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21 injured in SL clashes over China port deal

HAMBANTOTA: At least 21 people were injured on Saturday in violent clashes between Sri Lankan government supporters and villagers marching against what they say is a plan to take over private land for an industrial zone in which China will have a major stake.

Police used tear gas and water cannons to try to break up the clashes, which took place as Prime Minister Ranil Wickre mesinghe was attending an opening ceremony for the industrial zone, located near the port city of Hambantota, about 240 kilometres southeast of the capital, Colombo.

The clashes began when government supporters started throwing rocks at villagers who were marching to the ceremony site. The protesters, organised by the opposition and led by Buddhist monks, responded by throwing rocks at the government supporters.

A group that appeared to have been transported to the area by the government joined in attacking the protesters with poles.

Twenty-one people, including three police officers, were taken to a government hospital in Hambantota, a hospital official said.

Sri Lanka’s government has signed a framework agreement for a 99-year lease of the Hambantota port with a company in which China will have 80 per cent ownership. Officials also plan to set up a nearby industrial zone where Chinese companies will be invited to set up factories. The villagers and monks are opposed to it and demand their residential and farmlands be spared.

A court had issued a restraining order on the protest, saying it could lead to unrest, but the protesters defied it.

Wickremesinghe inaugurated the industrial zone despite the clashes.

The Rev. Magama Mahanama, from a group calling itself the Monks’ Organisation to Protect National Assets, said that the clergy, following an ancient tradition, would issue a decree to the government to stop the leasing. Historically, kings in predominantly Buddhist Sri Lanka are said to have abided by decrees issued by Buddhist monks.

“It’s a way of conveying the message that the monks are not for it,” Mahanama said. “Ninety-nine years means at least two generations. When they (the Chinese) take root here, what’s the guarantee that we will have it back? There is a major threat of cultural erosion and demographic change.” Wickremesinghe, speaking to reporters earlier in the week, said the partnership arrangement was necessary to free Sri Lanka from the debt incurred to build the port. He blamed the debt on former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose government was friendly to Beijing.

Wickremesinghe said the industrial zone was necessary to make the port and the nearby Chinese-financed airport, also running at a heavy loss, viable.

“The port can’t be taken away,” he said, adding that his country’s former British colonial rulers did not take away the Trincomalee harbour or the Colombo port.

Our correspondent from Colombo adds: As Sri Lankans threw stones and rioted against the controversial Sino-Sri Lankan deal of the Hambantota port, China responded by staunchly declaring commitment to executing its projects in the country and brushed off hostile propaganda by the local opposition parties, stating that ‘no negative force’ can stop China’s development assistance to Sri Lanka.

Speaking at the launch of the China-backed Southern Economic Development Zone in the southern port town of Hambantota, that got underway despite massive protests by local people, Chinese Ambassador Yi Xianliang said that “no negative force” can stop China’s development assistance to Sri Lanka, and no one can stop the “strong friendship” between the two countries.

Protesters against the Chinese projects, mainly led by loyalists of former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa, were dispersed by police using water cannons as clashes erupted after protesters pelted stones at the area where the project launching ceremony was being held.

Sri Lanka has allocated 15,000 acres for Chinese investments in South Sri Lanka and will give an 80 per cent stake in the Hambantota Port to China Merchants Port Holdings in a debt equity swap as Sri Lanka is unable to pay the total debt of $1.4 billion dollars incurred in the construction of the port.

The former president Mahinda Rajapaksa and his supporters in the Joint Opposition are protesting against the deal describing it as a sell out of a national strategic asset.

Courtesy : Dawn News

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