New Delhi, Dec. 4: Sri Lanka has described as “unfortunate” Manmohan Singh’s absence from last month’s Commonwealth meeting in Colombo and denied information about a visit by the Prime Minister announced by finance minister P. Chidambaram last week.
“It was unfortunate that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh could not attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo,” Sri Lanka’s high commissioner in India Prasad Kariyawasam told The Telegraph over a fortnight after the November 15-17 conclave.
The envoy’s comments come days after Chidambaram told a Chennai conference that the Prime Minister would visit Sri Lanka’s war-scarred northern province of Jaffna.
Chidambaram had mentioned no dates for Singh’s visit at the conference, whose theme was “Sri Lankan Tamils’ right to livelihood and India’s stand”. The finance minister had, however, justified as “wise” the Prime Minister’s decision to skip the Commonwealth (CHOGM) meeting and send foreign minister Salman Khurshid instead.
But high commissioner Kariyawasam termed Singh’s decision an “opportunity lost”. He said not only would have Singh’s presence at the CHOGM been widely applauded, he would have also had the chance to see the “enormous progress” in the work done with Indian help in the northern province of Jaffna that is home to Tamils.
“The progress we have made in the northern province with Indian help is enormous. Had the PM visited Jaffna for CHOGM, he would have been able to see it himself. It would have helped the India-Sri Lanka partnership and the reconciliation process further. It was an opportunity lost,” Kariyawasam said. The envoy said the Lankan government had no information about any forthcoming visit by Singh.
Sources said Colombo had got an impression that it was Chidambaram and defence minister A.K. Antony who persuaded the Prime Minister not to attend the meeting to protest alleged rights violations of Tamils in the civil war with the LTTE and its aftermath.
Pressure had also come from Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa, who repeatedly urged Singh to stay away, and an Assembly resolution calling on the Centre to boycott the CHOGM meet.
But Colombo voiced dismay. “It is sad that Manmohan Singh succumbed to internal pressures without thinking about the long-standing relationship between the two countries,” a senior official in the Sri Lankan high commission here said.
A diplomat in Delhi said President Mahinda Rajapaksa was “highly disappointed”. “When heads of all states were arriving at CHOGM, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif got the biggest applause. This applause would have gone to Singh if he had attended the meeting because he would have appeared as the tallest leader of the region who did not succumb to any internal pressure,” the diplomat said.
Speaking at the Chennai conference, Chidambaram said Singh would during the forthcoming trip meet the newly elected chief minister of the northern province, C.V. Wigneswaran, who had invited Singh earlier to visit Jaffna.
But some parties in Sri Lanka are not happy about Singh’s proposed visit. John Amaratunga, a senior leader of the main Opposition United National Party, is opposed to it because Singh did not attend the Commonwealth meet.
Other Sri Lankan officials said India’s leverage on the island nation had been reduced. “Now, we will not feel obliged to do things India tells us to do. For example, we conducted the northern province elections because Congress leaders here (in India) persuaded us to do so. We are afraid we will not have such negotiations with this (UPA II) government in the future,” a Sri Lankan official said.