Posted on May 2nd, 2017


Yahapalana government had planned to get rid of China completely once it came to power. This fact is now forgotten. China appeared agreeable. China said that if Sri Lanka paid up all the monies it owed to China, they would leave. China knew very well that Sri Lanka could not do so and that China was going to stay   in Sri Lanka.

Unable to dislodge China, Yahapalana did the next best thing. Yahapalana decided to create a negative image of China. They meddled with the Hambantota project so at to create public anger. They did this beautifully and the ‘Hambantota issue’ provided anti-China critics with a superb opportunity for ‘China bashing’ and ‘demonizing’ China. The anti-China lobby was able to present China as a bogey and USA as a good friend.

Yahapalana deliberately introduced into the Hambantota port deal a further 15,000 acres exclusively   for Chinese companies,  on a 99-year lease, for some sort of industrial zone. The FTZ will consist of 2500 acres from Hambantota, the rest from Moneragala and Matara. It will have 7 zones,  of which the best known at present is the Mirijjawila BOI of 1000 acres.

The Chinese have said they would invest close to USD 6 billion in the next 3-4 years, declared Yahapalana . There will be 2,400 factories within six years,    creating 400,000 employment opportunities. Hambantota, Moneragala, Matara and Ratnapura Districts would benefit,  babbled Yahapalana to anyone who would listen.

Setting-up of a high tech industrial park and inviting foreigners to make investment is one thing, said critics. In such an industrial park, the area is under the control of the host country. But at Hambantota, land is going to be leased out to another country, like the handover of China’s Hong Kong to Britain on a 99 year lease.

Leasing land to China at Hambantota for an exclusive economic zone is not in Sri Lanka’s interest. It should be for any investor, not only China  and should be under the control of the host country. Otherwise political issues will be created.  India will object, critics said.    Further, it will affect the homes, lands and agricultural areas in this zone. It will displace the people ‘who have owned these lands for centuries’.

The government held the inauguration ceremony of the Sri Lanka-China Industrial Zone in Mirijjawila, Hambantota in January 2017. Hambantota villagers feared that their lands would be handed over to China, making them destitute.  Hundreds of protesters defied the court ban relating to the function, and tried to storm the venue.

The clash was a very violent one. TV footage showed strong, aggressive protest. Monks participated and they too were aggressive. Supporters of Yahapalana and opposers of Yahapalana threw rocks at each other. The speeches were also aggressive. Rajitha Senaratne and Sajith Premadasa sneered at the Rajapakse regime.  Clashes continued into the late afternoon. YouTube has the video. Hambantota became a battle ground with thousand of policemen on the streets with barricades and riot gear, observed Chandraprema.

The police and STF brought the protests under control using tear gas and water cannon.  52 persons, including a Buddhist monk,  were taken into custody. 27 were released and 25 remanded, convicted of having caused destruction to public property   and behaving in an unruly manner. Orders were issued on nine Buddhist monks and 26 persons, including Chamal Rajapakse and Namal Rajapakse. Protest rallies were banned in Hambantota for 14 days, in six areas adjacent to the proposed industrial zone. The signing of the final agreement on Hambantota was cancelled. Instead the officials merely laid a foundation stone for ‘Hambantota development zone.’

There was a second mammoth protest at Hambantota junction against the acquisition of land for China. When the Survey Department officers went to Hambantota villagers had protested saying they will not sell the land on which they had lived for decades. These are our ancestral lands. They are fertile. In the Dry Zone,   land with water is special. That is why these lands ‘have been eyed’ Our lives are here, we cannot be uprooted. We don’t want to live 70 km from here,”  said the villagers.

The mass media carried a ‘human interest’ story featuring Vimalabudhi thero, head monk at the Beragama village Buddhist temple.   My biggest fear is that I will be left with a temple and a bunch of Chinese donating alms to me,”  His temple is now a protest command centre, used by villagers to mobilize against the project, the media reported.  Beragama is now in the throes of heated public protests. The surveyors come without any announcement, like a flying squad, that doubles the fear,” said Ven. Vimalabudhi

China made its position clear, through its ambassador in Sri Lanka. The Chinese ambassador said at a press interview that China would only use the BOI lands already available at the port for the first phase of the project.   He stressed that the Hambantota port belongs to Sri Lanka. He had spoken to an audience of around 2000 people living in Hambantota and had told them none of their lands will be acquired by China. China will not take land without permission from Sri Lanka  and China will not take land from farmers. Hambantota would be a basic industrial zone which will help Sri Lanka save on imports, such as sugar, cement, electronic equipments as they will be manufacture here. Hambantota is a Sri Lanka port, it is Sri Lanka land and Sri Lanka zone, stressed the ambassador.  No contract of agreement has made yet, only the framework agreement has been signed.

The third demonstration was over worker employment in the Hambantota port once it was given to China. A large number of casual employees, mostly in their twenties, recruited haphazardly by the last government, were   worried that they would lose their jobs once the port was given to China. They blocked two container vessels from leaving. They held up the Japanese vessel, ‘Hyperion Highway’, for four days, risking their own lives. They positioned forklifts so that it was impossible to untie the ropes and unmoor the ship and they put gantry cranes to block its path out of the channel.  Strikers had blocked the road as well.

