Hoardings across Colombo scream ‘CHOGM 2013, Makes Us Feel Proud As A Nation’. In interviews, government ministers and top officials say hosting the Commonwealth summit “signals Lanka arrives on world stage”. A banner headline in the state-controlled Daily News quotes a combative President Mahinda Rajapaksa as saying he has “nothing to hide; I have questions for British PM also”.
Locals witnessing the song-and-dance medley at the inauguration are pleased by the spectacle on a global stage. It may all be a put-on but Sri Lanka, it seems, is having a grand public relations party.
But with one huge regret: its biggest and closest neighbour is not really there at the gala event, with Indian Prime MinisterManmohan Singh skipping it under pressure from politicians in Tamil Nadu and New Delhi scaling down its representation to a bare minimum.
Below the surface, it is rankling the Sri Lankans, far more than the boycott by the prime ministers of Canada and Mauritius or the tough words from the British PM on Colombo’s human rights record.
“The Commonwealth does not belong to any club. The summit has come back to an Asian member after 24 years and it is something all of us have to be proud of, just like we were when India hosted the Commonwealth Games,” Ambassador Bandula Jayasekara, Rajapaksa’s former spokesman and now the envoy in Sydney, told The Indian Express. “We are showcasing our country and whatever be the criticism, we are strong. Sri Lankans are a very resilient people. We have survived suicide bombers so we will bounce back.”
Although government officials, politicians and analysts say they know the compulsions behind Singh’s decision to give CHOGM 2013 a miss, some are dismayed how India can allow one of its states to dictate national policy.
They are also agitated by what they say is New Delhi’s inconsistencies. Singh, they point out, has not made a bilateral visit to Sri Lanka and only came here for the SAARC summit in 2008. India, they say, also helped Sri Lanka during its war against the LTTE in 2009 but voted against Colombo at UNHRC in 2012 and 2013, censuring Sri Lanka for its alleged rights violations.
With the annual UNHRC vote due in March, one top Sri Lankan government official said he expected New Delhi to once again ditch Colombo.
“We understand the politics but it still hurts when a neighbour does not turn up for our biggest event, it’s just like how it would feel at a wedding or a funeral,” said the official. “Manmohan Singh should have come for at least a day… We don’t care if the Canadian PM didn’t come or British PM said harsh things. But India is different…”
Columnist Shenali D Waduge was harsher in her opinion piece in the Daily News. “Manmohan chickened out of coming to CHOGM, highlighting how celluloid Tamil Nadu has now taken Eelam from Sri Lanka to India, with Nedumaran putting up a statue of Prabhakaran and his son,” she wrote Friday, referring to Tamil Nadu politician P Nedumaran.
Dayan Jayatilleka, a former Sri Lankan ambassador and former minister in the North-East Provincial Council, compares the role of Tamil Nadu on the Sri Lankan issue to that of Florida on the issue of Cubans in the US.
“When an important event takes place in the neighbourhood, the single-most important neighbour has to turn up and at the highest level. It has a certain symbolism,” Jayatilleka said. “Absenting does not look good on the host or the guest. The optics are not good. Coming to Colombo would have given the Indian PM more leverage to talk to Sri Lanka on matters of concern.”
Jayatilleka, who attended the CHOGM opening ceremony, said it was not missed either that the audience, comprising mostly Sri Lanka’s governing elite, cheered and welcomed Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif when he arrived.
“Rajapaksa didn’t look to be in any mood to retreat an inch,” he said referring to the words of the president at the CHOGM opening. “So it may not be such a good idea for loud and visible pressure to be applied on such an emotive issue by a large neighbour or a former colonial power.” (The Indian Express)