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The Commonwealth
Sri Lanka


Region:

Asia

Did you know:

The 58th Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference was held in Colombo in September 2012. Sri Lanka was the first Commonwealth state to have a female prime minister. Sirimavo Bandaranaike served for three periods of office: 1960–65, 1970–77 and 1994–2000. Shehan Karunatilaka won the Commonwealth Writers’ Book Prize in 2012. Sanath Jayasuriya was Wisden Leading Cricketer in the World in 1996, Muttiah Muralitharan in 2000 and 2006, and K C Sangakkara in 2011.

Key facts

Joined Commonwealth: 1948
Population: 21,273,000 (2013)
GDP: p.c. growth: 4.6% p.a. 1990–2013
UN HDI: world ranking 73
Official language: Sinhala, Tamil
Timezone: GMT plus 5:30hr
Currency: Sri Lanka rupee (SLRs)

Geography

Area: 65,610 sq km
Coastline: 1,340km
Capital city: Colombo
Population density (per sq. km): 324

The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) is an island in the Indian Ocean, separated from south-east India (Tamil Nadu state) by the Palk Strait. It is almost linked to the Indian mainland by Adam’s Bridge, an atoll barrier, mostly submerged, lying between the offshore island of Mannar and India itself.

The country comprises nine provinces (from south to north): Southern (provincial capital Galle), Sabaragamuwa (Ratnapura), Western (Colombo), Uva (Badulla), Eastern (Trincomalee), Central (Kandy), North-Western (Kurunegala), North-Central (Anuradhapura) and Northern (Jaffna).

Main towns:

Colombo (commercial capital; Western Province; pop. 561,314 in 2012), Sri Jayewardenepura–Kotte (administrative capital; greater Colombo, 107,925), Maharagama (greater Colombo, 196,423), Dehiwala-Mount Lavinia (greater Colombo, 184,468), Moratuwa (greater Colombo, 168,280), Negombo (142,499), Kalmunai (99,893), Kandy (Central, 98,828), Galle (Southern, 86,333), Batticaloa (86,227), Jaffna (Northern, 80,829), Daluguma (74,400), Katunayaka (61,228), Anuradhapura (North-Central, 50,595), Trincomalee (Eastern, 48,351), Ratnapura (Sabaragamuwa, 47,105), Badulla (Uva, 42,237), Vavuniya (34,816), Kurunegala (North-Western, 24,833), Dambulla (23,814), Chavakachcheri (16,129), Point Pedro (13,300) and Valvettithurai (7,300).

Transport:

There are 114,090 km of roads (80 per cent paved) and about 1,460 km of railway. Rail links exist between the major towns. The lines run from Colombo north along the coast to Puttalam, north via Kurunegala and Anuradhapura to Mannar and to Jaffna; north-east to Trincomalee and Batticaloa; east to Kandy via Gampaha; and south along the coast to Galle and Matara.

The international ports are at Colombo, Galle, Talaimannar and Trincomalee. Bandaranaike international airport is 32 km from Colombo.

The larger domestic airports are at Ratmalana (Colombo) in the south and Jaffna in the north.

International relations:

Sri Lanka is a member of the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation, Non-Aligned Movement, South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, United Nations and World Trade Organization.

Topography:

Beyond the coastal plains, Sri Lanka’s topography is dominated by an outstandingly beautiful central mountain massif of gneiss rock, with the highest point at Pidurutalagala (2,524m). The holy Adam’s Peak (2,243m) is so called from a mark at the top in the likeness of a human footprint, variously attributed as the print of the Buddha, Vishnu or Adam, and is a place of pilgrimage. The coastal plains are broader in the north, tapering off in the long low-lying Jaffna peninsula. Several fast-flowing non-navigable rivers arise in the mountains. The Mahaweli Ganga, from which hydroelectric power is obtained, is the longest at 322km.

