Forty-five minutes on a flight out of Madras, the southern tip of India comes into view below the right wing. On the other side, a yellow sliver of land snakes out over the blue-green Palk Strait like a tendril. From this vantage point, geology, mythology and history of the Subcontinent merge into one. During the last ice age when sea levels were much lower than today, this formed the land-bridge between the southern Indian peninsula and Sri Lanka. But as the oceans rose, the rocky islands of Dhanushkodi were submerged and came to be regarded as a remnant of the Ramayana times—the bridgehead for the invasion of Lanka. And today, the Mannar region on the Sri Lankan side is the scene of fierce combat as the military carries out Operation Edibala to push Tamil Tiger guerrillas out of the western flank of its access routes to Jaffna. It is difficult to imagine that we are flying over a war zone. An estimated 85,000 people have been killed since 1983 in this South Asian conflict. Millions have been made homeless, and yet this war gets scant attention even in the rest of the Subcontinent. Daily body count journalism has numbed the region´s consciousness, and Sri Lanka scores a blip on the media´s radar screen only when a bomb devastates the heart of the country´s capital. And it remains on our screens only for as long as there is live footage of burning buildings.
It is not just Sri Lanka. The Subcontinent´s south, also comprising the Maldives and the Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka, has always been treated as a periphery by the northerners. After all, the north is where 85 percent of South Asia´s 1.3 billion people live. This North-South divide is easily seen at SAARC gatherings where Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Indians get together in Hindustani huddles while the Maldivians and Sri Lankans stare at the ceiling.
Things have got so bad that one Maldivian diplomat calls his country a part of “South South Asia”. In this sub-subregion, there is an unspoken but perceptible wish to be somewhere else—the feeling that it was a fluke of plate tectonics that plunked Sri Lanka and the Maldives offshore from the Subcontinent and not in the Straits of Malacca.
In 1977, when the United National Party of J.R. Jayawardene came to power in Sri Lanka, it dismantled controls and unleashed South Asia´s first economic liberalisation programme. Politicians openly voiced their admiration for Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir Mohamad and said they were going to remake bi-ethnic Sri Lanka in the image of multi-ethnic Singapore or Malaysia. Mr Jayawardene even made a serious bid for ASEAN membership, but Colombo was just too far away across the Bay of Bengal for it to be seriously considered and the application was rejected in 1982. But hopes of emulating Southeast Asia´s economic miracle have not died.
The February issue of Colombo´s business magazine Lanka Monthly Digest has a big bold strapline on its cover: “MALAYSIA, INC: Role Model for Sri Lanka?”. Inside, Mahathir´s economic adviser, Daim Zainuddin gives Sri Lankans some big brotherly advice: peace, harmony and political stability are pre-requisites for development.
Just like Singapore profited from being the economic and financial hub for the southeast Asian hinterland, Sri Lanka would like to be the gateway to the Subcontinent. Already, East Asian investors, especially from South Korea and Japan, are looking at Sri Lanka as a stepping stone for exports to the vast Indian market. South Korea´s Hanjung conglomerate has just bought into the newly privatised Ceylon Steel, a move that would not make economic sense unless the Koreans were looking years down the line at exporting steel to the Hyundai car plant coming up in Madras.
In the Maldives, the country´s planners pay homage at the altar of SAARC but are busily building more earthy links to ASEAN, especially Malaysia. Male today even looks like a mini-Kuala Lumpur, complete with its own gold-domed mosque. Air Maldives has got off the ground with Malaysian help, its resorts are full of Singaporeans and Malaysians celebrating the Chinese New Year, and trade relations are booming. If it is not ASEAN, it is the Gulf and beyond. Male´s markets are stocked with South African apples and mineral water from Dubai. The relative affluence has also brought migrant workers flocking in from other parts of South Asia. There are at present 5000 Bangladeshis and as many Sri Lankans employed in menial jobs that Maldivians will now not do.
It is obvious where all this affluence is coming from: upmarket tourism and the modernisation of the fishing industry. The Maldives has deliberately priced itself at the high-end of the holiday business, and an average visitor spends USD 200 a day. With a population of less than 250,000, the nation of atolls is expected to receive more than 370,000 tourists this year and their cash will pump in nearly half the Maldivian exchequer´s annual revenue. Tourism income is invested directly on health and education: the country´s child mortality rate has been reduced to 32 per live births from 130 in 1977, average life-expectancy has risen from 46 to 70 in the same period. There is near universal literacy. A lot of the credit goes to Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the 60-year-old president of the island nation. He is expected to contest another five-year term in elections next year.
Mr Gayoom is determined to make tourism a sustainable, long-term source of income for his country. And nowhere else in the Subcontinent, perhaps with the exception of Bhutan, is tourism practised as carefully as it is in the Maldives. The country has made sure it gets the maximum monetary benefit from tourism while minimising its social and environmental impact. The only Maldivian that a visiting tourist comes in direct contact with could be the Immigration Officer at the airport. As soon as they get off their charter flights landing at Male´s island runway, tourists are whisked off to resort islands in speedboats or sea-planes. Resort development is allowed on only 73 uninhabited islands, although 14 more licences are about to be approved. Only one-fifth of the land area on an island is allowed to be built up, and no construction is allowed to exceed the height of a medium-sized coconut tree.
