Richard Fell CVO is a former ambassador and Books Review Editor of the Asian Affairs Journal. Here, he reports on a recent visit to Sri Lanka.
I recently spent two weeks in Sri Lanka with a distinguished group of New Zealanders and Australians. Though primarily a holiday, we had opportunities to discuss developments in the country with business leaders, politicians and other opinion formers, and of course we kept our eyes, ears and minds open during our visit.
The current government celebrated its first year in office during our visit. It is a coalition of the two main parties, the first in South Asia. Its stated objectives include a return to good governance including tackling corruption, and an economic development strategy which includes attracting more foreign investment from a wider number of sources.
A new Constitution is also being worked on, one aim of which appears to be to achieve a more equal balance between the powers of the President and those of the Prime Minister. A new Constitution may also provide a mechanism for devolving more powers to the regions which, in turn, may help to reconcile the Tamil minority with the Sinhalese majority community following the long civil war from 1983 to 2009 which ended in the defeat of the LTTE (otherwise known as the Tamil Tigers). Sri Lanka is currently at peace but dealing with the legacy of the civil war, in which thousands died, remains a challenge. Reconciliation between the communities may be the aim, but achieving it when memories among families of deaths and disappearances remains acute makes the task a difficult one. Readers from Northern Ireland will no doubt get the point.
Sri Lanka remains a major exporter of, for example, tea, textiles and apparel, and spices. We were generously hosted by the owners of one of Sri Lanka’s best known tea companies, Dilmah, and were able to see at first hand something of the lives of the pickers and the tea production process as well as being able to discuss with the owners some of the challenges which the industry faces. Dilmah is a family run company with some of the profits going to a charitable foundation which supports several thousand people a year. We also visited a spice garden where we were advised about the extensive medicinal properties of a wide range of spices. Why bother with expensive health insurance might be the conclusion
Tourism is also very important for Sri Lanka. Surprisingly to me, it appears not to have been badly affected by the civil war, perhaps because most of the fighting took place in the north of the country. The tsunami in 2004, during which very sadly over 40,000 people in Sri Lanka probably lost their lives, also appears to have had a limited impact on tourism in its broadest sense in the years thereafter. In recent years, overseas tourist numbers have rapidly increased; reflecting this, new high rise hotels are going up along the Colombo seafront.
Sri Lanka certainly has much to offer the tourist. The temple containing the Buddha’s tooth in Kandy is regarded as the holiest place in the Buddhist faith. The Randoli Perahera parade involving dozens of decorated elephants, and associated human dancers, drummers and so on is spectacular. There are also many archaeological and religious sites some of which are World Heritage sites. Then there are good beaches and excellent food. For the naturalist there are bats and birds, varieties of monkeys, leopards and elephants. I am not that keen on monkeys having lived with a rampant troupe of them in Kuala Lumpur. One turned up early in the morning on my hotel balcony during our visit to Sri Lanka while I was enjoying a cup of Dilmah tea. It snarled at me and I snarled back at it. Same thing happened the following morning. On the third morning, it brought its mate along and three of their very tiny monkey children and they all sat on the railing watching me and not snarling at all. We had reached a rapport.
The elephant, wild and ‘domesticated’ has long played a central role in Sri Lankan life. The relationship between wild elephants and humans, particularly farmers, has not been without conflict however. I was told that around 270 wild elephants are killed each year often by inhumane, homemade guns or other means. At the same time, around 70 people a year are killed by elephants. Estimates of the numbers of wild elephants have fluctuated in recent decades. For one thing, they are not easy to count, particularly during a civil war. The numbers may have fallen to 2-3000 in the 1990s but have since recovered to perhaps 6000 or so. The fate of the wild elephant is a good example of the conflicting pressures of modern economic development versus the historical symbols of traditional Sri Lankan life.
Sri Lanka achieved a relatively healthy GDP growth rate of 4.8% in 2015. The general consensus, however, is that it should be able to do better. And, indeed, it will probably have to do so if the problems posed by overseas indebtedness, a balance of payments deficit and a deficit between government revenues and expenditure are to be successfully addressed.
There are therefore several challenges ahead for Sri Lanka – economic, political and wildlife conservation among them – but as a place to visit it is fascinating.
Note: Photographs are courtesy of Marina Wilson and Michael, Wen Powles and Marie Shroff.