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Going to Colombo for the CHOGM

The Indian Prime Minister’s attending the Commonwealth Heads of State and Government meeting in Colombo later this month has to be seen in a context other than that of the Tamils in Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu for the simple reason that there are larger stakes involved regionally and in terms of global politics. Seeing the issue through the prism of President Mahinda Rajapakse and the crimes against humanity or genocide or in his being hauled before a war crimes tribunal misses the point and for more than one reason.

The thinking on the part of the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of External Affairs was right on target, to say the least—that New Delhi would stand to lose politically and strategically should it decide to stay away from the CHOGM. In the context of the Tamils in the North and East of Sri Lanka, an argument has been made that India’s leverage with the Rajapakse government would be considerably weakened if short term interests are allowed to have the way. And that short term interests would have to be seen in the context of pressures from political parties in Tamil Nadu and in the decision of the Congress of looking at participating in CHOGM in the framework of electoral gains in 2014 in the state.

That political expediency or the crass survival in the corridors of power in New Delhi had led to the pawning off foreign policy interests to the states in the last few years is for all to see. And the situation will not be getting no better in the years to come is also a foregone conclusion given the fact that coalition politics is here to stay in India for the foreseeable future, if present trends are anything to go by.

To say that Dr. Singh’s visit legitimizes the Rajapakse government any more or weakens the loud and growing calls for an international enquiry into the goings on in the last stages of the ethnic war in 2009 misses the point. For one thing, the powers that be in Colombo are constantly under the scanner from nation states and non governmental organizations for the shocking and gruesome stories that will simply not go away. If some months back the Rajapakse government was stunned with images of a 12 year old Balachandran ( Velupillai Prabhakaran’s son) being done to death, the world at large is once again aghast at the brutal murder of Isaipriya or Shoba, a young newscaster who was with the LTTE and mistaken at the closing stages of the war as Prabhakaran’s daughter. Only the very naïve and the foolish will be inclined to be convinced that the young lady died as a result of being caught in the cross fire as the officialdom in Sri Lanka would want the world to believe. Nice try Colombo!

Dr. Singh should be on his way to Colombo—and hopefully use the occasion to travel to Jaffna as well—keeping in mind the interests of the Sri Lankan Tamils, not merely in the areas of political devolution of power but also some of the other areas of genuine concern. Nearly five years after the end of a national tragic war, thousands of Tamils are yet to be accounted and the Rajapakse government needs to be told in clear and categoric terms that vague formulations is not going to cut much ice.

Non governmental organizations are making the point that close to 40,000 civilians—some figures put it closer to 70,000—may have been done away with in the last days of the war. Which is precisely why many in the world are constantly clamouring for a war crimes tribunal for acts of genocide. The Rajapakse government must be made to account for its actions and any feeble moves by nations within the CHOGM—including India—to cut some slack for the powers that be in Colombo would not only be letting down the Tamils in Sri Lanka but also further belittling the principles that bind the Commonwealth as a grouping.

There are strategic and security factors that India must take into account in fine tuning its decision of attending the CHOGM with or without the Prime Minister heading the delegation. A global power like India does indeed have regional issues and concerns to be looked into and in the present context it is the so-called China’s “String of Pearls” strategy vis-à-vis India, a strategy that has now found a vibrant partner in Sri Lanka and in a varied fashion. Politically India realized in the closing days of the 2009 war that it would not be in a position to supply weapons to the Sri Lanka army leaving Beijing to step into the position and generously providing an assortment of weaponry. Since that time there has been no turning back, it appears.

Sri Lanka has been waving the Chinese flag on a number of fronts, especially in the realm of economic and business enterprises that to New Delhi and others in the Asia Pacific do have strategic implications. It is being pointed out that more than one half of Sri Lanka’s construction and developmental loans have the handwriting of China and estimated at over US$ 6 billions. And among that critical infrastructure projects that have made the headlines are the Hambantota Port, the Katunayake-Colombo Expressway and the Norochcholai Coal Power project, to mention a few.

While India may have missed the bus on the Hambantota Port project, not many even in India are willing to buy the argument that Beijing’s interest in the project is purely commercial—the strategic local of the harbour being what it is, the port is seen as facilitating not only merchant and cargo vessels transitting from Africa and the Middle East but also by military fleets. The apprehension in strategic circles is that a foothold by the Chinese in Hambantota places it in a dominant fashion in the Indian Ocean. And the Pakistan angle is also quite similar to that of China with Colombo picking up keenly on the reluctance of New Delhi on the arms front since the closing stages of the war in 2009.

The larger picture of the Prime Minister going or not going to Colombo for the CHOGM is for all to see and this is not in the state of electoral play for the 2014 elections and the leadership of the Congress Party is acutely aware of this, irrespective of what may be dished out for public consumption.

(The writer Dr. Sridhar Krishnaswami, is a senior journalist in Washington. He currently heads the Schools of Media Studies and Government and International Affairs at SRM University, Chennai.

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