Context in Colombo

Colombo, Sri Lanka

Between 1983 and 2009, as much of Asia cast off colonial and communist shackles and began relentlessly pursuing peace and prosperity, Sri Lanka was engulfed in a civil war that claimed more than 100,000 lives.

Aside from tea and its national cricket team – the ever-determined Lions whom I think it’s fair to say most Aussies have a soft spot for, particularly when they beat India, their giant rival to the north – the island formerly known as Ceylon rarely grabs international attention.

But while it might not have dominated headlines, the decades-long conflict between the native Sinhalese population and the separatist Tamils – who emigrated from southern India during the Middle Ages (hardly recent imposters) – has left visible scars on this otherwise tropical paradise.

Its cities and townships clearly haven’t developed at pace with geographical neighbours and though the Sri Lankan people seem industrious and hard-working, few seem to be enjoying the spoils of economic growth that so many Asians have now come to know.

A disastrous tsunami and earthquake in 2004 made the already-precarious situation notably worse. I was shocked to see the state of the Galle International Stadium, one of cricket’s most storied grounds. Aside from an oddly-placed washing machine and the occasional faded advertisement, its rooms and stands were bare and crumbling, the musky stench of water damage still lingering.

Here to give a speech on the US election, a comparison between the two nations could not be avoided.

Having laid out my assessment – as I do throughout this thread – that the world’s superpower is at historic levels of division currently, some audience members could not help but be cynical.

Dr Sarath, a smiley Sinhalese economist living in Shanghai, was quick to respond.

“Yes I agree, this election is very interesting and a Trump win would have a profound effect on global financial markets,” he opened diplomatically. “But to a Sri Lankan, America doesn’t seem quite so divided.”

I was about to retort that the number of US gun murders between 1983 and 2009 would dwarf 100,000 but thought the better of it, not wanting to get into a tasteless size-up between two atrocities.

Moreover, the good doctor’s point was well made: America might have its problems, but overall its citizens are still richer, healthier and safer than most places on Earth.

It was the kind of important perspective that so often accompanies travel in the developing world.

In his autobiography, the brilliant writer and raconteur Christopher Hitchens explained that he liked to spend some time each year in a country less fortunate than his own, in order to come by these kinds of contextual epiphanies. Upon reading that – in Africa at the time mind you – I was inspired to emulate Hitch’s maxim, something I’m happy to say I’ve more or less achieved so far (thanks mainly to a worryingly laissez faire attitude towards credit card debt).

And having seen a fair bit of the third world in recent years, the one thing that seems to separate those that are flourishing from those that are yet to find their way in the post-colonial age is the strength of institutions and rule of law. Wherever politicians can get away with more, and can more readily intervene in the affairs of the people without accountability, the worse the state of its economy and lower its standards of living I have generally found.

Sadly, this has been the case for Sri Lanka. Too many of its leaders have succumbed to the divisive rhetoric that has postponed reconciliation between the Tamils and Sinhalese, whether out of genuine xenophobia or, more likely, as way of mobilising the masses. Others have stuck their fingers deep into the communal honeypot, plundering without the inconvenient fear of being brought to justice.

Even the man credited with ending the war, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, is now under suspicion of corruption and this morning I picked up the local English language rag to see that his son Namal has been arrested on charges of fraud. He will likely be let off scot-free, but even the fact that the police took action against such a VIP is promising.

Every country has its developmental issues, but the notion that rule of law transcends the power of any man (or woman) is central to its ability to grow and provide peace for its people.

That’s why so many Americans are worried about their current presidential prospects, whether it is Hillary Clinton’s lax treatment of confidential emails or Donald Trump’s shock claim that the constitution may “take a back seat” if he occupies the White House.

They would be wise to brush up on recent Sri Lankan history. Or maybe take a little trip to somewhere less fortunate.

sri lanka

Image source: Agence France Press

Published on July 18 2016

One thought on “Context in Colombo”

  1. Excellent piece Aleksandar. The so called “end of the war” had a clear effect on Australia’s policies towards Sri Lanka which were convenient for us despite what has continued.
    And I am genuinely glad you are still on track to visit such countries to experience “contextual epiphanies” (altho I am probably more worried than you about your credit card debt!)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *