Will Mahinda be absent from C’wealth Day celebrations?

  Upul Joseph Fernando

( February 26, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Mahinda is scheduled to leave for London on 10 March to attend Commonwealth Day celebrations. Purpose of his participation in the proceedings will be twofold; representing the country as President of Sri Lanka and also as the Chairperson of the Commonwealth group of nations. The Royal Commonwealth Society website has reported the event as follows:

Commonwealth Day Observance 2014

In London, Commonwealth Day celebrations are focused around a multi-faith service at Westminster Abbey. The Commonwealth Day Act of Observance, to give it its formal name, is the largest of its kind in the UK and possibly in the world. It takes place in the presence of Her Majesty, The Queen and His Royal Highness, The Duke of Edinburgh, senior politicians, High Commissioners, Commonwealth dignitaries and over 1,000 young people, with approximately 2,000 people attending in total.

President Rajapaksa (right) greets his secretary as he arrives at the opening session of the Commonwealth Heads Of Government Meeting 2013, at the Nelum Pokuna Mahinda Rajpaksa Theatre in Colombo
The aim of the Commonwealth Day Observance is to celebrate the unity, diversity and linkages of the modern Commonwealth and foster greater understanding of the Commonwealth's achievements and role, particularly among young people.

In 2014, the theme will be Team Commonwealth. The theme is intended to stress the importance of teamwork and collaboration both within and between Commonwealth countries. It also sets the tone for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow later in the year. This theme will be reflected in the Observance and throughout Commonwealth Week.

Attendance at this celebration will afford Mahinda an opportunity to meet the Queen for the first time since being installed as Chairperson of Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). While there, he is also expected to take part in a reception to be hosted by Commonwealth Secretary General, Kamalesh Sharma, for the Queen and the 53 representatives of the Commonwealth countries. However, according to latest information emanating from government sources, Mahinda's attendance at the Commonwealth event seems to be doubtful.

Diaspora gearing up to protest

Government sources are at pains to show that if there is going to be a cancellation of Mahinda's London trip, it is because it clashes with a pre-arranged trip to Myanmar to attend BIMSTEC meeting. But the actual reason, according to British information sources, is that the Tamil Diaspora is girding up for a spate of protests against his visit. As it could cause a huge security risk, purportedly, the UK Government may have advised Mahinda to cancel his visit to London. It would lead to a poser for the Commonwealth event as it will have to be held without the Chairperson. Moreover, Mahinda's participation at Commonwealth Games, to be held in Scotland in July, also would lead to similar complications. News are already in circulation that the Tamil Diaspora is making arrangements to put up a strong protest, in case Mahinda shows up for the games.

In his several previous trips to London for official engagements, Mahinda had to face severe disruptive actions carried out by Diaspora members. First of which was his scheduled visit to Oxford University to deliver a speech there. Because of Diaspora's protests, Mahinda had to cancel the lecture and return home. The other occasion was when he had to cancel a scheduled speech at the Commonwealth Economic Forum held on the sidelines of Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations, again due to Diaspora protests.

If Mahinda abstains from attending the forthcoming Commonwealth event, it could be seen as a precaution he wishes to take in view of the scheduled UNHRC session in March, as widespread protests planned by the Diaspora in London could give him a strong measure of notoriety in the predictably hostile UN forum.

Rajapaksa Government considers Britain as heavily working towards tightening UNHRC resolution grip on Sri Lanka. Its singular determination to do so does not allow any softening of American stance, which according to government's thinking, does not seek to impose too stringent charges in their impending resolution. In other words, on occasion America has shown flexibility on this matter while England seeks to nip it in the bud before it takes hold in their American friend's commitment, which is essential for the success of the resolution.

Those who accept this presumed view of the government point out to a certain remark US Ambassador in Sri Lanka, Michele J. Sison, had made regarding the resolution now certain to come up at UNHRC in March. She has expressed the view that the proposed resolution should not be considered as zero sum game. She has also indicated in her speech that American military training given to Sri Lankan security service personnel will not be discontinued or reduced even after passage of the resolution. Her statements have given new hopes to the government to move ahead and make overtures to the Americans, to maximize its chances in Geneva.

No cohesive policy

Government leaders are not following any cohesive policy in its interactions with the UK Government. In recent times, the government has been critical of the UK Government's unacceptable attitude in refusing visas to some senior government leaders. Government ministers have also voiced their displeasure over the overbearing manner in which the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, acted when he was here during CHOGM.

The government seems to be clearly convinced that their biggest tormentor in Geneva will be the UK Government, which has already trained its guns with an array of allegations of war crimes and human rights violations against the country. Other parties in the international community at least give some leeway to the government while being critical of its alleged record of human rights violations and war crimes. However, the UK steadfastly and unswervingly points it finger at the government, threatening dire consequences.

At the time of CHOGM, the government reacted favourably with much publicity to a proposal made by South Africa to help create a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with the participation of both the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the government on the same lines as it was done in their country. This idea and the enthusiasm the government showed in it came for high praise from all quarters, especially the UK, whose Prime Minister fully condoned it. After successful completion of CHOGM and having ascended to its chair, Mahinda conveniently forgot his early commitment. In fact, since then, it has come to be seen as a just another carrot offered for the consumption of the international community.

The government has lately shown vigorous engagement to resuscitate the Truth Commission proposal, mostly to appease the UK and its supporters pushing for a stringent resolution in Geneva. The government, knowing the British interest in the matter, is now working hard to call on its help to take the sting off the American resolution in Geneva. Mahinda's biggest worry at the moment is how to safeguard his Chairmanship of CHOGM. If any attack comes, it will be from the UK side. He is therefore keen not to provoke them to target his CHOGM Chairmanship, which could have a devastating effect on his political future.

He is aware that any large-scale Diaspora protest will be harmful to his position as the Commonwealth Chairperson. Mahinda has twice used the Geneva witch-hunt to his advantage and won as many elections. But, losing the CHOGM crown will cause irreparable damage to him. In the aftermath of his ascension to the CHOGM Chairmanship, the glorification of the man and his superior position in the Commonwealth started in earnest with many big cut-outs of him coming up all over the country. By such moves, he was able to drill into the minds of the masses that it was a giant victory for him. And that giant victory and the victor's image will be essential for another victory at the next Presidential Election.