Cameron hears tales of suffering during surprise visit to Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka

British leader upstages Commonwealth summit's opening as Sri Lankan leader faces PR disaster

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 November, 2013, 3:39am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 November, 2013, 4:05am

Survivors of Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict poured their hearts out yesterday to British Prime Minister David Cameron as he paid a "harrowing" visit to the war-torn north, upstaging a Commonwealth summit in Colombo.

After Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse warned his peers against passing judgment on his country's past, Cameron headed to the Jaffna peninsula where some 100,000 people lost their lives in fighting between Tamil rebels and troops from the majority Sinhalese government.

Dozens of protesters, many clutching photos of missing loved ones, took to Jaffna's streets as Cameron toured the main town in the north.

As police with shields tried to keep them away, some women managed to break through and several tried to hurl themselves at Cameron's motorcade.

He also met residents of a resettlement camp who were desperate to tell him of the pain they endured during the 37-year conflict and ongoing hardships.

"The stories I am hearing from the people here are often harrowing," Cameron said on Twitter.

The prime minister is the first foreign leader to visit Jaffna since the former British colony gained independence in 1948.

"This is going to make a very lasting impression on me. That is something you don't forget," Cameron said on a visit to the Uthayan newspaper where the portraits of slain staff line the walls.

Cameron also spoke with elderly women and their families who are still living in shanty homes in Jaffna since the fighting ended in 2009 after fleeing their villages during the war.

"I'm going to raise this case with people from your government," Cameron told about a dozen women in one alley as they crowded around the premier.

"We are pinning our hopes on him," T. Padmavathy said after Cameron inspected her tiny home.

The landmark visit overshadowed the start of a three-day summit which was meant to be a chance for Rajapakse to showcase Sri Lanka's revival.

But after refusing to bow to demands for an independent investigation into the end of the conflict, he has been confronted by a public relations disaster, including a string of boycotts.

Cameron flew out of Colombo shortly after Rajapakse warned fellow leaders against 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.

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper was the first to announce a summit boycott after his government said it was akin to "accommodating evil". Even India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is staying away.

Rajapakse spent the build-up to the summit fending off allegations that his troops were responsible for the deaths of some 40,000 Tamil civilians in the final weeks of the war. He said his regime deserved credit for ending the conflict. "We asserted the greatest human right - the right to life," he said.