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PP Mathew: Bringing hope of prosperity
February 05, 2014
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Sri Lanka marked its 66th Independence Day on Tuesday. The glitter and gaiety of the celebration apart, what was striking was the peace that the country has regained in the past five years, after one of the world’s bloodiest insurgencies ended with the elimination of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 2009.

Tuesday’s celebrations had that air of a newborn national unity that is a product of peace. The main events were held in Kegalle, an economically strong town some 80 kilometres from Colombo on the road to Kandy, the main tourist hub in the country. There were separate celebrations for different communities, each one an opportunity to observe it in distinct religious styles, but all marking the same event, the birth anniversary of the nation. There were Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian events, basically offering prayers for peace and prosperity, signalling an integration beyond divides.

Peace is a key word as we discuss Sri Lanka because it suffered 33 years of bloodshed and turmoil. Travelling in Sri Lanka for a fourth time since 2008, it was a great relief to see the army posts on the streets gone. The frequent checking of people of course was a necessity in a country where several national leaders and thousands of innocent people fell to Tamil Tiger bombs. However, the military on the streets would have put off tourists. Sri Lanka being one of the best Asian tourist destinations, the violence was taking a heavy toll over the years.

All that seems to be changing. Sri Lankans, a people who enjoy fun and peace, are feeling a sense of security and are hoping for better times. Why not? The strategically located island nation with an over 3,000 years of documented history is rich in natural resources and has a manpower that is of high quality. It is well known that Sri Lanka exports excellent products, especially tea and other food items like rice and spices, apart from rubber and clothes.

Ahead of the Independence Day, President Mahinda Rajapaksa launched an attack on the US for its move to table a resolution criticising Colombo’s post-war reconciliation at the UN Human Rights Council, saying such actions undermine the country’s hard-won peace. He called the attempt a crime.

There was also an attempt to portray his rival in the election, former army chief Sarath Fonseka, as a traitor. The allegation is that Fonseka “inflated” the image of Velupillai Prabhakaran who led the LTTE and was finished off by the army in 2009. Fonseka, who lost the election to Rajapaksa, had led the army operation and is considered having a share in the claim to its glory, but the president wouldn’t concede that.

Ordinary Sri Lankans do not seem to be interested in recalling the days of horror as they go on with their lives, and the thinking is that the country needs to move ahead now. In the Tamil areas in the north, there is a demand for greater autonomy and even a separate police force. However, a few people with whom I spoke to in Colombo felt it is just one of those political necessities for the ruling Tamil National Party in the north to make such claims. They also point out that the Tamil party is helping militant Tamil nationalism to cool off when they make such claims.

Officials say that in Colombo and in tourist hubs like Kandy, tourist traffic has returned to normal. Large number of tourists — Japanese, French, American, Russian, Indian – were seen moving around freely in Nuwar Eliya, a hill station that offers excellent accommodation and a fairy tale holiday. The government has placed a major stress of the development of roads, considering that roads are fundamental to progress.

Especially for tourists, it matters much. Very often carpet-like, good roads make travelling a pleasure. On a nearly five-hour drive from Colombo to Nuwar Eliya, one never felt a strain as the roads were remarkably smooth, despite the big climb to the hill station.

The new expressway from the airport, built with Chinese help, is impressive. It reduces traveling time considerably. Its success has prompted Colombo to develop similar roads in other parts too.

For a nation whose development has been hindered by an insurgency and also reckless politicians, the infrastructure building is impressive indeed. It should also be mentioned that it is the quality of the people that helps the growth of a nation ultimately. Very often Japan is highlighted as an example. Sri Lanka could also be, if peace prevails and if good governance is in place.

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