Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa yesterday opened the Commonwealth summit with a speech that invoked Buddha, apparently gently chastising nations that question Colombo’s commitment to democracy and human rights.
The Commonwealth has been harshly criticized for holding the summit on this Indian Ocean island after years of refusal by its government to allow independent investigations into alleged war crimes and rights abuses during and after a 27-year civil war. Recent reports of media harassment and continued rights abuses have also raised alarms.
Rajapaksa, who with his brothers has controlled the Buddhist Sinhalese-majority nation since 2005, has defended his country’s efforts, saying its army committed no abuses, and its courts and other institutions are handling complaints.
In his speech, Rajapaksa spoke briefly in Singhala to quote Buddha: “Pay no attention to the faults of others, things done or left undone by others. Consider only what by oneself is done or left undone.”
While the leaders of Canada, India and Mauritius have boycotted the summit, the Commonwealth organization and other leaders defended the meeting as a way to engage Sri Lanka on the issues.
British Prime Minister David Cameron later traveled into the northern areas that saw the worst of the war between soldiers and ethnic Tamils rebels fighting for a homeland.
“In a multilateral organization, you don’t achieve anything if you’re not there,” Cameron told Sky News from Kolkata, India, before flying to Colombo.
He urged Rajapaksa to hold “a proper inquiry,” as demanded by the UN and governments including the US.
Meanwhile, hundreds of ethnic Tamils protested in the main northern city of Jaffna before Cameron’s arrival, demanding answers about the thousands who went missing near the war’s end in 2009. Protests have been banned in Colombo during the conference.
“The government should account for the missing, but so far they have not done that,” Tamil lawmaker E. Saravanapavan said by telephone.
Elsewhere in Jaffna, about 2,000 protesters demanded the military return homes and lands occupied by government forces and declared as a high-security zone during the war.
“After the opening ceremony presided over by Britain’s Prince Charles, the leaders went into closed-door meetings to discuss where their shared cultural norms, including English language and judicial systems, might help them unite on issues such as tackling climate change.
“Each one of us is here because of the hope and trust we placed in the Commonwealth to bring that touch of healing to our troubles,” he said.