The face of President Mahinda Rajapaksa is ever present in Colombo, as in the rest of Sri Lanka – staring down from posters on what feels like every dusty street corner; a reminder that his government and military are in control of the entire country.
The army presence is not as visible in the capital as it once was and amidst the shady boulevards housing old colonial buildings, there are clear signs of reconstruction and commercial development. I travelled in tuk-tuks around town, sampling the short eats and kotthu rotti of local cafes and enjoying the flying kites and the family buzz of Galle Face Green. Several times the drivers asked me, ‘do you see how our country is developing, since the war?’ They are referring to new roads and shiny buildings, to the rise in tourism and to the government’s message that the economy can now thrive for the benefit of the people.
The reality, however, is that the defence budget has increased in the last few years; surely supporting the expansion of soldiers and their families stationed in the growing military camps and seemingly permanent checkpoints around the north and east of the island. The majority of large regeneration or resource management projects appear to be funded by external multinationals. Within parliament there are now a pricey 66 cabinet ministers. This allows the state, and the military, significant involvement in all aspects of public life.
It seems to be control that is developing.