China-Sri Lanka relations

Sri Lanka’s president sacks outspoken justice minister who criticised US$1.1 billion port deal with China

Sri Lanka’s government last month signed a long-delayed agreement to sell a 70 per cent stake in a US$1.5 billion port to China

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 August, 2017, 5:54pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 August, 2017, 10:28pm

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena sacked his controversial justice minister Wednesday for speaking out against a billion-dollar deal to sell a stake in a loss-making deep seaport to China.

Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe had publicly denounced the government’s US$1.1 billion sale last month of a 70 per cent stake in Hambantota port to state-owned China Merchants Port Holdings.

“He (Rajapakshe) had violated collective cabinet responsibility by openly speaking against the deal,” said government spokesman Gayantha Karunathillaka.

Rajapakse also called the lease a sell-out and said he would ensure that the port is taken back for the benefit of Sri Lankans.

The party said it asked Rajapakse last week to correct his statements by August 21, but he failed to and continued to criticise ministers and policies over the weekend.

His United National Party has also accused him of stalling the prosecution of more than 100 former government figures accused of murder and corruption under president Mahinda Rajapakse, who ruled Sri Lanka for almost a decade until 2015 and ended the war with Tamil separatists.

Rajapakshe is the second minister to fall from grace within a fortnight.

Foreign Minister Ravi Karunanayake was forced to step down after being linked to a controversial bond dealer under investigation for allegedly causing huge losses to the state.

The port project has been controversial. Negotiations were held up for months amid opposition from trade unions and political parties.

Sri Lankans took to the streets to protest over a fear of loss of land, and opposition politicians have claimed the scale of land transfer to the Chinese is a risk to national security.

The Port of Hambantota occupies a prime location within 10 nautical miles of the main shipping route from Asia to Europe and is also likely to play a strategic role within China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative.

China Merchants said the facility would be developed into “a major industrial and service port”.

It is not the first time that China Merchants has invested in debt-laden Sri Lanka’s assets, after becoming the largest foreign investor in the port of Colombo.

It developed the Colombo International Container Terminal, which covers a total quay length of 1,200 metres and a depot land area of 58 hectares.

The revised Hambantota deal came weeks after Sirisena reshuffled his cabinet, naming Mahinda Samarasinghe ports minister after his predecessor had also strongly opposed the majority equity stake for the Chinese firm, even raising a red flag over its possible military use.

India and the United States are also known to be concerned that a Chinese foothold at the port could give it a naval advantage in the Indian Ocean.

Chinese interests have also bought into other harbour projects in Myanmar, Pakistan and Sudan, raising speculation that Beijing aims to establish a series of bases, or “string of pearls”, from the Middle East to China, containing India’s reach.

The deal comes as India and China are locked in a tense stand-off in a contested area of the Himalayas.

Additional reporting by Reuters and Associated Press