COLOMBO: Sri Lanka’s president urged his peers Friday 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 David Cameron.
The summit was meant to be a chance for President Mahinda Rajapaksa, a Sinhalese nationalist leader who oversaw the crushing of 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 been confronted by a public relations disaster.
The leaders of Canada, India and Mauritius have all snubbed the meeting and British prime minister Cameron’s visit to the Jaffna region is designed to shine a spotlight on the plight of war victims.
But 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 percent 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 Chandra Ramgoolam — due to host the next one — is also refusing to attend.
Even India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is staying away, preferring to antagonize a neighbor rather than offend Tamil voters ahead of next year’s elections.
The agenda for the three-day summit includes sessions on 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 regime 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.
Before the war, Jaffna had a flourishing economy — second only in terms of wealth to Colombo.
But its towns and villages are now littered with shelled-out buildings, interspersed with abandoned farmland. Some 30,000 people still live in refugee camps.
Cameron has taken some flak for not joining the boycott but he promised Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi this month that he would witness Jaffna’s fate first hand.
He will thus become the first foreign leader to visit Jaffna since the former British colony gained independence in 1948.
“Everyone is pretending that everything is okay, that Tamils have equal rights but it’s not true,” said the editor of a Jaffna-based newspaper who is to meet Cameron.
“This needs to be told to the international world,” said M.V Kaanamylnathan, editor of the Uthayan (“The Sun“) daily whose printing presses were recently torched and which lost several reporters during the war.
Cameron, who left the summit only hours after it opened, can expect a frosty reception when he meets Rajapaksa back in Colombo in the evening.
Cameron has said he would have “tough conversations” with Rajapaksa but the Sri Lankan leader says he has questions of his own.
At the last summit in 2011 in Perth, Commonwealth leaders drew up a charter of common values which committed members to respecting human rights.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who is handing over the chairmanship of the Commonwealth to Rajapaksa, acknowledged Sri Lanka was emerging from a troubled past and that its people could take heart from how South Africa and Ireland had come through darker times.
“Sri Lanka’s willingness to host this Commonwealth shows its commitment to democratic pluralism and freedom based on law,” he said.
“With peace has come more freedom, and more prosperity. So we are here to praise as much as to judge … and also to reassure all its citizens that justice today is better than yesterday. And tomorrow it will be better than today.”
In his opening speech, Prince Charles said he felt “privileged” to be representing his mother Queen Elizabeth II, the titular head of the organization.
“The Sri Lankan people have confronted great adversity,” said the prince, who also recalled the devastating impact on the island of the 2004 tsunami.