Tourists travelling to Sri Lanka might unintentionally support businesses linked to war crimes and human rights violations. We asked Fred Carver, coordinator of the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice, why travellers should take a closer look at who benefits from their holiday. The Sri Lanka Campaign works to end to human rights abuses, for a repeal of anti-terror regulations, and for a credible war crimes enquiry. It does not call for a tourism boycott, but requests tourists to carefully consider the potential impact of their trip.
TW: Three years after the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka, tourists may increasingly find indicators of "normalcy". Does it mean that "all is well in paradise"?
Fred Carver: A Sri Lankan friend of mine always answers this question by saying "things look better but they feel worse". Few foreign tourists go to the north, and the impact of the war in the south was never that visible to outsiders in any case. But beneath the surface there are serious problems. The fact that so many (34) journalists have been murdered with impunity, while all independent media outlets are systematically driven out of business, means that there is a real culture of self censorship and oppression. Combine that with the total collapse of the rule of law (the chief justice of the supreme court is in the process of being impeached for having the temerity to do her job) and the "white van" gangs that abduct a political opponent every five days and you can see why those who oppose the regime live in fear. But as a tourist you will not see much of this. The Government likes to present Sri Lanka as an idyllic paradise, and so the torture camps and prisons are kept well out of sight.
As for the north the physical scars are fading as massive military-led investment is pumped into the infrastructure. But the emotional scars will take longer to heal – particularly as the Government of Sri Lanka's attitude to reconciliation is deepening the divides and not allowing families to grieve their lost loved ones. You will also notice the massive militarisation of the north. One person in three is in uniform in parts of the Vanni. This leads to all number of problems with sexual violence, land being illegally occupied by the military (often using tourism as an excuse) and the military breaking up and monitoring any gatherings – not to mention unemployment and a lack of decent housing. Such is the fear in the north that you will find it very difficult to get people to talk about this openly – and if they do they will be at risk of reprisals once you leave.
TW: How is tourism in Sri Lanka linked to human rights violations and war crimes?
Fred Carver: In two main ways. Firstly Tourism is at the centre of the Sri Lankan Government's plans to militarise and develop the north. It was the Sri Lankan military that were responsible for some of the worst human rights abuses in the Sri Lankan conflict and which are still linked with torture, sexual abuse and disappearances. On our website we list just a few of the Army run hotels and attractions that have opened in the north. More are opening all the time. The idea is that by having a large military-run tourist industry the Government can continue to justify having a large army, which strengthens the powers of the President and his brothers, make money – including personal profit – from Sri Lanka's tourist boom, and continue to keep an iron grip on the north of the island.
Secondly tourism is Sri Lanka's fourth largest earner (after money being sent home from overseas, clothing – Sri Lankan factories specialise in the production of lingerie – and tea) and tourism is set to double in the next four years (having already trebled in the last three). Yet very little of this revenue makes it back to local communities. As well as earning the Government of Sri Lanka money through taxation, this earns them money through the sections of the tourist industry they own. In particular the national carrier, Sri Lankan Airlines, is managed by the President's brother in law.
TW: How can tourists ensure that their holiday benefits local people and prevent their money from getting into the wrong hands?
Fred Carver: Firstly by asking questions of the holiday providers and making sure they steer clear of army run attractions. Secondly by not flying with Sri Lankan Airways.
Beyond that I think you have to admit that no trip to Sri Lanka is without negative consequences. They all support the regime to one extent or another even if it is just in airport taxes. At the same time only the most callow tourist could visit Sri Lanka without providing some sort of social benefit. So, given that every visit inevitably has both negative and positive consequences, the key is to weigh those up and so make an informed choice about which outweighs which for their particular trip. In each case it is of course a personal decision and we don't claim that any particular trip is moral or not moral. We just point out some of the negative impacts they could have, some of the positive, and allow the tourist to make an informed personal decision.
We also help inform people as to how they can mitigate those negative consequences and maximise the positive. All that information is available on our website and Tourism Concern also provide guidance and a list of ethical tour operators. To summarise it in a nutshell I'd say: do your own research and be aware of the issues, avoid all the larger hotel chains and stay in local family-run hostels, BnBs or homestays, and try to use your trip to Sri Lanka to engage with local people.
Further information: www.srilankacampaign.org