One of the most violent earthquakes ever recorded occurred on 26 December 2004 in the Indian Ocean west of Sumatra generating a tsunami that swamped the east and south coasts of Sri Lanka causing approximately 31,000 deaths and devastation of the coastal area.

Climate:

Tropical. The lowlands are always hot, particularly March–May. The highlands are cooler. During December and January there is occasional frost on very high ground – for example, at Nuwara Eliya. The dry season is March–mid-May. The south-west monsoon season lasts from mid-May–September, the north-east monsoon season November–March.

Environment:

The most significant environmental issues are: deforestation; soil erosion; coastal degradation as a result of mining activities and increased pollution; pollution of freshwater resources by industrial wastes and sewage; air pollution in Colombo; and the threat to wildlife populations of poaching and urbanisation.

Vegetation:

Forest covers 29 per cent of the land area, having declined at 1.2 per cent p.a. 1990–2010. Vegetation is rich and luxuriant, with a great variety of flowers, trees, creepers and flowering shrubs. The flora of Sri Lanka were described by Linnaeus in 1747 from specimens collected by a fellow botanist. Among the many species of trees are the rubber tree, palm, acacia, margosa, satinwood, Ceylon oak, tamarind, ebony, coral tree and banyan. Flowers and shrubs include the orchid and rhododendron. There are about 3,300 species of plants, of which some 288 are threatened with extinction. Arable land comprises 20 per cent and permanent cropland 16 per cent of the total land area.

Wildlife:

Nature reserves now cover ten per cent of the island. Wilpattu National Park in the north-west (813 sq km) is best known for leopards; Yala National Park in the south-east (112 sq km) is home to large elephant populations. However, reduction of the natural tropical hardwood forest is endangering several animal species. Some 30 mammal species and 14 bird species are thought to be endangered (2014).

History:

To conquer Ceylon could be a costly and bloody business. The Dutch Governor at Colombo had a strong garrison of Swiss mercenary soldiers with which to defend it. The British therefore decided to employ an agent, a 34-year-old Scotsman named Hugh Cleghorn, who posed as a professor from St. Andrews University.

Get a brief history at the British Empire site

Modern humans arrived in South Asia from Africa in around 60,000 BCE, with the earliest definitive evidence of settlement in Sri Lanka dating to about 28,000 BCE. Early humans had also been to the island much earlier, leaving stone-age tools that can be dated to around 125,000 BCE. A land bridge connected India and Sri Lanka until around 5000 BCE, allowing different groups to come and go.

The exact origin of these early settlers has been much debated, particularly in the light of modern ethnic tensions. What is certain is that the inhabitants of 30,000 years ago were related to populations of India, South-East Asia and Australia. They have become known as Veddoid, after the modern-day Väddā tribal group, of whom they may be the ancestors. Dravidian and Indo-Aryan languages filtered down to Sri Lanka, from the south and north of India respectively, with modern-day Tamils and Sinhalese each often claiming their forefathers arrived first. However, many historians now think that Dravidian and Indo-Aryan cultures most likely did not arrive in Sri Lanka until late in the first millennium BCE.

An impressive irrigation system had been developed by 100 CE, which became the most elaborate in South Asia. By the time of Alexander the Great’s arrival in the region in around 327 BCE, a trading centre had been established at Māntai (modern-day Tirukketisvaram).

Buddhist scholars in around the fourth and fifth centuries CE wrote the chronicles Dīpavamsa and Mahāvamsa, recording some of the early history of Sri Lanka, focusing in particular on the establishment of Buddhism and the political fortunes of different dynasties. The Mahāvamsa tells of the arrival of a prince from India named Vijaya, and the Sinhalese have often seen him as the founder of Sinhala civilisation in the island.

