Thursday, September 3, 2009

Boycott Threat Looms Over Sri Lanka

The ‘Boycott Sri Lankan Sports’ campaign has taken a significant turn with the filing of a petition before the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court seeking to restrain the Indian cricket team from taking part in a tri-series involving India, Sri Lanka and New Zealand. In his petition, advocate Joel Poul Antony, stating that he is a great fan of the Indian cricket team, makes a prayer for calling off the Indian team’s tour to Sri Lanka citing the earlier precedent of India snapping sports contacts with the racist South Africa in the 1980s.

The petitioner charges Sri Lanka with committing genocide against the minority Tamils in the country and of violating international human rights laws. Citing the confinement of the Tamil speaking war refugees in military controlled camps, and treating them as slaves, he argues that by these actions Sri Lanka is violating provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 and the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, 1948. The petition also notes that the Sri Lankan navy has killed more than 500 Indian fishermen (in the last three decades) and there have been frequent agitations in Tamil Nadu against these killings.

The court has ordered notices to the secretaries of Home, External Affairs and Youth and Sports Welfare ministries of the government of India. Whether the Indian team’s tour is going to be called off or not - the tri-series is scheduled to start next week – this petition by the Madurai advocate could be a forerunner to future campaigns against the Sri Lankan government.

The ‘boycott Sri Lanka’ slogan is a powerful weapon that Colombo will find it difficult to handle with its military power. This campaign has been going on for some time on a low key, with the ‘boycott’ emails doing the rounds. With the petition by the Madurai lawyer, the campaign has been taken to another level.

A sustained campaign by the Tamil diaspora, who are present in large numbers in the cricket playing nations of Australia and England, can turn around public opinion so swiftly that before Colombo realizes it, President Rajapaksa and his aides would be fighting a diplomatic battle with their back to the wall. It will be a difficult battle for them. Surely, it will not be as simple as getting the support of China and Russia in the United Nations security council to block a debate on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka.

The genocide charges against Colombo will be discussed on the streets, play grounds and sports pages of newspapers and magazines around the world. The spokespersons for the Tamil cause may not be a Thirumavalavan, or a Vaiko or a Nedumaran in Tamil Nadu anymore, but possibly a Sachin Tendulkar or a MS Dhoni or a Ricky Ponting.

The cricket boards of the respective countries will have to respect the sentiments of players. They would have no choice except to boycott Sri Lanka if the players feel so. Just last year, Zimbabwe was isolated by the other cricket playing countries of the world because of the racist policies – against the white minorities – and human rights violations of the Robert Mugabe government.

English player Andrew Strauss spoke out against Zimbabwe last summer. A BBC report in June said, “The batsman feels both the England and Wales Cricket Board and the government have missed previous chances to send Mugabe a message by refusing to play. He said: "In the past there've been chances to show the strength of feeling here and the government chose not to. If it comes down to players to do that we'll definitely have to look at it."

A few weeks later, the England and Wales Cricket board announced that it was canceling its 2009 tour of Zimbabwe. “All bilateral arrangements are suspended with Zimbabwe cricket with immediate effect,” the board said. A disgraced Zimbabwe cricket board announced that it was pulling out of the 2009 Twenty20 world cup in England “in the larger interests of the game.”

Zimbabwe cricket chairman Peter Chingoka said, “"We have been informed that the British government may not grant visas to our players and that situation may prevail during the Twenty20 World Cup. We don't want to be gatecrashers."

However, for the ‘boycott Sri Lanka’ campaign to be successful, the Tamils should get the support of top international players. They need to apprise players like Sachin, Dhoni, Ponting, Hayden, and others, on the sufferings of Tamils in Sri Lanka. They need to tell them how Sri Lanka has been indicted by human rights agencies around the world over the rampant “disappearances” of people in the country. They need to tell them about the absence of safety for journalists in Sri Lanka.

A senior journalist Lasantha Wickrematunga was killed by unknown assailants early this year. Last week, the editor of The North Eastern Monthly, J S Tissainayagam, was sentenced to twenty years rigorous imprisonment on charges of receiving funds from the LTTE. Over forty Sri Lankan journalists have fled the country fearing for their lives.

The moment international cricketers become aware of the situation, they themselves would lead the campaign for an international sports boycott against Sri Lanka.

The writer PC Vinoj Kumar is a Special Correspondent for the Indian weekly magazine - Tehelka. The views expressed are his own.