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Sri Lanka and the Commonwealth

There must have been a huge sigh of relief among government circles in Colombo at the conclusion of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group meeting in London on April 26. Although Canada did raise the unwelcome subject of human rights abuses in Sri Lanka, the decision to hold the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in the country still stands.

This has been the subject of much impassioned debate. Several human rights organisations have voiced their concern about the many reports of the grisly fate of thousands of Tamil civilians at the end of the civil war four years ago. Sri Lanka has been censured recently at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva for dragging its feet on allowing an impartial investigation into these allegations.

When Musharraf overthrew an elected government in 1999, Pakistan was suspended from the Commonwealth. Earlier, when the Commonwealth recognised Bangladesh in the wake of the 1971 civil war, Bhutto led his country out of the organisation, and it wasn’t for several years that we regained admission.

Although the Commonwealth has little clout, entry into the club does provide members with a forum to discuss a range of issues. What binds them together is that virtually all of them were once colonies in the British Empire, and English is widely used within them.

For Sri Lanka, holding the CHOGM in November has become the litmus ticket of its acceptance among the community of nations. Having won the brutal and lengthy civil war against the Tamil Tigers, President Rajapakse expected the world’s praise for having defeated a violent terrorist group. However, images and eyewitness accounts of the endgame in which thousands of Tamil civilians were killed soon appeared in the international media.

Since then, the Sri Lankan government has done little to reconcile the Tamil community, and give them the slightest degree of autonomy. What has replaced the state of war in the north is a victor’s peace. The military presence is overwhelming, with the army running many commercial enterprises against which local Tamils simply cannot compete. The Tamils remain a marginalised community, battered and bullied into submission.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a talk organised by the Commonwealth Journalists Organisation in London at which the human rights situation in Sri Lanka was discussed. Updating the audience was Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of Colombo’s Centre for Policy Alternatives. An impressive, eloquent speaker, he sounded very pessimistic about the direction Sri Lanka had embarked upon.

He was deeply concerned about providing respectability to the Rajapakse government by holding the CHOGM in Sri Lanka, despite its many alleged human rights violations. As the host country automatically becomes head of the Commonwealth for the next two years, its status would buy it immunity from suspension.

Dr Saravanamuttu also spoke about the increasing attacks on Sri Lankan Muslims by thugs, often incited and led by Buddhist monks. Police were usually silent spectators, indicating a degree of official connivance. One Muslim victim, a businessman, was warned not to register a case following an attack on his shop if he wanted to protect his other interests. Those praying at mosques have been attacked by mobs, and Sri Lanka’s multi-faith and multi-ethnic character is being lost.

Present at the talk was Mr M. A. Sumandaran, a Tamil MP, who described how a small public meeting in Jaffna had been set upon by a mob hurling stones at the activists. Again, the police stood by as the Tamils took shelter. One thug who was apprehended turned out to be a cop. He also described an attack on a Tamil daily in which the printing press was set on fire. At the time, the government accused the owners of organising the attack in order to discredit it.

Those supporting Sri Lanka’s right to host the CHOGM argue that the arrangements have been made, and it is now too late to change the venue. But as Dr Saravanamuttu argued, logistics should not be allowed to trump principles.

Over the last few years, I have watched Sri Lanka’s slide from a vibrant democracy towards authoritarianism with great sadness. I had assumed that once the civil war ended, there would be a real possibility of healing ethnic wounds, and achieving peace and prosperity.

Unfortunately, those at the helm have allowed victory to go to their head. Increasingly, the space for individual freedom is being squeezed. The media has been browbeaten into submission with several journalists being killed, kidnapped or beaten up. Newspapers and TV studios have been attacked and ransacked. Nobody has ever been arrested or tried for these crimes. The opposition has been crushed or bribed. And the recent sacking of the Chief Justice underlines the dictatorial nature of the regime.

At the end of his talk, I asked Dr Saravanamuttu how, given their capture of all power centres, and their deep financial interests in virtually sector of the economy and the administration, the ruling family would ever let go of power. He was very pessimistic, as am I.

With all these documented as well as alleged human rights violations and charges of graft on a huge scale, it would seem that the international community does have a role to play in persuading the Sri Lankan government to change its course. But by refusing to send the right signal by shifting the venue of the CHOGM, member states are closing their eyes to what’s happening in the country.

However, organisations tend to stick to the status quo and maintain a semblance of harmony, irrespective of any turmoil or tension. As we watch the situation in Sri Lanka worsen, we will also witness the government being rewarded with the leadership of the Commonwealth.

Irfan Husain, "Sri Lanka and the Commonwealth," Dawn. 2013-04-29.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social rights , International media , Civil war , Electronic media , Human rights , Journalists , Violence , Muslims , Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu , Gen Musharraf , Sri Lanka , Bangladesh , Pakistan , CHOGM , TV