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China never pressurised us to handover H'tota port: PM

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe yesterday refuted claims made by the recent New York Times story that the present government was under heavy pressure from China to handover the Hambantota Port to them after it was struggling to settle the debts borrowed during the previous regime.

Mr Wickremesinghe refuted claims made by the New York Times
report during a special statement he made in Parliament last morning.

“I must say that the Chinese government never pressurised Sri Lanka on this matter. What the 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 Merchant Port agreed to invest USD 1,080 million on the port. Chinese President and the government as a whole was agreeable for this proposal. Accordingly, the Chinese Company and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority entered into an agreement following the cabinet approval. China Merchant paid USD 293 million on December 2017 and USD 97 million in January 2018. The company has paid the remaining USD 589 million as of today. 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 Prime Minister said while highlighting that the Sri Lankan government never struggled to settle what it owed to China.

Primer Wickremesinghe also refuted the suggestion made in the New York Times story that the 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. Previous government borrowed Rs. 1,320 million 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 Hambantota Port from 2011 to date is Rs. 47 billion. The 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. Present government went into a dialogue. We discussed on how to make use of the Port which was a white 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 added.

There is an airport in Mattala without airplanes just like the Hambantoa Port which has no ships. This was a result of the debt created by the Rajapaksa regime. We discussed about the Mattala Airport with the Chinese government but did not get a positive response. Therefore we got into a dialogue with the Indian government. Sri Lankan government will be relieved from the burden of Mattala Airport soon. It will also become a profit making venture in the future,” he also said.

Further the Prime Minister urged former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to make statement and respond to the allegations made by New York Times.

“I have responded to what the New York Times report has said about the present regime and I would like to request the former President to make a statement in Parliament as well,” he said. (Yohan Perera and Ajith Siriwardana)