“Has the circus left town? Can I please return to Colombo now?” asked a Twitter user on the morning after leaders of the Commonwealth left the Sri Lankan capital after their summit ended on November 17th. With the circus gone, the police chief gave hundreds of policemen three days off to recuperate. Television advertisements touting the summit as a “victory”—hosted despite calls for the venue to be changed because of Sri Lanka’s dismal human-rights record—will soon cease.
Whatever their differences about other matters, many Sri Lankans agree that bad publicity tops the list of what the costly shindig has achieved. International coverage focused heavily on persistent allegations that war crimes were committed against civilians in 2009 as Tamil Tiger rebels were crushed at the end of a brutal civil war; on the disappearances of people both inside the war zone and outside it, during and after the civil war; and on the suppression of the media
The president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, had hoped that the hundreds of foreign journalists who converged on Colombo would ignore such matters in favour of reporting about the capital’s newly landscaped parks and a magnificent line-up of garbed elephants. But at the three press conferences he attended, Mr Rajapaksa was questioned repeatedly about his failure to hold anyone to account for the deaths of nearly 40,000 civilians at the war’s end. The Commonwealth secretariat’s moderator asked, cringingly, whether anyone had any questions not to do with Sri Lanka and human rights. They did not.
The president and his hawkish government ought to have expected this, but apparently miscalculated. The meeting had been preceded by calls for a boycott. The prime ministers of Canada and Mauritius kept away, citing human-rights concerns (Canada has a large and vocal Tamil diaspora). In India, giving in to pressure from potential coalition partners in Tamil Nadu, the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, also backed out. In all, only 27 out of 53 heads of government showed up—the lowest count in decades for a Commonwealth summit.
Of those who came, Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, used his visit to tell the government to carry out a credible and independent investigation into alleged war crimes by March, when the UN Human Rights Council next convenes. If it does not, he said, Britain would use its position on the council to press for an international inquiry.
The Sri Lankan government is bristling. Ministers ask who Mr Cameron is to issue deadlines to a sovereign country. The local press accuses him of playing for the votes of Tamils in Britain. But ministerial aides whisper that the government knows foreign governments are no longer buying its excuses. Something more might have to be done before March.
One option is to turn to South Africa for guidance. Its president, Jacob Zuma, has shared with the government and the Tamil National Alliance, which runs Sri Lanka’s northern province after an election in September, a suggestion for a truth and reconciliation commission. But it is hard to believe that Mr Rajapaksa might follow through. Most of the proposals made by the government’s own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (the word “truth” was avoided in the title) are yet to be implemented. The government ordered the army to investigate a handful of war-crimes allegations brought up by the commission. The army exonerated itself.
Yet domestic pressure to do something more may increase. Even government-friendly newspapers are starting to warn the president that his troubles on this issue will not go away. Tamil and other politicians may also push harder. But, the summit over, some activists fear a government crackdown. People who met Mr Cameron during a visit to the north, including relatives of the disappeared, may be at particular risk of harassment and intimidation.
The president’s popularity among majority Sinhalese Buddhists, meanwhile, is likely to grow. Already, they see him as a victim of an international conspiracy to bring about regime change in favour of a more pliable government. With India and the West looking less friendly than ever, it might be tempting for Mr Rajapaksa to lean even closer to China in the coming months. For all that, the president will remain as the nominal head of the Commonwealth for the next two years, where debate about his country is also likely to flare. Having asked to be in the spotlight, the Sri Lankan president can hardly complain about the heat.(The Economist)