Commonwealth summit begins in Sri Lanka

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Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse (left) greeting his secretary as he arrives at the opening session of the Commonwealth Heads Of Government Meeting at the Nelum Pokuna Mahinda Rajpaksa Theatre in Colombo on Friday. AFP PHOTO

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse (left) greeting his secretary as he arrives at the opening session of the Commonwealth Heads Of Government Meeting at the Nelum Pokuna Mahinda Rajpaksa Theatre in Colombo on Friday. AFP PHOTO

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka’s president urged his peers on 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 Rajapakse, 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, Rajapakse has been confronted by a public relations disaster.

The leaders of Canada, India and Mauritius have all snubbed the meeting and Cameron’s visit to the Jaffna region is designed to shine a spotlight on the plight of war victims.


But in an opening speech, Rajapakse 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, seemingly preferring to jeopardize ties with 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 Rajapakse has had to spend 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.

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. AFP

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