By Marwaan Macan-Markar –
After Sri Lankan troops crushed the Tamil Tiger rebels in a final, bloody battle near the north-eastern coast in May 2009, visions of prosperity across the country were bandied by the triumphant Colombo regime. Slogans that satisfied the ruling establishment, under the grip of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, were unfurled. The South Asian island was promoted as a “Wonder of Asia” to attract foreign investors and visitors. The assumption by the national cheerleaders was simple: with the battle won — ending a nearly 30-year separatist war where over 100,000 people were killed — the entire country was fertile ground for an economic take off.
The two-and-a-half years that followed appeared to support the optimism that a peace dividend was on the cards. The country’s small stock exchange, valued at US$ 14.5 billion, reached new heights, even being ranked as the world’s best performing bourse in 2010. The travel pages in the major international media played their part, offering a positive spin to a country that had for years provided headlines about suicide bombers, massacres and grim death tolls after military campaigns. They began promoting Sri Lanka’s assorted mix of beaches, wildlife game reserves, its ancient royal cities, and the tea-covered slopes of the hill country as welcome fresh trails for tourists to explore. Keeping pace was the boom in hotel construction, capped by the new symbol of this age – the Seven Star, 661-room Shangri La Hotel, a US$ 500 million investment being built facing the Indian Ocean in Colombo.
Foreign examples were invoked to strengthen the claim that Sri Lanka had turned a significant political corner. They helped to support the argument that stability was now assured and all nationals were welcome to build a modern economy from the ashes of a civil war. And Singapore became a favourite in this mix. The affluent city-state made its way into public discussions in the press and on websites. That Sri Lanka could be Asia’s next Singapore – or even better – evolved as a favourite line.
There was little mystery why Southeast Asia’s most successful economic story would emerge as a Sri Lankan benchmark to strive for. It is rooted in the belief that Sri Lanka – or Ceylon, as it was then known – was once better than Singapore on economic and social fronts. This sense of one-upmanship over a past fact is hard to ignore. After all, such an insight was revealed by no less a person than the founding father of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew. During a visit to Ceylon in the late 1950s, a young Lee had not only remarked that Ceylon’s development indicators were far ahead of his island at the time, but he had wanted Singapore to become another Ceylon.
Unfortunately, the visions of Sri Lanka attempting to reclaim lost ground in the race to become a developed, modern success story have only been shaped by physical trappings. A new harbor, a new international airport, new roads and a new performing arts centre funded by Chinese loans and investments are among the visible. So, too, are the new high-rise buildings coming up to redefine Colombo’s skyline. They enabled the government to boast of crossing US$ 1.66 billion in foreign direct investments (FDI) in 2011, the highest ever annual foreign investment flows since the country’s board of investment was set up in the late 1970s. Last year saw FDI come as close, hitting US$ 1.2 billion.
But such indicators avoid a deeper crisis that continues to grip this country of predominantly Sinhalese-Buddhist. It goes back to the days when then Ceylon’s fall from grace began (something that even the Singapore’s Lee took note to avoid copying). It was part of the reason the country’s largest minority, the Tamils, gave birth after decades of race riots to a Tamil Tiger killing machine. It is the crisis of modernism that has haunted most post-colonial states– of striving to find a balanced political order, a fair legal system, and a state and its representatives that respects and protects each citizen as equals. It is the idea that genuinely encourages a multi-cultural landscape, ensuring a sense of equality for both the majority and minority ethnic groups. In other words, an inclusive society.
The island’s history after gaining independence from British colonization in 1948 was drawn to something more emotional, a trend that naturally resonated with the majority community – the politics of reclaiming a past shaped by Sinhala kingdoms. Buddhist monks were pivotal in the quest to reestablish a predominantly Sinhalese-Buddhist polity. So, too, were political leaders who found that appealing to ethnic passions than resolving the economic and social fault lines through good governance more profitable at the polls. This political tinderbox was shaped by both Sinhalese and Tamil leaders, paving the way to a devastating war that put Sri Lanka on the map of countries cursed by toxic ethnic politics.
So, one would have thought that after such a bloodied history, Sri Lanka’s post-war narrative would have given cause for a more enlightened approach. Rather than being only impressed by Singapore’s development indicators, its efficient, functioning system, Sri Lanka’s ruling class could have drawn lessons from the ideas of equality and respect for multiple ethnicities – some of the pillars behind the city-state’s achievements. There are other examples of how a confident, modern state designs its future: always looking forward, driven by new opportunities, being open to new ideas and promoting and rewarding excellence. They are values that enable a country to transcend the narrow confines of religious or ethnic extremism and become a relevant player on the global stage.
But as Sri Lanka approaches its fourth anniversary since the war ended, a ghost from the past has reappeared. It is the story of making Sri Lanka an even stronger Sinhala-Buddhist nation as a primary political and cultural objective. This time, an aggressive network of Buddhist monks – rallying under the banner of the ‘Bodu Bala Sena’(BBS or Buddhist Power Force) – have set their sights on tormenting the country’s second largest minority, the Muslims, in the latest assertion of extreme majoritarianism. Public rallies in cities and towns have been held to plant the seeds of hatred among the Sinhalese-Buddhists – who make up nearly 75 percent of the country’s 20 million population – against the Muslims, who account for nearly nine percent. In addition to campaigning against Muslim food habits and the clothes Muslim women wear, the BBS has also accused popular Muslim-owned clothing stores of distributing sweets to Sinhalese women that lead to infertility, and selling belts to Sinhalese men that damage their testicles.
If the rise of the Shagri La Hotel in a seafront stretch of Colombo is what the Rajapaksa regime wants to hold out as a sign of post-war Sri Lanka’s future direction, then the BBS clearly offers other ideas. This group, which has the support of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the powerful defence secretary and presidential sibling, achieved this through its treatment of another building – a Muslim-owned clothing store, Fashion Bug, in a Colombo suburb. It was attacked.
The mob that led the recent assault included stone wielding Buddhist monks. Other signs of the state — even the police — supporting the BBS have continued elsewhere, exposing the trap Sri Lanka still finds itself in. It is an imprimatur that has provided sufficient oxygen for such a troubling spectre to grow. Undermined, as a result, are more pressing needs of the hour, such as a rise of a genuine civic nationalism. And this, sadly, leaves room for one obvious outcome: a tale of fear and ethnic hatred foretold.
*Marwaan Macan-Markar, a Sri Lankan journalist, is a foreign correspondent who has been reporting from Southeast Asia since 2001, following a posting in Mexico City. A version of this essay was published in The Edge Review, www.theedgereview.com, a new Southeast Asian magazine launched in Kuala Lumpur