“The Government of Sri Lanka (GSL) touts the ‘economic success’ in Eastern Sri Lanka, where the fighting ended in 2007, as its blueprint for the reconstruction of Northern Sri Lanka. Econoff found that the base economy in the East of paddy rice farming and fishing has bounced back, the GSL has improved the road network, and the number of security checkpoints has been reduced. Two new apparel factories have been established, albeit with heavy subsidies, and there is tourism development potential. However, the GSL has not been effective in overcoming other impediments to economic development. Most strikingly, there is local resentment that large Sinhalese companies from Colombo are receiving the prime tourist plots and government contracts to the exclusion of local entrepreneurs.” the US Embassy Colombo informed Washington.
She wrote; “The Tamil Diaspora could be an enormous resource for Eastern reconstruction, but the Diaspora has not invested yet. Our contacts gave several possible reasons, including that they were waiting for the political situation to stabilize, they were afraid that investment funds could be seized by the GSL, or they did not feel safe yet. Nevertheless, some Diaspora had visited the East, some were interested, and locals hoped that investments would come in the future.”
We publish below the statement in full;
UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 04 COLOMBO 000010 SENSITIVE SIPDIS DEPARTMENT PLEASE PASS TO UNITED STATES AGENCY FOR INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT E.O. 12958: N/A TAGS: CE EAGR EAID ECON EFIN ETRD PGOV PHUM SUBJECT: EASTERN SRI LANKA MAKES POST-WAR ECONOMIC PROGRESS; ECONOMIC RESENTMENT LINGERS REF: A) COLOMBO 1109 B)COLOMBO 1136 ¶1. (SBU) Summary. The Government of Sri Lanka (GSL) touts the 'economic success' in Eastern Sri Lanka, where the fighting ended in 2007, as its blueprint for the reconstruction of Northern Sri Lanka. Econoff found that the base economy in the East of paddy rice farming and fishing has bounced back, the GSL has improved the road network, and the number of security checkpoints has been reduced. Two new apparel factories have been established, albeit with heavy subsidies, and there is tourism development potential. However, the GSL has not been effective in overcoming other impediments to economic development. Most strikingly, there is local resentment that large Sinhalese companies from Colombo are receiving the prime tourist plots and government contracts to the exclusion of local entrepreneurs. End Summary. Background on the Eastern Province ¶2. (U) Econoff visited two of the three districts in the Eastern Province, Batticaloa and Trincomalee. Batticaloa is almost entirely agricultural with little or no industry. A local business leader estimated that the Batticaloa population is 80% Tamil and 20% Muslim with almost no Sinhalese Buddhists. Trincomalee has paddy rice production and fishing, but also possesses the world,s second largest natural harbor and several industries. The population of Trincomalee is almost evenly split between Tamils, Muslims and Buddhists. Basic Agricultural and Fishing Economy Bounces Back ¶3. (U) Agricultural rice production and the fishing industry have quickly bounced back in both Batticaloa and Trincomalee. The Government Agent in Batticaloa described how paddy rice production has more than doubled since the end of the war in 2007, increasing from 25,000 hectares in 2007 to 58,000 hectares in 2009. Moreover, the fish catch rose from 10,000 metric tons in 2007 to 17,000 metric tons in ¶2009. The dramatic increases in paddy production and fish catch were confirmed by business and NGO contacts. The pattern is the same in Trincomalee, where paddy rice cultivation has increased from 150,000 hectares in 2007 to 200,000 hectares in 2008 and 227,000 hectares in 2009. Similarly, the fish catch has also increased sharply. A government aligned academic stated that the GDP had risen 16% in the East as abandoned land has been put back into production. ¶4. (SBU) All of the local contacts, from government officials to business leaders to NGOs, agreed that the GSL has substantially improved the road system in the Eastern Province. Much of the road improvements have been funded with Tsunami resources from donors. The road system still is not complete; the primary roads in Trincomalee were new but the roads in Batticaloa were in worse shape. The GSL has also improved the rural roads, but they are still below the national roads in the East. The improved roads have brought real benefits in terms of reduced agricultural spoilage during transportation (40% of the crops was lost before), and better roads for tourists. There still are problems. There were heavy rains during econoff,s trip, and some bridges were un-passable and some people were cut off in a remote area. ¶5. (SBU) Although there are still many checkpoints, there are fewer than before, so security checkpoints no longer appear to be a major drag on commerce. USAID,s office on Connecting Regional Economies (CORE) conducted a study of logistics in the East, and found that security checkpoints were a major impediment to trade before the end of the Tamil Tiger war in May 2009. At that time trucks went through multiple checkpoints where they frequently needed to unload their cargo, taking hours at each checkpoint and sometimes damaging the cargo. There have been dramatic improvements, with many fewer checkpoints, and drivers are stopped only if COLOMBO 00000010 002.3 OF 004 they do not have proper documentation. Econoff observed many checkpoints, but almost all cars and trucks were lazily waved through, and usually the checkpoint was empty. Our contacts did state that there are still some roads which are