Violence in Sri Lanka won't just kill tourism – it will sink the economy

The recent riots in Aluthgama are the last thing the country needs


Sri Lanka has so much going for it. After five years of peace, the vital tourism industry is recovering strongly. The economy grew at 7.6 per cent in the first quarter of 2014, 1.5 per cent better than 2013. A fine new network of (almost empty) motorways link the major towns.

The Jaffna peninsula, mired in war and terror for decades, feels increasingly normal now, and will soon be connected to Colombo by fast and comfortable Chinese-built trains. The government is produced by properly conducted elections. In a world of failed and failing states, this former British colony seems a beacon of hope.

So what exactly happened at Aluthgama last Sunday?

Many of the facts are disputed but there is no doubt that at least three Muslims were killed in this coastal town, and that a mob incited by an extremist group called Bodu Bala Sena, or “Buddhist Power Force”, was involved in the killings. There is equally little doubt that Wataraka Vijitha Thero, a Buddhist monk who condemns the extremists, was on Wednesday stripped of his robes, slashed with knives and beaten unconscious near Colombo.

That Buddhist monks should incite their followers to kill, as is alleged, beggars belief.

A climate of fear has long hung over the Sri Lankan media, but that has not deterred mainstream newspapers from repeating claims that the ruling Rajapaksa clan – and in particular Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the defence chief behind the extermination of the Tamil Tigers’ chief Velupillai Prabhakaran and his followers in 2009 – was somehow complicit in the violence.

This makes no sense that an outsider can understand.

Why should they play such a role? It is argued that it was a political tactic, a way of polarising the Buddhist vote behind the Rajapaksa clan’s party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. But elections are not even scheduled. The government’s majority is overwhelming. They have the peace dividend on their side, as well as the steaming economic successes mentioned above. With such achievements in their pocket, why resort to dirty tactics?

Then there is the location of the violence. While the north, turned upside down for decades by civil strife, is today as placid as a millpond, it was the south-west that went up in flames: the corner of the country into which the foreign tourists pour, the location of fancy hotels and resorts. It was in the heart of this region of palm groves, golden beaches and azure seas that the killings and burnings occurred; and it was here that was flooded with troops and put under curfew.

Tourism is the most sensitive of industries, and the region’s hoteliers are terrified that the coming season will be torpedoed by cancellations. Why put such an important success in jeopardy?

Alan Bennett: Private school are unfair and un-Christian
An NHS boob job changed my life
Why the petition to comb Blue Ivy's hair is wrong
Football unites the Dutch, but a debate over blackface is dividing them

Finally, there is the matter of timing. This week, parliament voted overwhelmingly to refuse entry to the United Nations Human Rights Commission team investigating war crimes allegedly committed by government troops in the final battles of the civil war.

The government has long maintained that the head of the Commission, Navi Pillay, a South African of Indian Tamil origin, is biased against them. It further maintains, with some justification, that the large, vocal and politically sophisticated Tamil diaspora, which did so much to galvanise international opinion on the Tamils’ side during the civil war, is doing the same again now. But if the ruling clan were indeed somehow involved in this week’s violence, perhaps the outside world is right to consider them pariahs.

I believe that the definitive ending of the civil war – even with the dreadful loss of civilian life – was an absolute good, and as a result I have some sympathy with the regime’s stubborn dead bat on this matter.

For many years, Sri Lanka seemed to be teetering on the brink of becoming a failed state. For much of that time the outside world was almost insanely indulgent towards Prabhakaran’s organisation, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which in its ruthless fanaticism, not to mention its use of suicide as a weapon of war, was an important precursor of Islamist groups like Isis.

Indeed, the insistence of some western countries on treating the LTTE as morally equivalent to Sri Lanka’s elected government betrayed the same kind of fatal myopia we saw recently in their support for the insurgent groups massing against Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Thanks to the clumsy attempts of Britain, France and Norway to bear down on the Sri Lankan regime in the civil war’s terrible last phase, we lost whatever leverage we may once have enjoyed over them. The Chinese rushed into that vacuum, and have gained the most from the development opportunities that flowed from the war’s end.

The Chinese are proud of their tradition of allowing their clients to behave exactly as they please, in contrast to the moralising west. But they are astute enough to know when those clients are courting unnecessary trouble. If the south-west were to explode again, the economic consequences would be severe.

In the current low season, it is thousands of Chinese visitors – until recently a rare sight here – who are keeping the hotels’ lights on. If the Rajapaksa government really is involved in instigating fear and loathing between the communities of the south, the Chinese should find a way of pointing out that their citizens are unlikely to keep on coming if the resort towns again go up in flames.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Assistant

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have previous experience...

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Administrator

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Gwyneth Paltrow and Coldplay's Chris Martin “consciously uncoupled” in March  

My best and worst stories of 2014

Simmy Richman
The Queen spoke of respect for all cultures and faiths in her Christmas message  

Decoding the Queen's speech: Was Her Majesty taking a swipe at Ukip?

Jane Merrick
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015