OPINION: By TREVOR GRANT
The Australian Test cricket team leaves New Zealand this week on a high after crushing the Kiwis and re-establishing itself as the no.1 Test-playing nation.
However, as it surveys its next overseas conquest – Sri Lanka in July – there are rankings other than those to do with bat-and-ball skills that should disturb every player, official and fan who sees ahead only an idyllic tour of an island paradise.
Indeed, Australian skipper Stephen Smith and his team may like to know that Sri Lanka, the nation as opposed to the cricket team, occupies the same putrid depths as some of the world’s most prolific abusers of human rights.
It ranks among the top three countries for producing torture victims that end up seeking help from the British-based group, Freedom From Torture.
This ranking was achieved several years ago, and, as the group reported earlier this year, despite the installation of a new president, there is no end in sight to the jailing, rape and torture of Tamils from the north and east of the country.
It is also one of the top-rated nations for stifling press freedom. According to Reporters Without Borders, Sri Lanka ranks 165th out of 180 countries on its 2015 world press freedom index. Anyone who doubts this ranking need only look at the body count – at least 39 journalists and media workers murdered in the past decade or so, and not one case resolved in the courts.
When you see that Sri Lanka sits below Saudi Arabia and Bahrain on the press freedom table, you need no further explanation of how the government of the island nation deals with media criticism.
A few token statements from the new president about improving media freedom does nothing to placate those journalists who have suffered constant threats and vicious reprisals for so long.
Indeed, last week the new prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe reverted to type when he threatened all media with government action if they dared to “insult certain sections of society.” It’s precisely the same language of intimidation used towards journalists for 10 years by the former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa. So what’s changed?
Coupled with the vicious state-sanctioned abuse of Tamils, mostly by the military forces which still blanket the north and east and occupy vast tracts of Tamil land, there is another ranking that says so much about the burden deliberately inflicted upon these desperate, vulnerable people.
Tamils, in their own homeland region, are among the poorest and sickest in south Asia, with about 30 per cent living below the poverty line. Like the poverty count, the rate of malnutrition in the Tamil regions is also almost double the national rate.
The Australian cricket team won’t travel to these parts of the island. They will be kept at arm’s length from the country’s dirty secret that nations such as Australia have tried to help Sri Lanka keep hidden from international exposure.
Indeed, when any of the Australian cricketers are challenged about the fact that they are heading to a country that permits its military to rape nine-year-olds with impunity, the cry will go up that sport and politics should be kept well apart.
However, this has always been a sham argument, whether it was under the apartheid South African government, the Zimbabwe dictatorship of Mugabe or the brutal Sri Lankan regime under Rajapaksa, and now his former close ally, Maithripala Sirisena.
Despotic leaders always use sport to cover their crimes and launder their images. Sri Lanka is no different, whichever president is in power. The undeniable fact is that the Sri Lankan cricket team is directly controlled by the government, and has long been used as a propaganda arm of the regime.
It is no different today, no matter how much spin may be applied by the new president and his cohorts to try to convince the world that things have changed in Sri Lanka.
Under Sirisena, who came to power in January last year after ratting on his old chum, Rajapaksa, rape and torture of Tamils still flourish, as has been made clear in recent months by respected international investigators, including Amnesty International, the International Truth and Justice Project and Freedom from Torture.
There is nothing new or different about Sirisena, apart from a less-aggressive public face than his predecessor. He shares with Rajapaksa and other senior cabinet members direct responsiblility for the war crimes that were committed at the end of the war in 2009.
There can be no argument about this. Sirisena bragged to his Sinhalese electorate during the election campaign that he was acting defence minister when, according to UN estimates, as many as 70,000 innocent Tamil civilians were deliberately slaughtered.
Sirisena, as expected, made a few cosmetic changes when he came to power, such as the release of a couple of high profile political prisoners.
However, on the substantive issues, such as the military occupation of the north and east, military impunity for heinous crimes against the civilian population, and a point blank refusal to allow an international investigation into war crimes, he’s at one with Rajapaksa.
Tamils still live under the boot of a brutal regime which continues to keep hundreds of political prisoners locked away, occupies stolen land, deprives tens of thousands of their livelihoods, and uses abduction, torture and rape as a means of control of the population.
Let us be clear here. By travelling to Sri Lanka in July, the Australian cricket team is effectively condoning the government that commits these genocidal acts.