As the physical and economic consequences of the country’s long civil war recede, tourists continue to pour into Sri Lanka in ever greater numbers. The country had a surprising election result in 2015 that saw a new coalition come to power. Much of the current government's attention continues to be focused on unravelling the legacy of the former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Over eight years after the war ended, Sri Lanka continues to struggle with its aftermath. While some infrastructure across the north and east has been rebuilt (some of the country’s best roads and mobile-phone reception are now in these regions), it will take much longer for other scars to heal.
One major sore point is land. Beginning in the 1990s, huge numbers of people were forcibly removed from their land by the military. Many of these families were Muslims, who ended up living as refugees in India or in local ‘resettlement camps’. Now these displaced people (estimated at over 250,000) are demanding the return of their lands and, starting in 2016, there have been public protests. While the military has never released figures showing how much land it seized, the areas are massive, especially around Mannar and the regions north and east of Jaffna.
The Sri Lankan military claims it has released over 28,000 hectares to its owners (usually small-scale farmers), but it refuses to say how much remains under its control. Meanwhile, returning families are demanding that money spent on the roads and mobile-phone towers extend to electricity and clean water for their reclaimed lands. Many are expressing growing discontent with President Maithripala Sirisena, whom they helped elect in 2015 with the hope they’d get a new start in life.
Investigations over human rights abuses during the last years of the war continue to dog Sri Lanka. Although the current government has been somewhat supportive of the concept, no official or independent investigation has begun and international groups and governments are becoming increasingly impatient. While Sirisena won praise for establishing an Office of Missing Persons, he has been criticised for not pushing a real investigation forward. The EU has said there will need to be human rights improvements before it will extend trade and tariff benefits to Sri Lanka.
The UN Committee Against Torture released a report in 2016 that decried the continued ‘brutal’ torture of Tamils with even the vaguest suggestion of past Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) links, and it said that ‘white van’ abductions and disappearances continue. The Sri Lankan government has denied the allegations.
Other obstacles blocking true peace are a spate of new military-built monuments celebrating victory, which locals have protested as insensitive, and new military-owned resorts planned for prime pieces of land in the North and East.
Sri Lanka is dealing with many international challenges beyond those related to the legacies of the war. The previous Rajapaska government's massive Chinese-financed construction schemes have run up a huge debt. China has made no secret of its expectation that it will receive something in return, beyond debt repayment. However, locals are pushing back. An agreement to give the Chinese government permanent freehold of a large area of the new Hambantota port was scaled back to a 99-year lease by the Sirisena government after violent protests broke out.
Closer yet, the Indian government, seeing China establish a foothold close to its coast, is also vying for Sri Lanka’s attention, with various schemes such as massive investments in the Tamil north. Even here, though, the relationship is complicated. An offer by Sri Lanka to give India control of the Trincomalee port to offset the Chinese control of the Hambantota port was rejected, as developing it will require enormous investment.
Visitor numbers to Sri Lanka continue to boom. Consider: in 2005 there were barely 550,000 foreign visitors to the country. In 2010, the year after the war ended, there were 655,000. From there, the numbers have simply shot up, averaging a 22% increase a year. In 2016, a whopping 2.1 million tourists arrived. (To put that into perspective, however, that same year the island of Bali received 4 million visitors, and Thailand 32.6 million.)
This influx of visitors has driven a huge amount of investment in businesses geared to tourism, from Jaffna to Galle. Huge hotels are in the works backed by multinational corporations, but so too are family-run guesthouses. Tourism now accounts for 11% of the economy and with so much of the nation’s gorgeous coast undeveloped, it seems there is no reason to expect that the numbers won’t keep growing.
In the meantime, infrastructure is struggling to keep up. For many involved in tourism, the new terminal at Bandaranaike International Airport – slated for completion in 2020 – can’t come soon enough.