Sri Lankan opposition leads anti-China campaign on Colombo port city bill

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As the Sri Lankan government prepares to push through parliament its Colombo Port City Economic Commission bill, several opposition parties have launched a campaign saying the proposed measure would pave the way for a ” Chinese colony ‘in Sri Lanka.

The main opposition party Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), the United National Party (UNP) and Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), as well as the Sri Lanka Bar Association and several other organizations and individuals, have filed petitions to the Supreme Court. Court against the bill.

Colombo Port City Project [Credit: China Communications Construction Company]

The petitioners say it violates the constitution. They are asking the court to rule that the bill must be adopted by a two-thirds majority in parliament and submitted to a national referendum. The court began hearing these arguments this week.

The port city of Colombo (CPC), built by the China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) with a $ 1.4 billion loan from Beijing, is Sri Lanka’s biggest investment to date. When completed, the CPC will be a 230 hectare complex, built on a landfill near the Colombo Port waterfront.

Under the original agreement, the CCCC would control 108 hectares – 20 hectares in freehold and the rest on a 99-year lease. Sri Lanka would own the rest.

The government’s bill is designed to provide a legal framework for the establishment of a special economic zone (SEZ) within the CPC and an economic commission to oversee its activities. This body will be composed of five to seven members appointed by the president.

Only financial and commercial institutions will be created in the SEZ. They will be exempt from a number of statutory tax laws and trade regulations in order to provide major concessions to local and foreign investors. The activities of the Economic Commission will not be subject to parliamentary control.

The bill would deny SEZ employees limited legal protections for other workers over wages, employment, pensions and medical benefits. The government has said that around 83,000 jobs will be created in the area, but workers will be at the mercy of the companies operating there.

Sri Lanka already has 16 Free Trade Zones (FTZs) with around 300,000 employees. Some labor laws still apply to these free zones, although employers often refuse to comply. The port city’s SEZ, without even these nominal restrictions on brutal exploitation, will be used as a model to suppress workers’ rights across the country.

Opposition groups who are against the bill are not concerned about this suppression of workers’ rights, which is intended to facilitate the ruthless drive of international finance capital to profit amid the global pandemic. Instead, they are launching an anti-China nationalist campaign based on claims that the government is betraying the country’s sovereignty.

SJB leader Sajith Premadasa told media: “This is a step of enslavement and subjugation of this country to foreign countries.” He did not name the “foreign country” but hinted that it was China.

JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake was more explicit, saying during a press briefing that the CCP would be “another province of China” if parliament passed the bill. “The people have never given President Gotabaya Rajapaksa or his government a mandate to build Chinese territory,” he said.

Wijedasa Rajapakshe, a ruling Sri Lankan Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) MP, and Muruththettuwe Ananda, a prominent Buddhist monk who supported the government election, also denounced the bill as an attempt to establish a Chinese colony.

The so-called campaign to protect Sri Lanka’s sovereignty from China is based mainly on Beijing funding the port city project and signaling its willingness to invest more. The SJB, UNP and JVP are not opposed to the creation of free zones or special economic zones.

In addition to diverting social discontent in a reactionary nationalist direction, the opposition campaign aligns with the growing confrontation of US imperialism with China. Washington, with its allies like Japan and Australia and its “strategic partner” India, is preparing for the conflict against Beijing, in order to strengthen American hegemony in Asia-Pacific and internationally.

As part of this campaign, Washington is attacking the Chinese government for allegedly luring countries like Sri Lanka into a “debt trap” with cheap loans and investments.

US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Alaina Teplitz criticized the bill and warned of “unintended consequences and, of course, creating a safe haven for money launderers and other nefarious actors. “. Teplitz warned: “[E]Economically vulnerable countries risk their sovereignty and independence, ”she said, adding that the United States was ready to help Sri Lanka in its current debt crisis.

Sri Lanka has been increasingly drawn into the geopolitical whirlwind produced by the United States’ growing confrontation with China.

Supporting President Mahinda Rajapakse’s government in its bloody communal war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the United States has become increasingly concerned about its growing ties with China following the defeat of the LTTE in 2009 As part of their “pivot to Asia” against China, the Obama administration pressured Colombo to sever ties with Beijing and used the threat of war crimes charges to do so. .

When that failed, the United States sponsored a regime change operation in the January 2015 presidential election, ousting Mahinda Rajapakse and installing pro-American Maithripala Sirisena. The UNP, the JVP, the Tamil National Alliance and pseudo-left groups supported this intervention. Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe quickly changed foreign policy in favor of Washington, integrated its military into the US Pacific Command, and halted Chinese projects, including the CCP.

Washington is increasingly concerned that current President Gotabhaya Rajapakse, who came to power in 2019, is redirecting Sri Lanka to Beijing. Gotabhaya Rajapakse is Mahinda’s brother and served as defense secretary under him. Mahinda Rajapakse is now Prime Minister.

Faced with economic collapse and hit by the pandemic, the Colombo government is once again relying on Beijing for loans and is desperate to seek foreign direct investment by providing a cheap tax-free work haven. Once again, the United States seeks to use the threat of war crimes charges to pressure Colombo, with the Biden administration co-sponsoring a UNHCR resolution in March to investigate human rights violations in the country. Sri Lanka.

The United States is particularly hostile to the Port City project because Washington sees it as Beijing’s attempt to counter the United States’ encirclement. The project is part of the Beijing Maritime Silk Road, a plan to ensure access to critical supplies of energy and raw materials via the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Chinese Defense Minister General Wei Fenghe is due to visit Sri Lanka at the end of this month.

Workers should oppose Rajapakse’s SEC bill because it seeks to ruthlessly suppress their social and democratic rights. His pro-investor measures are part of a larger attack on the working class, which has been accompanied by moves towards a presidential dictatorship.

The working class must no less forcefully reject the anti-China campaign of the opposition parties. It aims to divide the working class and align the population with US plans for a potentially catastrophic conflict with China.

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