By the third century BCE Anurādhapura had grown into one of the largest cities in South Asia and Buddhism was adopted by the city’s rulers, after the Indian emperor Ashoka sent a missionary to Anurādhapura in 250 BCE. The city-state extended its control over more of the island and struggles ensued over the next two centuries as power passed back and forth between successors of the Buddhist Devānampiyatissa and rulers identified as ‘Damila’ in the Mahāvamsa, who mainly came from the south of India.

By 500 CE several million people lived in the northern Dry Zone centred around Anurādhapura – the vast majority of the island’s population.

In around 1000 CE, the Hindu Colas, from South India, had gained control of Anurādhapura and moved the capital south by 100 km to Polonnaruwa, before the Sinhalese regained the crown. By the 13th century, malaria had spread through the Dry Zone, making the area virtually uninhabitable and the focus of political life drifted to the south-west.

The Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka in 1505 and soon began to influence the internal affairs of the island. By the end of the 16th century, the Portuguese had gained control over the Kotte and Jaffna kingdoms, the former initially a Sinhalese settlement and the latter originally Tamil. The Dutch arrived in Asia soon after and Portugal began to pull out of its South Asian strongholds to defend territories elsewhere.

From the mid-1630s, the King of Kandy helped the Dutch to dispossess the Portuguese; by 1656 the island had become a Dutch possession except for Kandy. Later the Dutch also seized Kandy’s coastal areas. British interests developed in the late 18th century when its army invaded and forced the Dutch to accept its protection. In 1802 the Dutch colony became a British possession. The Kingdom of Kandy was invaded in 1815 and its monarchy abolished, with the whole island coming under British rule.

Plantations growing rubber, coconut and coffee were established in the 19th century. After the coffee plantations were destroyed by a fungus in the 1870s, planters switched to tea, with the country soon becoming the second largest producer of black tea after India. During this period, Indian Tamils were brought in as indentured labour for the tea estates.

Constitutional development of Ceylon (as the country was then called) began relatively early, with executive and legislative councils set up in 1833, and the opening up of the colonial civil service to Ceylonese. Self-government was achieved in 1946, under a new constitution, with a bicameral legislature (which became a single chamber in 1972), and Ceylon became fully independent, and joined the Commonwealth, in 1948.

The first Prime Minister of independent Ceylon was one of the leaders of the independence movement, D. S. Senanayake. He was the head of the United National Party (UNP, the former Ceylon National Congress supported by the Tamil Congress). After a split in the UNP in 1951, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike formed the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).

In 1956 the nationalist SLFP won the elections, but in September 1959 Bandaranaike was assassinated. After elections the following year, his widow, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, led the SLFP to victory and became the first female Prime Minister in the world. In March 1965, the UNP was voted back to power with Dudley Senanayake (son of Sri Lanka’s first Prime Minister) as Prime Minister until 1970, when the elections returned the SLFP.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s new government introduced a new constitution in 1972 – whereby Sri Lanka became a republic. The country’s name was also changed from Ceylon to Sri Lanka – ‘Lanka’ being an ancient name for the island and ‘Sri’ meaning ‘resplendent’ or ‘venerable’. In 1978, a further constitution under the government of J. R. Jayewardene, introduced the executive presidency. Throughout this period, Ceylon’s government developed programmes of welfare and nationalisation, leading to improvements in health and literacy, but the economy began to decline. In 1971 there was a serious internal crisis with an armed revolt by a communist youth organization.

Civil war

After independence, the Sinhalese became the dominant social and political force and the Tamils felt marginalised, especially after 1956 when Sinhala was made the official language. Several different Tamil parties formed and demanded that the Northern and Eastern provinces become part of a federal state and, when this was refused, an independent homeland. Anti-Tamil riots led to the death and displacement of hundreds of Tamils.

At the general election in 1977, the UNP under J. R. Jayewardene won a sweeping victory.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was formed in 1976 in response to growing tensions between Tamil and Sinhalese communities. It undertook violent attacks against politicians, the police and the army in the north. The group’s name was chosen because the ‘tiger’ was thought to be a worthy opponent to the Sinhala (meaning ‘lion race’) and Eelam was the name of an aspirational separate Tamil state.

