A force for good or ill? Cricket and Sri Lanka today

TYO UK 07/07/11

In a welcome rejection of the often-made claim that sport and politics are, and should be, separate, Sri Lanka’s star cricketer, Kumar Sangakkara, argued in his 2011 MCC Cowdrey Lecture that “the spirit of cricket can and should remain a guiding force for good within society.”

We share Sangakkara’s assertion that “cricketers [have] bigger responsibilities than merely playing on the field.” It is this very belief that has inspired our call for an international boycott of Sri Lankan cricket until the government there agrees to a credible and independent investigation into the war crimes, crimes against humanity and other atrocities that characterised the final months of the war in 2009.

Whilst Sangakkara spoke of a role for cricket in the “crucial period of reconciliation” following the end of the island’s war, reconciliation remains an impossibility in Sri Lanka given the government’s refusal to investigate, let alone ensure accountability and justice for these mass crimes, as well as its refusal to enact a political solution to the ethnic crisis – a crisis that predates, and outlasts, the three decade armed conflict.

The international community is strident in its criticism of the Sri Lankan government’s lack of progress on addressing the discrimination against the Tamils, devolution or power sharing, and accountability for war crimes. As the governments of Britain, India, the United States and the European Union countries, have repeatedly pointed out, these are fundamental for any meaningful process of reconciliation to begin.

Unofficial ambassadors

It is over two years since the war ended. In all this time, Sri Lanka has steadfastly rejected international demands for both power-sharing and accountability for the mass killings. Yet the same two years have seen Sri Lanka’s national cricket team participate in two hugely successful World Cup series and tours of England. In this context, the successes of its national team have served to whitewash, legitimise and thus raise revenue for a regime accused by the United Nations appointed war crimes experts of “a grave attack on the entire regime of international law.”

As ‘unofficial ambassadors’ of their country, Sri Lanka’s cricketers are, albeit unintentionally, papering over the regime’s brazen and ruthless violations of human rights, and its continued discrimination against the Tamils. To remain silent about the egregious conduct of the country they represent is to render meaningless Sangakkara’s assertion that “the spirit of cricket can and should remain a guiding force for good within society.”

As iconic role models, cricketers have a responsibility to take a moral and principled stance. Sport has a long history of men and women who have done just that, who have used their standing as national or international celebrities to be a powerful moral force – from those who refused to represent, or play against Apartheid South Africa, to the Iranian footballers who, following the 2009 elections, wore green armbands in condemnation of their government’s illegitimate grip onto power, and more recently still, the Libyan footballers who refused to continue representing Colonel Gaddafi’s brutal regime.

Sangakkara’s bold and trenchant criticism of the politicisation of Sri Lankan cricket has generated international headlines – and earned him sinister threats from the government in Colombo. In a country where there is a now entrenched disregard for free speech, freedom of expression and accountability, this is to be expected. However, although he may suffer professional retaliation, Sangakkara’s international fame and celebrity status at home will protect him from the intimidation, violence, torture and death that have befallen others who dared to criticise the regime.

Regrettably, in his lecture Sangakkara avoided mention of the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the present Sri Lankan regime in 2009. The intentional killing of over 40,000 Tamil civilians in five months is an inescapable reality that must be faced, particularly when such mass atrocities are inflicted by a state on its own citizens. In amidst such silence, any notion of reconciliation is hollow.

Making change possible

Ironically, it is the impossibility of reforming Sri Lankan cricket from within the country that led Sangakarra himself to propose external intervention by the ICC. It is for the very same reason – the impossibility of change from within Sri Lanka – that we are calling for external sanctions, starting with an international sports boycott, as a means of pressuring Colombo to comply with international calls for political and constitutional change, and accountability for war crimes.

Sports boycotts have been validated as successful non-violent interventions that can compel recalcitrant and defiant regimes to respect human rights and international values. Cricket was crucial in the cases of Apartheid South Africa and Zimbabwe. The point was reiterated by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in his 2008 Cowdrey Lecture. That the MCC invited him to speak underlines the link between sport and political change, or the lack thereof.

Moreover, it is precisely because, in Sangakarra’s words, cricket is “an integral and all-important aspect of [Sri Lanka’s] national psyche” that we believe, as in South Africa, an international sports boycott will be successful in bringing about political change, justice for state atrocities, and the consequent possibility of reconciliation in the island.

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