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If colonization is the exercise of hegemony, administrative control and the fundamental subjugation of one group of peoples to another, then the question for post-independent Sri Lanka should be whether or not we find remnants of colonialism within our own borders. It calls for an expanded definition of colonialism, beyond the direct or indirect rule of a foreign country. Rather, neocolonialism in the Sri Lankan context is the sustained practice of colonial attitudes, practices and relations that subjugate one group to another under a veil of state hegemony.

Thus, I urge us to move beyond the common classification of Chinese “neocolonialism”, and instead turn our attention towards phenomena that more accurately resembles colonial structures, and that is the proliferation of a biased tourist economy, and the series of land grabs committed by the government against its own people.

Debunking Chinese “neocolonialism” 

There appears to be a level of hysteria attached to China’s growing global presence as a neocolonial power. American political hysteria, due to the nature of America as a world hegemon, permeates attitudes worldwide – consider the rise of McCarthyism and anti-communist hysteria in the 1950s . So, naturally, when the phrase “neocolonial power” is used to classify China, we have sound reason to question if this is simply the propagation of a Western – and by default – US-oriented lens, rather than an accurate representation of our current economic conundrum.

The most notable case of Sri Lanka’s “debt trap” is the Hambantota Port project. The narrative, however, is skewed and the reality is that Sri Lanka was not trapped into debt by China, but rather failed by the double-bind of a careless government and Western-monopolized neoliberal market.

First, China’s loan for the construction of Hambantota was not the product of a desperate economic crisis. Rather, the directive came from the Sri Lankan government itself, as part of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s postwar neoliberal scheme to encourage foreign direct investment (FDI) and postwar economic growth. The project soon revealed itself as a guise for corruption, a “white elephant”, and an ultimately useless investment.

China is not the cause of Sri Lanka’s debt. In fact, Sri Lanka’s debt crisis emerges from a larger, structural balance of payment crisis due to the steady reduction of trade and increased costs of borrowing over the years. The aftershocks of the 2008 Global Economic Crisis, coupled with the US Federal Reserve’s tapering of quantitative easing, and poor policy management has resulted in mass borrowing from the IMF. Indeed, economist Umesh Moramudali clearly states that “debt repayments for the loans obtained for Hambantota port amount to only around five percent of Sri Lanka’s total annual foreign debt payments, and even less among total debt repayments”.

Drawing parallels between China’s FDI and a colonial vessel like the British East India Company is a crude comparison at best. While colonization presented an all-encompassing extractive and exploitative scheme, China’s expansive Belt-and-Road Initiative and investment outreach is fundamentally recipient-driven; it operates on a consensual basis between China and the recipient country. As such, China is not operating in a colonial fashion, but rather, is exercising strategic bilateral relations which, by nature of our current economic system, all countries must do to perform in the international arena. FDI cannot be classified as neocolonial; it is a pillar of Western capitalism in a deregulated, neoliberal global market. To put it simply, focusing on Chinese investment in Sri Lanka does not capture the essence of our economic crisis.  Instead, it is crucial to recognize the Catch 22 of neoliberal economic structures, and the incompetence of our own government in issuing grandiose and wasteful ‘development’ projects.

So, the “China Bad!” rhetoric seems to oversimplify the current geopolitical game, as well as play into a US-centric agenda that demonizes the rise of China as an international market player. It is not a Chinese debt trap, nor is it Chinese neocolonialism, insomuch as it is the trap and hamartia of a Western-dominated neoliberal system that relies on the debt, subjugation, and instability of the Global South.

The “tourist gaze”

Adopting the definition of neocolonialism as a phenomenon that replicates the power relation of the settler-colonial and the subjugated, it is fitting to consider the “tourist gaze” that dictates much of Sri Lanka’s economy.

