Starting last week, the Magampura Port in Hambantota was the scene of a nine-day long protest which also witnessed the Navy Commander allegedly assault a television journalist.
Despite being the incident that really went viral on social media, the assault is only one part of a complicated affair involving the jobs of hundreds of Magampura Port employees.
Where It All Began
Following the arrival of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration, it was revealed that thanks to the previous Rajapaksa government’s imprudent ventures and costly projects, the current government has inherited a debt trap that borders Rs. 9.5 trillion. From that, a loss of Rs. 18.8 million arises from the Hambantota Port project.
In an attempt to reduce its debt burden, the Government decided to hand over several mega development projects carried out under the previous government’s tenure, back to their original investors. In October, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe revealed that the operations of the Hambantota Port and the Mattala International Airport will be transferred to China Merchants Holdings (International) Company Ltd. through a Public Private Partnership. Accordingly, 80 percent of the Port will be owned by the Chinese company while ownership of the remaining 20 percent will be retained by the government.
The proposal received the green light from the Cabinet at the beginning of December.
Meanwhile, there were also reports of China requesting 15,000 acres in Hambantota to create a special economic zone. According to these reports, this request has been made to the Ministry of Development Strategies and International Trade.
These two stories have posed a serious cause for concern among unconfirmed employees of the Hambantota Port, who organised a protest last Tuesday (December 6), demanding the government secure their jobs. Their primary concern, it appears, is that their jobs will go to others upon takeover of the Port by the foreign company. They also demanded that they be made part of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA).
The Protesters and Their Demands
According to Minister of Ports and Shipping, Arjuna Ranatunga, around 480 unconfirmed employees had been recruited in 2013 and have worked for the Magampura Port Management Company (MPMC) for a fixed salary of Rs.10,000 per month, for three years straight.
The Minister noted that these employees have not been given confirmation letters after they concluded their probation period, but have been working for the MPMC nevertheless. Furthermore, Ranatunga noted that although the employees have been promised to be made part of the SLPA, there is no written document that says so.
Minister Ranatunga has declared that these employees had been given false promises by the political forces that had initially given them their jobs at the Port, but also claimed that the protesting employees are acting under political influence.
The Minister also suggested that over 90% of these employees were installed in their positions by ‘Nil Balakaya’, the youth organisation associated with MP Namal Rajapaksa during the previous regime. Ranatunga later noted that there were certain employees who had not reported to work for over 24 hours during the last Presidential election, due to their “assigned election duties.”
The protest heated up on Friday (December 9) when protesting employees forcefully boarded two merchant ships anchored at the Hambantota port awaiting restocking of essentials. The protesters allegedly took control of the vessels and prevented them from leaving the port.
On the following day (Saturday, December 10), the Sri Lanka Navy intervened to disperse the protesters from the two vessels as well as the adjacent facility, to make way for port operations that had been disrupted due to the protest.
This is where the situation got worse. The intervening Navy personnel, reaching the two vessels, shot at the sky to disperse the crowd. In the immediate aftermath, it was reported that Navy Commander Vice Admiral Ravindra Wijegunaratne had also joined the intervening Navy personnel. In the midst of Navy officers dispersing the protesters, the Navy Commander was seen assaulting a television journalist who was in the midst of the protesters. Several videos of the incident also showed Navy personnel assaulting other protesters.
Following this, the Navy was able to take control of the two vessels again and was successfully able to disperse the protesters. The Navy later noted that as a result of the protesters’ conduct, the shipping agent of ‘Hyperion Highway’ had to incur a total demurrage of USD 400,000 for the four days of non-operation. It was later reported that the Government had received a bill for this amount from the shipping firm.
While protesters and Navy personnel clashed in Hambantota, Parliament had to witness its own share of disruptions. The final parliamentary session for this year took place on Saturday, at which members of the Joint Opposition, including MPs Wimal Weerawansa and Namal Rajapaksa, attempted to disturb the evening’s final voting for the 2017 budget. The MPs were accused of organising the protest, which they denied. Responding to questions raised by the Joint Opposition in Parliament, State Minister for Defense Ruwan Wijewardane stated that the Navy had every right to respond to the situation as the actions of the protesters were tantamount to piracy.
On the following Monday (12), the Navy told the media that the Navy Commander’s actions and the Navy intervention was justified under the provisions of the International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) Code.
According to the Code, the Navy is the competent authority to intervene in such a matter. Navy Spokesperson Captain Akram Alavi told media, “The protesters were holding the ship by force and had disrupted its operation, which is a grave violation of international laws and norms which could be treated as an act of piracy.”
Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Karunasena Hettiarachchi said that he has requested the Navy to submit a report on the incident. The report is expected to include details on the alleged actions of the Navy Commander.
Reactions and How the Protest Ended
Given the widespread attention the Navy Commander’s actions, in particular, have received, the state appears to be making attempts to address the issue. Director General of the Government Information Department, Ranga Kalansooriya, issued a press communique noting that the government will be looking into the matter. He did, however, point out that although the Navy Commander’s actions should be inquired into, the manner in which the journalist had behaved had violated media ethics.
On Wednesday (December 14) the Minister of Ports and Shipping, as per the advice of the Prime Minister, issued an ultimatum to the protesting employees to report to work before a deadline. The Minister, speaking at a press conference, noted that if the protesting employees did not report back to work by 2:00 p.m., Thursday (December 16), they will be considered to have left work without prior notice.
Accordingly, on Thursday (December 15), the Hambantota Magistrate’s Court issued an order, consisting of seven conditions, against protesting employees. Employees have been prohibited from obstructing any of the entrances to the port, and from impeding or boarding any international vessels or Sri Lanka Navy vessels. The protesting workers were also barred from damaging any property at the harbour.
Later on that day, the protest was called off by the employees of the harbour, following discussions with the government and the MPMC management.
On Wednesday Minister Ranatunga revealed that several shipping lines have declared the Hambantota harbour as an unsafe port for foreign vessels. He said that the SLPA is currently holding discussions with the respective representatives of the shipping lines in order to assure them that operations have resumed following last week’s events.
Furthermore, the Minister also claimed that only the framework agreement of the China-Sri Lanka PPP on the Hambantota port has been signed. The final clauses, which are still under discussion, will only be signed in January 2017.
On Thursday (December 15) the Navy Commander met with the Prime Minister, after which the Premier declared that the journalist who was allegedly assaulted “had entered a high security zone without permission”.
Watch this space for further updates.