In a surprise U-turn, former Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa has joined the critics of China’s plans for Hambantota. “I will scrap the deal once I return to power”, he said in a statement as reports filtered in that 21 persons were injured in a protest against Chinese-funded industrial park in Hambantota.
Locals apprehend that the project would end up in a forceful takeover of private land in the port city. The Chinese have built the port during the Rajapaksa rein. The deal was signed when Rajapaksa was the president.
Hambantota is Rajapaksa’s home turf; the port along with an airport, industrial zone and international stadium built with Chinese loans were his way of thank you to the electorate. But it has become a white elephant for the Sri Lankan government. There is talk of selling majority stake in the venture to the Chinese.
Recently, the former President had a meeting with the Chinese Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Yi Xianliang, amidst concerns over Chinese investments in the island nation. Later in a Twitter Question and Answer session, Rajapaksa said he had not given any assurance to the Chinese leadership. He denied that the envoy expressed displeasure over his anti-China statements.
Rajapaksa’s new found hostility towards China is in sharp contrast to his pro-Beijing policies between 2005 and 2015. While on a state visit to Beijing in 2014, he told Chinese President Xi Xinping that the “Sri Lankan side is grateful for the friendship and support from the Chinese side. The help from China is very important to promoting economic and social development of Sri Lanka”.”
The official communique from the Chinese foreign ministry also added, “The Sri Lankan side firmly supports China to safeguard national unity and fight against terrorist forces. Sri Lanka hopes to actively participate in the initiative of the Silk Road on the Sea of the 21st Century and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, to strengthen maritime cooperation, to accelerate bilateral FTA negotiations, and to promote infrastructure construction and personnel exchanges between the two countries.”
Now in his drive to reposition himself on Colombo political scene, Rajapaksa is invoking the China card with a different mantra.
“My opposition is only to the wat the Chinese funded projects are being implemented. China is welcome to invest (in SL) if people’s interest are taken on board”, he said asserting that he was not against Chinese investments per se in Sri Lanka.
Media reports say that the Sirisena government is considering to divest 80 of its holding in Hambantota port, and hand it over to a Chinese firm in order to tide over the country’s economic crisis.