Sri Lanka conjures up different images in the minds of different people: lush green tropical canopies, steaming cups of aromatic tea, and hardworking fishermen in their dinghy boats.
For me, the country also packs enormous promise for growth and development. There is not the slightest doubt that Sri Lanka will have to come clean and deal with the aftermath of its prolonged civil war. However, at a fundamental level, there is a sense of hunger in its people to rebuild their lives and their country. The new-found peace that engulfs the population is cherished by most, and is part of dinner conversations especially with foreigners like me.
Sri Lanka already holds a strong position in certain agricultural and industrial exports, like tea or uncut diamonds. Combine this with its strategic location – situated at the crossroads of major shipping routes connecting South Asia, East Asia and the Middle East – and you have a potent combination, a promise waiting to be fulfilled.
I recently spoke at an event organized by the country’s top business newspaper, the Daily Financial Times, in partnership with the well-regarded Colombo University MBA Alumni Association. The focus of the forum was the country’s emerging six-hub strategy – Maritime, Commercial, Knowledge, Aviation, Energy and Tourism: the cornerstone of its further economic development.
The euphoria leading up to the event was palpable. The ceremonial drums and lighting of the auspicious lamp to evoke good omen created the perfect ambience. I was nervous, not because of stage fright, but because I was about to present a contrarian viewpoint to private-sector and public-sector experts, while sharing the stage with the Minister of Economic Development and the Governor of the Sri Lanka’s Central Bank. Even though my arguments were well-thought-through and fact-based, it was going to be a delicate dance, as I was about to communicate some tough arguments against the implementation of the full-blown six-hub strategy.
Sitting in a safe house, an ocean away, three former pirates reflect on their past lives as ”footsoldiers” aboard skiffs preparing to attack unsuspecting cargo vessels off the Horn of Africa. Our research team is transfixed by their stories.
We listen as they describe to us how they got involved in the piracy business, how much they earned, how they spent their money and, perhaps most interesting, what they know about their ”masters” – the pirate financiers, investors and negotiators.
These footsoldiers were merely small fish in a big sea. They would be sent out to hijack shipping vessels, which would only be returned to the ships’ owners for a hefty ransom.
Following research for our report “Pirate Trails,” studying acts of piracy off the Horn of Africa, we estimate that between US$339 million and US$413 million was handed over in ransom payments between April 2005 and December 2012. The exact amount is very hard to pin down, given the reluctance of the shipping companies and pirates to reveal the cost and rewards of piracy.