Should we boycott Sri Lankan cricket?

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.

Asylem seekers

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 50,000 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.

Cricket, war and politics

The new spinning sensation, Ajantha Mendis, 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. Rajapakse was guest of honour at his wedding last year.

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 international 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 could “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.

Declining Tamil presence

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 Muththiah 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.

Systematic torture

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.”

As they did so successfully with the South African sporting boycotts, it is time for the Australian people 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.

Cricket and apartheid

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.

Upcoming battles

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.

© What's the Score, Sport?


Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

  • JDS is the Sri Lankan partner organization of international media rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The launching of this website was made possible by the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), of which Reporters Without Borders is a beneficiary.