In order not to alienate India, the Sri Lankan government is taking stern action against those who tried to storm the Indian Consulate in Hambantota last Friday in protest against the government’s bid to go for a Joint Venture (JV) with India to run the non-functioning Mattala International Airport.
Twenty-eight persons were arrested during the violent protest. And on Tuesday, a further six, including Namal Rajapaksa, opposition MP and son of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, were held and remanded till October 16.
Initially, the demonstration was to be held at the airport but since the police had obtained a court order prohibiting demonstrations there, the organizers, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), turned their wrath on the Office of the Indian Consul General in Hambantota town.
The police had to use tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowd which tried to break the iron barriers put up by the police at the entrance of the Consulate.
Among the participants in the rally were top leaders of the opposition like former ministers Mahindananda Aluthgamage, Prof. G.L. Peiris and Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena.
The demonstrators waved placards reading: “Indian Colony Epa” (No to Indian colony).
Though the deal to run the Mattala airport as a Joint Venture (JV) with India is yet to be finalized, and talks are, in fact, only at a very early stage, Sri Lankan opposition politicians and the media have assumed that the deal is already through for “geo-political reasons” under compulsion “to keep both India and India satisfied.”
It is said that Colombo wants to compensate India after giving the Hambantota port to China.
It is also said that India is keen on having a strategic asset like an airport in Hambantota district, which is in the southern most part of Sri Lanka, to checkmate China and watch over the sea lanes in the India Ocean.
Mattala airport is about 40 km from Hambantota port.
In August this year, the Sri Lankan government cleared Civil Aviation Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva’s request for a committee to study an Indian government’s proposal for a JV to run the Mattala airport which was built by China but has proved to a non-functioning drag on the country’s exchequer.
Christened by Forbes as the “world’s emptiest airport”, Mattala has been receiving only two flights a day.
India proposed to “operate, manage, maintain and develop” the airport through a JV, holding 70% of the equity for 99 years – the same terms on which the Hambantota port was given to China by the present government.
But Colombo told New Delhi that it would offer the airport only for 40 years.
According to the Minister’s de Silva’s cabinet paper, India is willing to invest US $ 205 million in the venture, while Sri Lanka would pitch in the balance U$ 88 million.
It was agreed, in principle, that the airport would not be used for military purposes as is the case with the Hambantota port given to China.
The Indian airport builder, GMR, is said to be interested in the project reports said that it wants to develop the area around economically so that it attracts foreign visitors.
The Chinese are to develop an Economic Zone near the Hambantota port, 40 km away, and this could be integrated into the Mattala airport project if India-China rivalry does not stand in the way.
But India might want to develop its own Economic Zone around Mattala.
However, since the Indian request came, there has no progress in the negotiations as the Sri Lankan government is pre-occupied with more pressing matters related to its survival in the face of internal dissent and the growing opposition outside led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The sale or leasing out of national strategic assets to foreign countries is a controversial and emotive issue in Sri Lanka. That is why government is going slow on the Hambantota port and the Mattala airport.
Speaking on the issue in parliament, Namal Rajapaksa said that the airport was made non-functional by the present government, which, instead of attracting flights, had used it as a grain storage facility.
Rajapaksa slammed the government for bartering away national assets to foreign entities without making an effort to develop the country’s resources independently.
The deal with China on the Hambantota port signed by former President Rajapaksa, had become a key issue in the January 8, 2015 Presidential election which resulted in his defeat.
And now, with local and provincial elections due in 2018, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government wants to put mega deals with foreign parties on the back burner.