Sri Lankan parliament passes China-backed Port City project which opposition say “directly affects” country’s sovereignty

The Sri Lanka Parliament has passed the Port City Economic Commission Bill which will give 269 hectares of land, reclaimed from the ocean and annexed to the city of Colombo, to the country’s first special economic zone (SEZ) for services-oriented industries. The port city project is backed by China.

The bill was passed on Thursday with 149 votes in favour and 58 against. Under the legislation, a President-appointed commission will be established to govern the SEZ.

The parliament’s approval comes after SL’s Supreme Court suggested several amendments, following over a dozen petitions challenging the Bill that political opposition and civil society groups said “directly affects” Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. The government accepted the amendments and presented them to the parliament today.

The $1.4 billion-Colombo Port City, was launched in 2014 during the previous term of the Rajapaksa government, when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited SL.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa on Wednesday told Parliament that the Port City project would create 200,000 jobs in the first five years, with the majority going to Sri Lankan nationals. He said that the Port City bill provides a competitive framework to attract investment.

Opposition to the Project

After the Port City bill was tabled in Parliament on April 8, 19 petitions were filed with the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka. Environmentalists and fisher folk had opposed the SEZ including reclaiming land from the ocean as it would endanger the animal species and also affect fishing.

Legislators from Opposition parties including the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB or United People’s Front) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) challenged provisions in the bill saying that it infringed upon the country’s sovereignty. He also said that the overarching powers granted to the governing commission which will include Chinese investors, will give immunity to the investors from Sri Lankan law and would create a “Chinese enclave” in the garb of SEZ.

Most of the Tamil MPs have strongly opposed the bill. During the debate in the parliament, Legislator and former Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran asked the government if its stated policy of striving for ‘One Country, One Law’ meant “Chinese law”.

Accusing the government of giving away part of its land to China, the Tamil National Alliance MP and senior lawyer M.A. Sumanthiran said: “You say so much about [Tamil] Eelam, but this is Cheelam, [referring to China and Eelam, the Tamil name of Sri Lanka]….and it is Cheelam that you are enacting in your own laws, when you don’t have jurisdiction over that territory.”

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