Boycott-hit Commonwealth summit begins in Sri Lanka

COLOMBO (AFP) - A Commonwealth summit meant to showcase post-war Sri Lanka was to begin in Colombo on Friday but faced being upstaged by an historic visit to its northern killing fields by Britain's David Cameron.

More than four years after the end of one of Asia's bloodiest ethnic conflicts, President Mahinda Rajapakse will host dozens of leaders from every continent.

The biggest such event in Sri Lanka since the 1976 Non-Aligned Movement summit was meant to have been a chance for the Sinhalese nationalist leader to showcase the development of his country since government troops crushed the Tamil Tiger rebels in May 2009.

Since the war, the economy has enjoyed growth rates of up to 8.2 percent and more than one million tourists visited Sri Lanka last year - a new record.

But after refusing to bow to demands for an independent investigation into the end of the conflict, Rajapakse is now confronted by a public relations disaster.

The prime minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, was the first to boycott after his government said the summit was akin to "accommodating evil" while his Mauritian counterpart Navin Chandra Ramgoolam - due to host the next one - is also refusing to attend.

Even India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is staying away, seemingly preferring to jeopardise ties with a neighbour rather than offend Tamil voters ahead of next year's elections.

The agenda for the three-day summit, which will be opened by Britain's Prince Charles, includes sessions on debt restructuring and climate change.

But Rajapakse has had to spend the build-up fending off allegations that his troops were responsible for the death of some 40,000 Tamil civilians in the final weeks of the war.

During a feisty eve of summit press conference, the 67-year-old leader said his administration deserved credit for managing to bring an end to the conflict.

"People were getting killed for 30 years, at least after 2009 we have stopped it," he said.

"There is no killing in Sri Lanka today." At least 100,000 people lost their lives in the conflict which began in 1972.

The northern Jaffna peninsula, home to around 800,000 Tamils, was the main battlefield.

Before the war, Jaffna had a flourishing economy - second only in terms of wealth to Colombo.

But its towns and villages are now littered with shelled-out buildings, interspersed with abandoned farmland. Some 30,000 people still live in refugee camps.

Cameron has taken some flak for not joining the boycott but he promised Nobel laureate Aung Sang Suu Kyi this month that he would witness Jaffna's fate first hand.

He will thus become the first foreign leader to visit Jaffna since the former British colony gained independence in 1948.

Although there is no official word on his programme, civil society representatives in Jaffna said they had been told to expect Cameron on Friday afternoon - only hours after the summit opens.

He can then expect a frosty reception when he meets Rajapakse back in Colombo in the evening.

Cameron has said he would have some "tough conversations" with Rajapakse but the Sri Lankan leader says he has some questions of his own.

Speaking during a stopover in India, Cameron reiterated his calls for an international investigation into war crimes allegations, which has also been a demand of several UN bodies.

"There needs to be proper inquiries into what happened at the end of the war, there needs to be proper human rights, democracy for the Tamil minority in that country," he said.

At the last summit in 2011 in Perth, Commonwealth leaders drew up a charter of common values which committed members to respecting human rights.

But Human Rights Watch said the 53-nation bloc "risks its credibility... if it doesn't publicly press Sri Lanka on its rights record and the lack of accountability for wartime atrocities."

Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma denied the organisation had cocked a deaf ear to the allegations against the hosts and insisted it had made progress by engaging with Rajapakse's regime.

"It is not making a mockery. It is showing the Commonwealth in action," he said.