Blessed with beauty, marred by bad press

The stunning Sigiriya rock fortress is one of Sri Lanka's eight Unesco-listed World Heritage Sites. The unusual outcrop that rises 200m from a dense scrub jungle used to be the site of King Kashyapa's palace in the 5th century. -- Copyright: CHE
The stunning Sigiriya rock fortress is one of Sri Lanka's eight Unesco-listed World Heritage Sites. The unusual outcrop that rises 200m from a dense scrub jungle used to be the site of King Kashyapa's palace in the 5th century. -- Copyright: CHEONG POH KWAN
A Sri Lankan fisherman's boat sails on the horizon at sunset in Colombo on September 26, 2013. -- PHOTO: AFP
A Sri Lankan fisherman's boat sails on the horizon at sunset in Colombo on September 26, 2013. -- PHOTO: AFP
A cyclist travels past a billboard featuring a windmill announcing the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo on October 14, 2013. Sri Lanka is sprucing up the city ahead of the November 15-17 Commonwealth Heads of Government Mee
A cyclist travels past a billboard featuring a windmill announcing the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo on October 14, 2013. Sri Lanka is sprucing up the city ahead of the November 15-17 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting hosted by Sri Lanka. -- PHOTO: AFP 
A Sri Lankan activist wails as she holds a lighted candle and a photograph during a candlelight vigil in Colombo on August 30, 2013, held to mark the International Day of the Disappeared. The vigil at Colombo’s Independence Square came as UN human
A Sri Lankan activist wails as she holds a lighted candle and a photograph during a candlelight vigil in Colombo on August 30, 2013, held to mark the International Day of the Disappeared. The vigil at Colombo’s Independence Square came as UN human rights chief Navi Pillay was also visiting the island to probe alleged war crimes at a time when international rights groups said thousands had disappeared in the country in the past three decades. -- PHOTO: AFP

SRI Lanka is a cursed beauty. Once a model colony of the British empire, the tropical paradise boasts gorgeous beaches ringed by the roaring Indian Ocean and sweeping hills adorned with tumbling waterfalls.

But for a very long time, its natural charm was eclipsed by ethnic strife that escalated into a 26-year civil war. Haunting images of the Tamil Tigers’ elite suicide squads still come to mind, along with those of their bloodied victims, even though that violent episode of Sri Lanka’s history ended in 2009 after Sri Lankan forces crushed the separatist movement decisively.

Still, the return of peace has not stopped the tear-drop island from getting a bad press.

Take, for instance, Lonely Planet’s endorsement. When the publisher named Sri Lanka the best destination to visit in 2013, a Germany-based NGO – Society for Threatened People – immediately took it to task for promoting irresponsible tourism, as it made no mention of the country’s alarming human rights situation.

Another NGO, this one founded by local activists, stepped up its Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice, urging tourists to boycott hotels and tours run by the army or powerful political families to avoid further enriching them.

Now, in the lead-up to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm), which starts on Nov 15, disapproving noises over the choice of Sri Lanka as host venue have reached a crescendo.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has already said he would not be attending the biennial summit, citing concerns over ongoing reports of political persecution and the outstanding issue of wartime accountability.

While British Prime Minister David Cameron prefers engagement to isolation, his upcoming trip has drawn the ire of a group of lawmakers who did not like his “timid” approach.

More recently, the Sri Lankan government was rapped for being too heavy-handed in its handling of two Australian campaigners from the International Federation of Journalists.

The women, who had attended a media freedom event in Colombo, were detained for taking part in “anti-government” activities, interrogated at length for two days before they were expelled on Nov 1.

The incident prompted them to call on the Australian government to reassess its diplomatic strategy with Sri Lanka, although Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop are not expected to change their mind about attending Chogm.

It does not help that the Sri Lankan government is prone to jumping into combat mode each time brickbrats are thrown its way.

For instance, when United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay issued a hard-hitting statement on Sri Lanka’s persistent human rights record in August, she earned herself the nasty label of “Tamil Tigress in the UN” from some Sri Lankan ministers and their rank and file.

In response to Mr Harper’s boycott, a Sri Lankan government spokesman mocked the Canadian premier for fighting a “lone battle”, as he had not managed to persuade other Commonwealth members to follow suit.

While the Sri Lankan government is entitled to its right of defence, it might find it hard to stop the deluge of bad press if it continues to turn a blind eye to its officials’ name-calling antics.

Even Sri Lanka-born, Singapore-based terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna, who has spoken well of the government’s rebuilding and reconciliation efforts, said it had failed in strategic communication – both at home and abroad.

The authorities do deserve bragging rights over some of their achievements, said Professor Gunaratna, the head of Nanyang Technological University’s International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research. After winning what seemed like an “unwinnable” war against the Tamil Tigers, the government moved fast to rebuild roads and railways to the isolated north, resettled close to 300,000 displaced residents in three years, and rehabilitated some 12,000 former Tamil Tiger cadres successfully.

But it must learn to keep its pride in check.

Prof Gunaratna said the Sri Lankan government under President Mahinda Rajapaksa should waste no time in mending ties with the West and its giant neighbour India, which have grown increasingly wary of its warming relations with China, which is its arms supplier as well as a major investor in its business capital Colombo and the tsunami-hit port of Hambantota.

It should also rebuild trust with countries like Canada and Britain, where a big Tamil diaspora calls home. Failing to do so will simply lend more credence to lobby groups that remain sympathetic to the Tamil Tigers’ struggle for a separate homeland for Sri Lanka’s Tamils. 

At home, the Rajapaksa government must also act fast to engage the Tamil community in the north, especially after the opposition Tamil National Alliance won a landslide victory in September’s northern provincial election – the first such polls in the battered region in 25 years.

The election outcome is telling. 

Long isolated from the Sinhalese-majority south, most Tamils in the north are still more inclined to throw their weight behind an opposition party that advocates self-rule than a federal government that’s been fervently rebuilding infrastructure for them.

“Like a couple... the man won’t be able to win the woman’s heart by giving her money and houses alone,” said Prof Gunaratna. “He has to engage her emotionally. That’s what the government has to do if it wants to win over its people.”

Long-time activist Ruki Fernando, who visits the former war zones regularly, also spoke of the Tamil community’s aching need to be heard.

“For some, all they want is a listening ear,” said Mr Fernando, referring to those still reeling from the pain of losing their loved ones in the conflict. “That’s why they appreciate Navi Pillay’s visit, because she listens to them.”

What the battle-scarred Tamils don’t want is a government that doesn’t stop blowing its own horn over a victory that’s won with great loss of life. “That’s very insulting,” said Mr Fernando.

A United Nations Panel of Experts has estimated that some 40,000 civilians were killed when the war was nearing its end.

Mr Fernando said the government should start accounting for the tens of thousands of deaths and disappearances rather than glossing over every allegation.

Failing to do so, he said, would not only hurt the grieving families, but also further tarnish the country’s international reputation.

cpohkwan@sph.com.sg