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Sri Lanka: A New Reality in Uneasy Peacetime

Arriving in Sri Lanka’s Bandaranaike International Airport was just the first taste of the irony.

Arriving in Sri Lanka’s Bandaranaike International Airport on Indian turboprop titled “Spice Jet” was just the first taste of the irony that pervades this island nation. While waiting in the long line at immigration to enter the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, I was getting ready for a mental cavity search as veteran traveler to many socialist republics of the bygone era.

However, the country’s check-in was smoother than expected, and besides being welcomed with obligatory smiles to the “Wonder of Asia,” I was also presented with a “Welcome to Sri Lanka” tourist booklet. A wonderful and unexpected gesture that included a prepaid SIM card inside that could instantly make your cell phone usable in the country – and automatically start surveillance of the user’s location and usage. After all, activation required a valid passport number. Despite the country’s official title, the new era was definitely in. Out with the old Soviet-made Lada or French vintage Peugeot with two guys sporting bad haircuts following everywhere since the new era champions surveillance as an exclusively self-service option.

The airport itself is telling of changes that have affected the island throughout its turbulent modern history. In 2001, the attack by Tamil rebels of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) grounded nearly half the nation’s carrier Sri Lankan Airline and resulted in a huge drop in tourism and GDP (1.5 percent). In addition, the carrier is now under scrutiny as the previous government of President Rajapaksa used it as personal “white elephant” project costing billions.

In 2007, Rajapaksa even ordered fare-paying passengers at London’s Heathrow Airport off the plane so he and his 35-strong entourage could make it home sooner than originally scheduled. As this order was refused due to the pilot’s determination to stick with international IATA regulations (as well as decency and common sense), the British head of the airline lost his work visa, while the airline had to provide a charter plane from its subsidiary at considerable monetary loss.

Leaving the airport by the newly Chinese built and financed 16-mile-long highway linking it to the center of the capital Colombo, one is right away left impressed by that showcase of success. The message here is: We Are Prosperous, Confident, on the Rebound. To uphold this image, Rajapaksa also imposed ban of travel by foreigners into the north in last few months of his rule, due to “national security concerns.” It was only rescinded in January 2015 by newly-elected Sirisena administration that sees tourism as panacea for the region’s arrested development due to a 25-year-long civil war that ended in 2009.

While the war damaged the country in more ways than infrastructure can show, it also became a playground for emerging local superpowers India and China.

While India, due to its large Tamil population and ethnic based

politics of 1980s (Congress Party ethnic maneuvering) helped to create the insurrection against Sinhalese central government of Sri Lanka, China has seen opening for its interests as counterweight.

Indian involvement in the civil war (covert LTTE support) backfired, resulting in its failed military intervention against its protégé, the LTTE.

However, China had a more measured and commercially-based approach. It took a back seat to front line politics, attempting to develop the island as client for its political and foreign investment.

While the 2009 army victory parade over LTTE featured tanks, planes and hardware from Russia and Israel, the biggest amount of supplied hardware by far was Chinese.

Besides money, China also decided to make a point to the world that that had more to do with its internal politics than with traditional rivalry with India. In China’s and Sri Lanka’s view, countries have the right to deal with their own separatist movements (China’s own version of it is referred to as “splittist”), however brutal or ultimately unjust. Ironically, this message was also not lost on India, which was the original catalyst of its Sri Lanka’s problems. India set a precedent to its own occupation of Kashmir when it supported ethnically- and religiously-based insurrection, while suppressing the same in its north (Kashmir). The withdrawal of its troops from the island also turned its foreign policy 180 degrees, as it now had to compete for influence with Chinese money and influence.

This has not only manifested itself in investment and military hardware, but other saddle ways as well. For example, Rajapaksa’s political outfit, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, supposedly representing non-revolutionary socialism, has morphed into top-down rule with a huge dose of internal intrigue. In effect, it became quite similar to Chinese Communist Party, with additional Sri Lankan characteristic: Shameless nepotism plus massive corruption equals “progress.”

The perfect symbol of it is the country’s Supreme Court, styled on Beijing’s Forbidden City imperial tradition rather than the independent judiciary reinforcing rule of law in the independent country. Ironically, this Chinese government’s gift was the sort you don’t look at the mouth when you get it. Entrails of the architectural monstrosity featured slow-turning wheels of political and social justice that were quite visible in their inability to transfer the reformist fervor of Sirisena’s promises into tangible results.

While briefly attending one of the country’s frequent political corruption trials in the era of alleged perestroika that are now daily features of the Supreme Court’s repertoire, I couldn’t help but notice the traffic court-like quality of the proceedings. The accused are brought in, dressed in white pajama-like outfits while in chain gang, and escorted by guards with AK-47s. The hearings were short and based on procedural technicalities that the protagonists of legal process use to make the legal theater stretch out as long as possible, thus increasing billable hours of both defense and experts called in.

