The case for boycotting Sri Lankan cricket

Monday, December 10, 2012
Photo by Zebedee Parkes.

Trevor Grant, former cricket writer for The Age, makes the case for boycotting Sri Lankan cricket. Grant maintains the website What's the Score, Sport?.

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For all its international posturing about human rights these days, Australia has a sordid history of being a denier, or passive follower, rather than a leader in protecting the most vulnerable people in our world.

There is one exception, which makes this attitude all the more damning.

As a wide-eyed grade four schoolboy in the 1950s, I learned all about the wonderfully-welcoming country of Australia that, in 1948, had been a leader at the United Nations in the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

A real, live Aussie, “Doc” Evatt, had been a crucial player as UN General Assembly president, and we couldn’t stop puffing out our chests.

I was adamant the declaration had to be represented with thick, black capital letters in my school project because it was such a magnificent document; one destined to save the world from the horrors of war, repression, and genocide.

My discovery of the truth since those naive childhood days has seen my pride dissolve into profound shock and anger. Now I realise that the difference between what Australia says and what it does has always been as wide and deep as the seas upon which thousands of desperate people flee to our shores in search of their basic human rights.

Like thousands of other Australians, I not only feel anger at the Gillard Government’s refugee policy but shame and embarrassment, because I naively (yes, I’m still naive) thought that a Labor Party might be more humane towards asylum seekers than the evil dog whistlers in the Howard Liberal Government. The truth, now revealed, is that it is worse.

If there is a lesson to learn from Australia’s sad post-war record on human rights it’s that the only way to change is to organise and protest, and the sporting arena, is a great place to continue the fight this summer.

Cricket is a sport that prides itself on equality and fairness. “It’s not cricket” is a phrase associated with these qualities that has long been part of our common language. But there’s nothing equal or fair about Sri Lanka, which is sending its cricket team to Australia to play three Tests and a one-day series from November to February.

Worse, this team is closely aligned with the malevolent Government forces that murdered at least 40,000 innocent Tamil civilians towards the end of the civil war and is now engaged in the ethnic-cleansing of Tamils. The recently-retired captain Sanath Jayasuriya has long been associated with the current government of president Mahinda Rajapaksa and is now an elected representative of this brutal regime.

The new spinning sensation, Ajantha Mendis, 27, is a 2nd lieutenant in the Sri Lankan Army, which he joined in 2004. He is listed as doing “active service” as a gunner in the artillery.

The UN has reported that the innocent Tamil civilians were bombed and killed by artillery forces as they sheltered in buildings, hospitals and ships. It is not known if Mendis participated in these engagements, which have been described as war crimes by UN agencies and many national governments.

Former star batsman and captain, Arjuna Ranatunga, has been a politician serving in Rajapakse’s Government for many years, until he jumped ship and went further to the right, if that is possible. He has publicly described General Fonseka, the military commander of the Tamil massacre, as a wonderful man who can “save” Sri Lankan politics.

The team is dominated by the majority Sinhalese, and influenced massively by Government ministers all the way up to the president. Last year, when the Sri Lankans were touring England, Rajapaksa ordered the team to recall Jayasuriya, who retired in 2010 to enter parliament, for two international matches.

His political mentor wanted the former captain to have a fitting farewell and, although it was extremely disruptive to team selection and morale, no-one is ever game to say “no” to the president.

This is a team that has contained very few Tamils over the years, not because of deliberate exclusion at the selection table, but because Tamils don’t get the same opportunities. When an ethnic group is as oppressed as the Tamils have been for so long in Sri Lanka, it is patently obvious that they have less chance to develop their sporting prowess.

So it is no co-incidence that in this cricket-mad country, no more than half a dozen Tamils have represented Sri Lanka in the past 20 years, with the great spinner Murali Muralitharan being the most famous.

The Tamil presence in the team in future years is likely to decline even further. Thousands of Tamil children were murdered by the Government forces at the end of the war and many of those that avoided death have been condemned to a life of survival in which the joys of sport will play no part.

This could be viewed as worse than the whites-only team policy in apartheid South Africa. One ethnicity and class – the Sinhalese -- dominates the team, not because selectors choose to do it, but because a government chooses to try to destroy the Tamil community.

Last year Channel Four in Britain aired a documentary about the Government-organised torture of former associates of the Tamil Tigers, the liberation force wiped out in the war and accused, in some quarters, of human rights abuses. One interviewee, who was granted asylum in the UK, told of his hellish experience.

“They used to beat me with a steel cable. It would peel away my skin. The pain was unbearable,” he said. “They would hang me upside down and dunk my head into water. They covered my head with a polythene bag soaked in petrol and tied tightly around my neck. When I tried to breathe it felt like I was breathing fire.”

