COLOMBO–The six-month-old Sri Lankan coalition government has declared that it will under no circumstance permit a Chinese military base to be constructed in the country.
“There is absolutely no such thing and we assure that we will never permit anything like that in Sri Lanka,” Deputy Foreign Minister Dr. Harsha de Silva told Asia Times.
His comments came just days after Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe-led government gave the green light to resume construction on the $1.5 billion China-funded Colombo Port City project which was suspended a year back over environmental issues and on grounds that former President Mahinda Rajapaksa had not followed proper procedure while signing the deal with China.
The project, which is the largest foreign-funded investment on record in Sri Lanka, was inaugurated in September 2014 under Rajapaksa’s presidency, who relied heavily on China for investments.
Keheliya Rambukwella, who was spokesman for the government of former President Rajapaksa, claimed that even during Rajapaksa’s tenure, there was no proposal by the Chinese to establish a military base in Sri Lanka.
“They (China), however, extended us assistance when we were at a critical stage during the war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE),” he said.
During the over quarter century war in Sri Lanka, which ended in May 2009, China supplied the Sri Lankan government with necessary weapons to fight the LTTE.
The United Nations estimates that at least 40,000 civilians died during the final stages of the war which saw gross human rights violations.
Rambukwella said the rumors of a possible Chinese military base were floated by India which did not want Sri Lanka to have a close relationship with China.
“China is getting stronger and stronger by the day, and the United States is indirectly supporting India to control this,” he told Asia Times.
However, Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka, who served as Army Commander at the time the Sri Lankan military won the war against the LTTE, accused the Rajapaksa government of selling out to China.
“One of the regulations laid down by China to the then government was that even the Sri Lankan Air Force cannot fly over this port city. Basically, the Rajapaksa administration had agreed that the Chinese government can do anything, and we don’t have the right to question them even though it was happening in our land,” Fonseka said.
The Colombo Port City project will house a star class hotel, shopping and entertainment centers, offices, a marina and yacht club, a central boulevard, apartment complex, and a mini golf course. It will be built on 252 hectares of reclaimed land off Sri Lanka’s west coast.
Before taking over office, Wickremesinghe had vowed to halt the project on environment grounds, but reversed his decision and gave the green light to resume work on the project early this week.
The decision comes when Sri Lanka is heading toward a deepening economic crisis. Analysts believe this could be a move by Wickremesinghe to boost confidence among Chinese investors and encourage them to bring in more investments to the country.
Wickremesinghe seems to have a change of heart on the controversial project just days after the country received repeated setbacks from international credit rating agencies, with Fitch Ratings downgrading its ratings on Sri Lanka by a notch to B+ with a negative outlook, followed by Standard & Poor’s revised outlook last week on its B+ sovereign credit rating to negative, amid mounting concerns of rising debt, weaker revenue and decline in the country’s foreign reserves.
Meanwhile, following a formal invitation extended to China by the Wickremesinghe government to resume work on the project, CHEC Port City Colombo (Pvt) Ltd said it recognized Sri Lankan government’s decision as a positive step in moving forward.
While expressing its regret over the suspension of the project and the lengthy process taken to resume work which resulted in heavy losses, the company in a statement this week said: “With the resumption of work now approved, the project company will commence with preparatory work as soon as feasible to ensure that the project can be completed in the expected time-frame.”
The project company also reiterated that as a responsible corporate citizen, it will continue to be compliant with all existing laws and regulations in Sri Lanka.
Meanwhile, the People’s Movement against the Port City has demanded Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena and Wickremesinghe to immediately halt the project on the grounds that it is detrimental to the country’s environment.
In a statement, the movement recalled Wickremesinghe’s initial stand on the project during the presidential campaign in 2014.
He then said: “The western coast would be severely affected as a result of the construction activities of the Port City project. We ought to protect the coast. The coastal belt from Colombo to Kalpitiya and from Colombo to Hikkaduwa will be lost as a result if it is carried out”.
Munza Mushtaq is a journalist based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. She is the former news editor of two leading Sri Lankan newspapers; The Nation and the Sunday Leader. She writes extensively on Sri Lankan current affairs with special focus on politics, human rights and business issues. She is currently the Colombo-based correspondent for International News Services, the Los Angeles Times and the Nikkei Asian Review.