Sri Lanka’s Highway 61

Let me see. First night we arrived there was a tsunami warning. Next day an earthquake strikes to the north. Newspapers are filled with the escape of a local politician who had been kidnapped by some murky force. The backdrop to all this: days of heavy rains, a power outage, and some of the most spectacular electric storms we’ve ever witnessed. Not to forget three missile tests on the continent, including India successfully demonstrating it can strike into the heart of China with a nuclear warhead.

We are in Sri Lanka and the above may be an atypical welcome to Asia but it is part of the drama that comes with the (Asian) territory. And if you want pathos by the bucket load, come to this teeming teardrop of an island, just south-east of the Indian subcontinent.

To visit Sri Lanka today is to visit a country in transition. There is a lot of hope in the air now that the Tamil separatist movement has been crushed. Tourists are returning, and for good reason: it’s a wondrous destination with natural and historical sites aplenty. The country is rebuilding, including with an influx of money from China.

Colombo’s skyline is growing with plans for new towers and condos. On the city streets, there are now modern, metered taxis that jostle with with ubiquitious tri-shaws (which are an advernture in themselves to travel in).

You can now take a four-lane highway down the middle of the country that cuts the travel time by more than half from Colombo, the capital, to Galle, a busy but beautiful sea port. Previously the only route was the coastal highway, that while scenic, was a madcap adventure tour through a thicket of cars, cows, aformentoned tri shaws, and people.

But with the promising developments, there are concerns about the road this country will be taking in the years ahead. There are internal forces at work that will determine whether the country will grow into a stronger more stable democracy or whether it heads down the path of a “kleptocracy” leaving it vulnerable to violence and coups.

Press freedoms are being curtailed and outspoken journalists are being killed or threatened into silence. There is also the widely reported “white van” abductions where a growing list of people are disappearing. One local politician, who has an Australian passport, was released from captivity the weekend we arrived, after intervention from the Australian government. He appears to be one of the few lucky ones.

External forces could also come into play. China is steadily building its influence in this country and helping spur the rapid development. They are also sending workers to build mega projects and groups of Chinese men are a common sight now in the resorts and in the shops.

But how will this sit with India, often referred to as Sri Lanka’s ‘big brother,’ and with the United States, which is now more forcefully exerting its reach in Asia in what is widely seen as a move to counter China’s ambitions in the region.

The government of Mahinda Rajapaksa has obviously turned its eyes eastward, especially after the United States pushed so hard for the U.N. resolution to force Sri Lanka to investigate war crimes during the war. Would the U.S. encourage a “regime change” in Sri Lanka with the hopes of installing a more pro-American administration? It is something that has been speculated here and it only serves to bring more uncertainty to the scene.

For many it’s all a shame. The three decades long war is over and it is a time for a rebuilding, of the physical and human kind. The country is blessed with natural beauty, an industrious population and heck, they have even struck oil offshore (now that the Tigers are not roaming the sea with their ingenious water craft).

But many see more political earthquakes and tsunami warnings ahead as the country plunges down its new super highway of destiny. The question is: will Sri Lanka find its inner Singapore, or its Haiti?

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