Ebullient Sri Lanka: making up for lost time

| June 28, 2012 | 0 Comments
Sri Lanka’s capital of Colombo is a bustling metropolis.

Sri Lanka’s capital of Colombo is a bustling metropolis.

If you are lucky enough to have a week in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital city, you can:
• See more vividly coloured gems in one hour than you’ll see in a lifetime — small piles of cut sparkling sapphires (deep blue to pink, yellow and orange), topaz, moonstones from several dollars to $125,000 (for 50-carat blue sapphire in a diamond-studded platinum setting).
• Watch dinnertime at an elephant orphanage (and a tiny elephant repeatedly putting his trunk into the mouth of his huge parent who, every time, stops eating to give a tender squeeze).
• Find out why the London Stock Exchange searched the world for a technology platform to execute trades in milliseconds, and found one that it relies on for 750,000 trades a day. (The LSE liked the Sri Lankan technology so much, it bought the company).
• Discover why a Canadian rubber company — the world’s largest producer of rubber-based products — centred its operations in Sri Lanka 28 years ago, and why an Italian apparel company keeps opening new factories there.
• Go for a downtown thrill ride as the driver of your open-air, three-wheel tuk-tuk expertly weaves through traffic, perpetually an inch from collision.
• Drive through the nearby mountains and stop to buy a couple of bright yellow beverage coconuts. Your guide hacks off the top, throws his head back and neatly drinks the tangy milk. (If you, too, bypass a straw, prepare for a coconut milk bath.) Afterwards, he cracks open the coconut and, using a piece of the shell, scoops out the coconut jelly.
• Buy a dense, foot-long banana, unlike any you have tasted, for a satisfying 20-cent meal.
• Visit an unimaginably ornate Hindu shrine that is literally covered in vividly-painted carvings, a Buddhist temple whose statue looms higher than two storeys, a historically-fascinating Dutch Reform Church built in 1749 (and still in use), and the famous candy-striped Jumi-Ul-Alfar Jummah Mosque in Colombo’s lively Pettah district.

 

The famous Jami-Ul-Alfar Jummah Mosque in Colombo’s lively Pettah district

The famous Jami-Ul-Alfar Jummah Mosque in Colombo’s lively Pettah district

Sri Lanka High Commissioner Chitranganee Wagiswara wanted Canada to be part of the international coverage of Sri Lanka’s huge EXPO 2012 — with its invitation to journalists, investors and government delegations from around the world. The reason? Sri Lanka has a simple message to get out: After 30 years of violent civil war, “We’re open for business.”
And the official suggestion is equally simple: “Grab onto the tail of this emerging tiger.” Or, alternatively, in business lingo: ”Get in on the ground floor.” Labour costs are still low in this high-tech savvy, English-speaking democracy, strategically located just off the coast of a BRICS country. Sri Lanka sits like a pendant-shaped jewel off India’s southeast coast, in the Indian Ocean.
People don’t easily talk about the brutal, economy-destroying civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the separatist LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) who live in the north and east.

 

In Sri Lanka, you may watch dinnertime at an elephant orphanage although the fact that they’re sometimes chained (see this elephant's right front leg) concerns some visitors.

In Sri Lanka, you may watch dinnertime at an elephant orphanage although the fact that they’re sometimes chained (see this elephant's right front leg) concerns some visitors.

With peace declared after the Sri Lankan military defeated the LTTE in 2009 — a year in which, according to some estimates, more than 10,000 people were killed, many of them civilians — the long dammed-up economic impetus is poised to burst over the floodgates. (Speaking of which, the government recently signed an MOU with Korea to partner in building a hydroelectric power plant — just one of many partnerships it is working on that express the Expo theme: Partnering with the Hub of Asia.)
It was a war so devastating, with the bitterness that only civil war can produce — and this contained on an island — that scarcely a family emerged without injury or death. One driver told a fellow journalist simply: “My wife and I would never leave the house at the same time, in case we made our children orphans.”
Now the country has an “image problem” internationally, with war atrocities and possible crimes against humanity documented on both sides. The general population, though, has largely turned its back on the past and is racing to make up for lost time. Sri Lankans will quickly remind you that only 10 percent of Tamils were members of LTTE.

