Amanda Hodge, in The Australian, 13 November 2013
JAMES Packer had not long finished his defence of why a high-end casino resort would be a boon for Sri Lanka, a country recovering from 26 years of civil war, in Colombo this week when an audience member stood to complain about the country’s persistently “bad press”. “What would be your advice about how to change the perception of Sri Lanka in Western countries like Australia?” he asked the casino tycoon, during an interactive session at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting business forum.
This week is Sri Lanka’s big coming out, when the leaders of 50 of the 53 Commonwealth member states converge on its stunning seaside capital to see what has been achieved in the four years since the war ended with one last brutal military push, costing thousands of civilian lives and damaging the government’s international reputation. Colombo’s colonial-era public buildings have been whitewashed to a smooth wedding-cake pallor, there are cranes aplenty, new roads, smart hotels and malls and everywhere pictures of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s infectious Cheshire cat grin.
Yet Sri Lanka’s public smile has slipped in recent weeks as it has faced – and at times failed – successive tests of its patience and taken an increasingly heavy hand with dissenters. Human rights and opposition activists have been doing in Sri Lanka what they do in every democratic nation that hosts an international forum: using the opportunity to showcase their own causes and the less palatable side of the host nation. It is an irritating diversion that the government has managed to turn into a raging debate about its democratic credentials through its ham-fisted handling, including a decision to briefly detain visiting Australian Greens senator Lee Rhiannon and New Zealand MP Jan Logie last weekend.
If you get only one chance to make a first impression, the new, improved, Commonwealth summit-hosting Sri Lanka also has left a nasty one on numerous foreign journalists who have been held up for hours at Colombo airport by immigration police. I was among that miserable few this week, advised of my place on an intelligence services “watch list” for previous “unfavourable reporting” and told I might not be allowed into the country. Yet just more than two hours later – after a sullen official produced a police file consisting of offending articles – I was finally driving down one of the country’s gorgeously new sealed roads on my way to the capital. No explanation.
A British Channel Four team, which has doggedly reported on alleged war crimes committed in the final stages of the war, was prevented on Wednesday from travelling to the north after its train was blockaded by hundreds of pro-government demonstrators. The logistical travails of a foreign journalist would be of little relevance if Sri Lanka, controversially, hadn’t been given the opportunity to host the biennial CHOGM summit to demonstrate its democratic credentials and prove it had moved beyond the authoritarianism of the war years.
Not everyone supported the decision. The three Commonwealth leaders missing this week – Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Mauritius Prime Minister Navin Chandra Ramgoolam – pulled out citing concerns over human rights and the government’s failure to honour post-war promises to pursue reconciliation with the northern-based Tamil minority.
There also were domestic political imperatives behind the withdrawals. (Singh has form, having also snubbed the 2011 Perth CHOGM over Australia’s refusal to sell uranium to India.)
Still, it was an embarrassing blow to the government, which argues reconciliation will come when the north reaps the benefits of the development it is now trying to deliver. Though the dominant narrative on Sri Lanka is one of human-rights abuses, harassment of the media and a diminishing of judicial independence, there is another story – of impressive growth delivered by a government determined to bring prosperity to its 21 million people.
The vast majority of Sri Lankans are overjoyed to have peace and the government’s popularity for delivering that is reflected in its two-thirds parliamentary majority, though there is deep unease among the country’s northern Tamils over the massive army presence in the region. New roads, ports, airports and railways have been built and the government is pushing ahead with big industrial and mixed-development projects in major centres. After several years of sometimes controversial Chinese investments, a few of which consisted of fairly onerous loans, the government is genuinely excited by Packer’s desire to pour $US450 million ($483m) into a high rollers’ Crown Sri Lanka.
Lakshman Jayaweera, chief red-tape cutter for foreign investors as Sri Lanka’s recently appointed Board of Investment chairman, believes Packer’s investment could have something akin to an Australian Warren Buffett effect. Jayaweera was asked to return to Sri Lanka by Rajapaksa to bring foreign direct investment into the country. The 66-year-old is a dual Australian-Sri Lankan national, a chemical engineer who founded Sydney-based waste metal recycling company Hydromet, and a willing conduit between Sri Lankan opportunity and investors. “Let me tell you, he (Packer) has been my messenger for BoI,” he says. “Packer’s interest has made a lot of potential Australian investors think about Sri Lanka and I am getting a lot of interest.” Jayaweera concedes he will not reach his own ambitious $US2 billion target, which would have been a 50 per cent improvement on last year. But, he reasons, if Packer likes Sri Lanka as an investment destination, then other deep pockets will follow.
Packer certainly seems to, judging by his Colombo speech this week. “If an economy is growing strongly it delivers jobs for its citizens, allowing them to provide the necessities they require for human development – shelter, food, clothes, schooling and, most importantly, the great hope that each parent has for their children: to have a better quality of life, full of hope and opportunity,” Packer told CHOGM delegates on Wednesday. “On this test, Sri Lanka and its government, led by his excellency President Rajapaksa are delivering strongly,” he said, citing consecutive annual growth rates since 2010 of 8 per cent, 8.2 per cent and then 6.4 per cent last year.