Another man, who was also granted asylum in the UK, said: “They laid me face down on a table and hammered me with wire, poles and rods. They burned me with cigarette butts and when I asked for water they gave me urine,” he said.

Now that the truth is getting out, it is hardly surprising that the Sri Lankan cricket team faced big protests during its tour of England last year. Tamil expatriates joined with other concerned people to call for a total boycott of Sri Lankan cricket and asked the British Government to “suspend all bilateral arrangements with the national team.”

Former England captain, Mike Atherton, wrote in the London Times last year that England should ask whether it was suitable to tour Sri Lanka in light of the Channel 4 documentary, which he said “highlighted the systematic killing, torture and sexual abuse of Tamil prisoners of war and civilians” and “showed images more shocking than anything seen on television since the Ethiopian food shortages.”

“Increasingly, the United Nations’ inaction on the evidence of war crimes looks inexcusable. If that continues it is likely that questions will be asked about the suitability of England’s tour to Sri Lanka (later in 2011, which went ahead).

“After all, there seems little to differentiate President Rajapaksa’s brutal regime from that of Robert Mugabe’s in Zimbabwe, about whom English consciences were severely pricked.”

As the Australian people did so successfully with the South African sporting boycotts, it is time for them to pressure their own Government to do the same thing.

President Rajapaksa, who made sure the new cricket stadium in Colombo was named after him, is a ruthless dictator who loves to use his association with sport, especially cricket, to soften his image.

Even though the Australian Government, and Cricket Australia, continue to ignore the facts in Sri Lanka, they cannot do so forever. In the mean-time, the groundswell of public opinion for a sporting boycott against Sri Lanka will continue here this summer, bringing greater awareness that this team is a key propaganda weapon for a genocidal Government that continues to “disappear” and murder Tamil people and create the massive wave of Tamils seeking safe haven in Australia and elsewhere.

For so long, Australia, shamefully, has done so much to repress basic human rights – with its indigenous population as well as asylum seekers-- and flout the UN charter that it helped to write.

The lesson in harsh reality for me began in 1957, again at UN, when Australia, under the Menzies-led Liberal Government, was one of only five countries to vote against a very soft resolution asking South Africa to review its apartheid policy. It mattered nothing to Australia that 55 countries voted for it.

By the 1970s it was the people in the streets, not the Government or sports bodies, who were organising and fighting to end the pernicious policies of the white South African government.

With the full support of the Australian government, our national cricket team toured South Africa in 1970, even after England cancelled a tour there two years earlier due to the hosts refusing to accept a Cape-coloured player, Basil D’Oliviera, in the visiting team.

In 1971, the South African rugby team, which was forced to fly home from England because of mass protests, came to Australia, with the blessing, and assistance, of the McMahon-led Federal Liberal government. The South African players were flown around in RAAF planes to try to avoid trade union bans and protesters. Thankfully, this ploy was a miserable failure.

Australians rallied in their thousands, in the streets and at the rugby matches, to fight the iniquitous decision to allow this tour to go ahead.

A flow-on effect was that the pro-apartheid Australian Cricket Board, led by Sir Donald Bradman, was forced to accept government advice that the inevitable mass protests and union bans would make it impossible for the 1971-72 South African tour of Australia to be conducted, so it was cancelled. Despite secret attempts by Bradman to get the tours going again, Australia did not play high-profile sport against South Africa again until apartheid had been dismantled.

These actions in isolating South Africa from its much-loved playing fields, which can sheeted home to thousands of brave, anonymous protesters, have long been recognised as a critical factor in bringing down apartheid.

“The sports boycotts worked, in tandem with other forces, to bring about an end to apartheid,” said prominent Australian sports historian, Richard Cashman. “The boycott achieved two purposes. It undermined the morale of white South Africans and it kept the issue of apartheid prominent on the international agenda.”

The comparison with this summer’s cricket tours in Australia is irresistible, and laced with irony.

While a multi-racial South African team will kick off the battle with Australia in three Tests, a Sri Lankan team reeking of ethnic and elite class domination, will take the spotlight in the huge-drawing Melbourne and Sydney matches over the Christmas-New Year period.

The message to the Sri Lankan Government, via this team, is the same one used for apartheid South Africa. There can be no normal sport in an abnormal society.

Recently I saw a heart-wrenching documentary – Silenced Voices -- about the Sri Lankan government-sponsored murder of journalists and deliberate bombing of the Tamil population, an act that has prompted widespread international demands to investigate Rajapaksa and his military commanders for war crimes.

