Down in the deep south of Sri Lanka, where life usually moves at a leisurely pace, there is one small town that is less tranquil. Hambantota — population 20,000 — is expanding fast. There is a vast new deepwater port, built with $360 million of borrowed Chinese cash; a new 35,000-seat cricket stadium; a huge convention center; and a $200 million international airport. A broad-gauge railway is under construction. Powerful people have ambitions for Hambantota. None is more powerful or more ambitious than President Mahinda Rajapaksa, born nearby in 1945.

There is much construction in Sri Lanka these days. The island nation was already one of the wealthiest in South Asia but its economy had been held back by decades of civil conflict. Now the war is over and growth rates, the government claims, are touching 7 percent.

Earlier this month, a new section of motorway was opened. Undeniably one of the best roads in a part of the world where rutted single-lane highways still link many major cities, it joins the international airport with Colombo, the political and commercial capital. British Prime Minister David Cameron, 51 other leaders and Prince Charles will drive down its tarmac next month when they fly in for the Commonwealth heads of government meeting.