Controversy surrounding Sri Lankan cricket players participation in the Indian Premier League has again brought to the fore issues surrounding human rights abuses in Sri Lanka and the close links between that nations government and cricket board. It would be tempting to merely cite the old mantra of not mixing sport and politics, but when the Sri Lankan government is so entwined with Sri Lankan cricket, often exploiting it for propaganda purposes, it is impossible not to link the two.
The background to the issue is the brutal conclusion to the decades old Sri Lankan civil war in early 2009. The Sri Lankan army ruthlessly eliminated the separatist Tamil Tigers, in the process indiscriminately and at times deliberately at the expense of civilian life. Gordon Weiss’ book The Cage provides an excellent and comprehensive portrayal of the issues surrounding the war. Put simply though, the end of the war was the culmination of decades of discrimination against Tamils by the majority Sinhalese. So why the link to cricket? Quite simply, given the government’s role in Sri Lanka Cricket, the nation’s cricket board, it is impossible to divorce the Sri Lankan state from its cricket team. Former players Arjuna Ranatunga and Sanath Jayasuriya are both government MPs, whilst current player Ajantha Mendis was an artillery gunner who served during the war. All of these factors have led to the current fracas, whereby Sri Lankan players have been told they would be unable to play in matches in the city of Chennai, in the ethnically Tamil south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. This came abouts after the state’s Chief Minister noted that in light of prevailing anti Sinhalese atmosphere in the state, the players safety could not be guaranteed. This has led to outcry from figures such as Ranatunga, and the inevitable decrying of the mixing of politics and sport.
Quite frankly, this is simply unacceptable. This issue highlights the ongoing issues surrounding the Sri Lankan cricket team and its participation in international competition. It is clearly an instrument of the government and serves to further its propaganda goals, including by virtue of the nation hosting part of the 2011 World Cup. The attitude taken towards the team is quite frankly hypocritical. What the Sri Lankan government did and has done to the Tamil population, and indeed dissenting Sinhalese, in numerical terms has been far worse than atrocities perpetrated in apartheid South Africa, and more recently Zimbabwe, both of which attracted full or partial sporting boycotts. Those of us in democratic nations such as Australia, and others must ask serious questions as to why we continue to host the Sri Lankan cricket team, as well as touring there, when this practice continues to give legitimacy to a government which has yet to be punished for grave crimes against humanity. Hopefully the controversy surrounding the IPL shall again bring this travesty to the fore.