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Commonwealth Summit: Sri Lanka not all sun and fun as repression continues

By Khadija Patel 14 November 2013

The good women and men of President Jacob Zuma’s office are headed for Sri Lanka for a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting this weekend. We’re not sure whether they’ll be mixing official government business with pleasure and enjoying a holiday in between, but Sri Lanka’s reputation as a top holiday destination is marred by the fact that in many ways, the country is still at war with itself. By KHADIJA PATEL.

President Jacob Zuma leaves for Sri Lanka on Thursday. He’ll be in Colombo for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). And no, it’s not a holiday. The theme of the conference is, “Growth with Equity: Inclusive Development”. According to the official South African government correspondence on the summit, the theme, developed by Sri Lanka, emphasises the importance of equity in economic development, stressing as well that inclusive development should provide opportunities for all members of society.

Yep, it’s definitely not going to be a holiday, or light banter under palm trees (we hope).

But if the president and his posse have any qualms about their trip, they need look no further than the Lonely Planet travel guide, which gushes with praise for the island.

“You might say Sri Lanka has been hiding in plain sight,” the travel guide says. “Countless scores of travellers have passed overhead on their way to someplace else, but years of war and challenges such as tsunamis have kept Sri Lanka off many itineraries.”

And if that gushing introduction has not yet enticed the president’s travelling office, there’s an assurance that the worst bits of Sri Lanka’s history have been banished to the past.

“But now – as you’ve probably heard – the war is over and Sri Lanka’s looking up. If you’ve ‘done’ India, grown blasé about Southeast Asia or simply want to explore a place whose appeal and pleasures are myriad, then it’s time you dropped in.”

We’ll forgive Lonely Planet their flowery language and admit their sunny optimism is not entirely misplaced. Sri Lanka is one of the highest-rated travel destinations of 2013.

“Sri Lanka is spectacular, it’s affordable and it’s still mostly uncrowded,” Lonely Planet says. “Now is the best time to discover it.”

We are tempted enough to wonder if there’s a spare seat on Inkwazi.

The Sri Lankan government hopes to cash in on the temptations of its pristine beaches and lush, green hills. The government plans on increasing tourist arrivals from 650,000 in 2010 to 2.5million in 2016, attracting $3bn of direct foreign investment over five years, and increasing tourism-related employment four-fold to 500,000 by 2016.

It sounds like the best way forward for a country that has for so long been at war with itself, the best way to demonstrate that the ugliness of its past will not determine its future.

Not everyone, however, is convinced that the brutality of the state is a thing of the past.

“The Sri Lankan government’s promises of accountability since the war’s end have come to very little,” says Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch and other global advocacy groups have launched a strong campaign in recent weeks against the two-day Commonwealth summit in Colombo.

“If the Commonwealth has to have its meeting in Colombo, then human rights protections in Sri Lanka need to be prominently on the agenda,” Adam says.

The Sri Lankan government is said to be using the Commonwealth summit to showcase its post-war revival. Instead, the summit is fast becoming a public relations headache.

On Wednesday, AFP reported that the country’s military stopped scores of ethnic Tamil protesters from entering the capital ahead of the summit on Friday.

The government also ordered Britain’s Channel 4 TV crew not to travel to the former conflict area of Vavuniya in the north of the country after pro-government activists staged a protest and prevented their train from leaving north-central town of Anuradhapura.

Dr Rebecca Walker, author of “Enduring Violence. Everyday life and conflict in eastern Sri Lanka” and a researcher at the University of Witwatersrand’s Centre for Indian Studies in Africa, says human rights atrocities were committed by both sides during the three-decade civil war in Sri Lanka.

“The militant Tamil group, the Tamil Tigers, were responsible for recruiting child soldiers, for silencing anybody who spoke out against them, for carrying out suicide bombings against the Sri Lankan government, against ministers and people like that,” Walker says.

“But the Sri Lankan government itself has also carried out a huge number of atrocities,” she adds.

Sri Lanka, Walker says, has recorded one of the greatest numbers of disappearances in the world, which Walker says for a country with a small population like Sri Lanka is astonishing.

However, she adds that the current outcry stems from the Sri Lankan government’s failures at the end of the war.

“With opposition parties and civil society weakened by years of government intimidation, international pressure on Sri Lankan leaders is essential to preserve the remaining space for democratic dissent, prevent regression on ethnic issues and restrain growing authoritarianism,” says Jim Della-Giacoma, Asia Program Director of International Crisis Group.

Walker, however, argues that despite International Crisis Group Human Rights Watch and others describing the Sri Lankan government as “increasingly authoritarian”, the government has always been authoritarian.

“Anybody who speaks out against the government is silenced,” she says, pointing out as well that the cry for Sri Lanka’s human rights abuses to be highlighted at the summit may actually not persuade the Sri Lankan government at all.

Previous attempts to highlight the human rights record of Sri Lanka or the failed reconciliation process, she says, have been met with imperviousness – the Sri Lankan government does not believe the international community has a say in the way it’s crushed the Tamil rebellion.

“They didn’t care in 2009 and they won’t care now,” Walker says.

South Africa itself has expended great effort in its attempts to persuade Sri Lanka to follow the South African example of reconciliation. Deputy minister of International Relations and Co-Operation, Ebrahim Ebrahim, visited Sri Lanka twice in the space of eight months (not because he liked the beaches, we take it) meeting with the leaders of the Sri Lankan government, the Tamil community, NGOs and other stakeholders, “addressing the need for the resolution of the outstanding issues following the end in May 2009 of the bloody civil war in that country”.

“The South African government has always believed that the domestic accountability issues must first and foremost be sought at the national level and that there should be demonstrable and concrete effort and movement in that regard,” Dirco said in a statement in September last year.

The South African government has stressed that durable and lasting peace can only be secured in Sri Lanka “when the reconciliation process is underscored by a broad and truly inclusive dialogue process that addresses the rights and freedoms of the Tamil community and has the support of the international community and all Sri Lankans within and outside that country”.

Like the South African government, many others have also stressed the fragility of peace in Sri Lanka.

Alan Keenan, the director of the Sri Lanka Project based in London, says the government’s policies do not undermine the rights of Tamils alone.

“The government’s policies badly damage rule of law and democracy, undermine the rights of Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese alike and render all citizens insecure,” he says. “If [the government] continues to close avenues of peaceful change, the risks of violent reaction will grow.”

Walker says that the Sri Lankan government now has strong motivation to keep the peace in Sri Lanka.

She says, “Because of tourism picking up massively, the government has been very successful at hiding, basically enforcing a kind of forgetting while encouraging tourists to come to the south.”

In the meantime, none of the underpinning causes of the violence in the north of the country have been addressed.

President Zuma and the other heads of state from the Commonwealth states, however, are not concerned by all of that this week. They are in Colombo on other business. DM

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Photo: Men paints flags of countries participating in the upcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) 2013 to be held in Colombo from November 15 to 17. (REUTERS/ Dinuka Liyanawatte)

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