Today the second test match between England and Sri Lanka started. Some say Cricket is Sri Lanka’s only true religion. But in the aftermath of the Channel 4 documentary and the Human Rights Council decision not everybody is convinced England should be there at all. We thought we’d put forward both points of view – and then put it to a vote.

Here’s our first author on the reasons to boycott Sri Lankan cricket.

Cricket and politics are inextricably linked in Sri Lanka, and there’s no one that exemplifies this more than Sanath Jayasuriya, one of Sri Lanka’s most venerated sportsman; the man who invented hitting over the top. Yet, he is also known for being a politician, an MP in the Matata District, representing the United People’s Freedom Alliance, the party of the ruling president, Mahinda Rajapaksa.

This is the same party which has managed to cultivate a culture of impunity – over the war crimes it perpetrated during the civil war and its continued clampdown of minorities and critics of the regime. Jayasuriya’s political and cricketing career has overlapped, as shown when he was recalled by the Sri Lankan government last year to play for the team at the age of 41. He scored 2.

Mike Atherton, discussed this recall in an article in The Times on June 28 2011 (which we quoted)

‘Since February 2010 [Jayasuriya] has been an elected MP in his home constituency of Matara for the United People’s Freedom Alliance, the ruling party in Sri Lanka that has the final say on the selection of the national team and is accused of running the country in an increasingly anti-democratic manner and ending the civil war in a barbaric way.’

This recall happened during the Test series between England and Sri Lanka in England, and it occurred after the first Channel 4 Killings Fields documentary last year, which revealed on camera the extent of government complicity and involvement in war crimes. The series occurred in England, and the match was met with protests from diaspora Tamils living in England, who travelled to the Lord’s Cricket Ground to voice their fury at the Sri Lankan cricket team, the Sri Lankan government and the English cricket authorities for allowing the team to play in the country.

The protesters were kept far away from the cricketing behind a ’10-foot tall red brick wall’ while ‘on the other side business at Lord’s went on as usual, with the brass bands blaring away’.

Yet at least they were able to exercise their democratic right to protest.

But a year later, during England’s cricket tour of Sri Lanka which has just followed Channel 4’s second documentary War Crimes Unpunished, there will be no one protesting against the cricket team or the Sri Lankan government. This is because the match is happening in Sri Lanka, and those who are being persecuted cannot voice their discontent to the world, for fear of retribution and repression by the government’s forces and the military.

So it falls on the tourists, the English cricket team, to show their disapproval of the military regime and its practices, and to help focus international pressure back on the authorities. Sadly, they have not chosen to make any comments or criticism on the human rights record in Sri Lanka. And this is despite the presence of the England team’s manager, Andy Flower, a man known for his symbolic stand against the Zimbabwean authorities.

When asked about whether it was appropriate that the English team was playing in Sri Lanka he said:

“I understand to a certain extent the history of Sri Lanka’s troubles and have much sympathy with both sides. However we are going to Sri Lanka to play cricket and we will be limiting our focus to that.”

However, when playing cricket in Sri Lanka, the English cricket team will find it hard to limit their focus onto the game, because cricket is steeped in politics.

Three of Sri Lanka’s largest cricket grounds are currently run by the military, after the Sri Lankan Cricket board admitted that it was deep in debt. The first warm up match was played in Premadasa Stadium – run by the same airforce who strafed hospitals full of dying civilians in 2009. Ongoing problems with the state of the Navy-run Pallekele stadium mean it was not favoured this time round. Nor thankfully, was Hambantota, the President of Sri Lanka’s -now army run – vanity project which hosted four games in the world cup.

Lest we forget, Hambantota was, and still is, a fishing village with a population of 10,000 a long way away from the beaten tracks of Sri Lanka. But as the seat of Sri Lanka’s new royal family it has received its own international cricket stadium, conference venue, deep water port, and airport.

This takeover is part of a wider trend of the militarization of public institutions, and an increased presence of the military in all aspects of life since the end of the war, despite the threat of a resurgent LTTE being almost non-existent.

The way the cricket team is run and the grounds in which they play are a reflection of how the government runs the country. The ruling authorities are free to choose players for the national team, disregarding meritocracy or the rules of sport. For the past 12 years, much of the sport has been run by politically appointed , unelected committees.

Even Sri Lanka’s own cricketers have become sick of the corruption within their beloved sport, as conveyed by an exasperated Kumar Sangakkara, who bravely described captaining Sri Lanka, as ‘a job that ages you very quickly’, referring to political interference in team selection in a barnstorming speech last year which had some very clear messages between the lines.

In everyday politics in Sri Lanka, the government operates in a similar fashion, filling powerful positions with the Rajapaksa faithful and eliminating opposition. The composition of the cricket team reflects the marginalisation of the Tamil population in the country. The national team has few Tamils. Muttiah Mularitharan, the greatest bowler of all time, is Tamil but he has since retired and on many many occasions he was the lone Tamil on the team. And while the fact that he was a Hill Tamil, is in some ways even more impressive in terms of the obstacles he overcame, the fact that there have been virtually no Tamils of northern Sri Lankan origin on the team (Angelo Matthews is the only name to appear more than fleetingly on the team sheet in recent years ) means that Cricket is not the harmonising force it once was.

