Sri Lanka

curious and curiouser

Ayubowan from rainy Sri Lanka,

     That’s the big disadvantage with visiting a rainforest: the rain! We have travelled to Trincomalee on the north-east coast where the rainy season is lingering. Even the locals have had enough and can even be apologetic about it to us. It gives me a chance to compose another epistle.

gate to and from the beach, Sri Lanka

     Trincomalee is on a large bay, ripe for development of many types. I believe there are big plans afoot for this area. It beckons for the same reasons that it beckoned during World War 2.

Chinese investment

Development is the key agenda for the president of Sri Lanka who is hopeful of another term after the general election on January 8. Development is so central to his administration all of the currency notes are adorned with images of new dams, airports and other examples of large-scale development. Much of this new development is being funded by the Chinese government.

museum pieces Colombo

     This circumstance begs one of the most important foreign affairs questions of the era. What are the Chinese up to? There are two schools of thought on the topic. Either their motives are largely benign, helping to spread the benefits of development in parts of the world – like China itself – where development has been slow, or they represent the new imperialists, colonising by stealth. (Linda is in this camp.)

in Colombo
The String of Pearls

      Sri Lanka is a target for Chinese investment partly because it fits in the chain – the so-called String of Pearls – between China itself and the oil states of the Middle East (facilitating the sea transport of the black gold). There are many major infrastructure projects underway in Sri Lanka – and several other underdeveloped countries for that matter – funded by the Chinese. Here, these include a major freeway from Colombo to Galle (almost finished), a freeway from Colombo to Kandy (construction just beginning) and an international airport on the south-east coastal fringe (completed and waiting for business). There are more plans for Trincomalee, which today is a medium-sized fishing community. The incumbent in the imminent presidential election is banking on the populace liking the signs of progress. 

lion statue Colombo
shipping lanes

      The Chinese are building similar infrastructure in some parts of Africa and several host countries in Asia. Sri Lanka is probably the jewel in the crown for China, not just because it is gorgeously green with untold tourist potential, but because of its proximity to the shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean.

museum Colombo

       So, what are the Chinese up to? This is what an American economist wrote for an influential British Think Tank recently on this topic. “The Beijing Consensus is as much about social change as economic growth. It is about using economic and governance to improve society. There is more to this than trickle down.” What is happening is that the Chinese are spreading development to kindred nations by offering to fund infrastructure projects in return for access to raw materials. But, as Jonathon Dimbleby says, the Chinese government is not an aid donor.

Some people perceive their actions as very clever financial colonisation. They are taking the resources at low cost to found their own industrialisation, leaving the host country with assets which need maintenance and intermittent upgrades. Senadhi is an opinionated hotelier in Ella who says the Chinese are the new imperialists. “There’s no accountability,” he says.

mountain in Ella, central Sri Lanka

       Sri Lanka is unquestionably in need of some of these developments and lots of people benefit from them in one way or another. The president is a wealthy man who is campaigning heavily for re-election. He has called the election early after a plummeting popularity rating. It’s virtually a one-party state here but there seems to be a rough chance of a repeat of Indonesia’s recent election result. The incumbent here has spent very heavily on sweeteners (some of these would be interpreted by us as straight bribes) and posters/billboards/flyers. There are literally millions of these larger-than-life portraits on the roadsides and none of any opponent. (During the last election campaign, the president had photographs of himself added to the currency notes. Surely, we in the west would see such an act as a certain political suicide note.)

development in Sri Lanka

      Development has been good for Sri Lanka. They are clearly a long way ahead of Bangladesh and are in a better position to realise the potential of their nascent tourism industry; much more ready to fleece the pasty western tourists who will flock to this beautiful island in due course. A big sign in the capital announces, “Paradise is prospering”. 

 The Chinese have pushed this development farther than even the Sri Lankan government and haven’t finished yet. The Sri Lankans will need to be careful about how they manage this growth so that they don’t suffer all of those attendant ills which progress seems to bring. (One of the construction projects also underway on the south coast is a giant dredged harbour; the benefits of projects which alter the environment as much as that one are dubious to say the least.)

tsunami anniversary

     We were party to a short ceremony here this morning to mark the anniversary of the tsunami ten years ago. This afternoon, a walk to the war memorial. Tomorrow, we head to Kandy and the elephant orphanage, a destination Linda is looking forward to immensely. I hope Christmas went well. We found to our surprise last night that Christmas Day is the one day of the year the local people (principally a Buddhist community on Sri Lanka) don’t allow consumption of alcohol. Curious and curiouser!

     For now, Greg.

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