Ghosts of war haunt President Rajapaksa

Ghosts of war haunt President Rajapaksa

Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa was wearing his trademark reddish brown scarf, its colour symbolising the coarse grain consumed by poor farmers, when he welcomed Commonwealth leaders for their biennial summit.

The event, which ended in Colombo on Sunday, was as much about re-establishing an old solidarity as it was about showcasing Sri Lanka's emergence from a quarter century of ethnic strife. But the war ended brutally in 2009, and those memories are not going to fade quickly, especially as the vocal expat Tamil community keeps up the din.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mauritian Prime Minister Navinchandra Ramgoolam also stayed away from the summit over the President's failure to investigate wartime excesses.

In the midst of the storm, Mr Rajapaksa continued to smile serenely as he played host. Adding a personal touch, he presented Prince Charles with a cake adorned with three elephants on the latter's 65th birthday.

For many this is the mixed legacy of a politician who brought about the stunning defeat of the Tamil Tigers soon after taking over as president. In the war's final phase, the United Nations estimates almost 40,000 civilians were killed by Lankan military shelling. The government alleges that the rebels used civilians as shields and asks "who are these 40,000?"

Ironically, Mr Rajapaksa got his start as a young human rights lawyer fighting the very excesses that he is accused of today.

Those who know him remember the earnest young human rights activist who in the late 80s tried to help women whose sons disappeared without a trace after they criticised the government.

"Rajapaksa at that time was an activist, slamming the government on human rights, collecting data of the missing boys and offering comfort to the families of the bereaved," said Ms Seema Guha, an Indian journalist who was posted in Sri Lanka at the time.

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