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SRI LANKA: Plan to Host 2018 Commonwealth Games Opposed

Feizal Samath

COLOMBO, Jun 2 2011 (IPS) - Sri Lanka plans to host the Commonwealth Games seven years from now and spend two billion dollars, in what politicians and economists slam as another extravagant adventure aimed at boosting President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Sri Lanka is bidding against Australia to stage the 21st edition of the Games in 2018. Both countries presented their bids during the meeting of the Commonwealth Games Federation executive committee in Kuala Lumpur on May 11. The vote by 70 countries on the venue of the Games will take place at the Federation’s general assembly in St. Kitts and Nevis on Nov. 11.

“This spending is a total waste of money as this is not a priority,” said Kusal Perera, a civil society activist and political columnist for the Colombo-based weekly newspaper, Sunday Leader. “This money could be used for a better planned development of Sri Lanka, especially in rural economic development in the agriculture business, if the planners really have such priorities worked out. But they don’t.”

“This is just another ego trip for Mahinda Rajapaksa. Furthermore the government has overrun costs for all its previous grandiose projects and this will be the same,” said Harsha de Silva, an economist and opposition parliamentarian.

The event is to be staged in Rajapaksa’s hometown of Hambantota, 240 kms south of Colombo, where a showpiece international airport, harbour and international conference hall are being added to a growing number of infrastructure projects in the once poverty-stricken district.

Opposition parties have criticised the government for favouring the president’s hometown, pumping in millions of rupees on infrastructure and other facilities while other towns get less.


Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal, also co-chairman of the local Games Committee, said the model Sri Lanka wants to follow is Malaysia, which former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad transformed into a huge economic success using leverage from hosting the 1998 Commonwealth Games.

“We are confident we have the resources and facilities to host an event of this magnitude,” Cabraal told IPS. “What propelled Malaysia? It was the hosting of the Commonwealth Games. We feel the same thing will happen here – increase development, attract more foreign investment and profile Sri Lanka in a different light and not as a country that was at war.”

He said Sri Lanka’s bid presentation in Kuala Lumpur drew a lot of international interest from the media and other participants. The government, he said, plans to spend two billion dollars to construct new facilities and venues at Hambantota and turn it into a venue for hosting international events such as conferences.

“Even if we don’t win the bid, a lot of money will still be spent on developing infrastructure in the southern city (of Hambantota) to host the South Asian Games in 2016 and other events,” he said.

Cabraal, a political appointee and close supporter of the president, is confident Colombo will beat Australia’s Gold Coast and win the vote in November. But it’s not going to be an easy ride given the bad press Sri Lanka has picked up over allegations the government committed war crimes.

In November 2009, Sri Lanka lost the vote to Australia in an attempt to host the 2011 meeting of Commonwealth leaders, with London and Canberra blocking Colombo’s bid, newspapers said at the time.

This was a few months after Sri Lankan troops defeated Tamil separatist rebels, ending nearly three decades of conflict that cost thousands of lives.

Rajapaksa has repeatedly denied allegations that many civilians died at the hands of soldiers during the final stages of the war and is resisting demands from the U.N., U.S. and the U.K., among others, to investigate war crimes. India has also voiced concern over civilian casualties in the conflict.

A senior economist, who declined to be named, told IPS that the Games would be a big investment with no real economic return. “We are not sure enough of winning the bid because India and the U.K. are unlikely to support our application.”

De Silva feels the timing is just not right to host an event of this magnitude. “There is no doubt an event of this nature will boost the country but we have a lot more priorities after the war and we just cannot afford this kind of spending,” he said, adding that the government needs to spend more money on the war-ravaged northern and eastern regions.

Political columnist Perera said infrastructure alone would not bring in foreign investment because there is a high level of corruption in Sri Lanka. “Foreign investors would not run a double risk in doing business in wholly corrupt societies where they have to grease everyone at every level,” he said.

Among other issues, recent land deals where the government has sold prime land in Colombo to an international hotel chain and a Chinese infrastructure company to set up hotels and malls has raised many questions about the actual value and the amount paid. De Silva believes India will oppose Sri Lanka’s bid or extract more concessions in return for its support. India, to please its powerful southern Tamil population who share close cultural, trade and other ties with the Sri Lankan minority, is pushing Colombo to devolve more power to the regions where Tamils live.

“We can’t even pay our university lecturers, how can we spend so much money on a project like this?” the economist asked. With the cost of living rising sharply, Rajapaksa has been under pressure from public sector workers and university teachers to increase salaries.

The government however says it doesn’t have the cash to increase wages substantially. This week, it was forced to suspend a controversial pension scheme for private workers after a week of protests against the plan.

 
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