Boycott Sri Lankan cricket: no normal sport in an abnormal society

January 11, 2013
Protest at the Sydney Cricket Ground on January 3. Photo: Peter Boyle.

While Australia and Sri Lanka battled it out at the Sydney Cricket Ground early this month, a Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seeker on a bridging visa living in Hamilton Hill, a victim of torture, died in Fremantle Hospital after attempting suicide last Thursday.

The tragic event played out as momentum grows for a boycott of Sri Lankan cricket, lead by former cricket writer for The Age Trevor Grant.

On the campaign’s Facebook site Grant explains: “The cricket team has become a propaganda unit for the Sri Lankan Government, with players constantly telling Australian people via press conferences that all is rosy back home. The truth is that this government has committed war crimes against the Tamil people and it still continues to commit horrible crimes against them.”

This truth is leaking out, in part due to the documentary Sri Lanka's Killing Fields made by Britain's Channel Four and screened on the ABC.

It documents how in 2009 the forces of President Mahinda Rajapakse murdered 40,000 Tamil civilians, targeted artillery at hospitals and herded hundreds of thousands of people into concentration camps.

Former England cricket captain Mike Atherton wrote in the London Times of his doubt about touring Sri Lanka after seeing how it “highlighted the systematic killing, torture and sexual abuse of Tamil prisoners of war and civilians.”

How “trophy footage” of soldiers carrying out summary executions and mutilating corpses passed censors I don't know, but it's a reality that every Australian needs to understand.

The orgy of violence in 2009 marked neither the beginning nor the end of the misery that has been heaped on the Tamils. Virulent anti-Tamil chauvinism became the ideological crutch of the mainstream Sinhalese politics upon gaining independence in 1948.

Tamils of Indian origin were stripped of their right to vote, even though they had lived in the country for generations. Sinhalese was made the sole official language, even in the majority Tamil areas. Tamil politicians who advocated a separate state were expelled from parliament.

Plus the regular state-sponsored anti-Tamil riots in which thousands were killed, raped or had their houses razed. By the 1980s a generation of young Tamils had abandoned peaceful protest and taken up the gun.

While the government eventually crushed armed resistance, the cause of the war has not gone away. The Tamil north and east remain under military rule with one soldier for every five civilians and international agencies are refused access.

Hundreds of thousands of people remain unaccounted for and many prevented from returning to their homes, farms and business; living as internal refugees. The government is transplanting Sinhalese settlers into the Tamil areas in order to wipe the Tamil nation off the map. This meets the legal definition of genocide.

Plenty of victims come from the majority Sinhalese community too. On average one dissident per week is plucked off the streets and never seen again. Thirty-nine journalists have been murdered or “disappeared” in the last eight years.

Yet our government and opposition claim there is no reason for Sri Lankans to seek asylum, that they should be sent back without even testing their claims. They want to help the Sri Lankan navy to stop people from fleeing in the first place. How did such a willfully dishonest and immoral position take hold?

Australia is not alone in turning a blind eye to Sri Lankan government human rights abuses for strategic and business reasons. But the mad mantra about “stopping the boats” has lifted it to whole new level.

Australian policy will not stop people fleeing, but it does require us to pretend that they have no reason to flee. Genocide denial is the result.

That's why we were right to protest Rajapakse at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Perth last year and Julia Gillard was wrong to shake his hand. He needs to be isolated and given no credibility.

Canada will not attend CHOGM 2013 in Colombo unless the atrocities of 2009 are addressed. Australia should do the same and embrace the cricket boycott. As Grant says, “There can be no normal sport in an abnormal society”.

Only peace and freedom will stop the flow of refugees from Sri Lanka. Australia needs to help that cause, not undermine it.

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