Oct 24 — For nearly seven decades K. Chathu Kuttan has held open the door at Colombo’s historic Galle Face Hotel for the great and the glorious. And the memories flood in as he gazes out on the Indian Ocean from his perch at the doorway.
Of huge wedding parties in the ballroom and of important visitors coming to check out the promise and pristine beauty of this emerald island.
Singapore’s Devan Nair. The tea party for 1,500 people when Jawaharlal Nehru visited Colombo, the special car for Queen Elizabeth. Emperor Hirohito, Richard Nixon, Sir Laurence Olivier, Bernard Shaw. The list of those he has welcomed runs on and on.
Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was known, was a different country then. That was before a quarter-century of ethnic blood-letting convulsed the land.
For the 89-year-old émigré from Kerala, whose late wife was a Tamil in a Sinhala majority nation, the prospects for a return to those happier days have never looked better.
In May, the Sri Lankan military crushed the separatist Tamil Tigers, wiping out its entire leadership.
“The local people don’t really bear grudges,” he says.
Four months after the end of the war, a week-long trip to Sri Lanka revealed an economy whose exports are rising on the back of strong orders for garments. In the lobbies of the Cinnamon Grand Hotel and at the Hilton, it was evident that the visitors are back.
For Sri Lankans, the first signs of a peace dividend could be seen in the lower prices for fish and vegetables as the newly liberated Tamil north gets reconnected to the populous south.
Trans-shipments through Colombo are rising too as Sri Lanka gains business from the expanding Indian economy, with which it has a successful free trade agreement. Sovereign ratings are improving on lower credit risk and higher foreign exchange flows.
The world is sitting up and taking notice. The American Chamber of Commerce paid a visit to the island last week. Next month, the Singapore Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry will bring a delegation.
Nowhere is the impact greater than in tourism. Last year, the island of coral reefs, lush forests and surf drew no more than 438,000 visitors because of the poor security situation. But tourist arrivals jumped 28 per cent in July and 34 per cent in August, and some hotels are already overbooked for the period starting February.
A recent AirAsia flight from Kuala Lumpur carried Serbians, Australians, Germans, Americans and Japanese — as well as other Asian nationalities.
Two farmers take a break from working in a rice paddy on the outskirts of Colombo. — Reuters pic
“We see the next season as a take-off point and by 2011 we should be in overdrive,” said Bernard Goonetilleke, chairman of Sri Lanka Tourism. “President Mahinda Rajapaksa has set us a target of 2.5 million visitors by 2016.”
On Colombo’s Galle Face Green marina, families and dating couples feel no fear of staying out late into the night, even as the military continues to be alert. Passengers reaching the main international airport can now drive up to the entry gates, something they could not do previously.
But the peace Sri Lanka is enjoying came at an immense price.
Thousands of Tamil fighters and innocents died as Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and army chief General Sarath Fonseka, both targets of assassination attempts, bashed on through Tiger defence lines. Indeed, within the armed forces, officers often joked that they did not know which was the greater danger: “Johnny (mines) in front, or Fonny (Fonseka) at the back if you retreated.”
The Tigers were doughty fighters and their mines, cunningly laid, were lethal. In the last 18 months of the fighting, over 6,000 soldiers died and another 27,000 were wounded.
“During a three-hour burst of fighting at a 300m bund, my unit lost 27 limbs,” said Colonel Vikun Liyenage of the famed Gajaba infantry regiment as we shared a bus ride from the army base in Mannar to see a newly rebuilt bridge to Mannar Island. “But we just didn’t stop.”
With the war ended and the Tigers vanquished, the Tamils, who are mostly Hindus, remain uncertain about their future. Yet, even as they remain sullen — the recent Deepavali festival was greeted with an eerie silence across the island — Tamils are aware that many of the deaths were at the hands of Tigers themselves.
The guerrillas held them as defensive shields, correctly figuring that large-scale civilian deaths would inflame world opinion. That stigma, and that of the continuing detention of more than 200,000 Tamils in barbed wire-fringed refugee camps, continue to hover over the Rajapaksa government.
At Kopay Camp in Jaffna, one of the best-appointed refugee facilities, women separated from their husbands wailed to be reunited with their spouses. Young Tamil children cheered and waved as they clung to barbed wire that prevented them from leaving.
The European Union has threatened to cut off the special trade benefit, called GSP+, if the refugees are not released promptly, endangering the livelihoods of some 300,000 garment workers on the island. Colombo responded that it bears the responsibility to clear minefields and to ensure a decent life for the displaced people. It also has to make sure ‘terrorism’ on the island does not rise again. Meanwhile, it has promised to see 100,000 Tamil people home by year-end.
“Living conditions have improved but there is a deep-seated yearning among the Tamils to be allowed to go home,” said V. Puththirasigamoney, a Tamil deputy minister who is in charge of one of the camps.
Interviews with the United Nations Development Programme and officials of the UN’s International Organisation for Migration (IOM) confirmed that assessment. “There are concerns about freedom of movement but the refugees are held in conditions no better or worse than camps elsewhere in South Asia,” says an IOM official.
To be sure, Sri Lanka can never fully be at peace until the Tamils are back in their homes and once again feel they have a stake in the political process. Many continue to seek ways to flee to countries as distant as Indonesia and Australia, paying huge sums of money to boat owners for the uncomfortable passage.
“There are misgivings at the moment that Tamils are being left out,” said Singapore’s Ambassador-at-large Gopinath Pillai, who accompanied Foreign Minister George Yeo on a trip to Sri Lanka last week. “Mainstreaming them will bring huge benefits to an island that has so much potential.”
The government has been slow to move on a political settlement.