While seeing an unfamiliar white face in courtroom caused a bit of consternation, the results were materialized in form of offer that couldn’t be refused: the meeting with the big boss. Subsequently, I was invited for a conversation with a presiding justice in charge of administration, who happened to be a retired Rear Admiral and veteran of a civil war. The fact that I showed up unannounced, showing my US media credentials slowly went up the chain of command, and when it reached a certain administrative level, it caused panic. After all, foreign journalists can have different motives and can be unpredictable rather than the usually pliant local equivalent.

The meeting turned into a lecture on Sinhalese history and victory that went on around 45 minutes, with a pause punctuated by Sri Lanka’s truly best export: its tea. It was very revealing on how the top court of the land works in official administrative narrative that left holes the size of patrol boats my host used to command.

Besides of accolades of the US training program in Annapolis, Maryland, that the retired “Sea Wolf” had undergone during a time of civil war, it also revealed anger at the international community for unnecessary digging up of old dirt in regards of continuing work on UN war crimes reports that, according to him, never were. “We had some problems in the 1980s that were put into order by the end of the decade. From that time on, the war was conducted by the book, so looking at it now is of no use,” the mariner concluded while venting some anger at Israel and its alleged betrayal.

According to him, Israel provided excellent cooperation in military matters, but turned out to be “working both sides” – meaning working with India. When I asked him to elaborate further on his point, he realized the waters were too shallow for this ice-breaker of preconceived notions. The conversation was then switched into a sea-worthy sign of times: transparency. After all, this is the “new and improved” democratic Sri Lanka, and as wheels of justice turned (albeit slowly), the process is open and everyone is welcome to witness the historic shift in power. As I left his office, impressed by this version of nirvana, I could only wish my home state of Illinois had a similar outlook on transparency and optimism that is so uncharacteristic of the Chicago political machine.

The very next day, I was escorted out of the media room by two security guards assisted by armed military policeman, without a word of explanation. I guess my US credentials were no longer valid and my questions from yesterday were obviously not taken lightly. From now on, I could only admire the Sri Lankan justice system from the outside. The adventure of being on a radar screen didn’t end there. About two hours later, I was told to leave a restaurant located at a NGO compound nearby, when one professional looking gentleman (a lawyer?) that I have never seen before pointed me out to the waiter. When I approached him and asked what the problem with me eating the food I paid for was, the answer was short and not sweet: “I am racist bastard, that is why!” angry face exclaimed. The room was full of professional men and women both eating their food, checking their smartphones and noticing nothing out of ordinary. I don’t think the angry screamer was in the restaurant review business, as the food was probably one of the best I had during my 16 days on the island.

The bubble of Colombo tends to materialize the worldview of its Sinhalese majority in a complex web of religious, political and ethnic affiliations. To fully understand the post-civil war landscape that is devoid of Colombo’s physical and political clutter, I boarded a train to the recently “opened” north. On arrival, Jaffna presented itself as very hygienic version of India’s Tamil Nadu state, due to colorful and rebuilt character that was decimated in the war. The unnaturally large number of women in proportion to men was a sign that the wounds of war will take generations to heal, as it cost approximately 100,000 lives, in the most commonly quoted estimates.

The war itself had also an impact on Tamil exodus as far as Canada and Sweden, with the largest contingent outside of the island in India. It also homogenized the region ethnically, as according to the Jaffna area 2012 Census, the population was 98.5 percent Tamil. As result of military victory, the occupation was instituted following Tamils’ defeat. Northern Sri Lanka has one of the highest proportions of occupying military personnel to local population anywhere. In some villages, is reported to be 3 to 1.

Naturally, the physical damage also yielded psychological damage too, as the war in its last weeks was outright genocidal. The military used heavy artillery and air strikes against civilians on a strip of land controlled by the rebels, killing around 40,000 people in the process. The LTTE also helped to create the atmosphere of total war by using women and child soldiers in its ranks, and even being credited for invention of one of the most heinous type of attack against any target: suicide bombing.

Although Jaffna is now being shown as showcase of model rebuilding effort by the Sri Lankan government, the human infrastructure is lagging behind what is being achieved in glass and cement. According to the Council of NGOs (Shanthiham) of Jaffna District, infrastructure addressing the human cost of conflict is being overlooked in favor of rapid economic development that benefits few while making the government look good and effective.

Societal wreckage that is the north’s Menscape is then repackaged as ripe for capital investment, of which tourism is going to be a golden panacea to cure all issues. The lingering shadow, however, is the issue of land that is being kept away from its original Tamil owners, and is de facto owned by the military now. Although both current and previous governments – including Sirisena’s – promised its return, very little is actually done when looking at the issue up close.

The military role in modern Sri Lanka is the biggest elephant in the room, as the journalists who did question its clout during the war (and after) often wind up disappearing or missing. It is amazing that the 300,000 members’ strong military was not able to defeat a relatively small but determined force of LTTE (around 7,000 cadres).

