Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, yesterday, in Parliament repudiated the recent claims made by The New York Times that the incumbent government had been forced by China to hand over the Hambantota Port to them when the government was struggling hard to settle the loans borrowed by the former government from that country.
Making a special statement in parliament, the Prime Minister said: “I state with responsibility that our government was never pressurised by the Chinese government to hand over the port to them. We had many options and we could have followed whatever we wanted. I must say that the Chinese government never pressurised Sri Lanka on this matter. What Chinese government wanted us to do was to get proposals from Chinese companies to come up with proposals to run the Port initially. The proposal from China Merchant Port was most beneficial for Sri Lanka. China Merchants Port agreed to invest 1,080 million US dollars on the port. Chinese President and the government were agreeable for that proposal. Accordingly, the Chinese Company and Sri Lanka Ports Authority entered into an agreement following the cabinet approval. China Merchant paid 293 million dollars in December 2017 and 97 million dollars in January, this year. The company has paid the balance of 584 million dollars to the Ports Authority.
“This is a victory as far as the people in this country are concerned. Rajapaksa government borrowed funds and constructed a port without ships. Our government had been able to settle the debts and to convert the port into a profit making one. It has not been sold out. What we did was to set up a joint venture to run the Port. Hambantota would be a developed port in the future.”
The PM also refuted a suggestion made in The New York Times story to the effect that transfer of Hambantota Port had given China the control of territory just a few hundred miles off the shores of a rival India and strategic foothold along a critical and military waterway. “The Port will not be used for any military activity and that a clause to this effect is included in the agreement with China Merchant Port. We have highlighted this fact during the discussion with the Chinese government,” the PM said.
“Previous government borrowed 1,320 million rupees for the Port project from China. The port became an issue during the 2015 presidential elections. Repayment became an issue as the government at that time had no means to settle the debt. It was running at a loss. The losses suffered by the Hambntota Port from 2011 to date are estimated to a sum total of 47 billion rupees. Yahapalana government pledged to resolve the issue during 2015 elections.
“The present government had two options with regard to the Port when it came to power. First is to declare the borrowing agreement illegal and abolish it. Second option is to have a dialogue with the Chinese Government. We chose to have a dialogue with China. Incumbent government went into a dialogue. We discussed on how to make use of the Port which was a while elephant at that time. President discussed with China initially and then I discussed it together with a group of ministers. Our government was of the opinion that the Port should be run as a public private partnership and to convert it into a profit making venture,” he said.
“There is an airport in Mattala without aeroplanes just like the Hambantota Port which has no ships. This was also debt created by Rajapakasa regime. We discussed about the Mattala Airport with the Chinese government but did not get positive response. Therefore we have got into a dialogue with the Indian government. Sri Lankan government will be relieved from the Mattala Airport burden soon. It will also become a profit making venture in the future,” he said.
Prime Minister called on former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to make a statement and respond to the allegations made by the New York Times. “I have responded to what The New York Times report has said about the incumbent government and I would like to request former President to make a statement on the charges on his government in Parliament as well.”