It showed children standing over their dead mother in the street, imploring her to “wake up” because they didn’t want to be left as orphans. It also showed a Tamil man, blindfolded and hands bound, being flung on to his knees and then shot in the back of the head by a soldier from point-blank range.

It was one of the most confronting movies I have ever seen. Yet the most sickening image contained no violence. It was the photograph, plastered across a huge street poster in Colombo, showing Julia Gillard, with a big smile on her face, shaking hands with the Sri Lankan president.


From GLW issue 949

Comments

The crimes of the Sri Lankan government

“SL fan” tries to minimize the crimes of the Sri Lankan government against the Tamil people, saying: “I do not deny that there may be crimes. It was a war not a tea party”.

In fact the crimes committed by the government during its war against the Tamil independence movement were horrendous. For example, the Sri Lankan armed forces repeatedly carried out aerial and ground artillery bombardment of hospitals in areas controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Referring to the shelling of a major hospital at Puthukkudiyiruppu (PTK), Gordon Weiss, the former United Nations spokesperson in Sri Lanka, writes: “This shelling would be one of approximately 65 recorded attacks that ensued in the following months on hospitals and clinics. The attacks ranged from those on large hospitals such as PTK’s main government hospital to the small makeshift medical centres repeatedly established by the Tamil government doctors as the lines moved”. (Gordon Weiss, The Cage, Picador, Sydney, p. 129)

Human Rights Watch described these attacks on hospitals as war crimes.

“SL fan” calls the LTTE a “terrorist organisation”. I agree that the LTTE carried out many terrorist attacks. But many Tamils saw the LTTE as freedom fighters, not terrorists. This was a result of the history of oppression of Tamils by the Sri Lankan government.

“SL fan” ignores state terrorism - the terrorism of the Sri Lankan government against the Tamil people.

It was discrimination and state terrorism that caused the war. The creation of the LTTE was a response to the racism and repression of the Sri Lankan government. Without state terrorism there would have been no LTTE terrorism.

In 1956 the Sri Lankan government announced that Sinhalese would be the sole official language of Sri Lanka. Tamils protested peacefully to demand equal status for the Tamil language. They were met with violent repression carried out by the police and army as well as by racist Sinhalese mobs.

There was a series of pogroms culminating in the murder of an estimated 3,000 Tamils in the government-instigated massacre of July 1983.

Discrimination and repression led to the growth of sentiment amongst Tamils for the creation of an independent Tamil state in the north and east of the island.

In 1977 the majority of Tamils voted for a party (the Tamil United Liberation Front) that supported an independent Tamil homeland. This was response to decades of racism and state terrorism.

Some Tamil youth went further, and decided to take up arms to fight for an independent Tamil state. They won mass support, especially after the 1983 massacre.

“SL fan” complains that Tamil protestors often carry LTTE flags. He fails to ask himself why so many Tamils support the LTTE. It is a result of the history of racism and repression in Sri Lanka.

Following the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009, Tamils in the north and east of the island are living under military occupation. Many Tamils are unable to return to their homes in areas occupied by military bases. Murders, disappearances, and torture continue.

“SL fan” admits that journalists have been murdered in Sri Lanka. Even Sinhalese who criticize the government risk being murdered. The situation for Tamils is even worse.

This climate of repression is the reason why so many people are leaving Sri Lanka by boat for Australia.

I support Trevor Grant’s call for a boycott of Sri Lankan cricket, as a way of putting pressure on the Sri Lankan government to end its oppression of the Tamils.

To Trevor Grant

This is the first time I ever read an article by this ‘sports’ writer who writes about anything but sports. His article has nothing about sports in particular but more like a rant against the state of Sri Lanka and its people who have been through a horrendous period of war. The point in his whole article is that Sri Lanka has engaged in war crimes, an apartheid state that should be boycotted in the ‘civilised’ Australia. He goes down to such a level that he attempts to vilify the current and former cricketers in the national team of Sri Lanka as supporters of war crimes.
While reading the article by this ‘sports’ writer one could even wonder whether he really has any argument. Half of his article includes statements by a former English cricketer, Michael Atherton and the rest a rant against the Sri Lankan side national players.
The beginning of the article is about English player Michael Atherton and his credentials as an anti racist cricketer and a cricket writer. It is laughable that Trevor tries to bring some sort of authenticity to his rant using the credentials of another writer to conceal his own incapability to make an argument on politics in his ‘sports’ article.
Michael Atherton might be a good cricketer and a cricket writer but like many sports writers he too suffers from the weakness of lack of awareness of politics and conflicts worldwide. It is sad that most of these people turn out to be experts in conflicts in the third world when fed with a mouthful of propaganda. The writer also states how Michael Atherton’s perception was formed in the following paragraph.
“Alerted by Tamil protests at English Test grounds against the visiting Sri Lankan team last year and then a UK television documentary, also shown on Four Corners in Australia, he posed the question about sporting links with Sri Lanka.

