COLOMBO // Despite uncertainty over next month's presidential poll, Sri Lankans will soon begin enjoying their first Christmas and New Year holiday in three decades without the threat of Tamil rebel violence casting a shadow to dampen the good times.
"I am going to have a great time in the next few weeks," said Lakdas Dias, a manager at a computer store in Colombo. The past was different, he said, as "you always have this fear of bombs going off in crowded places and worry about the children [getting] caught". Though Sri Lanka is a country where more than 70 per cent of the people are Buddhists, Christmas and New Year is celebrated widely in urban areas, with Colombo leading the way. Only 6.3 per cent of Sri Lankans are Christian.
Already Colombo's main hotels are dressed up with lights, Christmas trees and decorations amid dozens of year-end parties by companies and other organisations. This year, however, the end of a near 30 year-long conflict that killed tens of thousands, maimed many more and destroyed the lives of innumerable families, is an even bigger cause for celebration. Sri Lankan expatriates from as far away as Canada and the United States, and as close as Malaysia and Singapore, are coming home in large numbers to see and be a part of a country that is finally not at war with itself.
While security will continue to be on alert, the fear of bombs exploding is gone. There has not been a single blast or rebel attack anywhere in the country since May 2009, when the Tamil Tigers were crushed by government troops and their leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, killed in battle. Linton Perera, a shopkeeper at a Colombo toy shop, said: "Normally there is a fear of bombs going off during Christmas and the New Year, but this time, that is not there."
Rohan Karr, the director and chief executive of the five-star Cinnamon Grand hotel in Colombo, said that this year the hotel's bookings during December have increased. "It's 10 per cent more [than December 2008] as of now, and more Sri Lankan expatriates have booked rooms," he said, adding that more people have attended corporate year-end events than in previous years. "There is a feel-good factor," he said.
Flights into Colombo are also fully booked, according to the national carrier, SriLankan Airlines. The airline's chief executive, Manoj Gunawardene, said that a "full" flight is one at 85 per cent of capacity. Bookings are much higher than previous Decembers: "Many Sri Lankan expatriates are coming from the US, UK, Canada and also Italy, France and Germany [in addition to other Asian cities]," he said.
There are more than a million Sri Lankans living abroad and this number does not include those who are working overseas in short two to four-year stints. Sri Lankans go to the polls to elect a president on January 26, next year, with the main contestants being the incumbent president Mahinda Rajapaksa, and the chief opposition candidate, the former army commander Sarath Fonseka. Although Mr Rajapaksa, who is seeking a second term, and Mr Fonseka, a hugely popular political novice, have both announced their intention to contest the election, campaigning is yet to get into full swing as the deadline for accepting nominations is December 17.
At the moment, the two campaigns have been characterised by mudslinging by politicians from both sides, with the most recent accusations being of corruption in military armament deals. Pro-government politicians have accused Mr Fonseka's son-in-law of involvement with the military contracts. Both candidates are set to campaign on a post-war platform, with claims and counter-claims from both camps as to who should take credit for the war victory.
The president and his supporters say that Mr Rajapaksa gave solid political leadership, absent in previous years by other leaders, which enabled the military to fully carry out its job. Mr Fonseka says the army should get the most credit because their lives were on the line as the main fighting force. Away from these mini-battles taking place at press conferences, public rallies and media interviews, the election is unlikely to take the shine off Sri Lankans' fun this month. Most businesses are expected to close on Monday December 21 for more than a week of holidays leading up to New Year's Eve, when city hotels will be buzzing with revellers at midnight and dinner-cum-breakfast dances, a tradition in the city.
"The polls are next year. Sri Lankans will have a good time this year," laughed Dileep Mudadeniya, managing director of Sri Lanka Tourism, the state agency tasked with promoting tourism for foreigners and locals. "There's massive interest by tourists and Sri Lankan expatriates seeking to come here on holiday. "City hotels are going to be full with a mix of foreigners and Sri Lankan expatriates. We are getting a lot of inquiries on Facebook, Twitter and on our website," he said.