At the end of their holiday, tourists are encouraged to take all waste paper, plastics and other rubbish back to their home country. Much of the cargo container of a departing LTU charter flight last month was taken up by white plastic bags bulging with tourist trash.
Back in Colombo, after the visit there of Indian Foreign Minister I.K. Gujral, there is talk of a Southern Growth Triangle encompassing the Maldives, Sri Lanka and southern India. The Gujral Doctrine would slash Indian tariffs on Maldivian and Sri Lankan exports and encourage three-way trade. It looks good in theory, but will it work in practice? At present, Maldivian exports to India are negligible and Sri Lanka buys the traditional dried ´Maldive Fish´ and not much else. With such an imbalance, the Maldivian Trade Minister is less than enthusiastic about a tariff-free zone. After tourism and tuna, the biggest source of income for the government is customs revenue. Sri Lanka would benefit more from a tariff-free regional growth triangle, and give Sri Lankan manufacturers the economy of scale that they do not have at present with their small domestic market.
Sri Lanka´s irony is that it seems to be doing well despite the war in the Northeast. Some would say it is doing well because of it. Sri Lanka´s is now a war economy. The defence budget has doubled since 1995, and the war costs a full quarter of the GDP. And, as Sri Lankan economist Jehan Perera writes: “Our growth is bolstered by defence expenditure. National income accounts do not distinguish between the purchase of a tractor or a tank.” One is spent on development, the other on war, but it has the same effect on macro-economic indicators. When one of the Air Force´s five Israeli-built Kfir bombers plunged mysteriously into Negombo lagoon recently, the accident indirectly contributed to the country´s GDP!
Colombo is bustling. High-rise office and apartment blocks sprouting along the Beira Lake, and Galle Road now boasts of that great Asian symbol of economic growth—the gridlock. The Fort area, which was torn apart by a huge truck bomb that killed nearly 100 people last year, is going to be re-built into a new Singapore-like seafront financial district.
So, except for the drone of heavily loaded AN-32´s flying off early mornings to supply troops in the north, the war could as well be happening in another country. And as long as the conflict drags on without more major military setbacks, the People´s Alliance government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga seems willing to wait out the Tigers. Sri Lanka´s donor consortium has approved a hefty foreign assistance package, pacified by Ms Kumaratunga´s peace offer of devolution to the Tamils.
But privately, most Sri Lankans have given up hope that the conflict will be resolved politically. Positions have hardened on both sides after the ceasefire broke down in 1995. The government launched an aggressive military campaign and captured the Tiger stronghold of Jaffna. Doves in Colombo are no match against the uncompromising rhetoric of Sinhala radicals, and moderate Tamil politicians have been eliminated one by one by their own brothers. The momentum of war has built up, and it seems impossible to stop the juggernaut—the conflict has to burn itself out. There has been too much blood spilt, and too much bad blood all around, for more talk. The bereaved, the orphaned and the maimed have no voice in its resolution: war has to come to its own denouement.
There is a precedent. Many in the military hierarchy seem to think that they can repeat the dramatic crushing of the southern JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna) insurgency in 1989. An intelligence breakthrough led to the capture of the JVP hierarchy, which was then eliminated, and the insurgency fizzled out. The military would give anything to do the same to the Tiger leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, and his comrades.
But the longer the war goes on, the more remote will be economic recovery. Foreign investors and tourists will continue to bypass Sri Lanka, and as long as that happens it will be harder for the government to provide jobs to the young entering the labour market. Sri Lankans will continue to emigrate. The estimated 600,000 Sri Lankan domestic helpers in the Gulf and Southeast Asia pump in more than nearly USD 1 billion into the economy, but the country would benefit much more if they stayed home productively employed.
Sri Lanka´s enduring paradox is that it is the very combination of Western-style democracy and high literacy that have given it high under-employment that has kept the society in a state of social ferment. More than the Tamil separatist war, the immediate threat is inflation and widening social disparity. Discontent in the JVP strongholds in the neglected South simmers still.
In 1988, the government cleverly got the Indian peacekeeping force to engage the Tigers in the north while it went after the JVP insurrectionists in the rest of the country. If the uprising erupts again, the military will have to be engaged on two fronts. With an ever-bigger chunk of the budget diverted to the war effort, Sri Lanka´s impressive investments in basic health and education would begin to erode, fuelling more discontent.
As Sri Lanka begins to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its independence in 1998, many in Colombo are looking with dismay at the shoals on which their nation is stuck. In 1948, Sri Lanka was regarded as “The Pearl of the Orient”—the country with a vibrant free press, a representative parliamentary democracy, an efficient administration, and literacy and health levels as good as anywhere in the world. It was the nation seen then as the most likely to become a Third World success story in the post-colonial era. A country that Singaporeans looked up to as a role model. Today, it is the other way around.