The torrential rain in Colombo preceding the SAARC summit and the gloomy skies visible through it reflected the general mood. Colombo was host to the summit but was not a city of cheer. The rains had caused havoc; trees were down, the potholes had deepened, and some areas of the city were totally inaccessible due to flooding.
Metaphors of the separatist war were everywhere in the intensified security and check points. The summit days were suddenly declared holidays for the government sector; not in a mood of celebration of course, but due to anxiety over security. Public transportation was halted, and many shops were closed. Colombo was a ghost city: a cordon sanitaire for the SAARC leaders to meet in. The public was at a distance or behind closed doors, largely unconcerned about the goings-on anyway. If President Chandrika Kumaratunga had hoped to strut on the regional stage by holding the 10th SAARC summit (the original venue having been shifted from Nepal in deference to Sri Lanka’s desire to play host in its 50th year of Independence), she had certainly not counted on India and Pakistan playing spoilsports by turning on the nuclear heat. So, what could have been a glorious moment for the Lankan president on the international and national scene, instead became a mere side-show: that of a well-dressed, and well-mannered – points of emphasis that are her regular occupational hazard – woman upstaged by the tension between India and Pakistan. The eyes of the international and national press were firmly on Atal Behari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif: their talks, their body language, their statements. That there was a summit declaration at all in the face of the two bickering giants, observers say, was due to Kumaratunga’s statecraft, diplomacy and sheer personal charm. But that again was behind closed doors, away from public gaze. The Sri Lankan public was more pre-occupied with the postponement of the provincial council elections – a long-standing threat, which has now become a reality under an island-wide Emergency. Elections were to be held in five of the provinces; the parties had begun campaigning; and women’s groups had invested money and energy to demand increased women’s representation on the electoral list. But, ultimately, it was the military that won the day. The argument was that a master plan was in place to rout the Tamil Tigers by the end of the year, and that to pull out troops from the war zones to provide security for the elections would cause expensive setbacks. Lankans, by and large, are deeply sceptical of this promise, having heard it before with different sets of dates. Even if the military were to succeed in capturing the last 40 km of the road to Jaffna, this accomplishment would hardly qualify as ‘winning’ the war. After all, winning wars is not about capturing or retaining territory alone; wars are fought on many fronts including the one for social justice. For Sri Lanka, it was bad enough that the SAARC summit coincided with the postponement of the local elections. What was worse was that it achieved little with respect to the one promise that may have been the jamboree’s saving grace – the beginning of a serious process of reconciliation between India and Pakistan. The expectation was belied. Indeed, the Colombo Summit’s fruitless outcome was as disappointing as Chandrika Kumaratunga’s 1994 election pledge to abolish the presidential system. It is widely believed that she will call for early presidential elections in January 1999 to strengthen her hand, and to herald a return to a more decentralised and accountable form of governance – something that the now-deferred provincial council elections were to provide in the first place.