downgrade its representation at the Commonwealth Summit is on account of human rights issues, including the failure to investigate war crimes, and the larger failure to observe “Commonwealth Values”. These are also issues that continue to agitate activists in Tamil Nadu and human rights activists the world over.
On the other hand, by holding provincial council elections for the Northern Province and establishing the Northern Provincial Council last month, the Sri Lankan government took a step forward that no previous Sri Lankan government for the past 26 years had the capacity or ability to do. As recently as the middle of the year, none of what is currently transpiring in the North would have seemed possible. At that time Sinhalese nationalist groups aligned themselves with hardliners within the government itself to call for the abolishing of the provincial councils system. At that time relations with India could be seen to be sharply deteriorating and India sent an emissary forthwith. The Indian Prime Minister publicly expressed his dismay at the developments taking place within Sri Lanka.
It can be surmised that the shift in the Sri Lankan government’s approach to the issue of Northern elections and the provincial council system came with the nearing of the Commonwealth Summit in November 2013. The government’s decision to hold those elections and to establish the Northern Provincial Council can only be attributed to the strong international pressure that emanated, in part from India in the form of a warning that it might downgrade its presence at CHOGM, and this might have a domino effect on other wavering countries. In addition the promises made by government leaders to leaders of other concerned human rights respecting countries, such as Japan, could not be glossed over without the possibility of adverse repercussions. It is this sense of being coerced that leads to doubts as to whether the devolution process will be sustained by the government in the longer term after the Commonwealth meeting is over and the level of international scrutiny is reduced.
For the Sri Lankan government which is desperately seeking to redeem itself as a respected government in the eyes of the world, the hosting of the Commonwealth meeting in Sri Lanka would be the pinnacle of the government’s success in foreign relations. Since the war ended in 2009, the government has been on the back foot internationally on issues of governance and human rights. It is in this context that the government has been sparing no effort to put its best foot forward for the occasion of the Commonwealth Summit. This is certainly evident in terms of physical changes in the massive effort being taken to beautify Colombo and prepare the country for the occasion. However, the biggest challenge for the government has not been the logistical ones, formidable though they are, but rather to ensure that all the countries of the Commonwealth send their heads of government to attend the meeting in Colombo.
Longer Term Perspective
There is a powerful campaign against Sri Lanka being made the host of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting which the government has been struggling to withstand. Concerns within some Commonwealth countries about human rights violations perpetrated by Sri Lankan government forces during the fighting prompted Commonwealth leaders in 2009 to defer a decision on Sri Lanka’s candidacy to host the summit. However, Commonwealth leaders in 2011 agreed to allow Sri Lanka to host the 2013 summit. But this decision has been challenged by human rights organizations. The Sri Lankan government continues to be under pressure from international human rights groups and by the Tamil Diaspora on the issue of war crimes and violations of Commonwealth values, most notably the sacking of the Chief Justice for political reasons.
However, many countries have said that they will attend CHOGM despite the problems they see in Sri Lanka. They have said that engaging with the Sri Lankan government is the better way to influence it for the better. The UK, Australia and New Zealand have taken this position. The Indian government would have to weigh the consequences in terms of its own priorities where its relationship with Sri Lanka is concerned. Whereas Canada’s focus was human rights and war crimes issues, India’s focus has been on the 13th Amendment and the maintenance of the provincial council system. Sri Lanka has shown that it is on the path of delivering on its most important commitment to India which is the devolution of power and achieving a sustainable political solution. The establishment of a provincial council for the Northern Province is the best possible advance in a long while in the direction of a just political solution.
Now that the Northern Provincial Council has been established the challenge will be to ensure that it is not undermined in its infancy and that it will take root. Among the root causes of the ethnic conflict, the issue of discrimination meted out to the Tamil people took a primary place. To the extent that the people of the North will enjoy the same devolved power that the people in the rest of the country enjoy, there will be less discrimination. In the future the challenge will be to deepen and widen this sharing of power. The desire to make sure that the Indian Prime Minister comes to Sri Lanka may already have induced the Sri Lankan government to go further along the path of devolution of power than it intended, by establishing the Northern Provincial Council. The Sri Lankan government is investing a great deal in the success of the Commonwealth Summit, and India’s continuing moral influence on Sri Lanka and its government is likely to be greater if it helps in its success rather than its failure. Continued international pressure that is in the spirit of constructive engagement with the Sri Lankan government is necessary to ensure that the devolution process continues after CHOGM.