The civil war began in July 1983, after the death of 11 soldiers in an attack by the LTTE sparked mass anti-Tamil riots in Colombo and the south-west of the country, which left hundreds dead. Tactics on both sides were brutal. The LTTE escalated its terrorist attacks to include civilians, while many Tamils detained by the police and army ‘disappeared’.

The first presidential election, held in 1982, was won by Jayewardene. In December 1982 the life of the 1977 Parliament was extended, by a national referendum, for six more years.

The Indian government attempted to mediate in the hostilities and, in July 1987, President J. R. Jayewardene and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi arranged a ceasefire, supervised by Indian troops. Under the Indo–Lanka Accord, provincial councils were introduced as a solution to the conflict. The provincial councils for the Northern and Eastern provinces were to be temporarily merged into a single council.

Some Indian-supported Tamil groups accepted the arrangement and elections for the new council proceeded. However, the LTTE refused to co-operate and in 1988 Jayewardene asked the Indian government to withdraw its troops. The LTTE took control of the vacated areas and fighting continued.

Suicide bombings of high-profile politicians by the Tamil Tigers in the 1990s wrought havoc with Sri Lankan politics. In 1988 UNP’s Ranasinghe Premadasa was elected to Sri Lanka’s presidency, but he was assassinated in 1993. In 1994 UNP presidential candidate Gamini Dissanayake was also killed in a similar attack. In July 1999, the moderate Tamil politician Neelan Tiruchelvam – architect of the government’s devolution plans – was the next victim when he was murdered in Colombo. The 1991 assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was also attributed to the Tigers.

After Premadasa’s death in 1993, D. B. Wijetunga took over as President. The People’s Alliance coalition, led by the SLFP, consisting of seven mostly left-of-centre parties, came to power in the August 1994 general election. The leader of this coalition, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, became the Prime Minister, but relinquished her position to become President in November 1994. Her mother, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, became Prime Minister, her third term over a span of four decades.

The People’s Alliance government engaged in peace talks with the LTTE, but the Tigers broke a ceasefire and relaunched the war. In 1995 government forces recaptured the town of Jaffna, forcing the LTTE to withdraw into the jungle, and the war continued.

From 1996 the LTTE attacked substantial civilian and economic targets, especially in Colombo. On 25 January 1998, ten days before the celebrations to mark 50 years of independence, a truck was blown up by LTTE suicide bombers as they drove it through the gates of the country’s most sacred Buddhist site, the Temple of the Tooth at Kandy, killing 16 people.

In an early presidential election in December 1999, Kumaratunga won her second term with 51 per cent of the votes.

In August 2000 the government failed to gain a two-thirds majority of parliament for its constitutional reform, designed to end the 17-year civil war. This entailed the devolution of substantial powers on elected councils in seven provinces and an interim appointed council in the two provinces (Northern and Eastern) with majority Tamil populations.

In March 2000 the LTTE began a new offensive on the Jaffna peninsula – held by government forces since 1995 – and the government declared a state of war for the first time, suspending all non-essential development projects.

Despite the declaration of a unilateral ceasefire from December 2000 to April 2001 by the LTTE, and the efforts of the Norwegian envoy (see ‘Peace talks’, below), the Sri Lankan army declined to lay down its arms. In mid-2001 the Tigers attacked the international airport near Colombo, destroying several civilian and military aeroplanes.

Peace talks

After the failure of Indian-led negotiations and the collapse of internal peace talks, Norway stepped in in February 2000, agreeing to provide a special envoy to act as intermediary.

A ceasefire was agreed with the LTTE in February 2002 and the first round of talks was held in Thailand in September 2002, focusing on reconstruction of the areas affected by the war and the return of displaced people.

