25 Jun 2011

England cricketers take on Sri Lanka amid controversy

England take on Sri Lanka amid controversy over alleged war crimes at the end of that country’s civil war. But the English cricket authority tells Channel 4 News it’s sport, not politics.

Should England play Sri Lanka at cricket? (Getty)

The Twenty20 game takes place amid international controversy over alleged war crimes committed at the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war.

A UN report earlier this year suggested actions by both the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Earlier this month Prime Minister David Cameron called for further investigation into the alleged atrocities after a Channel 4 documentary Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields screened new evidence.

In light of the controversy, the former England cricket captain Mike Atherton said questions needed to be asked about whether England should go ahead and play Sri Lanka on a planned winter tour later this year. And 87 per cent of Channel 4 News online readers said they believe there should be a re-think in the light of war crimes allegations against the Sri Lankan Government.

This is a sporting event rather than a political one. England and Wales Cricket Board

But the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB)‘s position is informed by that of the British Government. It would only cancel a tour if it received instruction from the Government. So far, the Government has not been in touch and the games in England – as well as the winter tour in Sri Lanka – are going ahead.

An ECB spokesman said: “Our position from the outset has been that this is a sporting event rather than a political one.”

Recall for MP Sanath Jayasuriya

Further acrimony was stirred up this week when the veteran Sri Lankan batsman Sanath Jayasuriya was recalled to the team. In 2010, he was elected as an MP in President Rajapaksa’s Government – the same government which has been linked to alleged war crimes by the UN.

His re-selection, at the age of 41, prompted Guardian sports writer Andy Bull to call it a “scandal”, and suggest it was politically motivated, writing: “Jayasuriya’s selection is a disgrace and the idea of playing cricket against a team that includes him is a disgrace.”

Many organisations campaigning for a fuller investigation into what happened in Sri Lanka are also unhappy with the game, and with Jayasuriya’s selection.

Should cricket be a political issue? (Getty)

Graham Williamson, director of the human rights group Act Now, told Channel 4 News he expected protests at the Bristol game on Saturday.

“Jayasuriya represents a government that has been accused of war crimes by the UN. We shouldn’t be playing them, and we definitely shouldn’t be going to Sri Lanka on the winter tour.

“The UN report could still go to an independent investigation. There are charges floating over their heads. It is wrong to pretend that did not happen. These are not historical events from 100 years ago,” he said.

But some in Sri Lanka disagree. Professor Rajiva Wijesinha, a Sri Lankan MP who was central to the Government’s reconciliation efforts towards the end of the war, told Channel 4 News that Jayasuriya’s cricketing skills were the key factor.

“Journalists obviously like to use dramatic terminology, but during the World Cup there were many Sri Lankans who thought it a scandal that Sanath Jayasuriya had not been included in the team.

“I am not an expert on cricket and cannot comment, but I think the average man in the street – who voted en masse for Sanath because of his cricketing skills I suspect – will be pleased by this decision, and I think the selectors and the board in Sri Lanka will be more concerned about that.”

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