Short Day in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka

April 6, 2023

We spent a short day in Colombo, Sri Lanka on the way to the Maldives. Colombo is the capital. Among other things we visited the National Museum, the Samudra Hotel and the Gangaramaya Temple. We saw native dancers at the port and believe it or not, several snake charmers. 

Colombo, Sri Lanka — April 6, 2023. Dancers at the Port in Native Dress
Colombo, Sri Lanka — April 6, 2023. School children exit the National Museum

Formerly known as Ceylon, the island country is now officially known as the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. At about $14,500, it has the second highest per capita income of South Asia—but it also suffers from a huge series of problems, many of them self-inflicted, as the official name of the country suggests.

The country is made up of many ethnicities, but a large majority, about 75%, is Sinhalese. The next largest group, about 11% is composed of Sri Lankan Tamils. And as it turns out, the Sinhalese are largely Buddhists and the Tamils are mostly Hindus. As a result of religious and ethnic differences, Sri Lanka endured a 30 year civil war in which militant Tamils, apparently egged on by India, demanded an independent Tamil State in the north.

The Sri Lankan army decisively defeated the Tamil Tigers in 2009 and the civil war has largely gone into submission.  But all is not well. A terrorist bombing in 2019 resulted in the deaths of 261 people. 

2019 also saw the beginning of an economic crisis (not the first). It came from a combination of massive foreign borrowing, large government deficits and a government order to ban the use of fertilizers and require organic farming. To the surprise of absolutely no one who passed freshman economics, the farm economy collapsed. The government declared a food emergency in August 2021.

By June of 2022 Sri Lanka declared an economic emergency and defaulted on $51 Billion in sovereign debt. The currency collapsed; double digit inflation followed and power outages became common. Not surprisingly, massive street protests broke out. Mobs attacked the President’s house. The President hightailed it over to Singapore where he e-mailed in his resignation. On the same day the mob burned down the Prime Minister’s house. 

So: they have a lot of problems to work on.  Another consideration is that Human Rights Watch as well as other NGO’s have pointed out that under the guise of anti-terrorism Sri Lanka has abused human rights. For its part, China has aggressively used its Belt and Road initiative to throw loans at Sri Lanka, although it looks increasingly unlikely that Sri Lanka will be able to pay them off in full. So China appears to be getting more than a toe hold in the country. China’s increasing influence can be seen in one of the photos below where outside a temple, the flag of the PRC is flying next to the Sri Lankan flag.

Colombo, Sri Lanka — April 6, 2023. Photo taken at the outside gate of the Outside Gangaramaya Temple

N.B. Apologies for not including a photo of a snake charmer, but the internet here is terrible and for some reason or other I can’t upload one.