At least 21 people were injured on Saturday in violent clashes between Sri Lankan government supporters and villagers marching against what they say is a plan to take over private land for an industrial zone, in which China will have a major stake.
Police used tear gas and water cannons to try to break up the clashes, which took place as Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was attending an opening ceremony for the industrial zone, located near the port city of Hambantota, about 240 km southeast of the capital Colombo.
The clashes began when government supporters started throwing rocks at villagers who were marching to the ceremony site. The protesters, organised by the opposition and led by Buddhist monks, responded by throwing rocks at the government supporters. A group that appeared to have been transported to the area by the government joined in attacking the protesters with poles.
Twenty-one people, including three police officers, were taken to a government hospital in Hambantota, a hospital official said.
Sri Lanka’s government has signed a framework agreement for a 99-year lease of the Hambantota port with a company, in which China will have 80 per cent ownership. Officials also plan to set up an industrial zone where Chinese companies will be invited to set up factories. The villagers and monks are opposed to it and demand that their residences and farmlands be spared. A court had issued a restraining order on the protest, saying it could lead to unrest, but the protesters defied it. Mr. Wickremesinghe inaugurated the industrial zone despite the clashes. Speaking at the ceremony, China’s Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Yi Xianliang, said that his country hopes to invest $5 billion in the region within the next five years, and that the new industries were expected to generate 100,000 jobs.
China invested over $1.2 billion in the port in what some analysts call its “string of pearls” strategy in countries surrounding its rival India. — AP