Sri Lankan president Maithripala Sirisena has dismissed his justice minister, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, for opposing a controversial deal for the lease of 70 percent of the port of Hambantota to China Merchants Port Holdings.
On Wednesday, Rajapakshe told Sri Lankan media that he was fired for two reasons – to suppress the investigation of a major scandal related to bonds, and to punish him for revealing what he described as the unconstitutionality of the Hambantota deal.
“The Cabinet has collectively violated the Constitution by agreeing to the Hambantota deal. When I revealed this as a minister, then I was accused of breaching the collective responsibility of the Cabinet. Today, the agreement is only a paper which is legally null and void,” he alleged in a statement to the press.
According to Sirisena’s party, Rajapakshe was given the chance to alter his stance. However, he refused to back down or resign, citing his belief that national assets should not be sold to foreign owners.
Cabinet spokesman Gayantha Karunatileka confirmed Rajapakshe’s dismissal. “The president sacked Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe on the grounds that he breached collective responsibility of the cabinet by criticising the Hambantota port lease agreement,” he told Reuters.
The port of Hambantota was built in 2008 with Chinese financing, and it has lost millions of dollars since it opened, creating what some analysts describe as a “debt trap” for Sri Lanka. The $1.1 billion deal for its transfer will allow the government to repay the cost of the port’s construction, and a Chinese state-owned enterprise will take over its management. In announcing the controversial lease, UNP finance minister Eran Wickramatne acknowledged that the port was an imprudent idea, but emphasized that Sri Lanka has to move forward by making use of the infrastructure it has. “We will move on with it,” he said.
For the Indian government, the prospect of a Chinese-controlled port in Sri Lanka raised fears of a Chinese naval base close to Indian shores. The Sri Lankan government retained control over security at Hambantota in order to allay these concerns. “No naval ship, including Chinese ones, can call at Hambantota without our permission,” said ports minister Mainda Samarasinghe.