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CHOGM: A dignified welcome

( October 7, 2013, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Sri Lanka welcomes a diverse group of world leaders next month when it hosts the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).

It is the second largest gathering of world leaders in Sri Lanka since the 1976 Non Aligned Summit and the authorities are upbeat on putting on a ‘good show’.

The country is facing many challenges since the end of the civil war in May 2009, foremost among them being accusations mostly by Europe and North America of human rights abuses during the last stages of the war.

Notwithstanding the expected smiles, warm greetings and cordial handshakes between Sri Lankan leaders and visiting leaders, concerns like media freedom, intimidation of journalists and human rights activists, and other fundamental rights issues are most likely to be discussed.

Tackling and managing these ‘bumps’ would need finesse, political and diplomatic acumen and maintaining dignity in the face of adversity. Sri Lanka is the host and the warmth, the smiles and friendliness of the people, the beauty of the country and the diversity of the fauna and flora is what the country can score points with rather than going on a confrontational course.

At an interesting discussion this week on the impact of CHOGM on the political, social and economic landscape of the country, retired Foreign Secretary and Ambassador, H.M.G.S. Pallihakara said the event is a rare opportunity to demonstrate the country’s resilience and abundance of positives. “This is great opportunity to restore Sri Lanka’s positive image and should be done without being defensive or taking a combative posture,” he said, adding that chairing the commonwealth for the next two years will bring enormous rewards if handled correctly.

“We must show that we are a democracy by deeds not only words. (The event) should be handled professionally and involve constructive engagement (not disruption),” he added.

Contrary to public perception, the main opposition United National Party (UNP) is supporting this global event and has been consulted by the government on the summit.

UNP Parliamentarian and former banker, Eran Wickramaratne, one of the panelists at the discussion organized by the Sunday Times Business Club (STBC), believes the biggest problem is the issue of credibility of the government.

He said the government says one thing here and another thing abroad, adding “there is a gap between what is said at home and overseas”.

Tissa Jayaweera, former Chairman of the International Chamber of Commerce, Sri Lanka and a member of the ministerial organizing committee for CHOGM and the committee organizing the business forum, believes no one should look at the ROI (rate of return) as per expenditure in hosting this meeting. “Rather look at it as an investment and the huge exposure with 3,000 journalists present from all parts of the world. That is un-measurable (publicity),” he said.

CHOGM is being held in the backdrop of a controversial visit last month by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navinathem Pillay. It led to an acrimonious exchange of words with the Sri Lankan government after she told reporters that the country was increasingly becoming an authoritarian state, among other concerns.

Britain and Canada in particular, in the past and recent times, have raised issue over alleged human rights abuses with Sri Lanka also responding in similar tones. Media bashing of some world leaders critical of Sri Lanka has been part of a regular newspaper diet for local readers.

Hopefully none of this – heated exchanges, media attacks and uncouth comments on visiting dignitaries – will surface at next month’s summit. This was also the wish-list of all three speakers who called for dignity and responsibility in the organization and conduct of the CHOGM.

The message that further came out of the STBC discussion was that while political parties have ideological differences and citizens regularly hurl abuse and insults at the government or the opposition, the commonwealth summit is an occasion to come together and showcase the country in a positive sense, irrespective of these differences.

However that doesn’t mean that Sri Lanka should go overboard with spending on the summit or displacing people in shanties to make Colombo look nicer for its distinguished visitors. Sri Lankans, poor or rich, have a stake in the organization of the summit and any uprooting of communities must be done with dignity and benevolence.

- Sunday Times, Colombo, Sri Lanka

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