Sri Lanka has long been a puzzle. Its people are highly educated, among the most literate of the developing world. They live on a beautiful island that should be a prime destination for world’s tourists seeking sand, sea and scenery. Sri Lanka’s Ceylon tea is a prized export. The island is at the crossroads of major international trade routes. It ranks high in the UN’s human development index although the UN’s World Food Program says 22 percent of the population is under- or malnourished. Could it have become another South Korea or Taiwan economically, or even a resurgent Japan after World War II? Somehow, these attributes have not raised the country out of developing status.
The country has emerged only recently from a 30-year Buddhist-Hindu Tamil civil war. It still reels after two years from a devastating attack perpetrated by Islamic terrorists that on one day killed 267 people. Sri Lanka’s politics are a curiously conflicting family affair. Instead of achieving prosperity, its government scrambles to borrow international money to survive and has turned the country into the poster child for the so-called debt trap.
Asanga Abeyagoonasekera, a Sri Lankan foreign policy specialist and columnist, deals what he calls his country’s conundrum in this collection of essays and columns that is, unfortunately undated so it is difficult to tell what moment in Sri Lanka history he is writing about. Noting the country’s passing through terrorism to pandemic to financial crisis, he writes “Sri Lanka is a geostrategically blessed paradise island that lives with an ‘existential threat…due to its internal politics, which is in a state of disarray and external geopolitics….Sri Lanka remains a dormant volcano erupting at various intervals and threatening national security”
Scattered through this collection are the building blocks of a conundrum. Here are samples:
* The government ignored signs of an impending terrorist attack that took so many lives in 2019. “This gross negligence,” Abeyagoonasekera writes, “was clearly due to the malfunction of processes within the government….”
* Corruption goes unpunished. “No high-level official is behind bars,” he writes, “although a lot of publicity was given to corrupt acts of the past….”
* Promises are unkept. Noting Sri Lanka had just celebrated 72 years of independence, he writes: “….even after 72 years, policy makers have failed to realize their promises of economic prosperity….”
And so on.
The author brings his book to an end with a column praising the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. What is missing is a summary to bring together an analysis of why Sri Lanka is a conundrum. There is no resolution of the Sri Lankan conundrum. The country remains a puzzle.