DAMBULLA, Sri Lanka — A luxury hotel planned for a pristine lakeside site in the middle of Sri Lankan jungle has upset local villagers, prompted Buddhist monks to consider setting fire to themselves and become the focal point of opposition grievances.
The construction project drew brief world attention when Anura Bandaranaike, a leader of the main opposition Sri Lanka Freedom Party, wrote to delegates at the Earth Summit in Rio in June urging them to take up the issue on conservation grounds.
Then on July 12, about 10,000 farmers, students, monks and priests gathered on a sloping rock next to the lake to mark their protest.
They called on the government to scrap the 150-room project, which they claim will damage the environment and bring crime to the sleepy town of Dambulla, 100 miles northeast of Colombo.
Together with environmentalists and opposition politicians, they object to the hotel on the ground that it is being built on a protected water-catchment area, cutting water supplies to farmers.
They also say it will encourage prostitution, which along with drug-dealing has often been associated with the tourist industry in Sri Lanka.
Newspaper reports say some Buddhist monks are threatening "undemocratic means" to force the government to back down, including self-immolation.
"In the 1960s, a whole village at this same catchment area was shifted to another location. Now they are building a hotel on the same protected site. I can't understand why," said Inamaluwe Sumangala, a senior monk from the Dambulla temple who is leading the hotel protest.
"It is illegal," he said.
The hotel is to be developed next to Kandalama Lake, 10 miles along jungle tracks from Dambulla, by a wealthy Sri Lankan company, Aitken Spence Ltd., that hopes to attract European tourists to the area.
The project has full support of the government, which is intensively promoting tourism, a major foreign-exchange earner, and encouraging the construction of more hotel rooms outside Colombo to meet demand.
The government has said the project will provide jobs and has told Aitken Spence that it will counter all criticism.
"The opposition has nothing else to do except grab anything that is anti-government and scream," a government politician said.
Political analysts said that the opposition had been careful to be seen to be objecting to the hotel project itself, as opposed to using it as an excuse to foment political unrest.
The analysts said the government may be unwilling to give in this time after bowing to public opposition to another hotel project.
Earlier this year, it asked a company to abandon construction of a west coast complex after complaints by residents and the Catholic Church that it would bring prostitution and other crime to the area.
"The government is in a fix. It can't give in, because if it does, it would have to do the same every time there is a protest over a new project," one analyst said.
Aitken Spence Chairman Michael Mack meanwhile has rejected allegations that the hotel would be an environmental hazard.
"It is actually an environmental asset to the area," he said in a recent report.
The hotel has one of the best locations in the country, set next to the lake and against a backdrop of breathtaking mountains.
Along the dirt track to the site, Aitken Spence boards have been nailed on trees. "Save the environment, don't litter, do not cut trees, don't disturb wild life, and drive slowly," they say.