At least, it would need to devolve some powers to the administration in Tamil areas, particularly in matters of land and police. The optimists expect President Rajapaksa, now hobbled by the compulsions of coalition politics, to move swiftly once parliamentary elections are held early next year. By current estimates, his party should secure a two-thirds majority, giving him the mandate to change laws.
For all the ferocity with which he fought the rebels, Rajapaksa is reckoned to be sympathetic to the Tamil minority. “After a long time I am getting the impression that the Sinhalese mean something,” said Singapore gynaecologist C. Anandakumar, an ethnic Tamil who has made five trips to Sri Lanka since the war ended. “They paid a big price and are not prepared to see the same thing again.” — The Straits Times
Four months after the Sri Lankan army wiped out the entire top leadership of the Tamil Tigers, The Straits Times South Asia Bureau Chief Ravi Velloor met Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollogama at his Colombo home to discuss the island's prospects for peace and its economic and foreign policy options. Here are excerpts from the interview.
How did George Yeo's recent visit to Sri Lanka go?
There was a connecting of minds. He saw what Sri Lanka could offer in the post-conflict scenario. Singapore has always been a leading investor in Sri Lanka and its assessment of the country is always a good barometer for others. In terms of direct investment in Sri Lanka, its contribution can already be seen in Colombo's skyline. There is so much of the services sector Singapore could get involved in.
What are the chances of an FTA?
George Yeo himself brought this up. Coming from a man who is a former trade minister, it is a good indication for us to respond to such an instrument. We have had great success in our FTAs with India and Pakistan. And it can lead to other areas, what we call 'comprehensive economic cooperation'. I will be reporting to the Cabinet and we can then start the process.
How long along the road are you on national reconciliation?
All the factors in our road map are heading towards the direction of greater reconciliation and healing. We have already started refugee resettlement. It is an opportune time for the Jaffna Tamil community and its friends abroad to look at Sri Lanka again. The President's first call after the war was for the Sri Lankan community abroad to come back and be part of Sri Lanka's integration. This is something our friends abroad should pick up and respond to.
When will the last of the internally displaced people (IDP) go home?
We would like to see them in their homes tomorrow.
What is a realistic timeframe?
The infrastructure must meet IDP requirements. For that, we are accelerating our efforts with support from the international community. The process can be accelerated and expedited which, we believe, will be (completed by) early next year.
Will all the IDP be resettled before the elections?
Current estimates are 100,000 by the end of the year. That is a good number to initially target and realise.
What role do you see for the former LTTE members?
We have gone through rehabilitation programmes for the last 40 years. In the early 1970s after the Marxist JVP's first insurrection, some 60,000 of them got into rehabilitation. Followed by 1989-90, when another 90,000 were rehabilitated. Going by our past record, some have ended up as Cabinet ministers. Some are university professors. Some leading businessmen today are from former JVP elements. There are 40 former JVP elements in Parliament. That speaks well for our quality of rehabilitation. Similarly, the 10,000 (currently) in camps should come out well and play a useful role in their own lives and in society.
What about crimes they committed?
If there are grave crimes, that lot we can always deal with due process of law.
Now that the war has ended, what new foreign policy options do you see?
We now have the opportunity to talk to the world with the widest possible engagement politically and economically. We are very closely engaged with permanent members of the UN Security Council. With India we are fully engaged, encouraging the widest possible investment and trade promotion.
We have taken Sri Lanka into several international platforms, from the ARF (Asean Regional Forum) to the Asian Cooperation Dialogue. We are also chair of Saarc (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation). We are setting up embassies in the African continent. China-Sri Lanka relationship is very special and a growing one.
Where do you see the China engagement going?
It is very close and I call it very special because they have supported our economic agenda and us politically in the Security Council.
What about the port China is building for you in Hambantota? Will there be a Chinese naval base some day?
They have not asked. There are no such indications that have come our way. Why should we go by fiction and hypothesis on matters of importance? If they wanted to ask, they would have by now.
Will there be a defence relationship?
Not really. Because I see India is our immediate neighbour and our close friend. That also is a unique relationship. India has been very supportive of our efforts for seeking sustainable peace in Sri Lanka. We are quite pleased with the current defence make-up of Sri Lanka.
Could there now be an India-Sri Lanka defence agreement which you once wanted?
What is important is we see India and Sri Lanka having the closest security cooperation. That is now very evident.
What about Trincomalee port?
We have got substantial foreign investments from Singapore, Japan, India in that area. There is still scope for wider expansion of that harbour and port.
Is it true you offered it to India as a base for its Indian Ocean strategy?
No. We have made no such offer.
Last year, you backed off from signing a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (Cepa) with India at the last minute...
We have to see it in terms of the bilateral context with India as well as address some of our domestic compulsions. We have encouraged a greater consultation process with our chambers to eliminate some of the fears they may have. Maybe we could move on Cepa after the elections. FDI (foreign direct investment) from India is wide and growing. You cannot see a Sri Lankan development effort without linking it to India.
What about Asean?
We should have been members in 1966, when we were invited. Forty-three years after, we would like a broader, wider Asean. It is a good vehicle in the spirit of Asia. We are members of ARF, so that gives us some links. But we are still more outside the group than inside. It is something Asean should look at - how to incorporate some of the outer members. If we were invited 43 years ago, we are more eligible to be invited now.
You scored a coup with the arrest of the LTTE finance chief Kumaran Pathmanathan - also known as KP - two months ago in Malaysia. How did you nab him and what has he told you?
KP is in the custody of our system. We are getting a lot of access to information. As to how it happened, I wouldn't want to detail.
Do you see a political role for KP in future?
Sri Lanka won't deny opportunities for its people. As far as KP is Sri Lankan, how he has to be dealt with is a process that has to take its course since he is an arrested person and detained. Let us see how things go on.