COLOMBO - Sri Lanka pulled out all the stops as a Commonwealth summit got under way on Friday, with children in traditional costumes lining streets to greet VIPs, and 56 elaborately decked-out elephants roaming the conference centre's courtyard.
But even as heads of the 53-member grouping, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, streamed into the buffed and shined capital, the host government found itself on the defensive over alleged atrocities against its Tamil minorities.
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa took the opportunity to urge fellow leaders at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) to focus on the needs of their people and not "turn into a punitive, judgmental body".
"Sri Lanka is stepping into a new era of peace, stability and renewed economic opportunity that has been long denied to my people due to the menace of terrorism," he said in a speech during a colourful opening ceremony. He pointed out that there has been no violence since the end of the war with the separatist Tamil Tiger fighters in 2009.
Asking leaders not to impose their "bilateral agendas" on the summit, he quoted Buddha, saying: "Pay no attention to the faults of others, things done or left undone by others. Consider only what by oneself is done or left undone."
The prime ministers of India, Canada and Mauritius have boycotted the three-day summit in protest against Sri Lanka's human rights record. The hullabaloo has been dismaying to the host government, which had seen the summit as an opportunity to showcase a re-emergent Sri Lanka.