off limits to civilians, and security around key areas, such as the port or government officials, remains tight. Tourism is the Sector with the Most Near Term Potential ¶6. (SBU) Although the East has world class beaches and other tourist attractions, so far only domestic tourists are visiting Eastern Sri Lankan, and long term growth will depend on greatly improved tourist facilities. According to the CORE study sponsored by USAID, the East Coast only has eight 'graded' hotel establishments, with 230 beds. The occupancy rate in these hotels was 22% in 2008, but this has increased so much in Trincomalee (due to domestic tourism) that it can be hard to get a room in one of the few decent hotels there. The accommodations in Batticaloa are well below international standards, and members of the Batticaloa Chamber of Commerce said that travelers usually do not stop there but stay in neighboring districts. The growth in International tourism would be aided by a large airport, but the Trincomalee airport only has a couple of flights per week. Tourists must take a day long trip each way from Colombo in order to visit. ¶7. (SBU) As part of the GSL,s goal to increase tourist arrivals from 500,000 per year to 2,500,000 by 2016, the GSL is allocating land for tourist development in Trincomalee . Our contacts agreed that all or almost all of the prime tourist land was being allocated by the government to Colombo (Sinhalese) firms, and local companies were being shut out. The Government Agent for Trincomalee (appointed by President Rajapaksa and in charge of the area) said that he allocated land based on factors such as capacity to develop international hotels, financing, experience and environmental considerations. The government agent, Major General de Silva, added that the local companies simply do not have the capacity to build a large international hotel. Members of the Trincomalee Chamber of Commerce implicitly agree, by arguing that the government needed to provide them with bank loans and allow them to build small hotels or guest houses. Other contacts alleged that the prime tourist land was distributed by the GSL based on favoritism. In any case, although Colombo firms have taken the land, they have not begun work, but they are waiting until after the upcoming elections season to begin investing. The CORE study projects that if hotel construction begins in the next two years, it will be up to five years until the hotels are open and operational. Progress in Batticaloa is much further behind, as the local business leaders are discussing building a single three star hotel to house business travelers. ¶8. (SBU) The port of Trincomalee is the second largest natural harbor in the world (after Rotterdam), but it has not served as a catalyst for regional development. The Trincomalee Port has three large companies: Prima Wheat Mill, Indian Oil Company and Toyota Cement, and each company has a private dock to import their industrial inputs. The main dock is little used aside from some shipments of coal. The port director has big plans to create a dry dock for repairing ships and gaining some of the regional transshipment trade. None of our other business or government contacts foresee any major development of the Trincomalee Port, other than an Indian-financed coal power plant. According to a CORE study, the Port of Trincomalee receives 4% of the Sri Lankan import cargoes, measured by weight. Econoff met with GSL officials in Colombo, who have great plans to expand the Port of Colombo (currently receiving 95% of Sri Lanka,s cargo) and to build an enormous port in President Rajapaksa,s home region of Hambantota in the South, but few plans are underway to expand the Port of Trincomalee. ¶9. (SBU) The GSL plans to expand Trincomalee,s industrial base are having limited success. Sri Lanka is not COLOMBO 00000010 003 OF 004 keeping their present industrial base happy. The Prima Wheat mill has plans to expand, but it has been unable to do so for two years because they have not received the required 13 permits. Indian Oil is also frustrated that the government prevents it from importing more oil and opening more service stations, since the Indian Oil service stations compete with the government gas stations. When asked about the Trincomalee business climate, one business leader said that he would not recommend investing in Trincomalee because there is too much red tape and the wage costs are increasing. The GSL established an export processing zone near Trincomalee, but despite constructing several buildings they have been unable to lure any companies to the EPZ. Even the successes create problems. The GSL has an agreement to build an Indian-financed coal plant in the Port of Trincomalee, but to clear the necessary land the GSL has relocated 2,000 people from their land to new government allocated land, which has generated complaints. There are two apparel factories in the East, Brandix and TriStar. Econoff visited Brandix, established by a large Colombo company with the laudatory goal of bring together workers from the Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim communities. The GSL has provided heavy subsidies through a five year income tax holiday for the entire company to the Brandix factory. USAID in a public/private partnership is financing training for the 600 local workers from all three ethnic communities, many of whom are war widows, former combatants, or women from Internally Displaced Persons camps. Brandix even requires the work teams to eat lunch together, or else the different ethnic groups would self segregate for lunch. The Brandix factory is not yet profitable, however, as there has been heavy turnover of 30-40% (Muslim girls in particular quit due to family