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Why host the Commonwealth Summit?

2013 Jul 04

By Gamini Weerakoon

The British Commonwealth is a political organisation which we have tried hard to comprehend, but failed despite even seeking the assistance from learned diplomats. Technically, today it can be defined as an intergovernmental organisation comprising 54 countries who are former members of the British Empire sans its recent members, Rwanda and Mozambique.


President inviting the member countries when he visited Australia in 2011, to participate in the Commonwealth Summit to be held in Colombo in 2013

We searched for definitions of the ‘Commonwealth’ and the one that came closest to our liking was none other than that of the present Head of the Commonwealth itself: Queen Elizabeth II. ‘It is easy enough to define what the Commonwealth is not. It is indeed a ‘popular pastime’, she has remarked with absolute candour.

An American diplomat sipping a highball answered our query some time ago: It is one of those British inventions that defy human understanding, like cricket. They play the game for five continuous days and still can’t get a result most of the time. He went on further: It’s like a scotch and soda with ice. Can you define it? No, just drink and enjoy it, was his advice.
Our interest in the British Commonwealth was only natural with the whole country agog, some even going to blows—about CHOGM—the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting scheduled to be held in September. CHOGM has now become a household word. Speak one word against it to an incendiary Rajapaksa regime supporter and you will be taking a great risk. You will probably be called a traitor, a NGO conspirator, stooge of Ranil or a member of the LTTE expatriate lobby who wants to sabotage the Summit for petty political gains while tarnishing the image of the country. Probably battery and assault will follow.

Cultural somersault

For one who has gone through that heady era of intense nationalism and socialism where the descendants of our colonial masters were looked upon as exploiters, parasites, neocolonialists or worse, this enthusiasm to welcome British nabobs like David Cameron (Eton and Oxford), William Hague (Magdalen College Oxford) and other Commonwealth leaders from Australia, New Zealand and possibly Canada is quite a cultural somersault.

True there will be our newly found friends from Africa like Uganda and Botswana, old friends from Asia like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Maldives and now not so friendly Indians. But who would have thought of a Commonwealth Summit in those heady progressive times in the days we staged our Non Aligned Summit in 1976? Our stars were Col. Gaddafy, Yasser Arafat, Bouteflika of Algeria, Pol Pot and Indira Gandhi and the like. Other stars like Fidel Castro, Idi Amin and Saddam Hussein could not attend because of ‘problems’ at home. The brightest stars beyond the horizon, not in the Non Aligned Movement, were Mao Zedong, Leonid Brezhnev and other leaders in the communist bloc.

What caused this paradigm shift in Sri Lanka’s political outlook in 35 years? It was the same party, the SLFP in power then. Is it the change of economic policies: socialism to capitalism? A cynic says it’s a shift from ‘Bucket Shop Socialism’ of Dr. .N..M..Perera to Casino Capitalism of the Rajapaksas today.

The other explanation could be sociological/historical. Sri Lanka it will be realised had been a monarchy for 2500 years having royalty as monarchs from 483 BC to 1815 AD. We still revere our monarchs. Indians were ruled by Maharajahs at the time of British conquest. Thus Sri Lankans — may be some Indians as well — took to admire British royalty even though they did not want to be vassals. But now Sri Lankans have come to adore British royalty. When Princess Diana met with the tragic accident we are personally aware of teenage girls and even grown up women who went into deep depression. Sri Lankans are also learning with relish once again the much despised English Language, a few decades ago. The desire to have the Queen presiding over the Commonwealth Summit and hold the Summit despite the severe attack on its sovereignty and independence could be because of these historical/cultural links.

On the other hand, it does not make any sense to hold the Summit meeting here considering the insults that have cast upon this nation and the patronage extended to Sri Lankans who are still espousing the cause of terrorism in Britain and other developed Commonwealth countries. The UK Foreign Affairs Committee has  called upon David Cameron not to attend the Colombo Conference and have made attempts to have the venue shifted to another country.

Thus why go through all this bother in holding this Summit conference involving tremendous expenditure —including imports of Rolls Royce cars— when there are no tangible benefits accruing to us from it?

Learn from Brazil

Perhaps we should learn from Brazil, an acknowledged emerging economic power house of the Third World where tens of thousands were rioting in the main cities last week against holding extravaganzas— World Cup Soccer Championships and the next Olympics— when not enough money has been allocated for health services, education and transport. A telling poster carried by a protestor outside the match where Brazil was playing Mexico said: A teacher is much more worth than a  Neymar—Neymar is Brazil’s heroic soccer star. Brazil, it has been pointed out has a higher GDP than Britain but millions are absolutely poor, living in the slums.

In 2003 when Britain attempted to pass strictures on Zimbabwe for violation of human rights and collapse of democracy, Robert Mugabe declared: ‘If the choice was given for Zimbabwe to lose its sovereignty and be a member of the Commonwealth or retain its sovereignty and lose membership of the Commonwealth, I would say let the Commonwealth go.’ Mugabe pulled his country out of the Commonwealth that year.

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