As the peace talks proceeded, the LTTE dropped its demand for a separate Tamil state and agreed to work towards a federal system and, for the first time, the government also agreed to share power with the LTTE. After the sixth round of talks, held in Japan in March 2003, progress slowed and the LTTE was barred from attending an international donor conference in Washington, USA, under US terrorist legislation. The Tigers then refused to attend a further donor conference in Japan.

After the election in April 2004, there were efforts to get the stalled peace process under way again. The new government invited the Norwegian mediators to return to the country to arrange peace talks between the LTTE and the government, but governing alliance partner JVP remained staunchly opposed to any solution that involved power sharing.

In late 2006 peace talks with the Norwegian mediators in Geneva broke down without agreement. By the following year it was apparent that the ceasefire agreement signed in 2002 was no longer being respected and the government withdrew from the agreement in January 2008.

By January 2009 government forces were reported to be in control of most of the country and in April the government rejected UN calls for a ceasefire. In May 2009 LTTE leader and founder Velupillai Prabhakaran died in combat. The government proclaimed victory and the war was declared over.

At the conclusion of hostilities, almost 300,000 displaced persons who had fled the conflict were housed in government camps and as many as 100,000 people were estimated to have been killed in the fighting.

Early History of Sri Lanka

History of British Ceylon Documentary

History of Tamil Eelam / Sri Lanka

Learn more about Sri Lanka on The Commonwealth site Society, Economy, Constitution & politics, History and Travel.

A History of Sri Lanka
by K. M. De Silva (1981) (pdf)

Outlines of Ceylon history
by Obeyesekere, Donald (1911) (pdf)

National Geographic Documentary - Sri Lanka Land of Lakes

Visit Sri Lanka

Food and Culture Journey

Business in the Commonwealth
Web site of the Country

Country Profile

UK and Sri Lanka: Bilateral Trade
This has been taken from the House of Lords Hansard Hansard is the traditional name of the transcripts of Parliamentary Debates in Britain and many Commonwealth countries.

Lord Sheikh (Con)
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to bring this important subject before your Lordships’ House. I have been a friend of Sri Lanka for several years and have visited the country on two recent occasions. I have met and spoken to several Sri Lankan government Ministers in London as well as in Sri Lanka, including the President, Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa. I have previously raised issues relating to Sri Lanka in your Lordships’ House. I am a vice-chairman of the All-Party Group on Sri Lanka, and I have supported the Conservative Friends of Sri Lanka. I have also enjoyed a highly successful relationship with the Sri Lankan high commission here in London, in particular with the former high commissioner, Dr Chris Nonis, who has been an outstanding representative of his country. He elevated the stature of Sri Lanka in the United Kingdom.

The observations I have made throughout this time have reinforced my view that Sri Lanka is, and should be, regarded as one of our most important bilateral trading partners. Trading links between the UK and Sri Lanka date back to colonial times. We introduced commercial plantations to Sri Lanka—first coffee, then tea and rubber. Over the years the Sri Lankan export product base has diversified significantly, most notably with articles of apparel and clothing accessories. The UK has increasingly imported a wide variety of items, including electrical equipment, bicycles, jewellery, ceramics and toys. In return, we export to Sri Lanka items such as iron and steel, machinery, paper, beverages, plastics and pharmaceutical products.

Both our political and economic ties have worn extremely well over the past 200 years. Today, Sri Lanka is a major emerging economy in south Asia. It is a market of over 20 million people, but its geographical location means that it can in fact reach a market of over 1.6 billion people. It also serves as a logistical trading and shipment hub for the region. Over the past decade Sri Lanka’s gross domestic product has grown at an overall rate of 6.4%. It grew by an astonishing 7.2% in 2013. Sri Lanka now has one of the fastest growing economies in the region and is expected to grow by 7.5% this year. The Sri Lankan stock market is on target to finish among the top 10 performing stock markets in the world this year. It now has a GDP ​per capita of $3,200, and the Sri Lankan Government aim to increase this to $4,000 per capita by 2016. In short, Sri Lanka undoubtedly holds massive potential for UK investors.