While the war dragged on, the military (and what later became the military industrial complex) has gotten more powerful in both politics and the economy. By 2009, the military was present in food processing, travel, tourism and even construction – given the most exclusive contracts rebuilding the areas it first destroyed. The presence of ever-increasing military expenditure in its quest to quash LTTE gave the military a priority position in Sri Lanka’s budget, and it created arguably the most powerful power center on the island that proved its weight during last year’s January election.

The system puts military into position of competitive advantage without competition. While receiving 2.7 percent of GDP budget allocation in the past four years (making the supposed peace dividend a pipe dream), it also uses free conscript labor as it wishes. I recently spoke with a businessman who had the experience of competing in the development of a small shopping mall near the national highway in the north. After initially bidding for a project and getting favorable response to his quoted estimate, he received a phone call stating that he should withdraw the bid, as the local military unit decided to take the part in the project as well. “Everyone here knows that if the military wants something, it will get it, and it is better to step aside,” he said.

The military imprint is often taken as sign of assurance of peace to visiting tourists, who are there to enjoy beaches and great weather. For example, Thalsevana Hotel Resort, just outside of Jaffna, regularly receives busloads of European tourists, but has been built on confiscated land during the war with LTTE, and it is managed by the military, including checkpoints that are manned by grunts with machine guns. It is ironic that the military headquarters have turned into a “family-friendly” resort of post-war tourism, as the military has found its new calling in making money.

Anticipating growth in island’s economy, the military is increasingly moving into a self-supporting mode by becoming a big player in the economy. In this way, Sri Lanka follows the lead that has been long established in Indonesia and Egypt, which results in the increasingly authoritarian politicization of economy. This in turn leaves an imprint on everyday life that is characterized by widespread corruption and a breakdown of trust in its institutions.

The tired civil war also created a new parallel world of the island’s social reality. While the north has been portrayed as a world far away, due to war and despite LTTE’s occasional terrorism attempts to bring it home to Sinhalese heartland, the distinction of “out of sight, out of mind” prevails. “A majority of people learned to enjoy living within the compartmentalized box of their reality,” said J. Thatparam, executive director of Consortium of NGOs Shanthiham. This view is apparent in the country’s media market, where the war and its aftermath are absent, except for a Tamil language news outlet that often reports demonstrations and other activities aimed to put pressure on central government in Colombo. “Even Tamils living in Colombo are now part of the prevailing psyche, where the main point in life is to make money and to move on with their lives,” Thatparam concluded.

Another result of civil war is foreign investment by China. Many countries that had traditional economic and political ties to the island – such as Great Britain and India – decided to take a step back from economic activity due to war. That gave an opening to China, who saw an opportunity for not only political influence in India’s backyard, but economic influence as well. The deep port project in Rajapaksa’s family turf, Hambantota in the south, claims $1.4 billion already invested, and at least double of that promised is the island’s biggest project.

However, the project also resulted in growing geopolitical tension. Chinese navy ships visited Sri Lanka several times, inaugurating a new era of the countries’ relations, and what many analysts fear: the possibility of the first Chinese naval base in the region.

The Chinese foreign investment also produced a feeling of being colonized by the “new imperialists,” as local Sinhalese reacted to the influx of manpower and money. Nowhere were these feelings were emphasized more than in Hambantota, as a mini Chinese city was established, populated with workers, mainly from southern China. “I think that overall the investment is not sustainable,” said J. Thatparam, also referring to the Chinese-built northern railway linking Jaffna with rest of the country. “They bring their money here, invest it, and then take it back home with them while employing minimal amount of local population,” Thatparam said.

This type of economic development is actually demoralizing, as the local population doesn’t see the money invested in the area, while in the same time, there is no cultivation of a local skill set that can be used later after the project’s completion. There is a detrimental effect to all of this. With more money coming in, higher level of bribes must be paid to get things done. “We have a high level of corruption of India, which is endemic but manageable – usually at 10-15 percent,” said an Indian businessman who manages exports from his family-owned business. “Here [Sri Lanka], it is absolutely crazy – just look at infrastructure projects such as bridges or roads. It often exceeds triple the original estimate, and it is often your responsibility to fork the money over long past the project’s completion to a well-connected members of Sri Lankan government if you don’t want problems. It is as though your business here is held hostage, so you have no choice but play by their rules,” he said.

The yet-to-be-determined date of national referendum on executive power, as ordered by the Sri Lankan Supreme Court, will be a litmus test whether the Sirisena series of reforms are going to be implemented, or whether the country will return to the “new normal,” which is obviously far from it. Rajapaksa’s clan still holds a lot of popular support among the Sinhalese, who don’t care about their corrupt legacy and want Mahinda back in power as new Führer.

If Facebook is a measure of popularity with 603,000 likes, time will tell if potential political u-turns will result in renewed conflict with Tamils. The Sri Lankan military obviously thinks so, despite many in the country drawing parallels with Obama’s and Sirisena’s arrivals on the national scene as harbingers of hope. After eight years of this in the US, and five months of that in Sri Lanka, it is hard not to conclude that on a certain level, both Americans and Sri Lankans are finding themselves on the same boat rowing in circles and getting nowhere.