By Justin Keppetiyagama
On May 20, 149 MPs of a 225-member Parliament voted in favour of Colombo Port City Special Economic Zone (SEZ) Bill incorporating all the 26 amendments given by the Supreme Court to set up a China-backed special economic zone in Sri Lanka.
Port City investor company, CHEC Port City Colombo (Pvt) Ltd which has invested USD 1.4 million for this project has welcomed the government’s move and expects this initiative will bring more foreign direct investments to Sri Lanka.
China built the port city on reclaimed sea adjoining the port of Colombo with a USD 1.4 billion investment.
Last month, Chinese Defence Minister Gen. Wei Fenghe — the second high-ranking Chinese official visited Sri Lanka after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic — called on Sri Lankan President and Prime Minister and discussed ways to further cement bilateral ties, including defense cooperation and post-pandemic economic recovery.
The Chinese Defense Minister’s visit assumed significance in the backdrop of a public diplomacy campaign launched by the Chinese embassy on the Chinese-built Port City in Colombo.
The Colombo Port City project, expected to play a key role in China’s ambitious ‘Maritime Silk Road’ project in India’s backyard, is said to be the single largest private sector development.
Sri Lanka in recent years carried out various infrastructure development projects with estimated USD 8 billion loans from China.
The huge Chinese loans sparked concerns globally after Sri Lanka handed over the Hambantota port to China in 2017 as debt swap amounting to USD 1.2 billion for a 99 years’ lease.
According to Supreme Court ruling the bill presented to parliament had undermined the sovereignty of the country and the constitution was violated to such an extent that it required referenda on 9 instances and a two thirds majority 17 times to pass it.
The Supreme Court in April had heard some 18 petitions filed against the bill by the Opposition parties and civil society groups who had sought a national referendum and the passage of it in Parliament by two-thirds majority. The apex court concluded its examination of the bill on April 23.
Original bill exempting from a series of Sri Lanka Laws and conferring power to make rules, codes, directions or guidelines and appoint foreigners to the Board without Parliamentary control and to establish the Colombo Port City Special Economic Zone (SEZ) undermining the sovereignty of the country has been gazette on March 24 after Cabinet approval and placed in the order paper of Parliament on April 9. No one in the government has been able to explain why the bill for which the Supreme Court has proposed 26 amendments was presented in its original form.How come a bill that needed so many amendments could have approved by theCabinet of Ministers to become law, and would have become law without any amendment were it not for its objectors and the Courts intervention.
In its original form the bill stood for weakening Sri Lanka’s economic interests and enhancing foreign investors’ profit-making interests by withdrawing oversight across the board and offering incentives with no one to oversee.
People need an explanation from the government why this bill for which the Supreme Court proposed 26 amendments was approved by the Cabinet of Ministers.