Brief Impressions of the Sri Lankan Conjuncture

Colombo’s International Financial City land reclamation project. Photo: Kenneth Surin.

After spending nearly a week in India, Chennai to be precise, I came to Sri Lanka for the first time.  Before coming, we asked a friend of ours who is a historian of South Asia, a frequent visitor to India and Sri Lanka over the course of decades, what we should expect when coming to Sri Lanka.

He replied laconically: “Somewhat like India, but more organized”.  Sri Lanka is a diverse country ethnically and culturally, but even so it lacks India’s sheer mass and heterogeneity.  The contrast in population size may also account for this (perceived) difference in organizational levels:  Sri Lanka’s 21 million people against India’s 1,324 million.

Sri Lanka’s post-independence history has been marked by periodic communal strife between its Sinhalese majority (70% of the population) and its Tamil minority (13% of the population).  This communalism, sponsored by the post-independence state until recently, has ensued in intermittent anti-Tamil pogroms, with ethnic riots taking place in 1956, 1958, 1977, 1981 and 1983.

Some of the Tamils I spoke with describe these pogroms, especially the most recent one which amounted to a civil war, as “genocidal”.

Ethnic-communal-religious divisions, as was the case nearly everywhere in its empire, are an enduring legacy of British rule.  The colonial master premised whatever limited local political representation it permitted on such demarcations, from Ireland to India.  The almost inevitable outcomes were disastrous partitions and separations—for instance, between the north and south of Ireland, and between Pakistan and India.  And let’s not forget Palestine-Israel.

Other former British colonies still dealing with the legacy of communalisms and separatisms include Malaya (as it then was), Sarawak and North Borneo (now part of Malaysia), Fiji, South Africa, Nigeria, Myanmar, Cyprus, the Maldives, and the islands of the British Caribbean.  In addition to these, there are divisions between peoples of the first nations and their obtrusive colonial settlers (in the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand).

This point was brought home to me on a visit last year to one of Canada’s first nations, where I was told the US-Canadian border, imposed of course by the colonial power, divided the Iroquois nation, so that “Canadian” Iroquois now need a passport to visit family members in the part of their nation that is now “US” territory.  This arbitrary border was seen as deeply symptomatic by the “Canadian” Iroquois I encountered in the three days I spent on their reservation.  Their counterparts in the “US” would in all probability have said the same.

“Canada”, for the first-nation people I met, was thus a cruel foreign invention.

The 1983 ethnic riots in Sri Lanka heralded the start of a 26-year civil war, which ended in May 2009 when Sri Lankan military forces finally defeated the Tamil Tigers armed militia (which had been demanding a separate Tamil state).

The brutal civil war was a massive burden on the civilian population, and greatly damaged Sri Lanka’s environment and economy.   An initial estimate put the number of civilians killed during the war at 80,000–100,000.

In 2013, the UN raised this figure by taking into account additional civilian deaths occurring in the closing stages of the war: “Around 40,000 died while other independent reports estimated the number of civilians dead to exceed 100,000”.  The final stages of the war also displaced 294,000 people.

Both sides in the war have been accused of serious human rights abuses, arbitrary and illegal detentions, attacks on non-combatant civilians, and summary executions.  The Sri Lankan army has also been accused of “disappearing” both civilians and captured combatants, while the Tamil Tigers have been charged with suicide bombings and the recruitment of child soldiers.  The war zones are riddled with landmines.

Sri Lanka has set up a domestic commission to review these charges, but many Tamils have little faith in such a commission, and would prefer a UN investigative commission instead.  The Sri Lankan government has refused to cooperate with a UN investigation, and has banned foreigners from entering the former war zones.

Shortly after I left, communal conflict returned to Sri Lanka, this time between Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist groups and Muslims.  So far, this conflict has been confined to the Kandy district, even though a national emergency has been declared, and social media banned (a curfew has also been imposed in Kandy).

It does not take much to instigate such communal violence.  According to The Guardian: “Last week groups of people set fire to Muslim-owned businesses and attacked a mosque in the east of the country after rumours that a Muslim chef was adding contraceptives to food served to Sinhala customers”.

It is an enduring myth in the west that Buddhists are inherently peaceable, even though much evidence to the contrary exists in the ethnocidal way Myanmar’s Buddhists have treated the Rohingya Muslim minority, the similar violence enacted by Thai Buddhists against the Muslim minority in the southern part of their country, as well as the conduct of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist sectarians towards its Hindu and Muslim minorities.

