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.
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)
Area: 65,610 sq km
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).
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
UK and Sri Lanka:
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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