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CHOGM: Oh! Sweet-Smelling Humbug

2013 Jul 12

Bandu De Silva

That is what I once used for a title of an article written eleven years ago and published in a daily newspaper. I owed the title to Peter Taylor, The Sunday Telegraph Foreign Editor who wrote immediately after CHOGM held in Bahamas. President J.R. Jayewardene, who represented Sri Lanka was very elated about the speech he made so much so when he stopped over in Paris for a week which I thought was to spend in my company, – I was his Ambassador to France and a number of other European countries – he wanted me to have the speech released to the French media. Knowing that French had no interest in what went on around Britain’s former colonies, except to keep New Zealand from protesting over French nuclear tests in the Southern Pacific and Australia trying get around Commonwealth countries to chase the French out of the islands, I could not find a French newspaper to lend a full page to a British-oriented affair – to a speech made by the head of a small former colony.

So I had to approach the French-Sri Lanka Friendship Group and the speech appeared in the form of ‘bought-up’ space in the prestigious Le Monde daily. Foreign Minister Hameed was not happy about it, for what reason I do not know but he dared not tell me because it was something that concerned the President. He made it known to me indirectly through one of his minions. The reason as I learnt was that one member of the Friendship group with whom the Minister was friendly, had protested over my use of the name of the friendship Group. She knew that it was I who had met the cost.

I can now tell the story because the Sri Lankan actors are not on the scene anymore. Hameed also did not know that when the Group hosted him at Lunch it was I who paid the bill. These are some of the diplomatic secrets. –Wikileak stuff-. Fortunately, I had little extra money at the time to play around to maintain the prestige of the country through the generosity of my wife who put her hand in her parental family kitty to support my work.

What about GHOGM? The Sunday Telegraph Editor questioned the ‘fragile credentials’ of the men who led the respective Commonwealth countries for moralizing among them. His caption was drawn from his remarks on Rajiv Gandhi’s attitude towards Sri Lanka, the interventionist policy of India. He spoke of Indian air force planes parachuting ‘humanitarian’ cargo –which as I have often remarked , the Le Monde correspondent in New Delhi, Patrice Claude, who travelled in the Indian transport planes escorted by missile carrying Mig jets claimed, were packed in plastic bags with labels showing ‘Cawnpour Ordnance Factory’. Claude and the Washington Post journalist who travelled with him reported that some packages were dropped on Tiger- held areas! Rajiv Gandhi had travelled thousands of miles to moralise to others. That was his record towards a small neighbour without defence. It was in those circumstances that President Jayewardene thought that his speech was important for dissemination.

The editor’s other comment was on the situation in Fiji where the ousted Prime Minister, was hanging around a hotel in London unable to get a response from the British government or the Commonwealth Secretariat. He had to be content with a meeting with Sidath Rampal. South Africa’s apartheid policy and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe were also on the mat. Taylor pointed out that CHOGM was being held in Bahamas when Prime Minister Sir Lyndon Pindling was embroiled in a drug scandal. What happened at Gabba-Gabba (near Brisbane) CHOGM in 2002? Curiously, there CHOGM had at its door-step, an  allegation against the Queen’s representative, the Governor –General, in a previous sex scandal. So why was the Canadian Prime Minister making such a hue and cry over holding CHOGM in Sri Lanka, raising issues that the Commonwelth at no time had raised openly? He was even seeing going to Bahamas this season for a pow-wow with leaders there. God knows about what!

Terrorism was high on the agenda in Commonwealth circles as much as in the western world just before the Gabba-Gabba Summit. What happened? Did the terrorism agenda get priority there? As I observed then what was left was only the name board after much of the substance on the terrorism agenda was watered down. Instead, older members of the Commonwealth were desperately trying to get the forum to endorse sanctions against Mugabe quoting violation of Harare principles.

Leaving the past behind, the Canadian Prime Minister was raising unnecessary issues over Sri Lanka’s record of alleged violation of human rights and humanitarian law in the war against terrorism in the island concluded four years back. These are only allegations, not substantiated. And they were raised at a different forum, not at Commonwealth. Considering the past records against which CHOGM were held, it was unnecessary excitement on the part of a senior member of the Commonwealth. The causative factor has to be sought in Canada’s own domestic electoral politics where the Diaspora accounts for a sizable influence. It is, however, a matter for relief that other older members like Britain, Australia and now New Zealand have stood by the decision to hold the Summit in Sri Lanka and new members are with her. Isn’t the priority to help Sri Lanka in rehabilitation of the North and East most ravaged by the 30 year war and to offer the billion dollars the west and Japan dangled over us when the war was on seeking a peaceful settlement? Why is that money not forthcoming now? Is it because these countries are deep economic recession now?

