23 March, 2023


Rajapaksa, Cricket And Power Politics In Sri Lanka

By Vaibhav Vats –

Vaibhav Vats

Until a few years ago, Hambantota was an obscure town in south-central Sri Lanka, around 190 kilometers (118 miles)  from the capital Colombo, with a population that barely exceeded 10,000. Its daily rhythms were defined by the twin activities of farming and fishing. But once Mahinda Rajapaksa, one of its native sons, became president in 2005, all that began to change.

Mr Rajapaksa’s dream was to transform his sleepy hometown into a modern industrial city, an urban hub to rival Colombo, the country’s capital. His ambitious plans for Hambantota included a 2,000 hectare international airport costing $210 million, while another $360 million were to be spent on the construction of a seaport.

These projects were under way in 2011 when I visited Hambantota while reporting on the cricket World Cup. Of the 13 cities that hosted the tournament, in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India, Hambantota was the most unlikely venue of all. In the Colombo newspapers, there was persistent talk of Hambantota’s transformation into a world-class city. But the great claims seemed hollow, because Hambantota was still a largely rural expanse. In one of the tournament’s matches, elephants had appeared at the boundary fence of the stadium.

I had arrived in Hambantota exactly 100 years after Leonard Woolf made a journey in the opposite direction. As a fresh-faced 24-year-old, Mr. Woolf had been inducted into the colonial Ceylon Civil Service. Following spells in Kandy and Jaffna, he arrived in Hambantota in 1908 as the chief administrative and judicial officer. Mr. Woolf was said to be an active civil servant, enthusiastically traversing the district on his pony and occasionally by bicycle. In 1911, after three years in Hambantota, he left for England on leave but subsequently resigned from the job.

In 1913, Mr. Woolf wrote “The Village in the Jungle,” a novel inspired by his years in Hambantota. This was a year after he had married the 30-year-old writer Virginia Stephen — the novel is dedicated to her. Not possessing the literary genius of his rather more famous spouse, it was one of only two novels that Mr. Woolf ever wrote. Later, he was to call that book “a symbol of the anti-imperialism which had been growing upon me more and more in my last years in Ceylon.”

Under the circumstances, it was ironic that, a century later, Hambantota was succumbing to an enterprise whose thrust and motivations had distinctly imperial overtones. Soon after arriving, I found myself in the office of Azmi Thassim, director-general of the Hambantota District Chamber of Commerce. A tall, impressive figure in his mid-50s, Mr. Thassim appeared minutes later, returning from afternoon prayers. He quickly set about his task, handing me thick brochures and narrating the grand designs envisaged for the town, with a practiced air.

He had known Mr. Rajapaksa for a long time, he said; they both grew up in Hambantota. Mr. Thassim’s wife and Mr. Rajapaksa, as practicing lawyers, had been colleagues. Mr. Thassim fondly recalled weekends spent playing cricket with Mr. Rajapaksa in inter-bar matches. “We used to have lunch regularly. Often we would go for a swim,” he said. And then, to emphasize that his proximity with Mr. Rajapaksa had not waned, he continued, “Just a couple of days back, I called him and said hello.”

I asked Mr. Thassim about his early impressions of Mr. Rajapaksa. Mr. Thassim’s reply was revealing in a way he had probably not intended. “Mr. Rajapaksa was a fighter, always very aggressive,” he said. “But he always had the common touch.”

Did he ever think that Mr. Rajapaksa would be president someday? “No, never,” Mr. Thassim exclaimed. “I knew he would become a minister or some such senior figure, but never thought he’ll be president. That’s luck.”

For all the talk and the public relations blitz, Hambantota was little more than a vast emptiness at the time of my visit. The only thing that could be said to be complete was the cricket stadium. But, and this was another surprise, the stadium was not in the town of Hambantota. It was in Sooriyawewa, more than 30 kilometers (20 miles) away to Hambantota’s northeast. The journey was on a deserted highway flanked by thick forest on either side.

