When three decades of civil war in Sri Lanka ended 8 years ago, fear and anxiety ebbed and flowed. Today many feel another threat, the nation’s sovereignty.
Sri Lanka is in deep debt to China for a port in the city of Hambantota, and the questionable terms of payback have generated a huge outcry.
Ric Wasserman has this report from the Sri Lankan port town
I climb into a minibus with Saminda and his friends. The destination: Hambantota, a seaport on Sri Lanka’s southern coast.
They’re on their way to a protest rally – against the government – and the Chinese. Today an agreement will be signed between the government and the Chinese holding company that built the port. The agreement grants China a 198-year lease, and 80 percent of the port’s revenue.
Unacceptable terms, says MP and opposition leader, Udaya Gammanpila.
“During the previous government time we built a seaport here because we know after [the] Kra Canal project in Thailand, Singapore will be a more or less abandoned seaport. Hambantota will become the most important seaport in Asia,” said Gammanpila.
“Because of this strategic importance with Chinese funding we built a port here,” he continued.
Building the port was a good idea, says Gammanpila.
But the terms mean the Hong Kong listed China Merchant Holdings Company, which also operates extensively in mainland China, will practically own the port for the next 200 years.
“After 198 years Hambantota will be the most important port in Asia, China will be the biggest superpower in the world,” Gammanpila went on.
“So we can’t ask China to go, and if we asked them to go they would not, and we can’t force them to leave,” he concluded.
It’s only 9am but the sun is already burning. People are starting to march to the harbour site seven kilometers away. Passing buses carrying delegates to the signing ceremony are being heckled by the growing crowd, now numbering about 300.
Samheera and her family own a rice field in a nearby village. She’s heard that the government plans to give 15,000 acres to another Chinese company, part of another agreement to build a duty free export zone at the port. She’s worried:
“The Chinese have come to our country and I don’t like it. We can’t let the government give away our land and our country. I’m here with people from my village to stop them,” Samheera told me.
The problem started with the previous government under Mahindra Rajapakse who took on a wide range of ambitious infrastructure projects: railroads, a new airport, a superhighway, and the Hambantota port.
Not being able to finance them he borrowed from the Chinese and now it’s payback time. Hence the deal to be signed, giving China an income generating long-term lease on the port.
The harbor project is part of China’s “string of pearls” global strategy. It envisions a number of naval posts along Asia’s major commercial sea lanes.
And with the opposition playing the nationalist card, the result is playing out now, in the form of this growing, and possibly violent, protest.
The marchers get to the first police barricade, sweeping it away, rushing onward.
A man connects his mobile phone to a loudspeaker and the live -streamed signing ceremony comes to life: The Chinese ambassador to Sri Lanka Yi Xianliang addresses the audience, telling them that this project can create more than 100 000 jobs for Sri Lanka.
There are those who welcome the Chinese – One of them is construction contractor and advisor to the former housing minister, Thilak Chandra Kumara.
“If many of our qualified engineers can find work in the export zone that would be great. I’d like to see them involved in the construction of the zone as well,” said Kumara.
“In any case,” he continued, “I’m sure the Chinese will be here for a long time.”
But as the ambassador’s comments ring out at the port, protesters are met by another massive police barricade.
Water cannons roll forward and wash away some of the crowd. Then tear gas is fired, setting the marchers in retreat.
The toll: 1 dead and 40 injured. But a victory of sorts for the protesters has been achieved. The signing is postponed. For now, at least.