Colombo, Nov. 14: “Please fasten your seat belts, your flight S2 501, is about to land at Colombo,” the pilot announced as the island nation’s capital emerged like a green emerald floating in an endless blue pond, from between a parting in the overcast sky.
The flight, India’s first privately-operated international flight, a Sahara Boeing 737-800, was flying into a city living on tenterhooks because of a spat between the island’s hardline President Chandrika Kumaratunga and pacifist Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe over talks with Tamil secessionists with whom the government has been locked in a ding-dong battle for more than 20 years.
Pretty Sinhalese girls, welcoming garlands of “temple flowers”, Kandy dancers doing their piece on the airport tarmac and immigration officials who smile and say “you are our friends”, bustling streets, a smiling populace and deserted sandbagged military check-points lull the visitor into a sense of complacency.
But behind the veil of normalcy, tension is writ large on the cityscape.
“Two years of ceasefire-brokered peace is being threatened. I shudder to think what will happen if the peace talks flop because of the show-down between the President and the premier,” said Vije Manawadu, a Sinhalese businessman.
“We are sick of the killings, sick of the bombings and innumerable police and military checks which were part of our lives for years before the Tamil Tigers agreed to the ceasefire.”
Most Sri Lankans agree. Bars, and the city is full of them, have only one topic of conversation — the stand-off between the President and her premier over the peace talks. Wickremesinghe is a clear favourite with the people for he promises what they want — peace.
As does the Colombo stock market index called Milanka, which, after picking up steam through the peace period by adding some 1,000 points and taking Colombo to the third place among developing world bourses, nosedived by over a hundred points after President Kumaratunga sacked three of Wickremesinghe’s ministers and stalled plans for a federal structure which the Prime Minister was brokering with the Sri Lankan Tamils.
“The markets are waiting for news from the political front. If the President doesn’t back down and let the talks resume, the index, which now stands at 2,276, will really collapse,” said Manawadu.
At a news conference here, Sri Lankan industries minister Prof. G.L. Peiris lamented that his national currency which was trading at a healthy 94 to the dollar had started depreciating, leading to fears that commodity prices would rise sharply.
Peiris says a crucial $80 million loan which the country badly wants from the International Monetary Fund might actually be stalled because of the political uncertainty which has also stalled the budget making process. “The IMF has agreed to postpone the meeting by just one week,” says the minister, who adds that the current crisis might lead to the affecting aid Sri Lanka is getting from Japan and the World Bank.
At the same time, Sri Lankan officials say a free trade deal which was being worked out with the US and which businesses here hoped would see Sri Lanka emerging once again as one of Asia’s major trading centres is now being threatened.
Hotels dotting the Colombo sea front are reporting huge tourist cancellations from Europe, Japan and the US because of the political stalemate and some expect them to stay more than half empty through the long winter tourist season.
The only silver lining in the sky are India’s Sahara Air and Jet Airways plans to bring in Indian tourists on regular flights to be launched by this month end.
“People are holding back investment plans. If global bodies also stay their hands, business confidence could bottom out. Nobody, believe me, nobody wants any more war,” says Manawadu.
But then nobody is listening to Manawadus on this island at least.