The Sri Lankan Parliament on Thursday passed a controversial Bill on laws governing the China-backed Colombo Port city, with a majority of 149 legislators – in the 225-member House – voting in its favour.
The development comes after the Supreme Court suggested certain amendments, following over a dozen petitions challenging the Bill that political opposition and civil society groups said “directly affected” Sri Lanka’s sovereignty.
The government accepted the amendments, pre-empting the requirement for a two-thirds majority or a referendum for passage of certain clauses, as per the Supreme Court’s determination.
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 the island nation. The mega infrastructure project is currently being built on land reclaimed alongside Colombo’s iconic sea front, while environmentalists and fisher folk opposed the move.
The Ranil Wickremesinghe –Maithripala Siripala administration too went ahead with the project, vowing to develop it as a financial hub. Following their return to power in November 2019, the Rajapaksa administration sought to expedite construction work as well as a legal framework for what promises to be a tax haven for foreign investors.
In a two-day debate in the legislature, culminating in Thursday’s vote, government MPs defended the Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill, pointing to potential foreign direct investments – upto $15 billion — and prospects for job creation.
Legislators from Opposition parties including the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB or United People’s Front) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) challenged its provisions that they said infringed upon the country’s sovereignty, gave the governing commission overarching powers, and immunity from Sri Lankan law, and threatened to create a “Chinese enclave”.
Some of the strongest attacks on the Bill, during the debate, came from Tamil MPs. Legislator and former Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran on Wednesday asked the government if its stated policy of striving for ‘One Country, One Law’ meant “Chinese law”.
Intervening in the debate, Tamil National People’s Front Leader Gajen Ponnambalam on Thursday said Sri Lanka, in the past, had got too close to the U.S. in the Cold War era, prompting India to back and train Tamil militant groups. The “China-centric” Rajapaksa administration was again challenging the geo-political order in the region, he said. Observing that the “Tamil nation” had paid a heavy price the last time Sri Lanka made such choices, he said he opposed the Bill for that reason.
Tamil National Alliance MP and senior lawyer M.A. Sumanthiran said the Supreme Court had made merely “cosmetic changes” to the Bill, while its fundamental character remained unchanged. Accusing the government of giving away part of its land to China, the Jaffna legislator 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.”