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With Bloodshed Over, Sri Lanka Now Pushes Tourism
Diplomatic Pouch / March 9, 2010

By Larry Luxner

The guns have finally fallen silent in Sri Lanka, a nation wracked by civil war for the past quarter century. Now that it’s safe to visit, Sri Lanka’s leaders are tirelessly promoting the nation’s tourism appeal — from elephant orphanages to beautiful windswept beaches and sacred Buddhist shrines.

They’re also highlighting the country’s delicious cuisine. With that in mind, the World Bank last month hosted its “Heritage Days” event featuring Sri Lankan delicacies in its main dining room, cooked up by executive pastry chef Gerard Mendis and guest chef P. Madwhawa Weerabaddhana.

For $21.95 per person, hungry diners helped themselves to a buffet lunch consisting of appetizers and entrées including mustard spicy tempered prawn, baked chicken in coriander, cherry tomato and spicy egg curry, and spinach cashew and green pea curry with ghee rice.

The Feb. 23-24 event, developed by Washington-based Restaurant Associates specifically for the World Bank Group, attracted some 350 people and a number of U.S. and Sri Lankan diplomats, including Jaliya Wickramasuriya, the country’s ambassador to the United States.

Such a lavish event would have been unthinkable even a year ago.

At that time, militant separatists fighting under the banner of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were still locked in a violent, desperate struggle against the Sri Lankan army to hold onto a tiny coastal sliver of land in the country’s northeast, where they had once hoped to carve out a separate homeland for Sri Lanka’s Tamil-speaking Hindu minority.

The war claimed 100,000 lives over a 26-year span, with thousands of people — mostly Tamils — dying in the last few months before the LTTE’s violent defeat in May 2009. The government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa proclaimed victory and has since resettled thousands of refugees from sprawling displaced-person camps, though critics charge it’s not doing enough to address the root problems that sparked the war in the first place.

In Colombo, according to Wickramasuriya, life has returned to normal — with an end to the roadblocks and random searches that since the early 1980s had been a part of the capital city’s landscape.

“I’m 50 years old, and I haven’t seen Sri Lanka this safe and positive in my whole life,” the ambassador told Pouch over a dessert of watalappam (coconut custard) and traditional Sri Lankan tea. “The people are free. Before, people were worried when their kids went to school whether they’d ever come back. But now, that fear is gone, and in Colombo you can’t even find a hotel room. That shows how much life has changed.”

Indeed, 30 percent more tourists came to Sri Lanka in January than in January 2009, though the numbers are still quite small compared to nearby countries like Thailand, India, Nepal and the Maldives.

“In 1983, Thailand had 500,000 tourists and so did Sri Lanka. Now Thailand gets 2.6 million a year and we’re still at 500,000,” the ambassador said. “We’d love to get to 2.6 million by 2016. That's our target."

It just might happen. Cruise ships have begun returning to Sri Lanka, and last month, the New York Times travel section featured the West Virginia-size island as one of 32 “must-see” countries to visit in 2010.

Wickramasuriya said his nation will need 50,000 hotel rooms to accommodate the expected onslaught, up from only 15,000 at present. “Even now, we don’t have enough rooms. This is a huge problem,” he said, noting that although prices have jumped since the end of thcivil war, five-star hotels are still a relative bargain, with rooms in Colombo going for an average of only $100 a night.

If these trends continue, he added, tourism could become Sri Lanka’s most important foreign-exchange earner, even eclipsing apparel ($3 billion) and tea exports ($1 billion).

Last October, Wickramasuriya’s mission — along with the U.S. Commerce Department and the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office — led an investment mission to Sri Lanka that consisted of 40 major companies including Caterpillar, Marriott, Coca-Cola, Hilton and Ford.

Yet all is not well on the domestic front.

Sri Lanka’s former army chief, retired Gen. Sarath Fonseka, was jailed only two weeks after losing a Jan. 26 presidential election to Rajapaksa, the incumbent. Widely considered a hero after the government’s military defeat of the LTTE, Fonseka now plans to lead a new opposition coalition in a parliamentary vote set for April 8. Government officials from Rajapaksa on down allege that Fonseka’s imprisonment was in no way politically motivated.

“His jailing had nothing to do with the election,” Wickramasuriya told the Pouch. “He was definitely one of the heroes of the war, but even if you’re a hero, you are not above the law.”

The ambassador claimed the ex-army chief — who will represent the Democratic National Alliance in the upcoming election — was guilty of taking kickbacks and other various offenses.

“For one thing, after you leave the army, you can’t keep deserters with you. He did. He also made some defense purchases from his daughter’s company, and there was a conflict of interest with his being chairman of the tender board.”

Many people still fear a resurgence of violence, given that Sri Lanka’s ethnic Tamil Diaspora — particularly in the United States, Canada, Europe and India — still dream of an independent Tamil Eelam homeland

The International Crisis Group, in its Feb. 23 report on Sri Lanka, urged the Rajapaksa government to “address the legitimate grievances at the root of the conflict: the political marginalization and physical insecurity of most Tamils in Sri Lanka.” The group is also calling for governments around the world to exert pressure on Colombo for political and constitutional reforms that will give Tamils and Muslims a “meaningful role in determining the future of the areas” where they have long been a majority.

“New Diaspora initiatives attempt to carry forward the struggle for an independent state in more transparent and democratic ways, but they must repudiate the LTTE’s violent methods,” said Robert Templer, director of International Crisis Group’s Asia program. “And they must also recognize that the LTTE’s separatist agenda is out of step with the wishes and needs of Tamils in Sri Lanka.”

The report adds that with the Sri Lankan government assuming Tamils abroad remain committed to violent means, “the Diaspora’s continued calls for a separate state feed the fears of the Rajapaksa administration and provide excuses for maintaining destructive anti-terrorism and emergency laws.”

Wickramasuriya said fewer than 80,000 Tamils are still living in refugee camps, and that while the world average for resettling refugees is 17 years, “in Sri Lanka we resettled 90 percent of our refugees within six months.”

Yet he conceded that, even with Sri Lanka at peace, he’s still worried about a resurgence of terrorism.

“We have to maintain law and order and the security of the country. Otherwise, this can come back,” he said. “It won’t be easy for the Tigers because their leadership is no more. But they can start up again if we don’t do the job right.”

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