The Tamil protesters outside English Test grounds holding tiger flags are the supporters of a terrorist organisation. It is an organisation that murdered leaders of two countries pioneered the suicide bomb to which thousands of Sri Lankans became victims in the roads of Colombo. LTTE made no difference whenever it wanted to taste blood. They killed ordinary Lankans (including school children) in temples, in mosques, in buses and in trains. Even Australian team did not tour Sri Lanka in 1996 citing security reasons fearing they would be subjected to a terrorist attack. The average Lankan was not sure whether they would be able to return home alive to see his/her loved ones after a day’s work.
The very protesters outside the test grounds funded this terrorist organisation, celebrated whenever a bomb exploded in the capital Colombo, the more the people died, and the merrier they were. They funded the very terrorist organisation that conscripted child soldiers, killed unarmed civilians in cities and murdered Sinhala and Muslim villagers in cold blood for the sin of living in a border village. Especially the villagers living in border villages went through unimaginable agony and horror. This very terrorist organisation killed many Tamil politicians and intellectuals for the crime of going against the LTTE. One of the proud sons of mother Lanka, Lakshman Kadiragamar former foreign minister, an ethnic Tamil was murdered in cold blood. The protesters holding tiger flags never condemned such atrocities and never asked the LTTE to stop the war crimes inflicted upon civilians but funded it with every dollar they earn. The LTTE and its ideology is the Asian version of a Hitler and Nazism. And now Mr. Atherton gets the education on Sri Lanka from these warmongers and passes judgements over us.
The war in Sri Lanka was waged by the LTTE and the government in Sri Lanka and its forces were compelled to counter act and protect the state as any legitimate government would do. I do not deny that there may be crimes. It was a war not a tea party. But the allegation of war crimes and crimes against humanity is far from the truth. The words like genocide, war crimes are used loosely these days that the meaning of these words are devalued.
Majority of the Tamils lived and continue to live outside the N&E. They lived in government controlled area such that the capital of Sri Lanka has more than 30% Tamil population. Nuwara Eliya, a city inside the Sinhala heartland has a Tamil majority. There has never been any violent attempt against Tamils in the recent history in the South. No one obstruct the Tamils who engage in education, businesses and employment. They live the life like the rest of Sri Lankans. The Tamils do not form the poorest section of our country. That very sentence made it clear how ignorant the writer of this article about Sri Lanka. The allegation that Tamils face persecution here in Sri Lanka is false and i request Mr. Trevor to show any evidence on that.
Channel 4 documentaries, is a very good piece of paid propaganda. The Channel 4 brings many horrific videos and claim they are from the war in Sri Lanka. I ask from the writer and anybody who accept without any rational thinking on why Channel 4 has not been able to come up with a single video frame that helps to identify the army soldiers. Not a single executioner is identified as a SL army soldier.
Michael Atherton erroneously ascertains that the channel 4 documentary has evidence of war crimes. I presume Michael Atherton do not have any understanding about what constitute a war crime or not. However channel 4 fails to produce any evidence but allegations. Callum McCrae of Channel 4 himself denied that they claim CH4 video as evidence in a later interview (which is an outright lie).
I have never been a supporter of Mahinda Rajapakse as a Sri Lankan yet I highly doubt the suitability to compare Mahinda with Mugabe. It shows the naivety and the lack of current affairs from the side of the ‘writer’.
The untrue and propaganda type article gets ugly when the writer tries to vilify the cricketers of the Sri Lankan team.
“But what will be forgotten in the excitement is the dark side to this team. It's not so much the individual players but, what and who, they really represent. In other words, the rich and powerful in the Sri Lankan nation and an elected government that is alleged to be engaging in genocide against the poorest of its own people, many of whom are seeking refuge here.”
The cricket team of Sri Lanka does not represent its government but the cricket loving public of the island. It is the poor cricket loving public that send their sons to the team. None of the players in recent times have come from the elite classes in Sri Lanka, with the exception of Murali who is a son of a wealthy businessman.
“The Sri Lankan President is part of this elite and a man who loves to align himself with sport, especially cricket. He has openly influenced selection; made sure the new national stadium in Colombo was named after him, and rarely misses a photo opportunity with a star in creams. Brutal oppressors love to use sport to launder their image. But Rajapaksa can't fool anybody who reads about world affairs.”
I wonder what the writer intends to say here. Is he stating that Australia needs to boycott SL cricket team because Mahinda Rajapakse is an opportunistic leader? Is it because he influence selection and named a new stadium after him? For your information there is no stadium after his name in Colombo. It is in Hambanthota, a rural place far from Colombo. The next time you write an article use the ‘Google’ button more often because it would shame you when presented with facts and as a journalist it is a disgrace.
If Mahinda Rajapakse is a corrupt and an opportunistic leader, the people of Sri Lanka would decide on the future of him as the president of the country. I remain a critic of him since the day he was elected. Yet the attempt to vilify cricketers in SL and its cricket loving public because of the president of this country is not only unfair but pathetically childish.
“The President and his military have been under pressure since a UN-commissioned report said there was evidence that the government, and the Tamil Tigers, committed war crimes at the end of the war in 2009 and recommended an investigation.”
I kindly request Mr. Trevor to name the UN commissioned report that said there is evidence of war crimes. There are war crimes committed by the Tamil Tigers when preventing civilians flee and using them as a human shield. That is a war crime of heinous nature but less talked about.
Disappearance and murder of journalists is a crime and it is not new to Sri Lanka or in the world. Being a country with a war of 30 years, two violent communist insurgencies, Sri Lanka has seen its fair share of violence. Yet I am proud about the people in my country for their resilience and ability to face trouble with a smile in the face. Journalists have been killed not only under this government and even under previous governments. Do I justify them? No. But I am against using the state of independent journalists in my country to demean the people of my country. We as citizens of Sri Lanka will deal with that. We will get the justice for the victimized brethren in my country.

