Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : November 14th 2013 Contents BG28 | THE ECONOMIST
BUSINESS GUARDIAN www.guardian.co.tt NOVEMBER 2013 • WEEK TWO
Tugging on a red curtain, President Mahinda
Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka opened a gleaming new
toll road late last month. The US$290 million
motorway links Colombo s airport to the capital,
16 miles away, and, like so much in Sri Lanka
these days, it is funded by China. Soon it will be whisking
dignitaries to a summit of Commonwealth leaders, which Sri
Lanka will host this year from November 15 through November
17.The summit will be a national moment, says the president s
brother, Economy Minister Basil Rajapaksa.
"We have passed an important test," he says. "It is like
having the Olympics."
In reality the Rajapaksa clan has its share of postcolonial
resentment toward the Commonwealth, some of whose mem-
bers have criticized the government s prosecution of its civil
war: In 2009 it triumphed over the brutal Tamil Tigers, but
at a huge cost in civilian lives. Still, the clan will aim to stifle
its ill will while making the most of the photo opportunities
with Prince Charles. Everyone loves a royal, after all.
Some Sri Lankans say that the summit is too costly, others
that Sri Lanka should not be the host, given the deaths of
40,000 civilians trapped in the fighting in the war s final
weeks and the government s tub-thumping triumphalism over
the Tamils since. However, it is at least an excuse for the drab
capital to get a makeover.
Slums have been cleared and glass towers are going up. The
army has moved its headquarters from a prime beachside
location to make way for glitzy hotel developments. Flush
with cash, it is building a Pentagon-style complex on the other
side of town. Everywhere soldiers, of whom far too many have
remained in uniform since the war, have been put to work by
another brother, Defense Minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa. They
are filling in potholes, prettifying pavements ... and praying
that fellow villagers visiting the capital will not spot them
working like common labourers.
The country is looking beyond the summit, however. In a
building near the beach, a casino operator sinks into a monstrous
armchair and gushes about Colombo s gambling potential.
His planned venture with an Australian investor includes a
450-room "five-star-plus" hotel to lure high-rollers from
China, India and the Persian Gulf. For now blank-eyed tourists
make do in dreary halls, playing roulette under fluorescent
lights -- but he, like all the ruling elite, is in a rush.
Tour Sri Lanka, and it is clear how infrastructure has boomed
under Rajapaksa and his three brothers; the third, Chamal, is
the speaker of Parliament. Colombo s harbor has tripled in
size, though most of its wharves stand empty. A toll road
opened in 2011 to the Portuguese and Dutch colonial town of
A railway extension is under way to Hambantota, located
in the far south of the country, the Rajapaksa power base. A
new international airport there is said to see as many snakes
in its terminal as passengers. A conference centre and cricket
stadium stand empty most of the time. Some car-carrying
ships have been ordered to divert from Colombo. Even so,
Hambantota s new port festers almost deserted, one analyst
says, as the world s "most expensive car park."
New construction has changed the war-torn north more
than anywhere. An $800 million project to renovate a northern
railway will see trains chug back to Jaffna by June, nearly a
quarter of a century after the capital of Northern Province
was cut off by war. Once torpid, the city bustles with commerce
again. The main road in Kilinochchi, the Tigers wartime
capital, is lined with car showrooms. In Mullaitivu, devastated
first by tsunami and then by war, new buildings easily out-
number shattered relics. In the north, Indian aid has provided
50,000 new houses for displaced Tamils.
Everywhere, and not only in the north, life is better since
the war, though there are drawbacks. The building boom has
pushed up inflation, causing much grumbling. Corruption has
blossomed, along with padded contracts. A common quip is
that the new roads are narrower than planned because politicians
pocket money meant for tarmac.
Few speak out, however, even though some construction
schemes, including those associated with Chinese state banks
and construction firms such as in Hambantota, bring rising
debt. Basil Rajapaksa bridles at any suggestion of graft in the
system. Meanwhile his brother, the president, never tires of
having his name affixed to a new project.
The opposition is ineffective. The main grouping, the United
National Party, has been weakened by defections and infighting,
and two factions recently fought a street battle. It has been
led for a long 19 years by former Prime Minister Ranil Wick-
remasinghe, who seems merely to be waiting for something---
an economic slump, perhaps, or foreign pressure---to boost
his party s chances.
Triumphalism after the war has emboldened a hard-line
political right. Among certain groups of Sinhalese Buddhists,
who make up the majority in the country, chauvinism is grow-
ing. Some of these groups are close to the government. Now
that the Tamils, mainly Hindus, have been put in their place,
such chauvinists think, other minorities are next. In August
Buddhist monks in Colombo led an attack on Muslims. Chris-
tians also fear being picked on.
Meanwhile the Rajapaksas ruling coalition, with a two-
thirds majority in Parliament, tightens its grip. It has pushed
through constitutional changes, scrapping presidential term
limits and abolishing independent police and electoral com-
missions, to centralise power. Judicial restraint is weak, notably
after the peremptory sacking of the country s chief justice
earlier this year.
As for the press, it resents people expecting it to play the
effective opposition. Besides, it is muzzled. President Rajapaksa
routinely calls up publishers to issue directives. Rarely do jour-
nalists dare to be critical of the ruling brothers: Gotabaya,
who is in charge of the secret police, is the most feared.
Violence against government critics has grown rarer since the
war, yet exemplary attacks by goons, or simply threats, help
enforce self-censorship. All except a couple of newspapers are
in the hands of pro-Rajapaksa proprietors. Complaining of
excessive levies, the casino owner denies any closeness to the
Rajapaksa clan; but he owns a staunchly pro-government
A challenge to the mighty president does not look imminent,
though he is on his guard. Rajapaksa is superstitious, even by
Sri Lankan standards. Those who have seen him undressed
say that he wears all sorts of charms about him. He often
carries a special gold bolt in his hand. At home recorded chants
play for good luck. Geomancers have foretold more difficult
years after 2014, and the president appears impatient to tighten,
indeed prolong, his grip on power.
One widely touted possibility, should the Commonwealth
summit bring a public-relations boost at home, is an early
presidential election next year -- though Basil Rajapaksa denies
it. More likely, a senior official says, the president could promote
further constitutional changes, such as the creation of an
upper house in Parliament. It might serve as cover for stripping
the nine provincial councils, and especially the Tamil-dominated
one in the north, of their existing powers, however limited,
in the process bolstering the center s authority further.
The president has made no secret of his wish to weaken
the provincial bodies. A parliamentary select committee,
crammed with ministers but boycotted by the opposition,
seeks ways to reverse existing devolutions of power. Here,
however, India acts as a restraint. It has its own Tamil population
concerned about their kin in Sri Lanka. It insists on respect
for Sri Lanka s 13th constitutional amendment, which endows
provinces with limited autonomy, notably over land ownership
and police powers.
Not only India but also other countries keep an eye on the
north, not least because of credible evidence of war crimes
committed there at the end of fighting. The attention helped
overcome the president s reluctance to hold provincial elections
in the north that he had long promised, and they finally took
place in September. The result, for all the government s lavish
spending on infrastructure, was a sweeping victory for the
Perhaps northerners, thanks to outside support, may prove
better able to resist a general drift toward authoritarian rule
than their southern countrymen.
© 2013 Economist Newspaper Ltd., London (November 9). All
rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
Sri Lanka: A little country in a hurry
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