Oct 31 (FT) Sri Lanka has three commonly spoken languages: Sinhalese, Tamil and English. But anyone driving towards the soon-to-open Hambantota International Airport in the nation’s south could be forgiven for thinking a fourth had crept in, given the frequency of Chinese road signs.
Set up to guide teams of immigrant labourers building new highways, these are far from the only harbingers of a newly arrived influence. At the airport itself, which is being financed with a $209m Chinese loan, a red and gold starred flag flutters above the workers’ housing.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa hopes the project will usher more visitors on to the tropical island’s famed beaches when flights begin arriving early next year. But it is also part of a larger vision. His government is racing to build infrastructure, much of it funded and built by Chinese companies, to relaunch the economy after more than two decades of civil war.
Hambantota, a small coastal town that also happens to be Mr Rajapaksa’s political base, already boasts a controversial (and so far little used) new port, built with $1.4bn of Chinese loans. A gleaming 35,000 seat cricket stadium also opened nearby last year.
These will soon be joined by a convention centre, an oil refinery, tourist hotels and business parks, all designed to attract foreign investment and transform this war-scarred nation of 21m into what Mr Rajapaksa likes to call "the emerging wonder of Asia".
Still, his vaunted post-conflict renaissance is also sparking unease. Western governments and New Delhi fear creeping Chinese influence in the strategically-located island. Activists also worry that his drive for growth is coming at a cost: a backsliding on democracy and critical civil rights.
These latter fears will be aired tomorrow as the country is set for an uncomfortable public review at the UN human rights council in Geneva. Concerns voiced there are likely to include threats to press and judicial freedom by an increasingly autocratic government dominated by Mr Rajapaksa’s family, alongside faltering progress on reconstruction and reconciliation in the island’s military-dominated north.
Behind these lurk a deeper source of anxiety: the unresolved questions of war crimes, allegedly committed by government forces during their bloody victory against the Tamil Tiger rebels in May 2009, in which as many as 40,000 civilians were killed.
Sri Lanka has emerged as not just a global test-case of how to spur growth after a conflict but also a closely watched swing state where the US and India are vying with China for influence.
At such a decisive moment, any erosion of civil society could frighten away international investors just as the postwar boom is showing signs of coming off the boil. In turn, this could prompt Sri Lanka to turn further from the west.
"This government is leaving behind the kind of boisterous, pluralist politics typical of countries in south Asia," says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, head of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, a Colombo-based research group. "Instead it wants a more east Asian model, where nothing gets in the way of development."
Sri Lanka’s new era started on May 19 2009, when Mr Rajapaksa delivered a speech many in his country feared they would not live to hear. Hailing a decisive victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam rebels, he marked the end of a war that had long divided the mostly Buddhist Sinhalese southern majority from the minority Hindu Tamils in the north.