Many in my country would argue for and against Sanath Jayasuriaya’s and Arjuna Ranathunga’s politics. Yet we cannot decide on behalf of them. They are free to practise their politics. Yet it is ugly to see demeaning a person because of the political party they support.
You vilified Arjuna Ranathunga as he hailed Sri Lanka’s former army chief. If you can remember he was the one who stood by his Tamil team mate and safeguarded his career even letting his own in danger when Murali was subjected to racism in Australia by Australians. Arjuna can be blamed for anything but not for racism.
The writer stoops again to such a low level when he targets Ajantha Mendis. I question Mr. Trevor on his right to demean a person just because he fought for his country in the battle field. As far as I know he has never been involved in actual combat. Even if he has taken part in it he has every right to represent his country in the cricket field. We even extend that right to former LTTE cadres who waged war against the country. Several former LTTE cadres would represent Sri Lanka in the coming SAF games (if you have no idea, SAF games is the South Asian Games).
I do not comment on president being invited to Ajantha’s wedding ceremony, it is highly deplorable how anyone can point to one’s personal things and pass judgements on him in a sports column.
Cricket Australia and the Australian government cannot keep avoiding this issue. They must seriously consider a ban on future fixtures against Sri Lanka.
As protests and calls for a boycott continue this summer, the message to the Sri Lankan government, via its cricket team, is the same one used against apartheid South Africa 40 years ago. There can be no normal sport in an abnormal society.
Sri Lankan cricket has been loved by the Sri Lankans all across the world irrespective of their ethnicities. There may be exceptions that I do not deny. The most celebrated players of Sri Lanka come from different ethnicities. Murali, Russel Arnold, Angelo Mathews were Tamils who played in the national team. Cricket fans hope Mathews to become their next cricket captain to lead their team in the field.
Mr. Trevor wonders on why there are not any Tamils from North and East in the cricket team. I would like to ask Mr.Trevor how we can see Tamil cricketers from N&E in the team when they are conscripted by the terrorists at a young age. Sri Lanka government with a poor economy has been facing a terrorist for 30 years and you wonder why we did not have proper cricket facilities in the regions held by terrorists.
I would like to ask Mr. Trevor how many minority Australians we have seen in the past from the Australian side. Australia and Sri Lanka are similar when it comes to population numbers but has Australia been able to match Sri Lanka when it comes to minority representation in Australian national team. Still I am not happy with the number of participants from minorities in national team. As a Lankan fan I would like to see more.
After replying to most of your obnoxious claims I would like to question Australia of its record in war crimes. Australia not only stood by USA but joined them in the genocide of Vietnam people (3 million) and in Iraq (1 million). The history of treatment of Aborigines people is not pleasant either which received a rather hollow apology from once Australian PM. However I do not question them as Australian people do have the ability to change the system in their country for the betterment of its citizens.
I see this boycott movement more as an attempt to obstruct the Australian government’s initiative to send back Sri Lankan refugees (economic refugees) who come by boats.