, Colombo, Nov 16 – Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron was set to further antagonise the hosts of a troubled Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka Saturday by highlighting the tragic plight of the country’s war-torn north.
Cameron upstaged the first day of the three-day meeting Friday by travelling to the Jaffna region which bore the main brunt of the 37-year civil war, meeting with local ethnic Tamils who lost loved ones or were left homeless.
Despite Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse’s warning against leaders trying to impose their own agendas at the summit, Cameron has called a Saturday morning press conference to report back on his historic visit.
Cameron was the first foreign leader to visit Jaffna since Sri Lanka, a former British colony, gained independence in 1948.
While Sri Lanka had hoped the summit would showcase its revival since troops from the mainly Sinhalese government routed Tamil rebels in 2009, Cameron’s visit and boycotts by several leaders have torpedoed its strategy.
He received an emotional reception in Jaffna from locals who were desperate to tell him of their plight during the war and in its aftermath.
“The stories I am hearing from the people here are often harrowing,” he said on Twitter during his four-hour visit.
During his tour, Cameron met the editor of a newspaper whose printing presses have been torched several times, including in April. The same paper has lost five staff in attacks since Rajapakse came to power in 2005.
The desperation of locals was underlined when two women tried to hurl themselves in front of his convoy, clutching pictures of loved ones who were killed in the conflict which claimed more than 100,000 lives.
Cameron also spoke with elderly women who have had to live in shanty homes since the fighting ended in 2009.
“I’m going to raise this case with people from your government,” Cameron told about a dozen women in one alley as they crowded around the premier trying to tell their stories.
“We are pinning our hopes on him,” T Padmavathy said after Cameron inspected her tiny home, which has no toilet and no running water. “No politician has come to meet and talk with us before,” the 60-year-old woman said.
Cameron held 45 minutes of talks late Friday with Rajapakse after his return to Colombo.
The president asked Cameron to give Sri Lanka “more time to overcome all major challenges”, confirming in a statement that the British premier had raised issues such as the plight of displaced people and the heavy military presence in the north.
The meeting was likely to have added to Rajapakse’s sense of anger and frustration with some of his peers.
The leaders of Canada, India and Mauritius have all stayed away this time after Rajapakse blocked an independent investigation into the final stages of the war.
Late Friday Mauritian Prime Minister Navin Chandra Ramgoolam said his country was withdrawing as host of the 2015 Commonwealth summit as a result of his decision to boycott this year’s meeting, as protocol required he attend in order to personally invite other member states.
“I have made it perfectly clear that human rights are more important than hosting a Commonwealth summit, regardless of its importance,” Ramgoolam said.
Rights groups and the UN say some 40,000 Tamil civilians may have been killed in a devastating final assault on the Tamil Tiger rebels last stronghold in 2009.
Since the war, the economy has enjoyed growth rates of up to 8.2 percent and major infrastructure projects such as a new 350 million dollar highway linking Colombo to the main airport bear testimony to its revival.
The summit is meant to be focusing on issues such as poverty reduction and climate change but press conferences have been dominated by questions over alleged rights abuses by Sri Lankan forces.
The leaders are due to shift from the main conference venue in downtown Colombo on Saturday and will instead gather behind closed doors at a deluxe resort hotel on the outskirts of the capital.
They will meet as another potential headache for the organisation brews in the neighbouring Maldives where voters will make yet another attempt to elect a president.
The result of a first election on September 7 was annulled and two other polls were cancelled — moves widely seen as designed to prevent the former president Mohamad Nasheed from returning to power.
Nasheed is standing in a run-off vote on Saturday which pits him against Abdulla Yameen — the half-brother of the Indian Ocean islands’ hardline ruler of 30 years, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.
The Commonwealth has already expelled the Maldives from its disciplinary panel which has begun investigating the political chaos which could ultimately lead to the country being expelled from the organisation.