In addition to the civil war, further devastation was inflicted by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed over 35,000 people and destroyed 90,000 buildings in Sri Lanka.

Economic prosperity has returned to Sri Lanka after the tsunami and civil war.  GDP growth in 2017 was an impressive 4.72%, with per capita income doubling since 2005, while poverty dropped from 15.2% to 7.6%, and the unemployment rate dropped from 7.2% to 4.9%, in the same period.

According to the 2017 World Population Review, Sri Lankan life expectancy at birth is 75.4 years and increasing (the figure for the US is 78.6 years, and falling).  Healthcare is universal and free at point of delivery.

Sri Lanka’s Constitution recognizes free education from the elementary to the tertiary levels as a fundamental right.  According to UNICEF its adult literacy rate (2008-2012) is 91.2%, whereas a study by the US Department of Education showed that 1 in 7 adults in the US are not able to read, indicating an adult literacy rate of slightly under 86%.

This increased prosperity was evident in the capital, Colombo.  Near our seaside hotel 660 acres are being reclaimed from the sea– such reclamation projects allow Sri Lanka to add to its land mass in the way that islands such as Dubai and Singapore have done.

The reclaimed land will be the location of the Colombo International Financial City (CIFC), a joint project with China, designed to be a special financial zone that ostensibly will fill the vacuum for such a zone existing between Dubai and Singapore.

The CIFC project has had its setbacks.  Mooted by Sri Lanka’s previous president Mahinda Rajapaksa, it was halted when the current president took power, on the grounds that the original agreement with China lacked adequate environmental safeguards, and did not take Sri Lanka’s sovereignty sufficiently into account.

A new agreement has now been signed with China, incorporating more stringent environmental safeguards, and with protocols for land ownership and use that better secure Sri Lankan sovereignty over the reclaimed land.

For the sake of ordinary Sri Lankans, one hopes the CIFC project will help the country in general, as opposed to being a boondoggle existing solely for the benefit of an all-too-familiar alliance between multinational capital and local elites.

Moreover, the world is littered with mega-development projects that have bit the dust– from bridges and highways “to nowhere” (Americans are familiar with these pork barrel projects in their own country), to the unflyable airport on St Helena in the middle of the Atlantic, where year-round blustery winds mean that planes can only land there once in a blue moon, and a number of dam-building projects that have not been a success (the Teton Dam in Idaho; Brazil’s 1970s Itaipu dam, built at a 240% cost overrun which makes it unlikely Itaipu will ever pay back the costs incurred to build it; Nigeria’s Kainji Dam has fallen short of its electricity production targets by as much as 70% due to vastly incorrect estimates of the available water flow;  and the Three Gorges Dam in China is now admitted by its government to be causing “problems”).

In addition, there is the MOSE mobile flood-barrier project in Venice which has not stopped that city from flooding and sinking; the unfinished and abandoned superconducting Super Collider in a tunnel under Waxahachie, Texas, in the 1980s; the Montreal-Mirabel airport in Quebec which opened in 1975 and closed in 2004, before being earmarked for demolition in 2014; the numerous financial scandals and building failures associated with Homex, once Mexico’s biggest housing developer (the LA Times has done a fine report on this housing fiasco); and so forth.

As for Colombo’s International Financial City, we’ll just have to wait and see.

Emulating Singapore and Dubai is certainly possible, while remaining something of a tall order.  Singapore has been a commercial hub for centuries, and Dubai has a vast reservoir of Gulf oil money as its backstop.  Also, Mumbai will no doubt present itself as a significant financial-sector competitor in the region.

Sri Lanka is however taking steps to diversify its economy.  With a remarkable ecological diversity in a relatively limited space, beautiful beaches and areas of great natural beauty, it has long been a destination for visitors– Marco Polo came in the 12th century– though the civil war caused a lull in tourism.

Between the end of the war in 2009 and 2015, tourist arrivals grew by over 300%.  The government is placing an emphasis on eco-friendly tourism.

Investment in infrastructure is aiding not just tourism, but is also enabling the creation of a network of bonded areas and free ports.  The aim here is for Sri Lanka to become an international hub for the reprocessing and export of its agricultural products—its famous tea is of course a major export earner and Sri Lanka is the world’s largest producer of cinnamon.

A certain French Marxist philosopher said the future lasts a long time, but it was hard not to discern a certain optimism on the part of most of the people I met– from taxi-drivers and waiters to the archivists at the Sri Lanka National Archive.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.