Commonwealth summit a PR disaster for Sri Lanka amid Tamil war doubts

Sri Lankan president urges Commonwealth leaders not to judge island on Tamil war

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 November, 2013, 4:32pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 November, 2013, 3:41am

Sri Lanka's president urged his peers yesterday not to pass judgment over his country's past as he hosted a Commonwealth summit that threatens to be upstaged by a visit to the war-torn north by Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron.

The summit was meant to be a chance for President Mahinda Rajapaksa, a Sinhalese nationalist leader who oversaw the crushing of the Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009, to showcase the development of his country.

But after refusing to bow to demands for an independent investigation into the end of the conflict, Rajapaksa has faced a public-relations disaster.

The leaders of Canada, India and Mauritius have all snubbed the meeting, and Cameron's visit to the Jaffna region is designed to shine a spotlight on the plight of war victims.

In an opening speech, Rajapaksa said the Commonwealth must not be a "judgmental body" and warned his fellow leaders of trying to impose their own "bilateral agendas".

"If the Commonwealth is to remain relevant to its member countries, the association must respond to the needs of its people and not turn into a punitive or judgmental body," he said in a speech ahead of the formal opening of the summit by Britain's Prince Charles.

Since the war, the economy has enjoyed growth rates of up to 8.2 per cent, and more than one million tourists visited Sri Lanka last year - a new record.

But what was meant to be a chance to champion a new-look Sri Lanka has been overshadowed by the legacy of the war.

The prime minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, was the first to announce a boycott after his government said the summit was akin to "accommodating evil", while his Mauritian counterpart Navin Ramgoolam - due to host the next one - is also refusing to attend.

Even Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh is staying away, preferring to antagonise a neighbour rather than offend Tamil voters ahead of next year's elections.

The agenda for the three-day summit includes debt restructuring and climate change.

But Rajapaksa spent the build-up fending off allegations that his troops were responsible for the death of some 40,000 Tamil civilians in the final weeks of the war.

During an impassioned speech, the 67-year-old leader said his government deserved credit for ending the conflict.

"We asserted the greatest human right - the right to life," he said.

"In the last four years there has not been one single terrorism-related incident in Sri Lanka."

At least 100,000 people lost their lives in the conflict, which began in 1972. The northern Jaffna Peninsula, home to around 800,000 Tamils, was the main battlefield.

Cameron has taken some flak for not joining the boycott, but he promised Myanmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi this month that he would witness Jaffna's fate first hand.

In his opening speech, Prince Charles said "the Sri Lankan people have confronted great adversity", also recalling the devastating impact on the island of the 2004 tsunami.