The last time I came to Sri Lanka the journey from the international airport into the capital, Colombo, took more than three hours.
The taxi pulled out into a late monsoon downpour, its windscreen wipers feebly slapping at the sheet of water. With roadside culverts overflowing, traffic slowed to a crawl and pedestrians, their sarongs and saris hitched up, took shelter where they could.
How different it was this time. We were in the heart of the city centre well within an hour courtesy of the brand new Katunayake-Colombo Expressway.
It was all so quick, so efficient I even found myself longing for a little of that wonderful chaos that used to be an integral part of any trip to this part of the world. Now you could be anywhere or – more precisely – anywhere in booming East Asia.
And that’s the whole point. In its version of a peace dividend Sri Lanka’s government is determined to reconfigure this country.
The airport expressway is just one of the grand – critics say grandiose – infrastructural projects that are literally changing the landscape.
And it’s not just restricted to the capital. By all accounts the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the war-torn north and east of the country – the predominantly Tamil region – is both extensive and impressive.
So why isn’t the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa – and his three brothers – winning universal praise at home and abroad?
President Rajapaksa is credited with winning the war again the Tamil Tigers
Human rights activists say the rapid change is the product of a brook-no-opposition authoritarianism that is bad enough when it affects urban planning but is downright dangerous now that it has infected virtually every aspect of statecraft.
The charge sheet is long and disturbing. From the impeachment of the chief justice; the real or implicit threat to independent journalists; the appropriation of land; the military’s incursion into civilian life and the blind-eye tolerance of attacks on Muslims and evangelical Christians – all of it has been noted by the UN’s Human Rights Commissioner and several others.
The government response is to retreat into the language of conspiracy.
One official – entirely straight-faced – told me how the Sinhalese way of life was under threat. This is a majority community behaving as if it were a beleaguered minority, revelling in a perceived victimhood that fuels the excesses so many now fear.
Who would have thought this is the administration, this is the army that scored such a decisive and brutal victory over the terrorist Tamil Tigers just four short years ago?
I was born in Sri Lanka and my parents joined the Tamil diaspora. But I am not here to meet family and friends but to report on the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.
The event will be overshadowed by calls for the government to submit itself to an independent and international inquiry into allegations of war crimes committed at the end of the civil war.
UK Prime Minister David Cameron says he will do it privately; many other will shout it out loud. All of it will come to nothing. Sri Lanka has enough friends around the world to survive the onslaught.
And that will serve only to reinforce the habit of impunity. Today the excesses go beyond the old Sinhalese-Tamil ethnic divide.
It doesn’t matter what language you speak or how you worship your god. All that matters now is whether you are for the Rajapaksa dynasty or not. And if you are not, you know what to expect. (BBC News)