Sri Lanka’s capital, where we begin our series, is in economic catch-up mode. Colombo is replacing the colonial-era roads and railways built when Churchill was a boy and ‘Ceylon’ was a languid tropical afterthought for the British who ruled the plantation island.
Though it took its time – 10 years – to be completed, a sparkling new tollway to the beachy heartland in the south has cut the journey from Colombo from a congested three-to-six hours to just one.
In the conflict-ravaged Tamil north, Indian engineers are re-connecting the war-severed train line that once carried passengers from Colombo to Jaffna. In the mostly Sinhalese ‘deep south’ of the island, region of Hambantota is being lavished with the country’s biggest infrastructural project, a US$1.5 billion stampede of white elephants that’s giving the town a new port, international airport and cricket stadium.
Beijing is the main player behind all this construction, as it adds yet another stronghold to its string of pearls – China’s network of strategic boltholes around the Indian Ocean intended to counter Western commercial influence in the region. Beijing financed most of the Hambantota projects and shuttles Chinese workers in to build them; this in a region suffering crippling unemployment.
In Colombo, work has started on a Dubai-style ‘Port City’. In November this year, all this will be flaunted in a diplomatic coup – Colombo is hosting the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).
But of the many towers now poking through Colombo’s fast-fading colonial vista, few have gone up as fast or been fêted with as much official attention as the Sri Sambuddhathva Jayanthi Mandiraya, a massive temple and office complex now soaring over the capital’s leafy southern suburbs. Since then, the BBS has emerged as the self-proclaimed true protector of Buddhism on the island, and many say it chooses to see anti-Buddhist demons where none exist. Sri Lanka may be at peace, but to hear the BBS hierarchy tell it, Buddhism and Sri Lanka have never been more at risk.
Secularist Sri Lankans are alarmed. Social Integration Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara has described the BBS as “extremist”. Prominent Sri Lankan diplomat Dayan Jayatilleka labels it as an “ethno-religious fascist movement from the dark underside of Sinhala society”, while the island’s most prominent Buddhist intellectual, the Venerable Professor Belanwila Wimalaratana Anunayake, has dissociated Sri Lanka’s sangha, the mainstream Buddhist clergy, from BBS extremism.
Tamil leaders are also concerned. “I think this is a game that they are playing,” says Kumaravadivel Guruparan, law lecturer at Jaffna University and civil-society activist in the war-ravaged north-east.
“RELIGION is a private thing,” Withanage tells The Global Mail. And many conflict-weary Lankans would agree. But in recent months Withanage’s group has chosen to make some very public religious protests.
The BBS claims Buddhism was the island’s state religion before the British colonised ‘Ceylon’ in 1815 after deposing its Kandyan aristocracy. “We think whatever we had before the British should come back,” says Withanage.
Hinduism has been practised by large numbers on the island for millennia, and today as many as 15 per cent of the island – Sri Lanka’s Tamil communities – lay claim to being Hindu. Its presence on the island is even mentioned in the epic Hindu poem, the Ramayana, which dates from around the 4th century BC. Hinduism was also the state religion of the Jaffna Kingdom in the north of the island that fell to Portuguese invaders in 1624.
But that doesn’t seem to factor in the BBS’s version of history. Withanage rules out Hinduism as a co-state religion in Sri Lanka, and any official recognition for Islam and Christianity too. “Before the British came into this country, Buddhism was the state religion so therefore Buddhism should be the state religion … provided all other religions have due respect and freedom to practice.”
People smuggling is a lucrative trade, and there’s no certainty that Australia’s “PNG solution” will stem the exodus. The number of Sri Lankans getting on illegal boats has jumped about 25-fold since the war ended. But with an Australian election looming, a poll which will inevitably be fought on the asylum-seeker issue, Canberra has taken a tougher stance. Starting in July 2013, a new “no visa” campaign has spread across Sri Lankan print, radio and television, to discourage asylum-seeker departures, and to break the smugglers.
The war’s end has unleashed Sinhalese nationalism that has many of the country’s Tamils fearful, there’s anxiety also among Sri Lanka’s Muslims. Muslims now feel victimised
Sri Lanka still has a long way to go before it can claim to be Paradise (Global Mail)