Reasons for Sri Lanka’s continuing image problem

by Jehan Perera

(March 01, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The latest cause for umbrage within Sri Lanka would be the assessment by the Economist Intelligence Unit of the Economist Magazine group that condemns Colombo to be among the world’s ten worst cities to live in. Any Sri Lankan who has travelled abroad would be strongly motivated to disagree. When compared to most countries in Sri Lanka’s neighborhood, Colombo would come out streets ahead in terms of its cleanliness, compactness and even beauty. It may strike some as unusual that in Sri Lanka the Urban Development Authority comes under the Defence Ministry. There may be roads with potholes, garbage dumps close to main roads and a rather slow changing skyline. But Colombo is still a pleasant city to live in for a large proportion of its residents.

Colombo is also the most important city in Sri Lanka, which for the past two years has been traversing in the direction of greater peace and prosperity. No longer is there that palpable sense of tension that gripped the city in the long decades of war. At that time Colombo was a prime target for terrorist attack and counter terror operations that terrorized its inhabitants. But now that the LTTE is no more a physical presence on the ground, there is no more danger of that and the worst excesses of scale human rights violations are no longer occurring.

Today the tourist industry in Sri Lanka is fast improving and most of Colombo’s top hotels are fully booked up. They have become competitive enough to be able to increase their prices to about twice of what they charged in the time of war. In January 2010, the New York Times named Sri Lanka as its top tourist destination. National Geographic also named Sri Lanka as one of its 25 best trips of the year. The magazine said that ‘Sri Lanka is finally starting to look like its old self, a peaceful destination where surf line ups are non-existent despite world class waves and centuries old tea estates are lined with mountain bike-ready trails’. During 2010 tourist arrivals rose to near double the previous year’s figure.

Special Permission

Despite these improvements in the overall situation and the positive descriptions in some of the international media, Sri Lanka and its government continue to be dogged by unfavourable international political commentary. The government needs to consider responding constructively to these criticisms instead of rejecting them in a blanket manner on the grounds that they are biased and politically motivated. The government needs to consider that there are some criticisms due to some of its practices that send a wrong message. There may also be criticisms due to practices that are cause for genuine concern, despite positive intentions.

An instance of a wrong message that is being sent is the requirement that foreigners should get special permission from the Ministry of Defence to visit the North of the country. This is particularly the case with regard to foreign journalists. In accordance with the government’s tightened entry visa requirements, foreign journalists need to apply for the appropriate visa at Sri Lankan embassies abroad prior to coming to Sri Lanka. Those foreign journalists who come in on tourist visas, which are granted on arrival, can be deported if they are found out. When deciding on whether or not to grant a visa to a foreign journalist, it can be believed that the government scrutinizes their credentials prior to granting it.

The question arises as to why foreign journalists who are granted visas to enter Sri Lanka are subjected to the extra requirement of getting Defence Ministry approval to visit the North. The government’s official position is that the end of the war has made the North as much a part of Sri Lanka as any other area, and normalcy has been restored there, as it has to the rest of the country, including Colombo. On the other hand, the requirement of having to go to the Defence Ministry to get permission to travel to the North would immediately alert foreign journalists to a special problem in that part of the country.

Over Control

Recently, I was interviewed by a team of foreign journalists from a non-Western country who had come to report on Sri Lanka as a tourist destination for people from their part of the world. Our interview took place on the Galle Face green near the Presidential Secretariat, as this was in close proximity to the hotel they were staying in. In the course of our 20 minute interview, no fewer than three separate teams of security personnel came to check the identity of the journalists and their permits. Some of the security personnel came in close to listen to what was being asked and said. This gave the wrong message of a highly intrusive security presence that belied the existence of normalcy in the capital.

The foreign journalists asked me many difficult questions. They asked me why the security forces were checking them with such diligence and why the country was still under Emergency Law. They asked me about the fate of General Sarath Fonseka, who would have been treated as a hero in any other country for having been the army commander under whose leadership the Sri Lanka army vanquished the most tenacious terrorist organization in the world and about the state of democracy in a country in which a single family wields so much of power. I asked them why they adopted such a critical attitude, as they had only been one day in Sri Lanka. The reply they gave was interesting and one that the government needs to consider.

The journalists said that they had gone the previous day to obtain permission to travel to the North but their request had been denied. They said that if a country was normal the government would have no need to hide anything from the world. It is indeed a pity that the government, which is prepared to spend millions of dollars hiring foreign advertising firms to runs positive stories on Sri Lanka and thereby bolster the country’s image, should so alienate the international media by its unnecessary controls and surveillance. It is possible that it is this type of first hand observations of life in Colombo that have contributed to the low score that Colombo got in the Economist Intelligence unit’s evaluation.

Harsh Policy

Another matter that would make Colombo drop in terms of its rank as a city to live in would be the kind of treatment being meted out to its poorer residents and to its informal trade sector. Where there was life in all its vibrancy now there are over-control, sterility and inequity. In the several months scores of traders have been driven off the streets. These traders and cobblers and bicycle repairers on the pavements provided goods and services of a lower quality than found in establishments of the commercial sector. But they also provided their wares at a lower price which benefited the poorer section of the population.

Most of Colombo’s residents are relatively poor as befits a country that is itself not so rich, and has only recently graduated into the lower ranks of middle income countries. However, the properties on which many of them live on and the street corners on which they work are often very valuable, making them a rich source of revenue to those who can acquire and sell them. The manner in which long term residents of the city were evicted from their homes to which they had legal claim and off the pavements where they had worked for years, would indicate the absence of social protection and vulnerability that accompanies the lives of a large sector of the population of the city.

The past several months have seen homes of people in the heart of Colombo being bulldozed, while they stand as helpless and pathetic onlookers. Their land has been taken over for public purposes and the government has justified the action by pointing to alternative places of residence that were promised and planned for these people. In many cases provision was also made for an allowance to be paid to them for a specified length of time to enable them to rent out other accommodation. In the future it may be deemed that these actions were in the best interests of a beautiful, humane and modern city of Colombo. But in the present Colombo would present a poor image to those who judge it in terms of what it means to its residents. The respect for human rights of all is a fundamental requirement of a good society.

Tell a Friend