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Don't skip CHOGM, but keep it low key

2013 Nov 05

The exposé of another Sri Lankan war crime by UK’s Channel 4 changes very little except that it piles on even more pressure on the Indian government on the stand it has to take at some point in the next 10 days or so ahead of the CHOGM meet in Colombo November 15-17. War crimes on and forced disappearances of Sri Lanka’s ethnic minority Tamil citizens had been going on for years before the war against the Tamil Tigers ended in May 2009.

In the guise of winning the battle against separatists, Mahinda Rajapaksa has brazened it out in terms of all being fair in war. His efforts at international acceptance of his regime, warts and all, is premised upon a successful conduct of the meeting of the heads of government of the Commonwealth, a group of nations with a shared history of British occupation. But, UK’s Cameron is convinced that concerns over “Human rights record in Sri Lanka we are not happy with” are best delivered “in person.”

India is currently similarly disposed towards CHOGM as an opportunity to talk firmly to Sri Lanka on two issues of major concern — the first, a bilateral one, of fishermen from Tamil Nadu being continuously harassed with dozens of them spending weeks in northern Sri Lankan jails and the second, the larger question of rights of the Sri Lankan Tamils in the wake of their gaining a popular mandate in the Northern province. Whether the Prime Minister needs to be the functionary to tackle this task is a million dollar question.

Having met his Pakistan counterpart in New York and visited China to a warm reception, Manmohan Singh must fancy his chances of leaving a diplomatic legacy of striving for peace and cooperation in the region. But most of his own Tamil ministers have bowed to the populist sentiment of empathy for the greater Tamil cause and have vigorously opposed his visit to the island this month. It is now entirely his call whether he should risk domestic strife for his pan-Asian ambitions.

A lesser representation at the level of a delegation headed by the vice-president Hamid Ansari and including the foreign minister Salman Khurshid may be no less in terms of lending legitimacy to Sri Lanka as CHOGM host but it would serve the purpose of taking up irksome issues. There is no denying India’s strategic interest in the island nation to its south that sits like a sentry to a vital ocean route to the east.

The question is not whether Sri Lanka is worthy of hosting this summit but whether India has too much to lose by weakening its sphere of influence. It’s not an easy decision and the suggested way out would be to reduce the level of representation in CHOGM but don’t skip it. 

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