 

Many sectors of Colombo remain poor, but the streets and sidewalks bustle with traffic and pedestrians as small shops serve local commerce.

Many sectors of Colombo remain poor, but the streets and sidewalks bustle with traffic and pedestrians as small shops serve local commerce.

Resettlement is well underway. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), 97 percent — or 270,000 — displaced people have returned to their places of origin in the north and east. There is no terrorist threat in Sri Lanka itself, says the portal, though the LTTE network remains active abroad.
The matter of massacres and terrorist bombings is under investigation by the UN. Of 11,500 Tamil Tigers who were arrested or who surrendered, says the SATP, 8,500 “have been rehabilitated and reintegrated.” Criticism for keeping the remaining 3,000 imprisoned without charges prompted the government to state recently that charges against them will be expedited (including those of war crimes).
President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in his traditional white robes and red scarf, formally opened the three-day Expo 2012 after lighting the ceremonial lamp. “We will not allow the forces of separation to rise again,” he told his international audience on March 28. “We are finally on the path of peace and reconciliation — it is our commitment to our people.”
More than 1,000 people attended Expo 2012 from 50 countries to look over 2,000 product displays, from Ceylon apparel and ornately packaged world-famous Ceylon tea to gems and jewelry; from spices, fish products, biscuits, spices, coconut-based products, gifts, footwear and leather products to green printing, from food and beverages to such rubber products as tires.
“Exports more than doubled in the past year,” said President Rajapaksa. They now contribute nearly 17 percent of the country’s GDP. The goal for 2015 incorporates a billion-dollar-a-year growth objective: exports of US$15 billion with a GDP target of US$20 billion by 2020. Sri Lanka has signed free trade agreements with both India and Pakistan. Foreign direct investment, US$1 billion in 2011, is projected to double this year.
The Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, Ajith Nivard Cabraal, said GDP growth hit 8.3 percent in 2011, debt-to-GDP ratio was the lowest in 30 years and inflation has been wrestled from 30 percent to 5 percent. The country aims for per capital income of $3,000 by 2015 and $4,000 income by 2016; it was just above $1,000 in 2003. He laughed: “Not too many politicians are keen to commit to a number. “
From a day-long symposium of testimonials, one of the more remarkable stories came from Verona, Italy. Dr. Sandro Veronesi, chairman of Calzedonia, wanted to set up clothing factories in Sri Lanka in the 1990s. His advisers were aghast: “You are crazy. There’s a war there. There are terrorists. Go to China. Everyone goes to China.”
No doubt cementing his reputation as a madman, he not only set up an undergarment and swimwear factory in Sri Lanka in 1999, but kept on building them to expand his leisurewear line.
He lists Sri Lanka’s virtues: a small, uncomplicated bureaucracy, Board of Investment support, English-speaking workforce down to middle-management level and favourable regulations for foreign investors. With a worldwide workforce of 9,000, the company produces more than 100 million items from numerous factories in Sri Lanka and Europe. Downsides are shortages in textile and fabric supply, a small internal market and temporary withdrawal, based on human rights concerns, of the EU’s tariff concession, which, he says, reconciliation should restore.
The London Stock Exchange’s general manager for technology services, Mark Harries, told the story of a world-wide search for a high-performance company. They chose Millennium IT, started by Tony Weeresinghe in Sri Lanka in 1996. “Today we trade on systems developed in Sri Lanka from scratch – that is, several billion in USD and an average 750,000 trades a day.” The exchange liked Millennium so much, it bought the company.
Why Sri Lanka? Mr. Harries says it’s the top-notch graduates, a growing economy, Board of Investment assistance and incentives, local talent base and proven track record as a BPO (business process outsourcing) provider. Drawbacks are the distance from London, infrastructure — “improving but a ways to go” — brain drain and staff churn from increasing competition for the local talent pool.
