Posted by: John Elliott | January 4, 2008

Sri Lanka looks set for a rough year

Sri Lanka seemed so peaceful over the recent holidays, especially near the city of Galle where I was staying on the southern tip of this beautiful island. Fishermen (see picture) perched on their sticks every evening just off the beach till sunset, while lazing western and other tourists sipped drinks and watched them from nearby terraces. The hotels were full, all doing brisk business, with prices up to $475 a night being charged by top boutique places in the old fort area of Galle. The talk was of famous authors such as Gore Vidal who are due at Galle’s second annual literary festival in two weeks’ time.

Fishermen at sunset, south of Galle

Fishermen at sunset, south of Galle

Along the three-to-four hour drive to the capital of Colombo, everywhere looked busy with many shiny new buildings. Property prices are rising, especially along the coast where foreigners are buying plots of land fronting beaches which just three years ago were pounded by the tsunami tidal wave that devastated the area with tragic loss of life.

But this tranquility is in many ways a mirage. On Wednesday morning, while I was ending my holiday with breakfast on the terrace of Colombo’s graceful old Galle Face Hotel, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam rebels blew up a military bus just a kilometer or two away, killing five people and wounding 28. A navy boat was patrolling off the shore, on the look-out for possible attacks from the sea. A day earlier, a leading politician had been shot dead in a nearby temple. In the evening, the government announced it was cancelling a six-year but long-irrelevant ceasefire agreement with the Tamil Tigers.

It was clear that stories I had heard over the previous few days were quickly coming true. President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother Gotabaya, the defense secretary, are bent on tough military action, backed by a 20% increase in defense spending, to defeat the Tamil rebels in the north. It could, I had been told, be a rough year for Sri Lanka.

It is now over 24 years since bloody clashes began between Sri Lanka’s militant Tamil minority and the majority Sinhalese. Some 70,000 people have died since the start in July 1983, but the story remains the same. The Tamils, mostly Hindus and Christians, feel they are a beleaguered minority who were treated unfairly by the Buddhist Sinhalese majority and want to win independence for the north and eastern parts of the island. The Sinhalese fear that, unless they resist the Tamils, their island, which they regard as a major centre of Buddhism, will be overrun by India’s Dravidian hordes.

It should have been possible to broker peace but all efforts have failed because of two seemingly immovable forces. On one side is Velupillai Prabhakaran, the reclusive and powerful leader of the Tamil Tigers, who seemingly will settle for nothing less than independence and only agrees to ceasefires when he needs to regroup and rebuild his forces. On the other side are Sri Lanka’s mainstream self-serving and competitive politicians who seem unable to resist hard-line anti-Tamil Buddhist monks.

The economy is in poor shape. Economic growth of only 5% is expected in 2008-09. Consumer prices rose nearly 20% in the year to last October. Overall inflation is forecast at 11-12% next year, and there is little sign of the government restricting populist economic policies and tightening fiscal controls. Tourism is an important foreign exchange but – until the recent holiday boom – had been declining because of the 2004 tsunami and increasing Tamil Tiger violence that included an air attack on military installations at Colombo airport last March.

That’s a sad record for a country that started capitalist economic reforms at the end of the 1970s, around the same time as China, and long before they became fashionable on the Indian subcontinent. Instead of becoming a rich Hong Kong-style entrepot off the southern tip of India, its limited successes have been hobbled – and there is no solution in sight.



  1. Murah

    Red Indians are the natives and they should ask for a separate state in Canada.

  2. Velupillai Prabhakaran is a leader of a terrorist organization that voices the cause of the liberator of the Tamils in the north, who are brain washed and tricked into sending their children and women to war and to their deaths, while educating his own children in reputed overseas institutions. All peace loving tamils who oppose the terrorist ideals are executed not by the LTTE themselves. Most of the politicians that were targeted by LTTE suicide attacks the last few months were all Tamils who preffered resorting to democratic ways and not terrorist means. There is no conflict between Sinhalese or the Tamils. This is a war between the Sri Lankan nation and a terrorist group who had continuously hindered the progress of the nation and accounted for so many deaths. Please do not associate all tamils with the LTTE terrorists.

  3. Murah,
    You need some history lessons. Tamils in Sri lanka living since Indo-Aryan emigration from India in the 5th century B.C.!! So It is your own people and you need to take care of them. It is like telling ‘people in Canada are outsiders other than Red Indians’

  4. The Tamils are the “Dravidian Hordes” who came to this peaceful island to earn a living way back and decided to illegally settle in the island and are now asking for a piece of the country.

  5. Dravidian Hordes? You must be joking.

    The Tamils who are fighting for an independent state in the North East provinces where they are the majority (sans the ethnic cleansing they have endured over the past 60 years) are native to the land.

    It is not only the openly racist Buddhist Monks who refuse a political solution to the country’s ethnic conflict but also the pseudo-Marxists and mainstream Sinhalese ethnocentric political parties who since independence have used anti-Tamil sentiments to win elections.

    The Hong Kong comparison made in your article is inappropriate as is the more commonly made comparison with Sri Lanka to Singapore. To understand why, you have to look at the value systems of the ethnic groups.

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