We must acknowledge that for nearly three decades Sri Lanka was torn apart by a civil war. Thankfully, that came to an end in 2009. The country has since made significant progress, including meeting many international obligations and engaging with the United Nations on post-conflict matters. A commission was established to strengthen the process of reconciliation and the Sri Lankan Government are currently implementing its recommendations. I have been assured that the Government are committed to the realisation of all human rights to prevent further conflict. I believe that now is the time for any Tamil diaspora which left the country to be encouraged to return and be resettled so that it may once again contribute to the well-being of the country. Sri Lanka’s future is undoubtedly looking bright.

Fortunately, we already have a foothold in the country. We are already one of the top five investors in Sri Lanka. The bilateral trade between the two countries has increased by 70% since the turn of the millennium, and we are its number one EU trading partner. In 2013, UK exports to Sri Lanka were valued at £167 million. It should be noted that the balance of trade has risen significantly in favour of Si Lanka in recent years. In the longer term, we must look to address this imbalance. I would be grateful if my noble friend the Minister could clarify what action is being taken to achieve this.

As important as the volume of trade between the UK and Sri Lanka is the strategic significance of the type of trade. We are one of Sri Lanka’s closest business partners for higher education and professional training as well as for partnerships in the technology sector. These are vital skills that will help Sri Lanka to build and strengthen its economy in the long term and anchor the UK as a key partner in trading. There are already more than 100 British companies with operations in Sri Lanka that cross a wide range of sectors. These include HSBC, GlaxoSmithKline and Rolls-Royce. When I visited Sri Lanka, I was able to visit the Brandix factory near Colombo, which makes garments for Marks & Spencer. I found the operations to be very eco-friendly, with excellent working conditions which were commended by all. I have spoken on this point previously in your Lordships’ House. Sri Lanka also has many of its own home-grown success stories. During my trip, I also visited Millennium Information Technologies, a fast growing Sri Lankan company which was acquired by the London Stock Exchange Group in 2009. Its systems power several stock exchanges and depositories around the world.

Aside from our historical ties and the strong Sri Lankan economy and business base, there are many other reasons for us to promote and further bilateral trade. English is widely spoken across the country, providing many western countries with an easy means of communication with potential workers. The literacy rate in Sri Lanka now stands at about 92%. The commercial law of Sri Lanka is based primarily on the principles of English commercial law and English ​statutes, offering many companies a legal framework with which they are already familiar. Sri Lanka is the highest rated country in south Asia in the World Bank’s rankings for ease of doing business. Sri Lanka also has free trade agreements in place with India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. These can reduce import tariffs for some goods into those countries and thus help build the Sri Lankan economy further and allow British products to make their way through the supply chain.

Another key consideration is infrastructure. Following the end of the civil war, Sri Lanka is seeing a rapid and wide spread of infrastructure development. Connectivity is being vastly improved through several major road projects linking urban and rural communities. The Government are also improving and upgrading urban infrastructure facilities and basic services in towns and cities.

However, further modernisation is needed and the opportunities for British businesses are vast. The Sri Lankan Government have launched a major infrastructure initiative, entitled Five Hub Programme, which will provide opportunities for us to be involved. There is also an increasing demand for greater expansion in the leisure and tourism sector, including hotels and retail. This is and will continue to be a key growth area for British investors.

Another key area for further investment is education. The Sri Lankan workforce lacks critical job-specific skills, which could serve to undermine both private sector growth and public infrastructure development in the future. We must expand even further our role in providing and investing in higher education and skills training, helping the Sri Lankan workforce to fill the skills gap and become more responsive to the needs of the global market. In particular, I believe we could do more to build university-to-university contacts and become involved in creating colleges of excellence. There are also calls for greater facilitation of business visas for Sri Lankan entrepreneurs to travel to the UK. I hope that our Government will undertake to look at this. I ask my noble friend the Minister whether that can be considered.

