Nov. 15 (Bloomberg) -- U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron confronted Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa over alleged human-rights abuses against his country’s Tamil minority after visiting their homeland in the north.
Cameron, who’s in Sri Lanka for a Commonwealth summit, met the president today after flying to the north, where the United Nations estimates 40,000 civilians were killed during the final months of the 26-year civil war that ended in 2009. He’s the first world leader to visit the region since Sri Lanka became independent from Britain in 1948.
Cameron went to a refugee camp on the outskirts of the city of Jaffna for Tamils displaced by the war, as well as newspaper offices and a library that was ransacked and set on fire by a mob from the Sinhalese majority in 1981. A UN report found credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Sri Lankan government in the last days of the conflict against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, charges the government has denied.
Rajapaksa’s government “still has a chance” to take action over human rights that will satisfy the international community, Cameron told reporters. “What’s needed is generosity and magnanimity from the Sri Lankan government to bring the country together. And I think coming here, listening to these people, hearing these arguments, helps to draw attention to their plight.”
Cameron met Rajapaksa today after his return to the capital, Colombo, and told reporters at a dinner after the meeting that the discussions had been “very lively,” adding that “it’s good to have these frank meetings.”
Rajapaksa said yesterday that killings by Tamil separatists before 2009 were ignored by the international community and he retaliated to stop them, the BBC reported, citing comments at a news conference. He said he had some questions of his own for Cameron, the BBC said, while his information minister accused the British premier of acting like a colonialist.
At the offices of the Utahayan newspaper, Cameron was shown bullet holes in the walls and a printing press that was burned in the early hours of April 13. During his visit to the refugee camp, residents said their lands had been seized by the military and they could not return.
Cameron made the case to Rajapaksa for press freedom and returning the refugees to their homes, the premier’s office said after the meeting, which lasted for about an hour. He spoke of the U.K.’s experiences in Northern Ireland to illustrate the possibilities of constructive reconciliation.
“There are some images that are incredibly powerful,” the premier said in Jaffna. “Going to the headquarters of a Tamil newspaper here in northern Sri Lanka and seeing pictures of journalists, shot and killed, on the walls and hearing stories of journalists who have disappeared long after the war has ended -- that will stay with me.”
“Our families are a bit scared to send us to work, but we like this field and we are working for the truth,” Tharumangan Tinesh, a 36-year-old reporter, said while sitting under posters of bloodied corpses of murdered journalists. “We hope that after Mr. Cameron’s visit there will be less harassment.”
Cameron was greeted by protesters, including 200 women outside the library holding pictures of disappeared relatives they wanted to give him. The women broke through a security cordon and ran toward the departing cars, some being thrown to the ground by security forces as they reached Cameron’s vehicle. There were also counter-demonstrations by people holding printed signs opposing his visit.
“We hope Mr. Cameron will talk on our behalf and help us get resettled,” said Sutharshen Uthayaswriyan, 30, deputy leader of the village council at the camp. “We don’t want to be refugees, we want our children to live in their own houses and our own lands.”
Cameron quoted British war leader Winston Churchill’s line “in victory -- magnanimity” as he urged Rajapaksa to win the peace, his office said.
Cameron was under pressure from opposition lawmakers in the U.K. to boycott the summit to protest Rajapaksa’s human-rights record, as three other leaders of Commonwealth countries have done.
To contact the reporter on this story: Thomas Penny in Colombo, Sri Lanka, at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Hertling at email@example.com