the media this week in Australia, where the
Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) meeting is
being held in Perth, there were two people making
headlines: Queen Elizabeth II and President Mahinda
The Queen, of course, was visiting Australia for the
purpose of inaugurating the CHOGM. Given that she is
eighty-five years old, there was widespread
speculation in the Australian media that this could
be her ‘last’ visit to that country and this
generated a groundswell of goodwill for the British
Not so for President Rajapaksa, though. The tone was
set even before he arrived Down Under. An Australian
television network last week broadcast a documentary
depicting a Sri Lankan Tamil woman, ‘Meena’ claiming
that war crimes were committed by the Sri Lankan
The programme was exactly on the same
lines of the infamous Channel 4 documentary
broadcast in Britain and its airing a week before
President Rajapaksa’s visit raises suspicions as to
whether it was a well-orchestrated move.
Nevertheless, it did not generate much of a furore.
A few days later and also before the President
arrived in Australia, a Sri Lankan born man who is
now an Australian citizen, Arunachalam
Jegatheeswaran, styling himself as ‘Jegan Waran’,
filed a case in a court in Melbourne, accusing the
President of war crimes.
It is unlikely that this too was an isolated
incident. There was a similar move against the
President when he visited New York for the United
Nations General Assembly a few weeks ago. It seems
this is the latest strategy of the Eelamist lobby:
to try and embarrass President Rajapaksa
Jegatheeswaran’s actions were picked up by the
Australian media in anticipation of a legal
showdown. But it was not to be. Australian Attorney
General Robert McClelland intervened to stop
proceedings stating that the President, as a
visiting head of state, enjoyed diplomatic
Former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, now
81, waded into the debate saying that in light of
the war crimes allegations being levelled against
the Sri Lankan government, the decision to host the
next Commonwealth summit in Colombo in 2013 needs to
It was Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, himself a
former Prime Minister, who squashed that suggestion
saying if there were such concerns they should be
addressed diplomatically-and that changing the venue
of CHOGM was not an option. Rudd said that even
boycotting the summit was not the solution.
Then there was also a move to appoint a Commonwealth
Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and
Human Rights. It was felt that this was yet another
move to highlight allegations of war crimes against
Sri Lanka which in turn lobbied other countries
against supporting this proposal.
India saw it fit to oppose the move publicly,
stating that the proposals undermined the functions
of the Secretary General of the Commonwealth while
also duplicating some functions of the United
Nations. Considering the level of opposition
expressed by India, it is unlikely that the proposal
In an unrelated incident but also this week, A
Sri Lankan Tamil refugee committed suicide at a
detention Centre in Sydney. He had been granted
refugee status but was awaiting security clearance
to be released from detention to the community.
Needless to say, the spotlight was again on Sri
It was against such a backdrop that President
Mahinda Rajapaksa met Australian Prime Minister
Julia Gillard. Given the build up to the event,
there was much speculation in the Australian media
as to what would transpire at the meeting.
The official communiqué states that Ms. Gillard
said, “Australia believed Sri Lanka must pay regard
to United Nations reports on human rights abuses
during the military's successful campaign to defeat
the Tamil Tigers in 2009”. In diplomatic parlance,
this could be as good as it gets, for Sri Lanka.
It must be noted that the Australian Prime Minister
has refrained from using phrases such as ‘expressing
grave concerns’ in voicing her sentiments; this is
the usual diplomatic jargon used by western nations
such as Britain and the United States when referring
to issues related to Sri Lanka.
Gillard also expressed her satisfaction about
Colombo’s strenuous efforts to curb the flow of
refugees from Sri Lanka, through co-operation with
the Australian authorities. This has been a major
irritant for the Prime Minister domestically, where
she is heading a government with a wafer-thin
It does appear that Australia had decided not to
allow the powerful pro-Eelamist lobby in that
country to dictate terms with regard to the
President’s visit. While they were certainly allowed
to have their say, the Australian government clearly
had their way.
This was apparent in the pre-emptive intervention of
the Attorney General in squashing proceedings
against President Rajapaksa - unlike in the United
States, where an attempt was made to serve summons
on him, although that did not materialise
The early announcement by Foreign Minister Rudd
that the decision to hold the next CHOGM in Colombo
stand also prevented further debate on the issue.
Had there been a change of venue, it would have
proved to be a major embarrassment to Sri Lanka.
In this respect, Australia’s stance vis-à-vis Sri
Lanka has been different to other western nations
which have adopted a more hostile attitude. Canberra
has traditionally had cordial relations with
Colombo, the only bad blood being between the
cricketing supporters of the two countries!
All things considered, Sri Lanka could be satisfied
that the President attended the CHOGM and emerged
unscathed despite attempts to sully his and Sri
Lanka’s image. In cricketing parlance, Sri Lanka may
not have won the match, but they have averted a
follow-on: there will be no consequences.
The CHOGM, however, should also be a lesson to Sri
Lanka. It can expect the Eelamist lobbies in the
major capitals of the world to try and upstage and
embarrass the country whenever its leaders arrive in
those cities. Cases may be filed and documentaries
may be broadcast, in a bid to generate publicity.
Now, after the CHOGM in Perth, Colombo should know
what to expect and what to do. If the officialdom of
the External Affairs Ministry and the Presidential
Secretariat have grasped that, the CHOGM 2011 in
Perth would not have been in vain.