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Boycotting Sri Lanka is not cricket

By Professor Stuart Rees

In answer to the comment ‘Stand up for Human Rights in Sri Lanka’, a young man wearing a sombrero and an Australian flag draped around his shoulders, responded, ‘Fuck human rights.’

It was 10:05 am on Thursday January 3rd, a hot blue sky day, perfect for the start of the Australia v. Sri Lanka Test Match. In the company of about thirty others, on a pathway some distance from the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG), I was attempting to hand out leaflets which said, ‘Don’t Let Cricket Hide Genocide, Boycott Sri Lanka.’

The “fuck human rights” man was followed by other expletives from a few others, so several of the boycott protesters changed tack and tried to be informative, ‘40,000 Tamils slaughtered, do you care ?’ A middle aged couple hurried by, looked straight ahead but answered ‘No we don’t care, we’re going to the cricket.’

Others strode along stony faced, some apparently dismayed by the sight of the protest, some obviously embarrassed at the thought that if they took our pamphlets they might be filmed by the accompanying television cameramen.

To add to the ‘40,000 slaughtered’ plea, I tried, ‘Journalists have disappeared and others have been killed for criticizing the Sri Lankan Government.’ Most people stared ahead and kept on walking but a large, swarthy man in short shorts responded ,’That’s bullshit’ and a few meters behind a smaller man said, ‘Don’t support you mate.’

A more understandable response came from groups of young men daubed in green and yellow, some wearing wigs of curled hair in the same colours. They seemed to think the protesters were supporters of the Sri Lankan team, a perception which provoked their patriotic ‘Ossie, Ossie Ossie, Oi, Oi, Oi.’

With a few exceptions most cricket followers did not seem to want to know about the lives of Sri Lankan Tamils, let alone about any past slaughter.

The task of informing the public had been made more difficult when security guards representing the Moore Park Trust forbade the erection of placards outside a main entrance to the ground which they said was SCG Trust Land. The leaders of the protest were directed to move to a pathway 400 metres distant.

This official Sydney reaction, ‘ Don’t let human rights interfere with cricket’ contrasted with the response of officialdom at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) on the opening of the Boxing Day Test when a similar Boycott Sri Lanka protest was permitted at a prominent entrance to the hallowed MCG. There are no regulations about political demonstrations outside the MCG.

That Melbournites might be more sympathetic than Sydneysiders towards protests against the appearance of the Sri Lanka team, could be implied from an Age poll taken on the day after the Boxing Day test . A sample of 650 readers of that newspaper were asked ‘ Should Sri Lanka be banned from world cricket?’ 66 per cent said yes. 34 per cent said no.

The case for boycotting Sri Lanka was listed on pamphlets taken by only a handful of people streaming towards the SCG. At least that small number could have read that the UN has called for a war crimes investigation of the Sri Lankan government over the murder of 40,000 innocent Tamil civilians, that the persecution of Tamils continues and largely explains the numbers of Tamils seeking asylum in Australia.

Former Sydney Morning Herald cricket writer, the late Peter Roebuck, wrote that a TV exposé of the execution, rape and abuse of Tamils had ‘provoked deep consternation’ among Australian cricketers. A heading in the London Guardian said, ‘A Sri Lankan Scandal; Cricket and the Killing Fields.’

Sri Lanka President Rajapaksa tolerates no criticism from journalists and uses his national cricket players as ambassadors to promote the impression that all is well, even though he and members of his family run a dictatorship comparable to the one crafted by another political bully boy Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. That country’s cricket team was boycotted by Australia.

On January 3rd, hurrying Sydney cricket spectators also told the boycott protesters, ‘Don’t politicize sport.’ Ironically they identified a key feature of the oppression in Sri Lanka – the direct connection between sport and politics. Team selection needs the approval of the Minister of Sport whose portfolio should really be called the Ministry of Politics in Sport. Other information contained in the boycott fliers offered to spectators identified former captain Sanath Jayasuriya as a Government MP and another former captain Arjuna Ranatunga as a previous MP in Rajapaksa’s government.

The response of Sydney cricket fans to this small scale protest about human rights abuses in Sri Lanka could reflect our naivety in thinking that questions and leaflets might influence anyone preoccupied with cricket. At best the presence of protesters was treated as an uncomfortable inconvenience, interfering with pleasure to be experienced over a national sporting occasion. At worst it provoked aggressive responses to information about serious and well publicized human rights abuses.

The ‘don’t know, don’t want to know’ attitude suggests a need for a sustained public information campaign. That is in prospect with plans for more Boycott Sri Lanka protests in Sydney and Melbourne before the beginning of January’s one day matches. These protests will be followed by a Tamil Freedom Ride to Adelaide on Saturday January 12th, stopping for rallies in Ballarat, Horsham and Bordertown.

The apparently deep seated attitude ‘ fuck human rights’, ‘don’t challenge my way of thinking’, is more troubling. It suggests a strain of uncaring jingoism in some parts of the Australian psyche and culture; and it’s ugly that a culture allegedly concerned with mateship retains a self centred, self preoccupied hub: it’s only our mates we’re concerned about. It is also disturbing that over the past few years, such a brawny, macho way of behaving has been nurtured by the derision used by talk back radio hosts and by a few of the politicians whom they support.

A colleague at the protest, a seasoned campaigner for human rights, who represented Labor for Refugees, assured me that, leaving aside the angry responses, the stony faced indifference of cricket supporters was not surprising as ‘Cricket is more of a conservative, establishment game and nothing should get in its way.’ She reassured me, ‘I remember protesting against the Springbok rugby tour. If it’s any consolation, the football supporters are much more aggressive than those attending the cricket.’

This article was first published in ONLINE Opinion posted on Wednesday, 9 January 2013. Emeritus Professor Stuart Rees is the Chair of the Sydney Peace Foundation.