NEW DELHI — Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will skip a meeting of Commonwealth leaders in Sri Lanka this week marred by long-running accusations that Colombo has failed to resolve the issue of war crimes against minority Tamils.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has already said he would boycott the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) that Sri Lanka is hosting from Nov. 15 to 17.
Harper said last month he was disturbed by continuing reports of intimidation and incarceration of political leaders and journalists, the harassment of minorities, reported disappearances and accusations of extra-judicial killings.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has said he will attend, but will demand an investigation into the accusations.
The Sri Lankan government, which defeated the separatist Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009, faces increasing pressure from the international community to try those responsible for rights abuses during a nearly three-decade-long civil war.
Singh has written to Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa to say he will be unable to attend and Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid will take his place instead, an Indian foreign ministry spokesman said, but gave no reason for the change.
“From time to time the prime minister is required to be here and he is unable to visit,” Khurshid told reporters. “It should not be looked at as something that, if such a decision has been taken, will affect India-Sri Lanka relations.”
At home, Singh's move is also being seen as bowing to pressure from India's own large Tamil population, with an eye to a general election that must be held by next May.
Colombo had not officially been informed of Singh's decision, Karunatilaka Amunugama, the secretary of Sri Lanka's external affairs ministry, told Reuters.
Foreign politician detained
In a separate development, Sri Lankan authorities on Sunday detained, and impounded the passports of, two lawmakers from Australia and New Zealand who had visited former war zones in the country's north.
The pair were due to address a news conference organized by the Tamil National Alliance, the former political proxy of the defeated Tamil Tiger rebels.
Authorities say the two politicians were detained because they had traveled on tourist visas. They were later released.
“One has already left the country and the other one will leave tomorrow morning,” Chulananda Perera, controller of the immigration and emigration department, told Reuters.
Sunday's detention follows the questioning last week of two media activists from Australia representing the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). Immigration officials found they had traveled on tourist visas to attend a media workshop.
Sri Lanka also denied last week that it had refused to give visas to a delegation from an international human rights group, saying permission had not been sought for the visitors.
Sri Lanka, an island of 21 million people just off India's southern tip, has become a visible front in the competition between India and China, where mutual suspicion and commercial ambition have led to a race for construction projects.
Critics in India slammed Singh's decision as opening the way for China, which helps fund the island nation's military and infrastructure projects, to extend its influence.
“Now we are vacating our backyard for the Chinese to rebuild all of a booming post-war Sri Lanka,” influential columnist and editor Shekhar Gupta wrote in the Indian Express newspaper.
The cancelation has reawakened questions about Singh's legacy after he steps down - as he is expected to do - following the 2014 vote. His ruling Congress party has been weakened by a string of corruption scandals, high inflation and stuttering growth after nine years in power.
Major roadblocks have stalled Singh's landmark foreign policy initiatives, such as a 2008 atomic energy deal with the United States that lifted India out of diplomatic isolation over its nuclear program.