Sri Lanka’s raffish capital, where we begin our series, is in economic catch-up mode. Colombo is replacing the colonial-era roads and railways built when Churchill was a boy and ‘Ceylon’ was a languid tropical afterthought for the British who ruled the plantation island.
Though it took its time – 10 years – to be completed, a sparkling new tollway to the beachy Rajapaksa heartland in the south has cut the journey from Colombo from a congested three-to-six hours to just one.
In the conflict-ravaged Tamil north, Indian engineers are re-connecting the war-severed train line that once carried passengers from Colombo to Jaffna.
In the mostly Sinhalese ‘deep south’ of the island, President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s home region of Hambantota is being lavished with the country’s biggest infrastructural project, a US$1.5 billion stampede of white elephants that’s giving the town a new port, international airport and cricket stadium – all named after President Rajapaksa – and a convention centre and even an alternative Bollywood complex.
A Korean-financed convention centre rises in the President’s home turf of Hambantota, one of the town’s many mega-projects keeping some Sri Lankan and many foreign construction workers employed.
Beijing is the main player behind all this construction, as it adds yet another stronghold to its string of pearls – China’s network of strategic boltholes around the Indian Ocean intended to counter Western commercial influence in the region. Beijing financed most of the Hambantota projects and shuttles Chinese workers in to build them; this in a region suffering crippling unemployment.
In Colombo, work has started on a Dubai-style ‘Port City’ – replete with de rigueur Formula One circuit – to be built on land Chinese companies are reclaiming from the sea. In November this year, all this will be flaunted in a diplomatic coup for the Rajapaksa regime – Colombo is hosting the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).
Colombo may still be one of Asia’s poorest capitals, but its Rajapaksa-linked business community is re-arranging the skyline on borrowed money. It is studded with the new skyscrapers of hip hotels and soaring towers in various states of completion, which they hope will be filled by the ambitions of international tycoons. Australia’s James Packer, for example, has teamed with a Rajapaksa crony to build a US$350 million casino complex here.
But of the many towers now poking through Colombo’s fast-fading colonial vista, few have gone up as fast or been fêted with as much official attention as the Sri Sambuddhathva Jayanthi Mandiraya, a massive temple and office complex now soaring over the capital’s leafy southern suburbs.
Opened in 2011, just two years after the war ended, the complex claims to be the world’s biggest repository of Buddhist texts. Its modern foyer has the air of a busy library, criss-crossed by orange-hued tourists and locals in search of their inner Gautama. Less advertised, however, is that an adjacent wing is home to the headquarters of a shadowy ultra-Buddhist activist group called Bodu Bala Sena, which was formed in July 2012.
That translates as the “Army of Buddhist Power”. Patronised by senior government officials, the BBS was born after militant fringes of the main religious party in Sri Lanka, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), or National Heritage Party, broke away because they felt the JHU was too moderate.