COLOMBO: Colombo is buzzing. The end of the war and the start of what locals call the ‘reconciliation and reconstruction process’ has led to Sri Lanka once again being in the limelight. With basic infrastructure in place – in two years time, all parts of the island will have uninterrupted power supply – and with a literacy rate of over 90%, there are numerous opportunities for business and growth here. The general feeling is that Sri Lanka is about to take off.
In a symbolic move, the army headquarters on Galle Face, Colombo’s most prestigious seafront drive, had been demolished to make way for a five-star hotel. The priorities seem to be in place. The war is over, peace must now be pursued.
The shiny new Bandaranaike airport, much larger and far cleaner than any airport in Pakistan, has seen a surge in tourist numbers. There are many investors lining up too. Many of them are Pakistanis, sick of the lack of facilities and rise in violence at home. South Asia is looking again at the Sri Lankan model. Kalyan Banerjee, an Indian who now heads Rotary International – a world body of professionals and businesspersons – told a conference held in Colombo this week on development and cooperation in South Asia, that in the human development indicators, “Sri Lanka continues to lead the way for the rest of us to follow.”
There is much to learn for Pakistan and not just in terms of human indicators. For one, President Mahinda Rajapaksa says that the war against terrorism was won by his government without the backing of world powers and without the billions that have been poured into the effort in other countries (read: Afghanistan and Pakistan).
The Sri Lankan president arrived at the Rotary Conference with conch blowers and musicians at hand. He seems to be enjoying the cult status on the island.
“He is a people’s president,” says Rajendera Saboo, one of the speakers at this South Asian event.
But Rajapakse, also known as MR amongst his people, is sore over criticism over the human rights record of Lankan security forces in the final offensive against the Tamil Tigers. The UN has been unhappy, as have been human rights bodies. But MR holds his own. He says that his government has managed to resettle 280,000 persons so far and that this has been done with the cooperation of both security forces and NGOs.
“It needs to be acknowledged that Sri Lanka eradicated terrorism from its borders and made South Asia a little safer,” he says.
Certainly Colombo is less paranoid about security. The police pickets are less. Rajapakse moves around with a security detail of not more than five cars — much less than Interior Minister Rehman Malik. There are no cumbersome security procedures as one enters hotels. The Presidential Residence on Galle Face road may have a number of guards all round, but no road is blocked and no one is inconvenienced.
It is clear, however, that the security forces here are better trained and equipped than Pakistan — an irony given that it was Pakistan that first trained and helped them when other countries, including India, looked the other way. After twenty years of conflict, what we see is a force that had defeated one of the most efficient terrorist outfits in the world and brought peace to the land.
But Rajapakse, who newspapers claim is enjoying an unprecedented surge in popularity, points out that the terrorists are regrouping. In Canada, for example, the Lankan government has said that known Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) sympathisers are standing for local elections.
“We must always be vigilant,” says the Lankan president. Every day news items of scams are unearthed in different parts of the world involving LTTE sympathisers – who are still trying to raise money for their cause.
But it is the little things that matter. All motorcycle riders now wear helmets here. There is a fine imposed for jaywalking. More recently, there is a law that forbids giving licences to pharmacies that have not installed air-conditioning or fridges. Universal education is prevalent. The number of women in the workforce equals that of men. And the list is endless.
Meanwhile, for Pakistanis – thousands of whom have been able to see again due to generous eye donations by the Sri Lankans panning over several decades – one can only wish that along with the eyes came long-term vision. A feat that continues to be missing from Pakistan, despite the best intentions of all concerned.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 6th, 2011.