Sri Lanka has ‘nothing to hide’ over rights, president insists
President Mahinda Rajapakse responds to allegations of war crimes ahead of Commonwealth summit and says he is willing to confront critics
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse hit back angrily on Thursday against allegations of war crimes which are set to overshadow this week’s Commonwealth summit, saying he had “nothing to hide” from his critics.
Rajapakse, who is to chair the three-day summit in Colombo, told reporters that he was ready to confront the likes of Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron but would not be lectured to.
The summit has already been dogged by boycott, with the leaders of Canada, India and Mauritius all staying away from over the bloody end to one of the deadliest conflicts of the 20th century.
Rajapakse has been under fire from rights groups and UN bodies over his refusal to allow an independent investigation into the finale of the conflict which pitted ethnic Tamils against the majority Sinhalese government.
“We are very open, we have nothing to hide,” the president, who is himself Sinhalese, told reporters on the eve of the summit.
Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapakse Rajapakse said he was ready to meet Cameron to discuss allegations that up to 40,000 ethnic Tamil civilians were killed by Sri Lankan forces in the closing stages of the 37-year conflict in the island’s north.
“I will be meeting him and we will see what, I will also have to ask some questions,” he said.
Rajapakse, who was elected president of the former British colony in 2005, mounted a stout defence of his administration’s handling of allegations of rights abuses.
“We have a legal system in Sri Lanka,” he told a press conference. “We have a human rights commission, now the Commonwealth is ready to strengthen it.
“If anyone wants to complain about a human rights violation in Sri Lanka – whether it be torture, whether it be rape – we have a system.
“If there are any violations, we will take actions against anybody.”
The 67-year-old leader said his administration deserved credit for managing to bring an end to the conflict.
“People were getting killed for 30 years, at least after 2009 we have stopped it.
“There is no killing in Sri Lanka today.”
At least 100,000 people lost their lives in the conflict, which was one of the longest-running and bloodiest in Asia.
As well as the allegations against government forces, Tamil Tiger rebels – who were known for their trademark suicide bombings – are also accused of killing thousands of people.
Cameron, who intends to travel to the war-torn northern Jaffna peninsula, has said he wants to have “tough conversations” with Rajapakse during the summit in the capital Colombo which opens on Friday.
“Being in Sri Lanka does mean it’s an opportunity to shine a spotlight on some of the problems there, some of the human rights issues,” he said on Wednesday. “It’s right to do that and that’s exactly what I’ll be doing.”
Kamalesh Sharma, the Commonwealth’s Secretary-General, denied suggestions that the organisation had been ineffective in dealing with allegations against the summit hosts.
Asked whether Sri Lanka’s alleged right abuses made a mockery of the Commonwealth’s charter of shared values, the former Indian diplomat said the organisation had made progress by engaging with Rajapakse’s regime.
“It [alleged rights abuses] is not making a mockery. It is showing the Commonwealth in action,” he said.
The Sri Lankan leader, who at times raised his voice and lost his usual cool at the press conference at the summit venue, hit back at suggestions he would need to explain himself to Britain’s Prince Charles who is to open the meeting.
“I will say ayubowan [may you live long] – that is how we greet anyone, whether king, queen or beggar.”
“You all must respect the system of the country, the culture of the country.”
Despite the allegations of abuses against Tamil civilians, who account for some 12 per cent of the 20 million population, Rajapakse said he was determined to heal the teardrop-shaped island’s pain.
“My policy is to win over even the terrorists,” he said.
“We are ready to talk to them, but we will not allow anyone to divide this country.”