Finally, I commend UK Trade & Investment’s recent trade mission to Sri Lanka, which I understand included representatives of 21 British companies. I look forward to learning more about its findings and hope to see more of these delegations in the future.

The future potential for Sri Lanka is huge, but it will be reached only through continued and expanded bilateral trade with countries such as ours.

Lord Naseby (Con)
My Lords, it is a particular pleasure to join this debate and I thank my noble friend for instigating it. I go back 50 years with Sri Lanka, having worked there in 1963 for the Reckitt and Colman Group as a marketing manager, visiting every conceivable market in the year I was there. When I came back, I wrote a pamphlet in 1967 called Helping the Exporter. It even had to have a reprint, although there are not too many copies left nowadays. Before I came to the House I was a director of one of the major advertising agencies specialising in overseas trade, so I think I have a reasonable heritage to comment on trade between two countries.​
The first thing I want to say is that Sri Lanka is very relevant to our country. The population is roughly 30% of the size of our own. I will not cover the same areas as my noble friend, but it is right to re-emphasise that growth since peace in 2009 has been roughly between 6.5% and the 8% at which it is currently running. I congratulate Her Majesty’s Government on the trade mission that was put together at the end of November. I think our high commissioner, who I know is on his last few months there, put together a really good programme, and the feedback from the chamber of commerce in Colombo was very positive. Indeed, I shall quote one sentence from the welcome. Thankfully the high commissioner has put “Ayubowan” which is the traditional welcome in Sri Lanka. He says:

“With a Free Trade Agreement with China to be signed shortly adding to the existing FTAs with Pakistan, India, South Asia and Asia Pacific, Sri Lanka could act as a regional hub to over 3 billion potential customers”.

That is what it is all about.

I also inevitably did some research into, for me, a relatively new area, looking in some depth, not at the political scene, which I think I know backwards, but at the trade and commerce side. An excellent article appeared by a man called Jon Springer of Forbes Asia. He picks out a number of key determinants why Sri Lanka has such good opportunities for the UK to export there.

First, he picks out government stability. It is true that in 2009, once peace was there, there was stability on the ground. Added to that, there is now a railway system all the way to Jaffna. There are new roads, both up to Jaffna and down to the south-west. There is electricity, without permanent cuts, which was the situation for many years and certainly when I worked there. There is good electricity on tap. I would call that a rising peace dividend.

My noble friends mentioned the stock market. No wonder Sri Lanka is proud if our stock market is using software from Sri Lanka. I would be jolly proud if that happened. A friend of mine, a Tamil, is a director of one of the major companies, MAS, a major clothing manufacturer exporting all over the world. It exports here to Marks & Spencer and other retailers. I went round not only his factories, but the housing developments for some of their people. They are extremely well done. Yesterday, I went to Human Rights Day in the Foreign Office, where there was talk about the need for the corporate sector to show a proper response to its workers and others for whom it is responsible. In passing, I say to my noble friend that I thought yesterday’s initiative, Human Rights Day, was very good indeed.

John Springer also picked out a comment that I had also seen from Ceylon Asset Management, which, I admit, is at the far end:

“We expect 25% growth in the equity market on average per year for the next five years. If you think about it, that isn’t that much space on 7 to 8% growth in the economy annually. What people don’t realise is that on a per capita basis, Sri Lanka is twice as rich as India”.

I think that is probably blowing a trumpet a bit, but nevertheless, there is positive note there.​
Then, of course, next door there is a big brother, but a very much changed big brother. Modi’s India is there with a link for Sri Lanka to be the hub for goods and services on their travels eastward to drop in to the brand new port at Colombo city. There is the additional new port down at Hambantota and the revitalisation of Galle harbour, by kind permission of the Dutch. All that means that this is a real opportunity for growth.

