The yahapalana government’s development partnership with China got off to a bumpy start on Saturday in Hambantota. The launch of a Chinese industrial zone was marred by a mini battle in the area. Riot police, backed by heavily armed STF commandos and water cannon, cracked down on thousands of people protesting against the handover of the Magampura port and 15,000 acres of land to the Chinese.
Government leaders put on a brave face on Saturday’s protests. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe promised a ‘powerful Sri Lanka’ and many jobs. Chinese Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Yi Xianliang, told a fascinating fairy tale; he said his country’s investment in the southern industrial zone would reach as much as USD 5 billion and help create about 100,000 jobs within the next three to five years. (He beat Hans Christian Anderson to it!) Now, the government has something to flaunt at a future election.
Saturday’s drama in Hambantota was replete with irony. Those who condemned what they termed Chinese invasion of Sri Lanka two years ago have agreed to hand over an inland port and 15,000 acres of land to the Chinese. The Joint Opposition (JO), consisting of the Rajapaksas and their backers, once blamed for their subservience to China, are now leading demonstrations against the Hambantota deal!
There is no love lost between the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government and China; it is out of sheer desperation for funds that the former is currying favour with the latter. However, the fact remains that Hambantota lies in a strategically important location in the Indian Ocean and a heavy Chinese presence there is sure to be a thorn in the flesh of some other powerful states, which may seek to counter perceived threats to their interests at the expense of Sri Lanka.
It is doubtful whether the JO leaders, beholden to China for obvious reasons, really want to torpedo the Chinese-funded projects in Hambantota or elsewhere. They may flog the issue hard enough to gain some political capital and drop it quietly in time to come. The JO has succeeded in stealing a march on the JVP, whose bark is worse than its bite when it takes on the government.
Minister Rajitha Senaratne made a fiery speech on Saturday in defence of the controversial Hambantota deal vis-à-vis public protests and the police crackdown. His oratory reminded us of a declaration he made on behalf of the UNP at an Anti-War Front rally in Colombo in 2006; he said the UNP would not support military action against the LTTE. Prabhakaran was controlling about 76% of the North and the East or approximately 15,000 sq. km. Having advocated non violence in dealing with terrorists responsible for heinous crimes and bent on destroying the country, the UNP leaders are now unleashing police on civilians who are protesting against the handover of 15,000 acres to foreigners.
One wonders whether history is repeating itself. The UNP-led UNF government (2001-2004), lured by a four-and-a-half-billion-dollar aid pledge from the US, Japan, the EU and Norway, in return for appeasing the LTTE in the name of a seriously flawed ceasefire, resorted to a course of action inimical to the national interest; it incurred the wrath of the public in the process and crashed in 2004 as a result. Now, it is going hell for leather to hand over national assets to China in the hope of securing foreign investment to the tune of USD 5 billion!
Mervyn Silva used to seize television cameras in public with impunity under the Rajapaksa administration. The Prime Ministerial Security Division (PMSD) personnel acted in a similar manner on Saturday in Hambantota; they grabbed a camera drone belonging to Hiru TV. It was subsequently released as the government drew a great deal of flak.
The drone posed absolutely no threat to any of the VIPs who gathered in Hambantota; it was launched about two kilometres away from the place where they were present. On the other hand, if the PMSD had suspected it to be a source of danger they would not have waited patiently till it was brought down to intercept it.
The yahapalana regime has amply demonstrated once again that it does not baulk at anything in protecting its interests while flaying its predecessor for attacks on protesters and the media in the past.