The auto-rickshaw driver ferrying me was a young man called Shifar. Mr. Shifar, 20, belonged to the district’s substantial Malay community. As he drove on the highway, in a landscape as removed from the skyscrapers of Kuala Lumpur as could be imagined, Mr. Shifar reclined and rested one foot beside the steering. There was no fear of oncoming vehicles.

“How long would it take for this place to become a full-fledged city?” I had asked Mr. Thassim. “Twenty years,” he had replied, “depending on whether the government is able to raise funds.” Hambantota’s future was intimately linked to Mr. Rajapaksa’s staying in power.

Another vast obstacle facing Hambantota was the fact that it was a dry zone. It seemed a calamitous risk for a project of this scale to exist at a site where the supply of water was not assured.

By Sri Lankan standards, Hambantota has an unusually harsh landscape. Once you cross Tangalle, from lush green, the terrain assumes a faint yellow hue. As we traveled in Mr. Shifar’s auto-rickshaw, large signs put up in the wilderness alerted me to another startling fact: Hambantota was vying to host the 2018 Commonwealth Games. I had seen the strain and destruction Delhi had undergone to host the 2010 Commonwealth Games and it defied comprehension how Hambantota, not yet even a city, could take on an event of such magnitude. Fortunately, for its own sake, Hambantota lost the bid later that year to the Australian city of Gold Coast.

After a monotonous hourlong drive, the cricket stadium appeared. Two floodlights towers rose above the surrounding jungle. MAHINDA RAJAPAKSA INTERNATIONAL CRICKET STADIUM — the name was inscribed in baroque capital lettering. There was little human activity in its vicinity. I could not think of a stranger location for a cricket stadium.

Because it was an hour away from the nearest urban settlement, it was impossible to see how this stadium could sustain itself financially. The full houses seen at its World Cup games, I was told, had been an exercise in propaganda. Mr. Shifar had attended one of the games. He spoke frankly of how they had been handed free tickets and herded to the stadium.

During our conversation, Mr. Thassim admitted that maintenance of the stadium would be a “challenge.” A few months after I visited, the challenge proved to be insurmountable. Sri Lanka Cricket, the game’s national governing body, stated it could no longer afford the upkeep of Hambantota’s stadium and two others. They were handed over to the military.
In the evening, after we had returned to Hambantota’s main town, Mr. Shifar took me to one of the Malay cafes facing the harbor. I spoke to Mr. Mansoor, the owner of the cafe, and asked for his thoughts on the transformation of Hambantota. “What does it matter?” Mr. Mansoor replied wearily. “We are not getting any jobs. They are building all these concrete buildings, but what about us?’

The massive seaport under construction was only a few hundred meters from Mr. Mansoor’s cafe. The port was being built with Chinese support, through a heavily subsidized loan. The condition, in return, was that Chinese workers would be employed. As many as 50,000 workers from China were said to present in the area. While entering Hambantota, I had seen sprawling work sheds with Mandarin signage. The port became operational in June 2012 and was named in Hambantota Mahinda Rajapaksa International Port. According to the Sri Lankan press, 93 ships have already docked in Hambantota port and the 100th ship is expected to dock there in a few weeks.

Mr. Rajapaksa continues to leave the imprint of his rule on his hometown. In March, the Sri Lankan president inaugurated the country’s third international airport in Hambantota. The airport on the outskirts of his hometown is again named after his family: Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport. Some of its residents struggle to recognize it.  “We will become strangers in our own town,” said Mr. Mansoor.

*Vaibhav Vats’ first book, Triumph in Bombay: Travels During the Cricket World Cup, will be published this month by Penguin Viking India.  This essay has been excerpted from the book.This article first appeared in India Blogs- New York Times under the title “Cricket And Power Politics In Sri Lanka”

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Latest comments

  • 0

    …..And on the pedestal these words appear,
    ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
    Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.’ – from Ozymandias by Shelley

  • 0

    Appropriate poem – Taraki. Every large State venture started from 1956 began with an account of how much wealth, employment and prosperity it would create; how much foreign-exchange it would save and so on. Most of them had some form of justification – proximity to raw material etc., Almost all of them failed due largely to the dynamics associated with low productivity and corruption in State enterprises – a reality that took the Soviet Union and its allies nearly three-quarter century to realise and do away with. China too made the shift 2 decades ago. India has now become a fairly substantial industrial-agricultural power due to their shift from State focus to private enterprise. Sri Lanka moving in that direction is strange.

