COLOMBO: The Sri Lankan Navy on Saturday dispersed workers of the Hambantota harbour who had been holding a Japanese cargo ship to ransom for the past few days to protest against privatization of the harbour through a deal with a Chinese company.
Navy spokesman Capt. Akram Alavi told Express that the detention of a ship in this way is tantamount to “piracy” under international law and the Sri Lankan navy, which is by law designated as the Competent Authority to maintain law and order on the island's ports, intervened and dispersed the workers and cleared all the obstacles they had placed to prevent the ship from leaving the harbor. The navy helped cast the ship to the sea.
“This is the first time such a detention has taken place in the history of Sri Lanka’s port. Previously there had been strikes in the harbour but no ship had been detained forcibly,” Capt.Akram said.
The vessel Hyperion Highway, owned by Kawasaki Kisen Kiyasa of Japan, had berthed in the harbour on December 6. The forced detention by the workers had cost it US$ 70,000 per day.
Casual employees of the Magampura Port Management Company (MPMC) had launched a strike demanding that they be regularized as workers of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA). Around 483 of the employees also engaged in a protest fast and some threatened to commit suicide if their demands were not met.
Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who hails from the area, requested Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on Friday to resolve the issues of the protesting workers. The Prime Minister instructed the Minister of Strategic Development, Malik Samarawickrama, to resolve the issue.
Significantly, the protest over recruitment was launched just days before a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the Government of Sri Lanka and China Merchant Holdings Limited (CMHL) on the framework for the revitalization of the Hambantota Harbor. As per the MoU, the CMHL will hold 80 per cent stake in the company and will operate the port on a 99 year lease.
While the government said that this is not a sale of the company or privatization, the workers and the opposition consider it privatization and a gifting of control. The workers feared privatization may lead to retrenchment.
The Minister of Ports, Arjuna Ranatunga, had also protested against the deal with the Chinese company on the grounds that the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) which owns the island’s ports will lose its control over the Hambantota port. But Prime Minister Wickremesinghe overruled him and signed the deal with the CMHL.
Wickremesinghe’s argument is that the Hambantota port built with a Chinese loan of US$ 1.4 billion is a white elephant which cannot be turned around except by inviting a foreign company like the CMHL to run it on a commercial basis.When the CMHL runs it on a commercial basis, Sri Lanka will be able to repay the loan taken from China.