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Sri Lanka eyes up 2026 Commonwealth Games bid

File photo: Mahinda Rajapaksa launches Sri Lanka's previous failed bid for the 2018 Commonwealth Games to be held in his hometown of Hambantota.

The Sri Lankan government is considering launching a bid to host the 2026 Commonwealth Games according to a report in the BBC, following a previous failed attempt under Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2011 and ongoing controversy over the island’s human rights record.

The BBC quoted “insiders” as stating that Sri Lanka, alongside Australia, Canada and India and Sri Lanka have “expressed interest in staging the 2026 Games but, as yet, a host has not been secured”.

The next set of games in 2022 are set to be held in Birmingham in the United Kingdom.

Sri Lanka’s previous failed bid

Sri Lanka previously launched an attempt to host the Commonwealth Games in Hambantota, the Sinhalese hometown of the Ruling Rajapaksa regime. In 2011, Sri Lanka’s current prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa allegedly “double crossed” then Australian prime minister Julia Gillard as he used a speech to make a rigorous pitch for Sri Lanka to hose the 2018 games saying that it “would be a life-changing event in our history."

The Sri Lankans were reported to have paid British firm Pmplegacy, owned by Chime Communications, $2.3 million for PR work for the bid.

Also flown to St Kitts were former cricket players Aravinda de Silva and Muttiah Muralitharan. Earlier Muralitharan had made an impassioned plea to the Commonwealth, likening the 2013 bid to the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa. He said both events were a chance to unite the respective countries, and even compared Mahinda Rajapaksa to Nelson Mandela.

Sri Lanka also threw an elaborate dinner party at the Marriott Hotel two days before the decision was made, having sent a 60-member delegation to the Caribbean including former actresses, Miss Sri Lanka winners, Central Bank governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal, who heads the country's bid and the President’s son MP Namal Rajapakse.

After the dinner party, Mr Cabraal stated,

"Tonight could not have gone better. We proved that not only could Sri Lanka host the Games -- but that we could do it in style."

"I have a feeling that we will win."

Weeks later, it was announced that Australia’s Gold Coast would host the 2018 Commonwealth games, declaring Sri Lanka, “medium to high risk”.

Cabraal, who was head of Sri Lanka's 2018 Commonwealth Games bid committee, went on to suggest that India's hosting of the games in 2010 led to Sri Lanka’s failure, commenting that  “It created a certain fear amongst the voting delegates who associated India closely with Sri Lanka and as a result it may have affected our chances”.

Despite the failed bid, which reportedly cost US $8 million, the government announced it would go ahead with the building of a 4,000 roomed sports village and a new athletic stadium in the southern town.

Rajapaksa visits the UK

In 2014, as the Commonwealth Games came to Glasgow in Scotland, controversy was already growing around Sri Lanka’s involvement at the event.

A spokesperson for then-British Prime Minister David Cameron's office said "International events such as the [Commonwealth] Games are an opportunity to shine a spotlight [on such allegations]."

The Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander also said that Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was Sri Lankan president at the time, "will inevitably face continuing questions on allegations of war crimes and human rights abuses if he visits Scotland next summer".

Amnesty Scotland added "it is possible countries who feel very strongly about Sri Lanka's dismal human rights record may reconsider attending Glasgow 2014". The international human rights organisation went on to criticise Scotland for not speaking out about Sri Lanka’s human rights record and called on the UN Human Rights Council to “establish the international inquiry that is long overdue to ensure that the shadow of Sri Lanka’s horrific human rights record does not cast a pall over Glasgow 2014”.

As the Commonwealth Games drew closer, then UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) Minister, Hugo Swire, highlighted “real concerns” over the “very little progress in investigating the terrible atrocities” on the island.

With reports that Rajapaksa himself may attend the games, the UK's Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander wrote  to Foreign Secretary William Hague  warning that the "world-class sporting celebration risks being overshadowed” if the Sri Lankan president came to Glasgow.

Previous visits by Rajapaksa to the UK had been marred by protests and even the cancellation of an address he was due to give to the Oxford Union in 2010.

With pressure on the Sri Lankan state rising, Rajapaksa retreated, missing the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

A subsequent letter from Colombo’s External Affairs Minister GL Peiris to British culture secretary Sajid Javid claimed there were “deplorable security lapses” around Tamil protests and Britain’s failure to rein in “LTTE groups”, referring to British Tamil diaspora organisations. He went on to add that the Sri Lankan government felt that it was “unsafe” for Rajapaksa to take part in another Commonwealth event in Glasgow.

Scottish Tamils meanwhile protested at Glasgow regardless, demonstrating against Sri Lanka's inclusion within the Commonwealth and calling on justice for the Tamil genocide.

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