pressure), and Brandix must work on soft work skills with their employees, such as the importance of coming to work on time every day. Econoff visited the factory, which was short staffed due to a threat of poor weather, and observed a good portion of the workers chatting rather than industriously sewing clothes. Econoff was also told that the TriStar factory receives heavy subsidies, although it was not clear if these were more than the five year tax holiday.. Impediments to Increased Economic Development ¶10. (SBU) Land issues are a major problem in the East. The local government has a difficult time determining land title, since the LTTE controlled certain areas for years and people who were forcibly evicted from their lands are coming back and demanding their land. The Government Agent of Batticaloa stated that land title is an enormous headache. In urban areas the title owners may have left 20-30 years ago, then other people have lived in the houses and improved them, or bought and sold them. The government experiences the same problem in Trincomalee, and there the GSL gives the returnees new land instead of their original plots. The situation in the country is even harder, because many paddy farmers never had property title in the first place. The land was left uncultivated for years due to the war, and now the government is trying to allocate land between the current occupants and the returnees. Several representatives of the United Nations thought that the government was distributing land based on favoritism and bribes, and that the land issue has stirred up ethnic division. Land title is also required for bank financing. ¶11. (SBU) Although state and private sector banks have increased their branches in the East, local business leaders still cannot get loans. Members of the Batticaloa and Trincomalee Chambers of Commerce complained bitterly that they could not receive bank loans because there were too many paper requirements, and they lacked proper land title or other collateral, so they turned to the informal market where the interest rates were twice as high. A regional representative from Hatton National Bank reported that it was hard to find good projects for lending, and they only lend out 45% of the money taken in through deposits. ¶12. (SBU) There are also several cases where water COLOMBO 00000010 004 OF 004 shortages restrict economic growth. The East has ample rainfall three months for one paddy rice crop, but the second crop requires irrigation. Water shortages can create problems for industry. For example, a proposed pineapple processing plant never materialized because the GSL could not guarantee water supplies. ¶13. (SBU) Eastern farmers and fisherman are also impacted by the lack of storage facilities and value added food processing. Since they cannot store their rice or fish catch, farmers and fishermen must sell immediately to Colombo middlemen to transport the goods, reputedly at very low prices. The East also exports raw fish, with no processing, so there is less value added. There is progress in the dairy sector, where, with USAID assistance, there are new milk storage facilities so cattle farmers receive higher returns. ¶14. (SBU) The GSL Board of Investment (BOI) provides 15-20 year tax holidays for investments in the North and East, but locals have little enthusiasm for the BOI incentives. Although large Colombo companies are receiving BOI incentives, members of the Batticaloa Chamber of Commerce said that locals did not know how to write proposals, they did not have the proper collateral of capacity, so none of them have received BOI incentives. ¶15. (SBU) The Tamil Diaspora could be an enormous resource for Eastern reconstruction, but the Diaspora has not invested yet. Our contacts gave several possible reasons, including that they were waiting for the political situation to stabilize, they were afraid that investment funds could be seized by the GSL, or they did not feel safe yet. Nevertheless, some Diaspora had visited the East, some were interested, and locals hoped that investments would come in the future. Strong Ethnic Tension ¶16. (SBU) Our contacts saw all local issues, from government allocation of land and contract awards, through an ethnic prism. Several contacts worried that Tamils and Muslims were being shoved aside in favor of Sinhalese from Colombo or the South. The area still felt militarized, with frequent security checkpoints, although people were waved through. Former military leaders hold key unelected positions and represent the federal government, such as Eastern Province Governor Rear Admiral Wijewickrema and the Trincomalee Government Agent Major General De Silva, (both appointed by the GSL). Several Tamil contacts also reported that they must register with the GSL when they travel to Colombo, which is not required of others. In general, ethnic identity and resentment are just below the surface in the East. ¶17. (SBU) Comment. The GSL has successfully brought back paddy rice production and fishing, but the way forward is much harder. The GSL can pursue some ethnically neutral development strategies such as road building, incentives for apparel factories, and improved storage facilities. However, the region,s best immediate bet is tourism, and the local companies simply do not have the capacity to build international quality hotels. The GSL could set aside some plots for local investors, but it has not done so. The GSL policy to award land to Colombo developers, combined with issues of land allocation for returnees, has helped exacerbate a tense ethnic situation. In short, the East has recovered its basic agricultural capacity, but improvements in the economy have not yet ameliorated ethnic tension. End Comment. BUTENIS