One wonders what was British Prime Minister David Cameron’s agenda when he not only castigated the Sri Lankan government for its alleged human rights abuses but also made a visit to Jaffna “to see for himself” what had transpired. My understanding of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), currently being concluded in Sri Lanka, was that it was a meeting of leaders of the Commonwealth, a more or less toothless body, and not used by the former empire to chide subjects, particularly natives, for bad governance.
I cannot recall another instance of a Commonwealth head of state interfering so blatantly in the internal affairs of another country. It is somewhat rich for Cameron to castigate Sri Lanka. The British didn’t have much of a human rights record when they ruled the colonies. More recently, its role in the wars against Iraq and in Afghanistan as part of the coalition of the willing leaves a lot to be desired.
And hours before coming to Colombo to upstage everyone else, the British prime minister had said in a statement in India that “it would be good to meet Narendra Modi”. That statement itself is chilling.
Let us be honest at least. Canada and Mauritius stayed away from CHOGM also because of the human rights record of the Sri Lankan government. The fact that what they said was both countries have sizeable Tamil populations doesn’t seem to have raised eyebrows it seems. The biased coverage of this controversy as seen on the BBC, an otherwise favourite news channel of mine, indicates that the days of independent public broadcasting seem to be coming to an end in the UK.
India was at least pragmatic. Facing an election in the coming year, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s party cannot upset its allies in the south. There was no talking down to Sri Lanka. Possibly India learnt its lessons earlier on and doesn’t want to burn its fingers again.
All wars have casualties and human rights abuses. There is no denying that. And Sri Lanka should be encouraged to set up an independent human rights commission to investigate the allegations of atrocities. They have enough right minded people to head it.
But for the British PM to take it upon himself to investigate these allegations on his own suggests that he may be angling for something other than justice for the victims. Sri Lanka has a capable system that should be able to do what is needed. One does not need to embarrass the country into this.
One must recall that Sri Lanka is that country which finally shunned all international intervention when it went for its military offensive against the LTTE. Do not try and force it into a situation where it does the same again. Because the last time it did this, it succeeded in fixing the problem.
For me, the most powerful statement in CHOGM came from Sri Lankan president Rajapaksa. In an angry response to the statements made by Cameron and others, he said killings had taken place in Sri Lanka not only in 2009, as his government crushed the LTTE, but for 30 years up until then. Since the past four years, “there has been no terrorist attack in the country.”
Sitting in strife-torn Pakistan, this statement itself was enough to inspire me. I wish the same could be achieved in my country, where terrorism is eating away from inside while other countries pay lip service to our problems.
As far as the conflict in Pakistan is concerned, it is not enough for Mr Cameron to pump money into the government machinery here as part of the British contribution to our war. There must be some ownership. We don’t see that. In fact, the British treat Pakistan and Pakistanis quite shabbily.
Ours is a war that your government and its allies helped create in the first place. Britain has many stakes in Pakistan, as I am sure it did in Sri Lanka when that country was at war, but that would be transgressing. The fact is that when Sri Lanka was fighting its war, the British government did little to help. CHOGM was silent on the issue.
Maybe the anger is more directed to the fact that the Chinese have been given lucrative contracts in Sri Lanka. But best not to speculate and question the motives of great powers.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 18th, 2013.