HSBC’s global head of business services, Ian Ogilvie, described how the bank set up shop in Sri Lanka in 2004 with 2,000 employees who support 173 processes in 23 markets. He cited low-cost, high-quality, high-loyalty workforce, 91 percent literacy rate with English-speaking capabilities and a 120-year history in the country. (English, Sinhala and Tamil are the predominant languages). While infrastructure is not “quite there yet,” and not everything is computerized, manual operations are a “staggering” 99.999 percent accurate.
Marc Guay, vice-president of Toronto–based Strategic Initiatives Camoplast Solideal, said his company has been in Sri Lanka for 28 years. Solideal is the world’s largest maker of tires, 97 percent of them manufactured in Sri Lanka. Brands include Loadstar and Unitrac tires, wheels and tracks with company sales exceeding $1 billion and a worldwide workforce of 9,000 — 70 percent of them working in Sri Lanka.
Adolf Peretti, a gemologist with 25 years as lab director for GRS Bern Research, samples mines in Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Magagascar, Vietnam, Tajikistan and Myanmar. He is a big fan of Sri Lankan jewels for their size and clarity — many of them hand-mined in the countryside some 160 kilometres (100 miles) from Colombo. As the world’s largest supplier of sapphires greater than 100 carats, the country holds records for blue, yellow, pink and orange sapphires.
The misnamed 563-carat star sapphire, the Star of India and the 182-carat Star of Bombay, another Sri Lankan stone, are displayed in U.S. museums. The Ray of Treasure Chrysoberyl Cat’s Eye of 105 carats remains in Sri Lanka. The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto has the Star of Lanka, a 193-carat, oval, cabochon-cut, high-domed, blue star sapphire.
Beyond quality, Sri Lanka’s ancient gem culture, said Mr. Peretti, has “preserved the natural and sustainable ethical mining practices which employs hundreds of thousands of workers.“
Dr. Paolo Bray is founder and chief executive director of Friend of the Sea, and its companion program, Earth Island Institute. He has successfully campaigned against purse seine netting that deliberately drowns dolphins and accidentally kills sea creatures trapped with them, and against the use of explosives that killed seven million dolphins between the 1950s and the 1980s. According to Earth Island Institute, in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean region, virtually only Mexican, Venezuelan and Colombian tuna vessels still chase and net dolphins in order to capture the tuna that swim with them.
Friend of the Sea opposes shark finning and fishing in marine protected places and carries out onboard international monitoring of all steps of fish production. So far, 250 companies in some 48 countries have enlisted in some or all of the NGO’s programs to receive Friend of the Sea certification for their products.
Thailand’s 12 major tuna companies applied for certification in February, bringing to more than 40 percent the world’s tuna industry that has signed onto the certification program which promotes sustainability for both fisheries and aquaculture. Sri Lanka, said Dr. Bray, has a “very important achievement” in its sustainability — selective artisan fishing that uses multiple hooks.
Assistant U.S. trade representative of South and Central Asia Michael J. Delaney, who led the U.S. business delegation, called the U.S. consumer probably “the largest single employer of Sri Lanka’s workforce” as recipient of the largest export item — apparel. In 2011, of US$4 million in apparel exports, 40 percent (US$1.6 billion) went to the U.S.
“Complete (political) reconciliation will take some time,” he said. “I have been visiting Sri Lanka for a long time.” He first went there as a photographer, stayed with a fish seller for two weeks and discovered that Sri Lankans are “fiercely devoted to family and there are few ideologies” which motivate them.
His recipe for speeding growth: Boost the value of exports — gemstones, agricultural products, apparel and intellectual property by developing value-added products, preserve Sri Lanka environmental heritage and reap the eco-tourism rewards. “You could become a green version of Singapore.”
He concluded: “We [the U.S.] will do anything we can to assist you.”

