Last Wednesday, foreign minister Rohitha Bogollagama went to Kamapala to attend the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group Meeting (CMAG) ahead of the summit of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). We are now told that the same day, the Cabinet decided not to support the Commonwealth move to suspend Pakistan from the 53-nation bloc.
But our minister voted for the suspension of Pakistan. What’s worse, he sat next to the Commonwealth’s outgoing Secretary General Don McKinnon as the announcement to suspend Pakistan was made at Thursday’s news conference. Obviously, for Pakistan, Sri Lanka’s action was a diplomatic stab in the back. How could Sri Lanka betray Pakistan? It was the first country to come to Sri Lanka’s aid when its territorial integrity was at stake in 2000 with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam laying siege to Jaffna. The weapons Sri Lanka received from Pakistan tilted the military balance in favour of the security forces. A Pakistani High Commissioner in Colombo nearly paid with his life for his country’s unwavering support to Sri Lanka when he survived a Tamil Tiger suicide attack.
The government on Friday decided to do some damage-control. An angry President Mahinda Rajapaksa decided that he should officially announce Sri Lanka’s objection to the suspension of Pakistan at the CHOGM summit. But it was too little, too late. The bottomline is that our objection did not change the Commonwealth’s decision.
If we had protested when the suspension was being discussed at the CMAG, we would have at least succeeded in extending the November 12 deadline given to Pakistan to restore democracy. We now learn that Malaysia and a couple of other countries also would have supported Pakistan.
The nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna was furious. It demanded that the government apologise to Pakistan, while an embarrassed deputy foreign minister Hussein Bhaila said that the mess-up was due to a communication problem. The explanation was far from convincing. How could such a thing happen in a hi-tech information age?
This was not the first time the Rajapaksa administration abandoned friends when they needed Sri Lanka’s support. A couple of years ago, our United Nations envoy slipped away when a vote on a resolution condemning Israel for committing atrocities in the Gaza Strip was taken at the UN General Assembly. The move was apparently in keeping with an assurance Sri Lanka gave the United States, which is hell bent on protecting Israel whether the Zionist state is right or wrong.
Rajapaksa, who is projecting himself as a friend of the Palestinians, blamed his then foreign minister, Mangala Samaraweera, and issued a decree that all important foreign policy decisions should be made in consultation with the President’s Office.
The two incidents have one thing in common. They show that the government thinks or regrets after it leaps. Or, our government is trying to pull the wool over the eyes of its friends. Pakistan is apparently not impressed, though it has issued a statement thanking Sri Lanka for standing by it.
If not for this foreign policy blunder, the Commonwealth summit in Kampala last week may not have attracted much public interest in Sri Lanka. For many Sri Lankans, the 53-nation bloc summit is nothing but a photo op with the British royals for our leaders at tax payers’ expense.
If the question “What does the Commonwealth mean to you?” is posed to the people in the former empire’s former colonies, many may say it means nothing. Some may even say they do not know that the Commonwealth exists.
They are right. The Commonwealth has no real power. What is it? Is it an economic bloc? No it is not. Do its members take a common stand on burning issues such as the Palestinian crisis and the climate change? No, they don’t. Do most of the Commonwealth member states accept the British Queen as their head of state? No, only a handful does.
Pakistan’ President Pervez Musharraf is right when he did not bother much when the Commonwealth suspended his country. It was just like a person losing his membership in an elite club.
For Sri Lanka, however, the Commonwealth meant a lot during the early years after its Independence in 1948.
We sought refuge in the Commonwealth from what we suspected to be the evil designs of India.
Our first prime minister, DS Senanayake, lived with the fear of being invaded by India. The dominant strand in his foreign policy was a profound suspicion of India, whose first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1945 said that Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was then known) would inevitably be drawn into a closer union with India, “presumably as an autonomous unit of the Indian Federation”.
It was not only Nehru, but Pattabhi Sitaramaya, President of the Indian National Congress in the late 1940s, and Dr KN Panikkar, a well-known Indian historian, also harboured a design to annex Sri Lanka.
Senanayake had little option. Making our case worse was our inability to join the United Nations upon receiving independence because of strong opposition from the veto-wielding Soviet Union, which labelled Sri Lanka as a puppet of the British Empire.
So Senanayake turned to the Commonwealth and believed that the membership in the grouping would provide a “counterforce” against any possible invasion by India.
Now that the fear of an Indian invasion no longer exists, the raison d’être for Sri Lanka’s membership in the Commonwealth has become a colonial-era relic. It has only an exhibition value.
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