Sri Lanka: Fear and fury as leaders fly in for Commonwealth conference

Minister of Mass Media and Information accuses David Cameron of treating the country 'like a colony'

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The Independent Online

The contentious Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting that begins in Colombo on Friday descended further into acrimony when a minister in the Sri Lankan government accused David Cameron of treating the country “like a colony”.

The prime ministers of India, Canada, Mauritius and Trinidad and Tobago have already pulled out of the summit, while Mr Cameron said that he wanted a personal meeting with the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa at which he would raise questions about allegations of war crimes by government forces during the civil war with Tamil rebels that ended in 2009. Mr Cameron will visit the north of the country on Friday where he will meet Tamil leaders.

Keheliya Rambukwella, Sri Lanka’s Minister of Mass Media and Information, responded to Mr Cameron’s demands by telling the BBC: “We are a sovereign nation. You think someone can just make a demand from Sri Lanka! We are not a colony.”

Mr Rambukwella then reportedly said Mr Cameron’s concern was to win votes among London’s “150,000-strong” Tamil community, according to a BBC source.

Earlier in the day journalists from Channel 4 News were prevented from travelling to the Tamil areas of the north by hundreds of government loyalists, who denounced the team as “terrorist liars” and supporters of the Tamil Tigers as they brought their train to a standstill near the northern city of Anuradhapura.

The reporters were escorted off the train and told to head back south by police, the latest in a series of incidents that have disrupted the team since it arrived in Sri Lanka at the beginning of the week.

Channel 4 has commissioned a series of documentaries exposing evidence of atrocities by both sides in the civil war, including the alleged massacre by government forces of 40,000 people in 2009.

Journalists travelling with the group said the President  was reneging on promises before the summit to grant free access to foreign media. They added that the campaign of harassment cast doubt on the British Government’s justification for attending the conference – namely that it would provide an opportunity for Mr Cameron and the Foreign Secretary William Hague to hold the Sri Lankans to account.

Mr Hague arrived in Sri Lanka before Mr Cameron, who is meeting his Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh, and will arrive in Colombo on Friday.

Ben de Pear, the Channel 4 News editor who is part of the team in Sri Lanka, told The Independent: “What No 10 and the Foreign Office have said in terms of engagement with Sri Lanka has not been borne out. It is clearly impossible for us to travel or work freely and the official British presence here is having absolutely no effect.

“We are not in physical danger but how can we work and interview people from any side if everywhere we go we are followed by a group of people screaming that we are terrorist liars?”

The Channel 4 team said they were tailed on to the train by state intelligence agents as they travelled to interview civil war survivors in the north. The team, whose presence has been front-page news in the Sri Lankan press, were asked to leave the train by police who said they had orders to return them to the capital “for their own protection”.

The Foreign Office said Mr Hague had raised the treatment of the Channel 4 team with his Sri Lankan counterpart. Mr Hague also tweeted: “Urge gov to let journalists report as promised.”

An FCO spokeswoman said: “It’s important that journalists and those they speak to are not harassed, and where this is happening we are raising it at the highest levels.”

Mr Hague also urged the Sri Lankan authorities to launch an investigation into allegations mass rape was used by government forces both during and after the civil war.