 

A memorable day or two in sri Lanka

If you have a day or two in Colombo, you’ll have no trouble filling them memorably.
The Gem Museum on Galle Road displays raw semi-precious stones and shows an interesting movie on gem mining. Upstairs is Christina’s Fine Gemstone Jewellery outlet. For $125,000, you can buy a 50-carat blue sapphire in a diamond-studded platinum setting. If you order a simple setting, you can choose a gem one day and pick up the jewelry the next.
Do pay a visit to the Dutch Reformed Church for a fascinating historical tour with guide Arulpragasam Dewapragsam; visit the astonishingly ornate, intricately carved Hindu Temple Sivasubramania Swami Kovil and the magnificent Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple with its two-storey golden Buddha statue.
If your schedule is jammed, you can ask permission to go for a swim at the Mount Lavinia Hotel. Though guide books say a miniumum 10-hour stay is necessary to use the private beach, my ever-helpful driver/guide, Tuan Saraph, who works for the Cinnamon Grand Hotel, managed to get permission for a 6:30 a.m. swim. Watch out for the big waves!
If you have one day to venture outside Colombo, you can have a truly remarkable set of experiences.
Start early — you’ll need to — for the lovely three-hour ride to Kandy, which route takes you past rice paddies, roadside stands with avocados, bananas, pineapples, coconuts, cashews and all manner of vegetables. Tuan, open to endless questions, described his typical dinner of rice with green bean-and-broccoli curry; curried egg, beef, fish or roasted chicken and salad.
Visit the huge, hilltop Temple of the Tooth in Kandy. Tradition says that after Gauthama Buddha was cremated in India in 543 B.C., the tooth was removed from the ashes and smuggled to Sri Lanka in the hair of a princess. It arrived in Kandy and was installed in the temple in the late 1500s. It is not visible to visitors and worshippers.
Fascinating and explorable, Sri Lanka is 453 kilometres (281 miles) long and 240 kilometres (149 miles) at its greatest width. Its topography varies from low-lying land to nine peaks higher than 2,100 metres (6,890 feet). According to the award-winning Bradt Guide: Sri Lanka by British-born Sri Lankan resident Royston Ellis, 13 percent of the land is set aside as wildlife and nature conservation areas.
Wildlife abounds, with 435 recorded birds, 92 species of mammals (including leopards, jackals, deer, and monkeys ), 107 fish species, 54 amphibian species, 74 species of four-legged reptiles and 81 species of snakes. Of the 830 native flowering plants, 230 are in danger of extinction.
The Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage is a two- or three-hour drive northeast from Colombo. Try to see the 80 elephants at feeding time — a half-hour before their 10 a.m. or 2 p.m. bathing. Some are rescued from injuries, abuse or are orphaned. By one estimate, upwards of 150 elephants are killed a year and 60 people die in territorial conflicts.
Sadly, at the orphanage, when they are not bathing or eating, they are frequently corralled and sometimes chained. A solitary blind elephant is chained under a roofed corral and his leg is raw from his tether. Some visitors come away distressed that he cannot move freely in a safe enclosure. That said, one could sit for hours and watch the elephants eat and interact.
For a few dollars, you can feed a large elephant (this one was an old female) temporarily tethered to a feeding hut. She tolerates being petted on her trunk only while the chunks of watermelon and pineapple keep coming, so, of course, they do.
In 2010, 600,000 tourists visited. The 2012 target is 2.5 million. If you’re in Sri Lanka for a week, you will find places for surfing and scuba diving among coral reefs and shipwrecks, for exploring ancient cities, rainforests, World Heritage archeological sites, spice gardens, tea estates, temples and festivals, nature reserves, waterfalls, caves and ancient paintings.
Perhaps do it soon, before a travel-hungry world discovers Sri Lanka.

 

Donna Jacobs is Diplomat’s publisher.

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Donna Jacobs is Diplomat's publisher

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