Sri Lanka is banking on cricket to repair the damage to its blood-stained image after the brutal end to a 37-year ethnic war as it stages the biggest tournament in the nation’s post-independence history.
Since declaring an end in 2009 to a conflict that claimed up to 100,000 lives, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse’s government has had to battle accusations that its troops killed thousands of civilians as they crushed Tamil rebels, but as hosts of the Twenty20 World Cup, which began yesterday in Rajapakse’s hometown of Hambantota, Sri Lanka is looking to rebrand itself as an island of sun-kissed beaches and ancient Buddhist temples, rather than as a hotbed of conflict.
“The T20 World Cup program will provide an excellent platform to endorse the new Sri Lanka brand during the next three weeks,” said Nivard Cabraal, the central bank governor and a key figure in promoting Sri Lanka as a sporting destination. “I am confident that this trend will continue in the future and those so-called international calls for [war crimes] investigation will fade away.”
Teams from 12 nations, including those from Australia and England — two nations which have been highly critical of Sri Lanka’s government — are taking part in the Twenty20 World Cup, which will culminate in the final in Colombo on Oct. 7.
It is the first time Sri Lanka has been the sole host of such a major tournament and underlines its progress since the height of the conflict between government troops and the Tamil Tigers, a group notorious for audacious suicide bombings.
In 1996, when Sri Lanka co-hosted the 50-over World Cup with India and Pakistan, Australia and the West Indies stayed away from their qualifying games on the island for fear of attacks. Sri Lanka went on to win the trophy.
The country once again co-hosted last year’s 50-over World Cup with India and Bangladesh, but lost the final to India in Mumbai.
Sri Lankan authorities have often turned to the cricket team as an example of ethnic unity in the face of allegations that Tamils are discriminated against by the majority Sinhalese community.
The country’s most famous player, record-breaking spinner Muttiah Muralitharan, is a Tamil — albeit often the only one in the team before he retired last year.
Tiger rebels fought for outright independence for Tamils concentrated in the island’s northern and eastern regions, but they were eventually defeated in a no-holds-barred onslaught in May 2009.
The US led a resolution against Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva earlier this year and Colombo has been given another year to come up with a road map to address accountability issues.
Cabraal says economic progress in the former conflict zones are testimony to reconciliation in a country that recorded growth rates of 8 percent for two years running after the end of the fighting.
“An enormous amount of development activity is taking place in the former conflict areas,” Cabraal said. “If there were war crimes ... this type of reconciliation and progress would have never taken place.”
However, moderate Tamil legislator Suresh Premachandran said Sri Lanka’s emerging sporting credentials do not address the grievances of his minority community.
“Some Tamil youngsters may be happy about cricket and the Twenty20 tournament, but it won’t do anything to address the core issues,” he said, referring to Tamil demands for greater political autonomy.