Controversial Chinese projects in Sri Lanka face resistance

Huge investment has come at the cost of local livelihoods and financial independence
Controversial Chinese projects in Sri Lanka face resistance

China and Sri Lanka inaugurated a special industrial zone in Hambantota on Jan. 7. Hundreds of people including opposition political parties clashed with police at the opening. (ucanews.com photo)

After the United States suspended military aid to help Sri Lanka in their long-running war against Tamil separatists in 2007, the Chinese started funneling funds into the island nation.

By 2016 they were Sri Lanka's biggest benefactor.

It started with military aid and soon grew into several large projects that will see Chinese companies pour investment into the nation. But the projects have angered locals, including Catholics, who are suffering collateral damage.

Chinese plans to turn Hambantota harbor into an industrial port erupted in protests when villagers found out they would be forced to relocate. They said it would turn their home into a Chinese colony.

 

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A Sri Lankan security official who was injured at a protest against the the inauguration of the special industrial zone in Hambantota on Jan. 7. (ucanews.com photo)

 

On Jan. 7, hundreds of people including Venerable Vanamulle Vijitha Thero, secretary of the National Bikkhu Front, a Buddhist movement, and opposition political parties clashed with police.

About 250 kilometers away in Colombo, the US$ 1.4 billion International Financial City is being built on manmade islands fashioned from sand dredged from local ocean floor, scattering fish and ruining fishing livelihoods.

Father Michael Rajendram, former Caritas SED-Galle director and one of the few church officials who would go on record, said the government needed to inform people properly.

"If there were more awareness programs for investors and locals then everybody would understand the advantages and disadvantages of all these massive projects," said Father Rajendram.

"There has been no education and information," the priest added.

 

Police use water cannon to disperse protesters at the inauguration of the special industrial zone in Hambantota on Jan. 7. Hundreds of people including opposition political parties clashed with police at the opening. (ucanews.com photo)

 

Venerable Thero, a Buddhist monk, said the government cannot take more land away from the people.

"China has requested 15,000 acres from Hambantota district for a proposed industrial zone and all the land are owned by farmers," said Venerable Thero.

"Politicians build these unwanted projects for their own benefit. They all are white elephant projects using high-interest loans putting us more and more in debt," said the monk.

China's help does cost Sri Lanka. Almost all the money China has poured into the island nation has been in the form of loans at commercial interest rates. Furthermore, laborers and subcontractors working on the projects are all Chinese using Chinese materials.

"All equipment is supplied by Chinese contractors and material, technology and labor also comes from China," said another member of the National Bhikkhu Front who did not want to be named.

Sri Lanka will be making loan repayments on current projects for the next 20 years, the monk said, adding that about a third of government revenue today goes directly to China.

 

Protesters faced water cannons at the inauguration a special industrial zone in Hambantota on Jan. 7. The Chinese project will see hundreds of people relocated and the environment damaged. (ucanews.com photo)

 

Chandrasiri Mahagamage, coordinator of the Trade Union Front to Protect Hambantota Harbor, said that Sri Lanka is a valuable hub in China's "One Belt, One Road" project to forge new land and sea routes for its exports.

"China is very interested in developing ports in Sri Lanka as it secures trade routes to the Middle East and Europe," Mahagamage told ucanews.com.

All Ceylon General Port Employees Union and the Trade Union Front to Protect Hambantota Harbor held protests throughout January and February furious that not only would the plan proceed but Sri Lanka would hand over 80 percent of stakes in the harbor to a Chinese firm.

The current Maithripala Sirisena government opposed many of the larger Chinese investments procured by pro-China predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa, including Hambantota port, but their hands are tied. They have to go ahead in order to pay back decades of loans.

"The oil refineries, export-import and ship maintenance will be built within the port premises but the none of the workers will be Sri Lankan," said Mahagamage.

 

Protester arrested while protesting on Jan. 7 against plans to take over private land for an industrial zone in which the Chinese will have a major stake. (ucanews.com photo)

 

Around 80,000 jobs were promised to locals at the start of the Colombo International Financial City project, one of the largest China-backed projects, but, even though it started in 2016, the jobs have still to materialize.

The Colombo International Financial City aims to turn Sri Lanka into Asia's next top financial hub. It was first mooted by former president  Mahinda Rajapaksa and they entered into an agreement with China Communication Construction Co., Ltd. to begin construction.

Massive protests highlighting issues faced by fishing communities, as well as the adverse impact on fish breeding areas, damage to coral reefs and coastal erosion halted the project for a time. But slowly the behemoth roared to life anyway.

Incredibly, Mahagamage has not given up hope the people can stop a similar disaster befalling Hambantota. "We would like to tell the president when the government takes its final decision from that day onwards port employees and all the trade unions will start an island-wide protest until the government gives up," he said.

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