Sri Lanka’s Big Tourism Push Could Entrench Sinhala Nationalism

Tamil women with images of family members who disappeared during the Sri Lanka civil war at a protest in Jaffna, August 2013. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte/CREATIVE COMMONS
Tamils with images of family members who vanished during the Sri Lanka civil war, at a protest in the north in Jaffna, August 2013. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte/CREATIVE COMMONS

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Seven years after the end of its civil war, tourism in Sri Lanka continues to spike. The island nation is fast approaching its annual target of 2.5 million international visitors, a staggering figure for a country of 20 million. But rapid-fire development has created two Sri Lankas, leading to deepening schisms between majority Sinhalese and Tamil minority populations: one, an emerging middle-income economy, the other still living on the margins of the nation and in the long shadow of conflict.

The civil war between the Sinhalese-dominated government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE, raged from 1983 to 2009, as the latter fought viciously for an independent state in the Tamil-majority northeast. The government reacted with extreme abuse, targeting much of the Tamil community and leading to the Tigers’ crushing defeat. Since then, Sinhalese and Tamil areas have grown at separate rates.

International tourism is playing a dual role in Sri Lanka’s uneven development. According to a February report from the World Bank, the country’s poverty rate dropped from almost a quarter of the population in 2002 to as low as six percent after the war. The report cited the economy’s move from agriculture and toward more profitable sectors as a major contributing factor to poverty reduction.

Tourism is one of Sri Lanka’s leading industries, third after apparel and overseas workers’ remittances. And the hospitality industry is fast becoming a luxury market. “Sri Lanka: the world’s newest five-star destination,” claimed a recent headline, while Condé Nast Traveler just named the “Asian hotspot” one of its top vacation spots for 2016. Once a haven for surfers and backpackers, Sri Lanka’s southern coast is now lined with high-end hotels: Movenpick and Shangri-La are set to open beach-view resorts. In hill country, former tea plantation bungalows have been converted into palatial guesthouses, replete with croquet lawns and infinity pools.

This is far from “pro-poor” tourism, whereby responsible travel can be used to uplift vulnerable communities. Development is concentrated in the southern and western provinces, where the poverty rate is nil.

“Sri Lanka is a very poor country,” a Sinhalese guitarist told me as we drove through the old kingdom of Kandy, Sri Lanka’s much-promoted cultural capital. “Don’t you think?” he added, fiddling with the video monitor on his new car.

Not from what I saw. Families under parasols circled the city’s vast lake, its glasslike waters reflecting well-tended temples. His car was among many splashy new vehicles on the roads. Downtown, the British-built arcades peddled elephant-printed sarongs and Buddha statues. Kandyan dancers performed daily for tourists. I found it hard to reconcile this Sinhala playground with the country’s twin horrors of poverty and war, still reverberating on the northern and eastern coasts.

For it is not just economic figures that have been affected by tourism. The industry promotes a unified image of a fractured nation: the Sri Lanka tourist board trumpets Buddhist heritage sites and Sinhalese festivals, from cave paintings in the rock temple of Sigiriya to elephant processions at Kandy’s Perahera. The tourists I spoke to in Kandy were following the same prescribed circuit. With development on the rise in the Sinhalese-majority southwest, Tamil areas have receded from view. On the Sri Lanka tourist board website, the northern city of Jaffna is buried under “lesser known attractions.”

This represents another facet to the country’s continuing Sinhalalization, whereby Tamil culture and identity are being further erased. The more adventurous travelers go as far as Haputale, a Tamil-majority town hanging from the peaks of tea country. “It’s more . . . authentic,” a Dutch backpacker told me, struggling to find the right word.

In a macabre twist, what little tourism trickles into the battle-scarred northeast is overseen by the military. The army profits from a whole portfolio of attractions, including wildlife safaris, whale-watching trips, beaches, restaurants and resorts as well as the more controversial “war tours” through former battle zones. Triumphalist itineraries combine visits to the military’s extravagant monuments with stops at old LTTE bunkers and training sites. They have proven especially popular with Sinhala tourists.

Meanwhile, adjacent to sprawling Sri Lankan soldiers’ barracks, Tamil villagers can “barely eke out a living,” a Human Rights Watch report said earlier this year.

Caught between savage separatists and a vengeful government during the 26-year war, Tamils have since struggled to rebuild their lives. Earlier this year, the World Bank warned of “severe pockets of poverty,” in Tamil areas. Communities strain to keep pace with the country’s rocketing cost of living, and a third of the northern and eastern provinces remains short of food.

Structural discrimination presents another challenge. In 1956, less than a decade after independence from Britain, the Sinhala Only Act made the Sinhalese tongue Sri Lanka’s state language, which excluded Tamil speakers from skilled jobs. After the civil war, the Mahinda Rajapaksa-led government, voted from office in January 2015, “behaved as if it were not the LTTE that was defeated but the entire Tamil population,” according to Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director for Human Rights Watch.

To thwart reprisals of violence, the government inflicted invasive checkpoints, a hostile military occupation and a ban on public memorials for their dead. While the new Sinhalese president, Maithripala Sirisena, has eased some of these restrictions, the marginalization of Tamil communities stays entrenched.

A United Nations human-rights report, released in September 2015, recommended appointing an international tribunal to judge war crimes, but Sri Lanka has opted to use its own commission, a controversial stance supported by the United States. With the UN report referencing “years of denials and cover-ups,” it remains to be seen whether the new government’s efforts will yield clearer inquiries into the savagery that shook both sides, claiming 100,000 lives.

New highways and shopping arcades gild the Sinhala-majority coasts. But in the poor northeast, it is military infrastructure that still stands out.

According to Jennifer Hydman, director of the Center for Refugee Studies at York University, the continued military presence in Tamil towns signals the government’s need to “convey a democratic, stable country that is open to and good for business.”

No longer divided by conflict, two Sri Lankas are now yoked by market interests.

 

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