Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Sri Lanka's militarism keeping tourists and investments away

Sri Lanka figures intermittently in the British news media, but the coverage does not really prepare first-time visitors to the country like me who usually get a different sort of information in universities and the media.

A week travelling across the country recently brought to me the reality of Sri Lanka's conflict-ridden everyday life. As a white Westerner, I was immediately absorbed by the many Colombo-based NGO workers, or 'internationals', as they refer themselves.

The internationals are just that - international, from all corners of the (rich) world. Furthermore, each seems to be a world citizen: born in Hong Kong, schooled in Switzerland, teeth cut in Afghanistan, or thereabouts.

The internationals are to be the only outsiders I meet in Sri Lanka. Many of them swept in with the 2004 tsunami, others trying to mitigate the effects of the civil war.

Sri Lanka is a confusing country. The tranquillity and warmth of the inhabitants seems odd in a country in its 25th year of civil war. This is one place where the gap between media coverage and reality seems stark as ever.

It is a shock, therefore, to hear the explanation for the explosions I hear on my first night in Colombo: "Is that the war?" I ask. 'No, it's probably the bloody Freedom Party celebrating the passage of the war budget' is the almost contemptuous response of a security specialist.

My confusion was compounded on hearing that Buddhists and Marxists are amongst those perpetuating the conflict. This is not the sort of information that circulates in British universities - at least not in my experience.

Ordinary Sri Lankans contrast starkly with the soldiers who overwhelm the main roads north and east of Colombo. Pillboxes and checkpoints seem to be ubiquitous and appear to be manned by two types of soldiers - the young and nervous and the young and battle hardened, with the latter in the majority.

As we depart Colombo to travel around the country, I am somewhat relieved that as white Europeans we are waved on without interference at every checkpoint. Our driver cannot disguise his relief at this little bit of racism.

If the impact of the war on ordinary Sri Lankans is not immediately apparent, its impact on tourism cannot be hidden. Hotels in Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Kandy are empty and the main tourist sites in the centre of the country eerily quiet.

Reasons for this absence abound in my mind, so I am driven to enquire. Perhaps the hotels were empty because it is out of season?

Taking supper in the bar of one of Kandy's most popular hotels, again empty, I ask: "When do tourists normally come?" "Now", replies the barman, "this is tourist season".

He explains that this particular hotel had not seen significant numbers of guests for nearly two years. He goes on to tell me, with the resignation that animated so much discussion of the conflict, that "it's the conflict ... very bad for hotel".

It seems strange that while all of the Sri Lankans I meet, Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim, are unhappy about the effects of the war, none appear to be enthusiastic opponents of it.

Ordinary people seem powerless in the face of the combatants, despite the fact that Sri Lanka is a functioning democracy, albeit with significant faults. Perhaps this explains why there is so much enthusiasm for the cricket, and the possibility of dealing a blow to the old colonial ruler, England.

Naturally, I had been following the news about Sri Lanka in the months before my arrival - mainly from the BBC. It seemed that the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) were making some progress, especially with its audacious bombing raids on military airstrips around the country.

A different story greeted me on my arrival. An arch-sceptic Colombo-based human rights officer had informed me that the war is now confined to the northern tip of the island. His source? Well, it seems general knowledge to those who live in the country, who seem, despite their better judgement, to be overly influenced by the government's proclamations.

Having passed through one of the biggest military bases in Sri Lanka near Polonnaruwa, and having attempted to dodge the hawkers long enough to admire the town's ancient Buddhist remains, we retire to a delightful hotel nestled in the hills above a lake.

Again, we are among only a few guests and as the evening goes on we have the run of the hotel. Long after the last barman leaves we sit sipping our cocktails, putting the world to rights and admiring the moonlit vista, when flashes of light in the night sky illuminate the extent of the war.

"Jesus, a bomb!" I exclaim. "No", says my friend, "the war is only in the north." "Ah, must have been lightening", I reply. "But it did come from a northerly direction", I venture.

His reassurance works until I point out a number of flares and explosions in rapid succession to the southwest. "Ah. can't believe the government", admits my friend as we chat over the sound of distant machine-gun fire.

As if to confirm our observations in Polonnaruwa, on our return to Colombo we are greeted by two bombs attacks, one of which is an assassination attempt, and the other an unclaimed attack at a shopping centre.

For Sri Lanka, the immediate future seems bleak. With both sides intent on prolonging the war, the country is likely to continue to suffer.

Certainly tourists will stay away, as indicated by the 22 percent decline in tourist arrivals between August 2006 and August 2007. Unfortunately this downward trend is unlikely to change until the government realises that its devotion to militarism is keeping tourists (and investment) away.

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