Opposing the Sri Lankan government’s terms for a controversial Chinese-funded port and investment zone in the southern district of Hambantota, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Wednesday said the projects displaced people and harmed the environment.
Days after his meeting with Chinese Ambassador to Sri Lanka Yi Xianliang, Mr. Rajapaksa said: “My request is to implement the project according to initial agreement without displacing people & harming the environment.”
Meeting with envoy
In a live question and answer session on Twitter, the former President said the Chinese Ambassador too “had concerns” about its implementation. While local media reports said the envoy had met him to seek a clarification on his opposition to the Chinese-backed projects, there was no official statement on the meeting.
Mr. Rajapaksa’s comments come less than a week after 21 people were injured in violent clashes in Hambantota, between government supporters and locals who oppose the project citing “takeover of private land” for the industrial zone, in which China will have a major stake. Police resorted to tear gas and water cannons to stop the clashes that took place as Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe participated in an opening ceremony of the industrial zone, the Associated Press reported.
Mr. Rajapaksa’s opposition to the projects in Hambantota — his home town that his son Namal Rajapaksa currently represents in Parliament — is recent, and comes weeks after he vowed to topple the government in 2017. A known ally of Beijing, he initiated massive projects during his term, including a $361-million Chinese-funded harbour and an airport built with a loan of $210 million.
After going back and forth on its Hambantota initiatives, the Sri Lankan government in October last year decided to sell to a Chinese company 80% of the $1.5-billion port in the southern district, to tackle the country’s debt burden.
In his Twitter interaction on Wednesday, Mr. Rajapaksa appeared careful in wording his opposition, objecting only to the terms of the deal and not the Chinese investment. “#China has always been a friend of #SriLanka. We value their support,” he said. “China always stood by us even when the west-led coalition brought resolution after resolutions against Sri Lanka.” In November, Mr. Rajapaksa went to China on the invitation of the Chinese government.
Following his Tweets, Cabinet Minister and spokesman Rajitha Senaratne accused Mr. Rajapaksa of doublespeak, noting that “he says one thing to the Chinese, and another to Sri Lankans”.
The Sri Lankan government has said it hopes to ink the deal with the Chinese company for the projects by end of January.