The strike went on for 9 days. The government kept the demonstrators waiting in suspense. The strikers were then ordered to return to work by 2 pm on 16.12.2016   or they would lose their jobs.  Legal action would be taken against those who vandalized the port premises. The workers returned to work at the specified time.  The government then told them that they would be absorbed by the Chinese company. The question of course is why it took so long.

When earlier privatizations took place, the workers were sold with the organization.  ‘We don’t recall any previous instance when workers in enterprises earmarked for privatization went on strike due to fear of job losses. In fact that rarely happens even when companies change hands’, said Chandraprema. If the Hambantota port was to be privatized, then the party buying it, would need workers and who better than the existing workforce? Furthermore, in any deal to sell a going concern, there would always be a clause about the employees and payments due to them.

The anti-China lobby had plenty to say against the Hambantota trade zone. The Chinese will shift their labor intensive industries here, they charged. In China economic development has been achieved at the cost of workers’ long hours, low pay, and lack of welfare benefits. There was super-exploitation.  The same will happen here, when 15,000 acres is vested in Chinese hands.

China’s concern for environment has been equally bad, they added. The government must also exert close supervision over the types of industries that are to be operated in the already earmarked industrial zones, the raw material that such factories would use, and the waste that such factories would discharge, so that the lives of people are not affected or disrupted, critics added.

Certain Chinese projects are now heavily criticized. China has been awarded ‘a whole 5 year project’ without competitive bidding for fourth phase of Central expressway, Kurunegala to Dambulla  costing Rs 161 billion excluding VAT. This should have been done in a phased out manner and it should also have been evaluated by a technical evaluation committee first, said critics. Since it was done on a Chinese loan it had to be given to a Chinese company, protested Yahapalana.

There was no urgency for this project and the return and benefits are minimal, replied critics. Yahapalana is getting further into debt. This railway is not a priority and should have been postponed for ten years. The Railway Trades Union Alliance said they could have done the project without foreign loans or foreign assistance. It could have been done by local engineers and workers of Sri Lanka   railway at a much lower cost.

The Chinese workers are getting ‘demonized’.  Daily News.(24.4.2017 p 5)  said a resident of Dambagasara, Dikwella was seriously injured and later transferred to the Matara General Hospital after being attacked by a group of Chinese workers employed on the Dambagasara worksite of the Matara-Beliatta rail road construction project. Residents of Dambagasara said, in a complaint made to the Dikwella police, that lorry loads of soil from the worksite had been transported throughout the night causing environmental pollution and a public nuisance. On April 22 around 11 pm, villagers had blocked the road forcing lorries laden with soil to turn back.

Moments later, a group of Chinese workers armed with iron bars and clubs came to the village in a van and attacked the villagers The Chinese workers had kept away from work at the Dambagasara worksite thereafter.  Those in favor of China observed that the Chinese had built the BMICH, its convention centre as well as Norochcholai without attacking anyone.

Yahapalana government said Yahapalana was forced to enter into the Hambantota agreement because Sri Lanka was facing a colossal debt burden   of about $70 billion, of which over $8 billion is owed to China. The Hambantota deal would not however erase the debt to China, said critics. The money was going into the Consolidated Fund. The Chinese debt would continue.

The USD 1.1 billion from Hambantota was not enough for debt settlement either. The government needed US$ 10 billion more. A new twist was added when Ven. Medagoda Abhayatissa met President Sirisena to request him not to privatize the port. The President had said that the money was needed not just to pay off debts but also to meet day to day expenditure.

Anti-China observers also commented on the politics of the China projects. At Hambantota the Chinese are going to hold an enormous share of 80% of an enormously valuable asset at a very sensitive and strategic location on a very tense and controversial moment in regional geo-politics between US, India and China, they said.  Colombo Port city will give China another 20,000 acres. This is an area larger than the Vatican State, Monaco, Gibraltar, Cocos Islands, Nauru, Spratly Islands and Macao all put together.

Once the Chinese have a harbor and a land mass bigger than seven small states put together, what is going to stop the Chinese from bringing their nuclear submarines into Hambantota? they asked. The Sri Lankan government most certainly will have neither the capacity nor the interest to enforce such a provision and the Indian government most certainly will not be able to prevent the Chinese from doing just as they please in Hambantota. The Chinese are now more powerful than they ever were in Sri Lanka, having both the government and the opposition with them, the anti-China group lamented.

The Chinese Communist Party has an international policy which is not favorable for Sri Lanka. The Chinese entrepreneurial culture is also different to that of Sri Lanka. Therefore, it is not advisable to go only for Chinese aid, advised Razeen Sally, Chairman, Institute of Policy Studies.


  1. Vaisrawana Says:

    I read the whole of your three-part article. Very well written, full of factual information. You articulate the problem clearly. Thank you, Kamalika. In my own opinion, return of Mahinda or a new leader of comparable ability and patriotism as head of government is the only way out of the present mess.

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