x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Indian PM joins boycott of Sri Lanka Commonwealth summit

International pressure mounts on Colombo to look into accusations of war crimes from 2009, with Manmohan Singh the second Commonwealth leader to boycott meeting.

NEW DELHI // The Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, will skip this week’s Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka, the foreign ministry said yesterday.

Mr Singh sent a letter to Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Sri Lankan president, telling him of his decision not to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, which has become mired in controversy over demands for Colombo to address allegations of war crimes.

The prime minister was “unable to attend personally” the 53-nation summit that Sri Lanka is hosting from November 15-17, the foreign ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said.

Mr Singh’s move is seen as bowing to pressure from India’s own large population of ethnic Tamils to stay away in protest at the alleged massacre of Tamil civilians by Sri Lankan forces in the final months of the Tamil separatist war in 2009.

Several ministers from Mr Singh’s government had urged him to stay away from the event amid concerns about upsetting Tamil voters, an important constituency, months before India holds national elections.

Mr Singh is sending his top foreign official, the external affairs minister, Salman Khurshid, to head the Indian delegation.

Gamini Lakshman Peiris, the Sri Lankan foreign minister, said Mr Singh’s decision was not a setback for the hosts.

“If he came, we would have been very happy. But he has taken this decision considering domestic political compulsions,” Mr Peiris said.

“But it is not going to diminish the success of the the summit in any way.”

Stephen Harper, the Canadian prime minister, had already announced he would boycott the summit to protest against Sri Lanka’s failure to investigate its troops over allegations they killed as many as 40,000 civilians in 2009.

The British prime minister, David Cameron, has said he will attend, but he has pledged to push for an international investigation into the allegations of war crimes.

Mr Cameron said yesterday that he would put “serious questions” to Mr Rajapaksa after watching a “chilling documentary” about the events of 2009 that shows footage of alleged war crimes.

The documentary “brings home the brutal end to the civil war and the immense suffering of thousands of innocent civilians who kept hoping that they would reach safety, but tragically many did not”, Mr Cameron said.

“I will raise my concerns when I see President Rajapaksa next week in Colombo.

“And I will tell him that if Sri Lanka doesn’t deliver an independent investigation, the world will need to ensure an international investigation is carried out instead.”

Sri Lanka responded by repeating its denial that its troops committed any such abuses.

“If a foreign head of government raises any issue with us, we will respond appropriately,” said Mohan Samaranayake, Mr Rajapakse’s spokesman.

“We deny that there were war crimes. What we tell them is, ‘please provide the evidence and we will look into it’.”

Navi Pillay, the United Nations rights chief, last month warned Sri Lanka to show clear progress towards reining in rights abuses and investigating the suspected war crimes by next March, or face an international investigation.

India has 62 million Tamils in Tamil Nadu state. They share close religious and cultural ties with their Sri Lankan counterparts.

Mr Singh’s move comes amid concerns about a crackdown in Sri Lanka against journalists, rights activists and others before the Commonwealth summit.

The summit is held every two years. Britain’s Prince Charles will represent his mother, Queen Elizabeth, who is head of the bloc of mainly former British colonies.

* Agence France-Presse