    Meaning no ill, it is safe to say most of these mega-projects started by the Rajapakses in the Hambantota Electorate are more likely not to succeed. Some of them will disturb the man-environment ratio badly.
    The huge sums spent both in the sea and airport should have been spent to improve our already well established airport at Katunayake and the Colombo Harbour. But here the objective appears to be parochially personal and political with absolutely no regard to the wider interest of the country. I am aware Colombo Vehicle importers were up in arms when the regime decided vehicle imports will have to reach Hambantota for clearance instead of the far cheaper Colombo Port. The people, the larger poorer segments particularly, will be forced to pay for these irresponsible misadventures vide higher indirect taxes – on bread, flour, vegetables and foodstuffs, petrol, electricity, bus/train charges, transport, water rates and many other. Many of our well performing industries will become less competitive in the export market.

    Elsewhere in these pages we read Sri Lanka sinks further in the Failed Society Index. Does anyone need any reminder here?


  • 0

    Hambantota is an MASSIVE ENVIRONMENTAL DISASTER unfolding before our eyes in the NAME OF DEVELOPMENT by the Rajapakse Brotherhood of uneducated and corrupt fools.. The mystery is why does not the media and the opposition EXPOSE this development Disaster that is a very bad joke!

    Hambantota fauna and flora is at risk – while all the Chinese loans are piling on the National debt and crashing the SL rupee. In Hambtota today rhere is a port WITHOUT ships, and Airport without planes and six lane highway without cars, a cricket stadium used a couple of times a year and a convention centre for Namal Rajapassa to have a couple of “youth frolics”… Rajapassa just took another massive loan from China to maintain these white elephants – throwing good money after bad!
    And another environmental development disaster is in the making A Chinese Company is building a PORT CITY in front of Galle Face- for more tourist hotels and a Formula 1 race track. BUT NO ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT ASSESSMENT has been done. We know that when sand is consolidated in one place, upstream and down stream erosion will take place. The new port construction in Fort has eroded the Mount Lavinia beach as the Deputy Mayor pointed out at a book launch on Public Space at the ARTI.
    With a guy who does not have a BA degree calling himself Minister of Economic Development – Basil Rajapake – the clown who thinks that Casinos and low end service providing to cheap tourists is DEVELOPMENT – you do not need to blame the Chinese or the WORLD BANK, IMF or Multinational Corporations for the development disaster that the miracle of Asia is. It is the POLICY MAKERS of LANKA STUPID!
    Of course WB and IMF are contributing to the ruin of Lanka – today funding (giving LOANS) to Gota the goon’s Ministry of Defense via the Urban Development Authority and funding the militarization of Lanka for city “beautification” and guess what – de-development of society and governance.
    There is NO transparency with World Bank funds give the UDA under Ministry of Defense. The World Bank talks big about GOOD GOVERNANCE – but is contributing funds to the militarization and deterioration of governance structures by the Rajapassa brothers who are looting Lanka…

  • 0

    How come the writer picked up only Muslims in a Town full of Non Muslims and these Muslims criticize the President and his development plans. This is some kind of inducing communal feeling among Sinhalese Majority. Mr.Vaibhav Vats -when you write take in to account the factors which will not hurt others. And CT never never talk any thing positive of Sri Lanka.

    • 0

      That is because there is nothing POSITIVE to talk of Sri Lanka??

  • 0

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  • 0

    I* think the year was 2007.When the proposal for constructing an Airport at Mattale appearied on the media,the popular Weekly Science journal Vidusara carried out on its Front page the impact that it will cause to the Environment.Many criticized Environmentalists are always against development,and development cannot be undertaken without damage to the Environment.
    Now what has happened?

  • 0

    These b..ds should be “put to the sword” for what they are doing to this country as they would in days gone by. Nothing else would suffice.

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