The tourist gaze is the act of catering to, and upholding double standards for tourists entering Sri Lanka. The double standards of the tourist industry have recently been highlighted with the arrival of 182 Ukranian tourists on December 28, 2020, the first tourist group to enter the country since the airport closure in March 2020. The relatively flexible and welcoming tourist program juxtaposes the strictly regulated repatriation flights for Sri Lankan domestic workers in the Middle East. A policy agenda that prioritizes tourists over a country’s own citizens, seemingly on the basis of being able to pay for mandatory hotel quarantine, is the epitome of differential policies that compromise local populations at the expense of foreign capital. Domestic workers, who pump a stunning US$6.7 Billion into the economy, are effectively exploited for their labor and denied their citizenry right to return home.

Moreover, a stringent cultural conservatism juxtaposes Sri Lanka’s dependence on its tourist economy.The transformation of many coastal regions into tourist enclaves sees a suspension of conservative cultural values of the nation, so as to attract tourists predominantly from European nations. Drinking, recreational drug use, and even the open discussion of sexual health to prevent the spread of STDs and HIV/AIDS are particular to these tourist enclaves. The result is a blaring juxtaposition of the state’s draconian enforcement of a war on drugs and morality in the interest of protecting a tourist economy, while locals often face punitive repercussions for the same behaviors.

The accelerated postwar development of Sri Lanka as a tourist destination has produced a “tourist gaze” that simultaneously exoticizes “others” and profits off local commodities. On one hand, there is the continued presence of “foreign-only” and “tourist-only” businesses, despite government threats to cancel the licenses of such institutions. These businesses have prevailed over the years due to an economic dependency on foreign, typically European patronage, and have been esteemed for this very reason. In reality, it is a nasty effect of a colonial hangover. On the other hand, there is the proliferation of fraudulent and extralegal tourist-owned businesses, particularly in coastal regions, which obtain special permission to operate from local politicians. Tourists extend their visas, pay off local residents to use their homes and land, and conduct business (often without a liquor license, which is so harshly enforced upon local businesses) without taxation.

Postwar land grabs

The stalemate on the issue of land return and redistribution, particularly in the Northern and Eastern provinces, is a case par excellence of a shift from de facto military occupation to legal acquisition. The occupied lands have not only been used for military and police headquarters, but as sites of capital accumulation, including land for agriculture, tourism and military-owned hotels, and other commercial ventures run by politicians and elites alike. Indeed, land grabs raise the question of replicating the military control, extraction and acquisition of a colonial power.

Today, land grabs also represent a form of capital accumulation in their transformation of civilian land into profit-based ventures. As such, land grabs in postwar Sri Lanka constitute a new form of primitive accumulation, which constitutes a process of dispossession (often violent) for the purpose of capital accumulation. Many residents relied on their land for subsistence farming, or generationally owned and cultivated the land. The violent dispossession of land has necessitated a constant military presence in the Northeast to prevent resistance by dispossessed communities.

Of course, drawing parallels between land grabs and colonial projects is contentious. The Sri Lankan government acting in Jaffna is not a foreign power, and therefore any military exercise is a domestic security concern. But although Tamil and Muslim communities in the Northeast may live within territorial bounds, they are nonetheless positioned outside the bounds of citizenship and construed as an external threat to security due to the legacy of the civil war. Securing the North and East for fear of a separatist resurgence does, indeed, classify residents as volatile threats to national security. Their occupation of land is deemed as lacking proper jurisdiction, and thus subjected to militarized land grabs. Land grabs are therefore aimed at securing literal boundaries of the state through territory and citizenship – and it is no secret that the state and its coercive institutions all operate on a Sinhala-Buddhist ethos that privileges Sinhala-Buddhist interests first.

73 years of independence

Expanding our cognitive lens of neocolonialism helps us to recognize the resemblances of colonial power relations, attitudes and hegemony within our own state borders. Without dismantling these systems in whatever ways they manifest, be it through policies that subjugate a certain class of citizens, differentiate local and foreign businesses, or call for outright military land grabs, not all citizens have realized the promises of independence.

Seventy three years on and we remain searching for the liberties guaranteed to all Sri Lankans in a “neocolonial” haze.