Sri Lanka opens democratic summit in undemocratic fashion

Bill Neely

Former International Editor

Sri Lanka's president Mahinda Rajapaksa speaks at a press conference in Colombo today. Credit: Reuters

Sri Lanka is preparing to open a summit and celebration of democratic values in a very strange way.

Yes, the lawns of its capital are clipped and sleek cars are waiting for the Commonwealth heads of state.

But democratic freedoms are also being clipped and police vans are waiting for those who might disagree what the Government here is doing.

As Sri Lanka's president was reassuring the world that he upholds all the values of the Commonwealth - such as democracy, human rights and press freedom - the country's court was slapping a ban preventing the main opposition party from demonstrating and its police were preparing to put terrorism questions to dozens of elderly relatives of those who disappeared during the war.

Add to that the harassment of international journalists here and the detention of activists from the minority Tamil community who tried to get to the capital, and you've got a cocktail of repressive moves a dictatorship might be proud of.

The Sri Lankan leaders don't accept they have created a disaster for themselves in the court of public opinion.

The summit has been totally overshadowed by criticism of their human rights record.

The meeting of 53 world leaders they had so looked forward to, which they imagined would celebrate their achievements since the end of the war four years ago, is instead blowing up in their face.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa boiled over today in frustration: "We have nothing to hide", he said angrily, twice.

But for four years he has been hiding what went on in the final weeks of the war.

The UN believes up to 40,000 people may have been killed, mostly by government shelling and gunfire.

Tamil rebels were executed after surrendering and there was widespread rape and torture by government forces.

But today the president sought to paint a rosy picture of the final victory.

"For thirty years we suffered from terrorism and bombings and people were killed and the world didn't make an issue of it. No-one is getting killed in Sri Lanka now. There is peace", he said.

His information minister was blunter. Britain, Keheliya Rambukwella told me, was trying to overthrow the government.

"I resent David Cameron's pressure," he added, alleging that Britain simply wants regime change.

Just before arriving at the summit, the Prime Minister said that by coming he was "better able to shine a spotlight on what has gone wrong in Sri Lanka; the problem with human rights, the people who have disappeared, the lack of free rights for journalists.

"The most important of all," he added, "is the need for proper investigations to look into what happened at the end of the appalling civil war."

So, a war of words beginning in a country still recovering from a real and brutal war.

But it's not just Sri Lanka that's struggling to defend itself, it's the Commonwealth itself.

Its relevance has been questioned before but never more than now, as it holds its summit in a country that is trampling on many of its values.