Many people have sought to defend England’s decision of playing Sri Lanka, saying a boycott of cricket hinders the process of reconciliation. However, how can Tamils and marginalised groups reconcile through cricket, when this sport is so saturated and intertwined with the government? A boycott is a simple, yet hugely effective and symbolic means of showing criticism of the Sri Lankan government. It does not require money or involvement of the British military through armed intervention. And it is a means of gaining international awareness of the current human rights situation in the country, which is still ignored by much of the international press.

Until cricket in Sri Lanka rids itself from the grasp of the government, it is part of the regime, and should be boycotted by the English cricket team.

And here’s an argument against a boycott:

Would a boycott of Sri Lankan cricket have been enough to bring the Government of Sri Lanka to account for its flagrant disregard of human rights? Although by now it is too late to call the England team home this week, it is tempting to consider that a boycott of international cricket in Sri Lanka would increase the international pressure already forming against the Government.

There have been calls for the England team to boycott the test matches against the home side Sri Lanka by various groups. The effectiveness of boycotting cricket matches which attract the attentions of millions around the world and gives the Sri Lankan economy a significant boost is, however, debatable. The idea of linking politics with sport is traditionally seen as unpopular, with many preferring to enjoy sport for its friendly competitiveness away from the realm of politics. However, with on-going corruption scandals in international cricket, together with controversial decisions such as last year’s selection of new MP Sanath Jayasuriya into the team, it has become far more difficult to maintain the position that cricket should not be politicised.

But an anti-Apartheid style boycott of Sri Lankan cricket cannot be taken lightly. On its own it would achieve little. A strategic view would necessitate a wholesale ‘boycott Sri Lanka’ movement, as with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement against Israel, and without likely international support this may have limited success.

Boycotting solely Sri Lanka’s cricket team or Sri Lanka’s hosting of international cricket may also lack the desired effects of increased media attention and international scrutiny of the Government. The Sri Lankan regime is brutal, but they are not pariahs like North Korea – perhaps they should be, but the fact that they are not treated as such is one of the few remaining checks on further excesses of power.

Some unintended effects may arise, moreover, as decreased tourism may also risk the livelihoods of Sri Lankans with no love for the regime and still struggling with the aftermath of civil war, the tsunami, and thousands of internally displaced people.

In a current climate of Sri Lankan press and activist intimidation, it may be potentially disastrous to call for an international embargo on Sri Lanka’s cricket and economy. Solely resulting from the decisions of the UN Human Rights body to press the Government of Sri Lanka on Reconciliation, the Government have stepped up violent and intimidatory rhetoric against outspoken activists. This could worsen if an international boycott is initiated against Sri Lanka. At this time it is the Government of Sri Lanka who are looking to isolate the nation, and it is brave dissidents who are looking to make international links and asking for the active engagement of the international community. To call for a boycott in this climate is to take the side of the government against the people.

Andy Flower, the coach of the England team, took part in one of the most profound moments in sport when he and Henry Olonga stood up to Mugabe’s tyranny over his native Zimbabwe by wearing black armbands as they went out to bat. Had teams been boycotting Zimbabwe at the time they would have had no opportunity to make that statement.

Some countries did decide not to go to Zimbabwe for security reasons but this is different from a boycott. The only significant boycott of a nation in Cricket was of apartheid South Africa. That was demanded by South Africans in the form of the ANC – there has been no similar demand from Sri Lankans. The ANC asked people to boycott South Africa in solidarity with them. A boycott of Sri Lanka would be, as far as we are aware, against the wishes (or certainly without the consent) of Sri Lankan democracy activists.

Instead of boycotting test matches in Sri Lanka, concerned cricket fans could inform themselves of the current political situation, and of the increased military investment in the sport. Sport commentators could report on the lack of Government accountability and continued campaign of intimidation and disregard of human rights alongside their match analyses. Sadly, all too often Government propaganda is left unchallenged to give the perception that Sri Lanka is a friendly, non-militarised tourist destination. The BBC’s commentary on the tests so far has been far too soft, shying away from the issue and soft peddling a series of good news stories and avoiding the political context.

In the first test a very well meaning spokesperson talked of a series of cricket schools she had help set up “all across Sri Lanka – from Galle to Hambantota”. Galle is about fifty miles down the south coast from Hambantota. One could imagine how well anyone not from the home counties would take to someone describing a network of schools “all across Britain – from Dover to Hastings”. Now imagine the same comment in the aftermath of one of the worst civil wars in living memory.

There are far more egregious examples of the failures of the international community, and the media, to properly draw attention to what is going on in Sri Lanka – and to the thousands that were murdered. We need to draw attention to these failures – but England being in Sri Lanka gives us that opportunity. If they weren’t there there would be no opportunity.


So what do you think? Let us know by voting here.