I have been a tourist in Sri Lanka on a number of occasions. I was a tourist in the very early days when if you were on the shore you ate fish curry and if you were up country you ate chicken curry. Today, there are wonderful hotels. I looked at the figures, which are astonishing. This year, it is estimated that there will be 1.6 million tourists and there has been a steady increase in the amount of money that tourists spend.

Sri Lanka is really becoming a middle-income country, although there are obviously poor parts of it; I think I know where they are as well. The real estate market is moving in Colombo and surrounding areas and that is a positive move. Are there risks? Of course, in every commercial world—and I was in it for quite a long time—there are risks. There is one simple thing that Her Majesty’s Government can take on board, which is supported 100%, I am pleased to say, by our high commission. If we want to do more trade with Sri Lanka, we have to speed up the process of issuing visas to those coming on a short-term visit to do business. Although the Foreign Office claims that it is to save money that visas have to be processed in Chennai, that is a nonsense. We even built a building in Colombo to do the processing. It is sitting there idle. What would be the net extra expenditure for a couple of officers to process the proper visas, maybe just for business visitors? That really needs to be looked at. That is my plea to my noble friend on the Front Bench.

There are some other handicaps. I will highlight three. One is the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill going through your Lordships’ House. Parts 7 and 8 and Schedule 3 require that shareholders holding 25% or more, or having some control over a company ownership, have to be kept in a register and that register must be made public. Admittedly, this applies only to UK companies, but I have to tell my noble friend on the Front Bench, as one who has worked and lived in that part of the world, as far as the Middle East and south-east Asia are concerned, nobody wants to have their public or any other public look at a register. That leaves them open to creative journalism and, I am sorry to say, one or two creative NGOs. There is ample provision to check on fraud, money-laundering and other provisions. However, I think my noble friend will have to pass on a message to his noble friends that that will cause a huge problem for trade.

I am sure there are those in the Chamber who wonder why I have not even mentioned politics. I have to mention it on a couple of issues, though. Here in the UK there is a challenge from the part of the Tamil diaspora that just pours out propaganda. I must get one or two things a week, telling me that dreadful things are happening every day, and, more importantly, that Eelam is still on the agenda—that is, the independence of the north and possibly the east. Frankly, that does ​not help anybody. What I find so disappointing about the Tamil diaspora is that the amount of money and investment that is going into the Jaffna region is so tiny that it is almost embarrassing to record how low it is.

Add to that the news we had yesterday or the day before about torture in Guantanamo Bay. There are allegations of torture in Sri Lanka. On my last visit, I did my level best to check with all the independent authorities whether there was any evidence of torture, particularly the ICRC, which said that there was none. However, we keep getting the odd report, without substantiated evidence, that there is torture. We need to take all those with a pinch of salt.

There are also claims that there is religious intimidation. I say to my noble friend that there is not. There is diversity of faith there. Certainly the Sri Lankan Government are not stirring it up one way or the other. Should we not reflect that mosques were burned down in Luton, Bletchley and Birmingham? We do not know who perpetrated that situation but we know that it is wrong. I believe that the Government in Sri Lanka will be equally keen to find out who is responsible there.

Overhanging it all is the OHCHR situation in Geneva, which, frankly, is not recognised by the Sri Lankan Government. Perhaps more importantly, it is not recognised by a number of Commonwealth countries, including India and Australia. We will have to see how objective it is, but sadly the UN does not have a great history of objectivity in what has happened in Sri Lanka.

I conclude by saying that we have a new high commissioner going from here to Sri Lanka. I hope that he will have really good knowledge of commercial matters and will deal with that with energy. Sri Lanka has a presidential election on 8 January. I do not know who will win; I wish whoever does all possible success. I know those elections, as does the Opposition Whip; I am sure it will be a fair and full election. I thank those who have enabled me to take part in this excellent debate.


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