COLOMBO: Given the billowing controversy over the Sino-Sri Lankan Framework Agreement (FA) on Hambantota port in south Sri Lanka, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena is all set to seek some significant amendments in it. He proposes to do so by appointing his own representative in the negotiating team.
The Sunday Times reported that Sirisena met the Chinese Ambassador to sound him about this plan to appoint his own representative, Dr.Sarath Rajapatirana of the Institute of Policy Studies, to the negotiating team.
In view of this development, political circles wonder if an amended agreement will be ready for signing on January 7, a day ahead of the second anniversary of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition government.
According to opposition leader and former President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sirisena might not attend the signing ceremony if his amendments are not accepted, that is.
Informed sources told Express on Sunday that President Sirisena is likely to ask the Chinese to bring down their equity in the Hambantota Sino-Lankan Joint Venture company from the present 80 percent to a more politically acceptable level.
He may ask them to accept a lease period which is significantly less than the present 99 years and agree to an area of land which is less than the present offer of 15,000 acres.
Farmers in the drought-prone Hambantota region have already started protesting against the offer of 15,000 acres to the Chinese. Opposition leader Rajapaksa alleges that the land offered is cultivated land.
These issues have been agitating the Sri Lankan opposition and the media which consider the existing deal (though only a preliminary agreement like an MOU) as a “sell out” to China.
The opposition and the media charge that the government has allowed the Chinese creditors (who had loaned US$ 1.4 billion to build the Hambantota harbour) to get their pound of flesh leaving Sri Lanka worse off than before.
For the opposition and the media, the government’s decision to allow China to swap debt to the tune of US$ 1 billion for equity is tantamount to handing over the port to the Chinese. And that for 99 years! Rajapaksa points out that when he was President (2005 to 2014), the maximum lease period was 35 years.
The Sri Lankan cabinet is itself divided on the Hambantota deal. The Minister of Ports, Arjuna Ranatunga, has been fighting against the taking away of ports and other harbour facilities from the hands of the government-run Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA).There had been privatisation before, but the SLPA had never lost control.
But Ranatunga was overruled in the case of Hambantota and the FA with the Chinese state-owned company was signed not by him, but two other ministers who had nothing to do with ports.