By Marwaan Macan-Markar –
Sri Lanka’s military is on the move again, even in these times of relative peace. In the crosshairs are not the Tamil Tigers, however, but a decidedly less martial task than subduing the separatist rebel army that was trounced in a bloody finale in May 2009, ending a nearly 30-year-long ethnic conflict. An on-going mission for the men in khaki is to lend their muscle for cosmetic purposes – to give the South Asian nation’s capital a facelift.
Benefitting from this show of force are landmarks of the British Raj that were left to rot in Colombo for years. So, too, the other colonial edifices, with their thick walls, spacious colonnades and wide porticos, that were shut out from public sight by high parapet walls.
The walls offered a commentary on the war: they were recent architectural additions to protect those working in them – largely government employees – from Tamil Tiger suicide squads. Now the walls are coming down and old gems of British colonial architecture are gleaming again, such as the restored grandstand at the once venerable Colombo Racecourse Ground.
These efforts to give Colombo a new, post-war sheen are timely. The city will serve as a host for the most important international showcase the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa has set its sight on. In mid-November, Sri Lanka is billed to host the summit of the Commonwealth heads of government.
This biennial gathering, often attracting leaders from the 54 countries who were part of the British Empire, would be the largest such summit held in the island nation since 1976. Then, Colombo hosted the summit of Non-Aligned Movement, which drew a much broader representation of leaders from Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Hosting the November summit, known formally as the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), would be a significant foreign policy landmark for Rajapaksa: assuming the leadership of an international organisation for two years. Such a platform of respectability would come at a time when Colombo has been subject to a storm of international condemnation.
It has been pilloried at annual human rights sessions of the United Nations in Geneva, by international human rights and media rights campaigners and even Western governments like the United States for repressive trends in the post-war years.
There is also a steady global drum beat of allegations calling for ranking members of the Rajapaksa regime and senior military officers to be tried for war crimes committed during the final phase of the ethnic conflict with the Tamil Tigers. Lawyers in America, in fact, are involved in this effort, a well-informed source revealed.
So far, only Canada, among the political heavyweights at CHOGM, has raised the red flag. Its prime minister has decided to boycott the event. But other influential players in a body still struggling for global relevance years after the sun set on the British Empire are expected to attend.
They include Britain, Australia, South Africa and India. It is an endorsement that has enraged sections of the British press, with one commentator in the Financial Times arguing that the Commonwealth’s commitment to “democracy, freedom, peace and the rule of law” would hit a nadir were Sri Lanka to lead the organization for two years.
Such arguments do not seem to ruffle government sympathisers here. They are quick to point out glaring contradictions that the Commonwealth had to deal with during previous CHOGM’s.
“Lee Kuan Yew and Dr. Mahathir would also have failed the test, in that case,” noted one Sri Lankan commentator, who endorses Rajapaksa’s winning military strategy. Singapore hosted the first CHOGM in 1971 at a time when Prime Minister Lee’s power as a rising, authoritarian leader was all encompassing. And 18 years after that, it was Malaysia’s turn, with Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad known by then for his strong arm measures to crush dissent to ensure his governing party remained in power.
But what the Rajapaksa administration cannot risk ignoring ahead of the CHOGM is a pledge it made to India regarding its domestic political front. Colombo promised New Delhi that Sri Lanka would finally conduct the first-ever provincial council elections (mooted for September) for the country’s northern region, home of the island’s predominantly Tamil minority still recovering from the ravages of the separatist war.
It was this agreement – with the poll to be held before the summit – that paved the way for the Indian government to throw its weight behind Sri Lanka hosting the CHOGM, a diplomatic source noted. “India played an important role at a Commonwealth ministerial meeting even as late as this April to ensure that attempts to move the CHOGM out of Colombo would fail,” the source said.
This exercise in devolving power dominates the newspaper headlines. ‘Fireworks at Cabinet meeting on 13A,’ was the banner over a two-page political commentary in the Sunday Times, a local, independently-owned weekly. The ‘13A’ refers to the 13th Amendment of the Sri Lankan constitution. It was adopted in the late-1980s after India ratcheted up its role to end the still nascent armed struggle between Tamil separatists and Sri Lankan troops.
The amendment evolved out of the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord, an agreement signed by the two governments that opened the doors for Sri Lanka’s powerful northern neighbor to send heavily armed peace keeping force to give teeth to the accord.
But there was little hope then that the Tamil minority in this predominantly Sinhala-Buddhist country would enjoy devolved political power. Instead, the 13th Amendment gave rise to a new layer of governance – provincial administrations in other, largely Sinhalese, regions – where none was asked. The ferocious turn that the war subsequently took – with the Tamil Tigers moving from typical hit-and-run guerilla tactics to more conventional fixed position assaults and defence – further placed this modus vivendi on ice.
With the war over, New Delhi reminded Colombo that these past agreements still shape its relationship. Indian commentators have also remarked that any prospect of reconciliation between the two ethnic communities needs a platform, such as a provincial government elected by voters in the north, to build on.
Attempts by members of the Rajapaksa government to water down the powers of a newly elected northern provincial administration are being frowned upon by New Delhi. Little wonder why Colombo’s aversion to sharing even limited political power with the Tamil-dominated north has elicited a strong rebuke from an Indian foreign ministry official.
“(The) proposed changes raised doubts about the commitments made by the Sri Lankan government to India and the international community, including the United Nations, on a political settlement in Sri Lanka that would go beyond the 13th Amendment,” the official was quoted saying in the Indian media.
Conversations among Colombo’s political class convey some of the headaches the country is experiencing as the showcase international event looms. The CHOGM could be turned into a platform for visiting leaders to lecture to the Rajapaksa administration on the failures to meet post-war political commitments, remarked one analyst. “It may prove more effective than boycotting the summit, because such criticisms would be a huge loss of face for the host.”
Worse still, the summit scheduled for November 15-17 may be subject to a last minute postponement. That could arise if Colombo fails to meet its quid pro quo agreements, such as undermining India’s expectations of devolved power to the Tamils in the north, prompting New Delhi to downgrade its delegation and influencing others to do so.
“The government should be prepared for all eventualities since this is an international arena where the standards are much higher,” a former diplomat said, noting that this would not be the first time such a summit had been postponed. “The Brisbane CHOGM in October 2001 was postponed weeks before it began, because many leaders decided against attending due to security reasons following the 9/11 attacks in the U.S.”
*Marwaan Macan-Markar, a Sri Lankan journalist, is a foreign correspondent who has been reporting from Southeast Asia since 2001, following a posting in Mexico City. This dispatch from Sri Lanka was published in a June issue of The Edge Review, www.theedgereview.com, a new Southeast Asian magazine launched in Kuala Lumpur