The Sunday Leader

CHOGM Clashes Show Democracy Cannot Be Scripted By Govt

By Dr Jehan Perera

People’s Forum at CHOGM Hikkaduwa

The government expended every effort and took every precaution to ensure that the various events associated with the Commonwealth Summit would go according to script.

To the extent of even making the trains run on time, the government succeeded more rather than less. Participants at both the Commonwealth Business Forum and at the Commonwealth People’s Forum that took place in the run-up to the Heads of Government Meeting expressed their appreciation at the manner in which their programmes had been arranged.  They felt that they had been hosted very well and no effort or expense had been spared to do the very best by them.

However, there was also another less elevating aspect to the government’s attempt to script the Commonwealth events to its benefit.  Participants were carefully screened, especially those taking part in the People’s Forum who were from NGOs and civil society organizations.  They had to go through a rigorous security clearance procedure that took several weeks for some applicants.

There were also many who did not receive their accreditation, presumably because of the failure to clear security.  At least one eminent civil society leader failed the test and did not receive accreditation.
The tight security arrangements were also evident at the venue at which the People’s Forum took place.

The gates of the hotel were kept closed and there were uniformed police placed there to ensure that no one who was not authorized could get into the hotel.  Those who entered had to show their accreditation card.  Even within the hotel, there were security personnel on duty at the entrance to each of the conference halls where discussions were taking place.  They were there even on the beach.

Despite all these efforts at ensuring security and keeping out unwanted interventions, an unscripted occurrence took place.  This was the entry of British Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Hugo Swire, who delivered a speech at the closing session of the Commonwealth People’s Forum.

There was no indication on the agenda that such a speech was to be delivered nor had his presence been advertised in advance.  He came without having to display the accreditation card that other participants were subjected to.

In his unscheduled speech, the British government representative urged the Sri Lankan government to implement all recommendations of its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) as part of demonstrating that it was complying with values laid out in the Commonwealth Charter.

As part of this process, Sri Lanka should investigate disappearances, ensure judicial independence, strengthen freedom of expression, protect the rights of the media and bring perpetrators of human rights violations to justice.

He also acknowledged Sri Lanka’s progress in areas such as infrastructure regeneration and said that resettlement of internally displaced people should be given priority.
The British Minister’s unscheduled presence at this civil society event, and his specific references to Sri Lanka, earned the ire of the government.  As he spoke at the closing session, no rebuttal of his views or amplification of the complexity of the issues he raised was possible.

There was a breach of protocol. At a hastily convened media conference the head of the Commonwealth Foundation took responsibility for the decision to invite the Minister Swire.  This was a gracious admission that did much to assuage any breakdown of trust between itself and the Sri Lankan organizers.  It is unfortunate that a planned meeting between Sri Lankan civil society representatives present at the People’s Forum and Sri Lankan government ministers was cancelled due to this unscripted occurrence.

It was not only in relation to the Commonwealth People’s Forum that the government had to face unexpected challenges.  The incident in which Canadian Parliamentary Secretary Deepak Obharai laid a wreath of flowers at Elephant Pass was interpreted by the Sri Lankan government to rub its nose on account of loss of life in the last phase of the war in which there are allegations of war crimes.

Global Competition

The reasons are also not far to seek. It is seemingly competitive politics at the State-level, either to be seen as the ‘voice of the Tamils’ in the State and the country, and/or to deny one another electoral comfort of a ever-dwindling vote-share of one national party or the other(s). In the ‘coalition era’, it has also meant that which of the ‘Dravidian parties’ in the State would want to deny the other(s) a share in the ‘national cake’ of power and positions at the Centre.

Beyond a point, for some leaders in the South Indian State, it’s also competitive politics for the non-existing leadership of the global Tamils. Or, so it seems. Whether it’s a part of the Sri Lankan Tamils’ agenda, or the way to resolve the ethnic issue and/or address the SLT agony on the human rights front, pre-war and post-war, is not of concern to the politicos in Tamil Nadu, and the rest of India – as different from the Indian State, headed and represented by the Prime Minister of the day.

The Sri Lankan Tamil population in general and the TNA in particular should also be concerned – but do not seem to be overly concerned about – the real agenda, motives and methods of the international community, which comes in different layers and diverse hues.

Attributing altruism to ‘em all would be downgrading and down-sizing the global image of the SLT, the Diaspora in particular, as being among the ‘most intelligent’ and industrious of the people(s) the world over. Yet, that is also the truth.

The ethnic issue, war and violence have ensured as much. Or, so, too, it seems. Post-poll in the North, senior TNA leaders are on record that India, if at all, is the only country in the world that can influence the Sri Lankan Government, to give the Tamils of the island their political due.

Yet, they have done precious little to dissuade their Diaspora to desist from seeking to ‘influence’ the Tamil Nadu polity to carry a different message to the Indian Government.  They are even more inadequate, if not insincere, to tell their friends in the ‘international community’ not to meddle with India’s (ways) of handling the Sri Lankan Government.

Instead, the SLT leadership, nearer home and afar, seems wanting to have the cake and eat it, too! When they finally discover that only one of them is possible, it might have been too late… The feared estrangement between the Indian State and the Sri Lankan State (as different from parties and leaders in power at any given point in time) may have become complete that they would only have themselves to blame if they do not get what they want, and India does not (have to) say what it now deems morally and diplomatically right to tell the Sri Lankan counterpart!

At the end of the day, damage to the bilateral relationship – which is there and cannot be pushed under the carpet – can still be repaired.

However, ‘la affaire CHOGM’ has exposed the new-generation Indian political leadership and policy-makers to a faceless bunch of ‘Sri Lankan Tamil nationalists’, whose determination and commitment to the cause is matched only by their ways and waywardness that could make New Delhi feel uncomfortable with. They may have thought that it was all behind them with the exit of the LTTE and Velupillai Prabhakaran. They are learning new lessons now, lessons that they cannot – and will not – forget for some more time to come.

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, ORF, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email:

1 Comment for “CHOGM Clashes Show Democracy Cannot Be Scripted By Govt”

  1. gamarala

    The President had declared that sri lanka had “nothing to hide”.
    Yet,all measures were taken to prevent media – both local and foreign – meeting the ordinary people in the north and south.
    The opposition leader was attacked by state sponsored thugs and was expected to attend the CHOGM.
    Swire wanted the government to implement its own LLRC recommendations.
    Was this inadmissible?
    The Elephant Pass memorial was erected by the government – why was a wreathlaying there an “offence” to anyone?
    The writer is worried by a “faceless bunch” why?

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