What concerns me as a former senior Foreign Office man is what Sri Lanka, is to know as the host country, and other member countries have decided as priority agenda items for the Colombo Summit. I consider it even as a right as much public money is going to be spent. There is no apartheid for the Commonwealth to flog as it was at the Bahamas session drowning India’s intervention in Sri Lanka and violation of her air space, or the terrorism issue at least on paper as it was at Gabba-Gabba. What have you heard? Hope Mugabe will not be brought back here to flog again!

I have heard nothing about preparations by way of agenda matters except Sri Lankan government reserving over 6000 hotel rooms, placing orders for a large number of limousines and talk of visits to Hambantota.  Are these then the indications of priorities for Colombo CHOGM on Sri Lanka’s part?  A photo-session show for family albums as one might say! I hope not! After spending so much money when the country has so many other priorities including northern development for which funds are lamentably in short supply and schools are closing down one by one for want of teachers and other facilities (That is just to mention only two), one would expect at least a substantial gain for the country intrinsically at least.

I suppose these show pieces –‘spectacles’ –(I use the French word here ) are also necessary  for a country, however much some people might protest. That is alright if it is going to serve a purpose. After the Non Aligned Summit Conference was held in Colombo much against local criticism, Sri Lanka got a boost in her international image. Mrs Bandaranaike became an international figure.

What will the CHOGM this time bring? Yes, some benefits for the tourism sector. We can show-piece a few ‘developments,’ northern development included. This  might appear to be unnecessary questions, however.

Alright! What is on the agenda for the Colombo confab? That is the main question. CHOGM is only three months or a little more away. That is not a long time. I remember how it was when the small time SAARC Summit was to be held here in 1900. I was the most senior diplomatic officer in the Foreign Office at that time. We had no rest answering queries from President Premadasa almost on a daily basis as to what initiatives we were proposing and how things were progressing. After initially refusing to participate in SAARC summit until IPKF was withdrawn, once that was accomplished, he went all out to ensure that the Conference was a success. That may be his personal approach. Perhaps, he was trying to remove the stigma of tagging on IPKF issue with the SAARC Summit which appeared a little childish.

Looking at it again, Prime Minister Mrs Bandaranaike had the Indian Ocean Peace Zone (IPOZ) proposal to be tested at the Singapore Summit. That caught on later. As some of us insider’s thought, it was an Indian plant, getting Sri Lanka to hold the candle while India’s Navy was ready. And that is what transpired finally. Soviet Union went out. US was the singular World power in the uni-polar world. India also became US’s ally and even handling Police duties for her around Malay Straits. Against whom? Against the growing blue water ambitions of China, of course. IOPZ is forgotten now. The US has now  come to Maldives and India is silent. The US is also putting its nose in Trincomalee now with its ‘Corner’ –remember John Perkin’s ‘An Economic Hitman’ – in Urban Council premises. That is in a port that European nations used to spy on shipping of other nations which were in competition with them. That is not what I am saying but what is in Dutch records. Trincomalee is back on the radar, India, considering it part of her coastal defence.

There may be already agenda preparation for the November Summit going on at the Commonwealth Secretariat, though not transparently. But what have we to offer as host country? A good ‘Cuppa’ this time?  And playing the role of a good hotelier? Such impressions should be removed. The country has been capable of better initiatives in the past as described above.

Sri Lanka has got a beating at Geneva UNHR sessions. It was not a Commonwealth initiative there but western countries and others including two  Commonwealth countries, India and Nigeria voted for the US sponsored resolution Malaysia abstained. That subject may not be stolen into the discussion here as it had not been an issue at Commonwealth level. In Gabba-Gabba, as I pointed out at that time was held soon after President Kumaratunga‘s government had conducted an election bloodied by violence and bloodshed but it did not draw attention as Mugabe’s occupation of white farms. I even wondered whether it was the reason why the President did not attend that Summit.

As I see even today Sri Lanka is not incapable of taking initiatives but she is constrained by the Indian factor and wanting to appease US which country is hammering us at all round.

Isn’t the peoples’ participation important? If not are the people to consider CHOGM as another event where some international personalities meet, discus, raise their glasses and go away, without people of the country knowing anything of what was happening, but will be eventually footing the bill in devious ways. Isn’t that what happened even at Gabba-Gabba  too a few years back?

What I would like to ask finally, is what is our own Foreign Office doing?  At least readying a good speech for the President to deliver as President Jayewardene did in Bahamas? I still have a copy in French. Are they preparing a programme which will compensate for the expenditure on the “spectacle”? When I speak of a good programme, I am thinking in terms of cost-benefit?  Or Am I wrong? Is that obsolete economics in the new would- be “Las Vegas” country, as some reports say?

P.S.: Since the article was written the Foreign Ministry of Sri Lanka opened a website on CHOGM.

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