By Marwaan Macan-Markar –
Billboards promise a futuristic paradise on the road that leads to this sleepy fishing town on Sri Lanka’s southern coast. Smiling pictures of the country’s president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, appear on most of them. Others include his siblings or sons — members of the large Rajapaksa clan who hail from this region and effectively run post-conflict Sri Lanka.
A short distance from Hambantota, about 190km from the capital Colombo, are early signs of the planned transformation of this flat terrain of shrubs and forests teeming with wildlife. An international airport has been carved out of a jungle inhabited by elephants. A gleaming cricket stadium now rises out of a dust bowl. The centerpiece of this Rajapaksa-led development model is a massive new harbor.
The president, after whom both the airport and port are named, is receiving kudos from devout voters here. “The president is the lifeblood of this area. Look at Hambantota, it is even better than Colombo,” remarked convenience store owner Sujith Sayakkara, 33. “Before, this place was nothing more than shrub jungle.”
He also has China to thank. The Magampura Mahinda Rajapaksa Port is the result of loans from the Asian giant. The first phase of the port, costing $320 million, taps Hambantota’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean, just next to one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, traversed by 70,000 vessels annually.
Read more in the Nikkei Asian Review