It is a businessman’s view, and not one complicated by issues of democracy, human rights and rule of law – the three pillars of the Commonwealth charter. That 2012 document is the jewel in the crown of Australia’s Commonwealth chairmanship, which it formally relinquishes today to Sri Lanka as the new CHOGM host, and therefore Commonwealth chair for the next two years.
Australia used its two-year chairmanship to concentrate on good governance in the hope of dragging the moribund institution back to relevance. (The Gambia quit the body last month claiming it was a colonial relic). Sri Lanka has nominated development – and how to bring it to the Commonwealth’s poorest citizens – as its agenda. It is solid ground for a government overseeing a rapid modernisation program it hopes will make Sri Lanka the equal of Singapore or Malaysia.
But with living costs in Sri Lanka on the rise, inevitably not everyone is feeling the benefits. In Colombo’s Beira Lake district, earmarked for Packer’s proposed Crown Sri Lanka and other tourist developments, hundreds of mostly poor Muslim families face eviction by the end of this month. Up north thousands more are still fighting legal battles over the confiscation of land by the military, though demolitions have already begun. Thuwan, a 36-year-old auto rickshaw driver, when asked how life has improved since the war’s end, says: “We don’t have the fear of death any more, but economically we don’t see any growth. Everything has gone up – rent, food, electricity – and life has become more difficult.”
There will be more price rises after CHOGM, he predicts with a dry laugh. “We will be the ones to bear its cost.” Those opposed to Sri Lanka’s Commonwealth chairmanship argue it makes a mockery of Australia’s hard-fought new charter and will only hasten the organisation’s demise. A clearly ruffled secretary-general Kamalesh Sharma was forced to defend the decision yesterday, insisting the Commonwealth was working with Sri Lanka “on difficult sensitive areas like reconciliation, like torture by state security forces, and we expect in time to make many advances. We look to work with Sri Lanka in the chair to advance the principles and values of the charter.”
Former prime minister and now opposition leader of the United National Party Ranil Wickremasinghe lashed out at the government this week for “reinforcing the claim that Sri Lanka should not chair the Commonwealth” because it was incapable of upholding its principles. The outburst was prompted by a violent government MP-led demonstration outside the UNP’s Colombo headquarters, the venue for a Human Rights Festival organised by a coalition of groups representing war widows, families of disappeared people, trade unionists and rights activists.
Wickremasinghe’s car was attacked by protesters who organisers believe were incited by news reports on state-owned television accusing them of betraying their nation – a dangerous accusation in a country scarred by civil war. “Australia should be concerned about how Sri Lanka, the next chair, will treat the charter,” Wickremasinghe told The Australian soon after the attack. “They seem to feel the Commonwealth is their private organisation.”
If Australia does have misgivings, it is keeping them to itself. Unlike Canada and Britain, the Commonwealth’s two biggest funders, Tony Abbott has made it clear he will not be lecturing Sri Lanka on human rights when he arrives today to pass the baton. “I accept that by Australian standards, probably things could have been done a little differently and maybe a little better. But they have had a terrible, terrible civil war … the savagery of which is almost unimaginable to Australians, and I thank God that that civil war has ended,” he said this week. “Yes, it ended brutally, but it has ended and things are … much, much better for all Sri Lankans, Tamil and Sinhala.”
Just as India, Canada and Britain have large Tamil populations with vocal cords and voting rights to consider, Abbott has a persistent asylum-seeker problem. To fix it he needs the continued co-operation of what historically has been one of the largest source nations for asylum boats, and talks on that subject are on his agenda this weekend. Yet it is also true that Sri Lanka’s CHOGM commitments have had positive effects. Against trenchant opposition from hardliners within his own governing coalition, Rajapaksa went ahead last month with the first northern provincial council elections in two decades – a poll his party was doomed to lose.
Former Supreme Court judge CV Wigneswaran, unenviably the new Northern Province chief minister, says he campaigned on a manifesto that eschewed violence and any claims to Tamil independence, instead promoting reconciliation and a federal system divesting more power to the provinces. “This was done to give the majority community (Sinhalese) a feeling of trust, but that has not been forthcoming,” he tells The Australian. “Reconciliation will take a long, long, long time. It will only be possible when there’s a spirit of give and take. The government talks very effectively about reconciliation but they do everything opposite.”
The septuagenarian Wigneswaran will meet British PM David Cameron today when he takes a delegation up to the northern capital Jaffna. It is unlikely Abbott would risk causing offence to the Rajapaksa regime by making the same trek.
Perhaps it was the rambunctious Water Resources Minister, Nimal Sripala de Silva, who best described Sri Lanka during his hard-sell pitch to investors at the CHOGM forum this week. “We have a strong government and a weak opposition. We want the opposition to be strong so there are checks and balances, but what can we do?” he said to laughter from the audience. “Therefore you can be sure the policies of President Rajapaksa will be there for the next few decades. You don’t have to worry. The government will be there because we have done so much good for this country.”
Laughing along on stage was Packer, who had this to say in response to the question from the audience about how to rehabilitate Sri Lanka’s poor image in the eyes of the Western media. “I think part of the re-positioning of Sri Lanka is events like this, which can demonstrate to the world that the 30 years of civil war, and the stagnancy that brought to Sri Lanka, has changed under this government.” It is a perspective the Sri Lankan government no doubt hopes will catch on.