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05 November, 2013

CHOGM dilemma

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

To go or not to go, that is the question before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo approaches. 

India has been an active participant in the Commonwealth of Nations, a grouping of Britain and its former colonies, since its formation in 1949. In fact, it was India’s readiness to be associated with the former colonial power which made the grouping possible.

Since 1971, CHOGM has become institutionalised as a summit held once in two years in the different member countries by turns. Beginning 1977 the host country has set a theme for each meeting.  The theme selected by Sri Lanka for this year’s meeting is “Growth with Equity; Inclusive Development,” a subject of great relevance to India.

Manmohan Singh’s dilemma arises from the vociferous opposition of the government and major political parties of Tamil Nadu to his visiting Sri Lanka when the island’s Sinhalese-dominated government pursues a discriminative policy towards the Tamil minority.

Last month the Tamil Nadu state assembly passed a resolution, moved by Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, demanding that India boycott CHOGM and seek Sri Lanka’s suspension from the group until it grants equal status to the Tamils.  All parties, including the Congress, which heads the government at the Centre, voted for the resolution.

With parliamentary elections due early next year, the state’s parties are engaged in a competition to emerge as the greatest champions of Tamil interests. Jayalalithaa has been pursuing the issue with the Centre since March when she wrote to Manmohan Singh asking that he work for shifting the CHOGM venue.

State legislatures have no role in matters of foreign policy. Yet the Tamil Nadu Assembly has passed resolutions on the Sri Lankan Tamil issue on three occasions. Although the problem has not generated much interest outside the state successive central governments have taken note of Tamil sentiments and intervened on behalf of the island’s ethnic minority.

Video recordings which surfaced recently have yielded conclusive evidence of gross human rights violations by the Sri Lankan army during its successful campaign against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which had posed a violent challenge for three decades. Apart from LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran, his teenage son and several mediapersons, at least one of them, a woman, were murdered in cold blood after being caught alive.

In a report to the UN Human Rights Council five weeks ago, High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay noted that the Sri Lankan government was evading an international inquiry into the rights violations and stressed the need for an independent investigation of the alleged war crimes.

Several human rights groups and Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in foreign lands have called upon Commonwealth members to boycott the Colombo CHOGM. So far only Canada has responded favourably. Its prime minister, Stephen Harper, has decided to stay away and send a representative instead.

Jayalalithaa has said it is unfortunate that India with 80 million Tamils has not acted with the same determination as Canada which has only a small Tamil population. She deliberately glosses over the fact that, unlike Canada, India has much at stake in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka received tactical support from India and weapons from China in the last stages of the war against LTTE. Coinciding with the cooling in the relations with India, which had been pressuring it since the end of the war to take political measures to meet Tamil aspirations, President Mahinda Rajapaksa has expanded ties with China. 

So far China has committed about $4 billion for infrastructure development in Sri Lanka. Its contributions include a $500 million container terminal which was commissioned in August and a $292 million airport highway which was opened last week. Work on a $272 million railway project has just begun. 

After India voted against Sri Lanka on a US-sponsored resolution in the Human Rights Council, the Rajapaksa administration announced it would renegotiate the 2003 agreement with India with regard to the use of oil storage tanks.

Yielding to Indian pressure, Sri Lanka held elections in the Tamil regions, and a provincial government headed by CV Vigneswaran, a former judge, has taken office. He finds himself in the unenviable position of being disliked by both the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority. Manmohan Singh still has more than a week to make up his mind as the actual meeting of heads of government will begin only on November 15. Such influence as New Delhi has over Colombo will be in jeopardy if he stays away from CHOGM. -- Gulf Today, November 5, 2013.

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