Dogged by crisis after crisis, jinxed Hambantota harbour submerged in another unwanted turmoil Let’s face it. The Hambantota Port certainly seems to be jinxed. Ever since Mahinda Rajapaksa gave effect to his dream to raise Hambantota to its old glory days as the premier port city of Magampura, some brooding phantom, sleeping on its sea [...]


Did the Phantom of the Port scupper the Navy Chief’s Saturday brunch?


Dogged by crisis after crisis, jinxed Hambantota harbour submerged in another unwanted turmoil
Let’s face it. The Hambantota Port certainly seems to be jinxed.
Ever since Mahinda Rajapaksa gave effect to his dream to raise Hambantota to its old glory days as the premier port city of Magampura, some brooding phantom, sleeping on its sea bed, seems not amused to have been awoken from its centuries long restful slumber by the goings on above the water mark.

For over a thousand years, the port had remained anchored to neglect, it’s glorious past, where it was the main eastern port of call for vessels sailing the silk route from China, submerged in its tropical waters. This was mainly due to the decline and fall of the Sinhala kingdom which led to the abandonment of Ruhuna as one of the nation’s prime economic hubs. Here, it is said, high carbon steel produced by furnaces powered by monsoon winds was exported in the 1st century BC on ships passing through the Magampura port to Rome to manufacture the armour of Roman legions.

After over five hundred years of foreign domination, it took a further 54 years after independence from the alien yoke, for a free Lanka to put Hambantota on its map of importance again; and to realise the ocean of potential that buoyed unseen in its old port city. It came in 2002 when the then UNP Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe identified the Hambantota Harbour as one of the key areas for development when he unveiled his blueprint “Regaining Sri Lanka’.

But it took another six years for the project to germinate and sprout when former President Rajapaksa dredged the seabed with Chinese help. At a cost of 360 million US dollars for the first phase with an additional 76 million US dollars for bunkering facilities, work started in earnest in 2008 by the Chinese contractors. The Chinese government would fund 85 per cent while the balance 15 per cent would be borne by the Sri Lanka Ports Authority. And incredibly, it was completed five months before schedule in November 2010, propitiously in time to simultaneously celebrate at the auspicious hour of inauguration, the then President Rajapaksa’s 65th birthday on 18th November.

It had been hailed as one of the largest port in South Asia occupying an area of 4,000 acres and having a capacity to accommodate 33 vessels at a time. When completed, it was hailed to become the second largest port operated by the Sri Lanka Ports Authority in the country.

Then the first disaster struck. No ships.
Even as it is customary, when at the auspicious opening of any commercial establishment, the first transaction is done with an unrelated party to symbolically invoke further business and prosperity unto its threshold, the then Government faced the embarrassing situation that there were simply no takers to berth their vessels at any price, no matter the discount on the invite.

To save face, the then government had to order its own navy’s ship the “Jetliner” to wade through the deserted waters from Galle Port, 90 nautical miles away, and drop anchor and thereby ensure smiles all around, even though it did not make the cash tills ring with the joyous sound of money coming in to bolster the national kitty.

To make it a crowd, however, two other vessels joined the first. One was a sailing yacht called ‘Pradeepa 2’ and the other a cargo ship “Seruwila” which unloaded a cargo from Myanmar, probably bound for the Colombo Port and diverted for the ceremonial occasion. But then Rome wasn’t built in a day. What mattered most was that the resurrection of the old Magampura harbour had begun.

But in that darkest seabed tomb, did the phantom breathe to arise from doom?
For shortly after the formal inauguration was done and over with and the second stage of the ambitious operation commenced, the Chinese constructors hit upon the rock of Gibraltar, leagues under the sea, embedded at the entrance itself to the Hambantota port.

Oddly it had never figured in their geological surveys or marine explorations and it took them by surprise. So was the nation astonished that such a vast rock which acted as a massive barrier to the completion of stage two, which, if not removed, would negate the achievements of stage one and sink the whole port plan, was not foreseen by the experts well in advance.

It was inconceivable that it had not been detected before with all the modern technology available, including satellite imagery of ocean beds. But somehow they missed it, in spite of all the geophysical, geochemical, sedimentological and paleontological investigations of the ocean floor they would have conducted before embarking on such a billion dollar project, probably the same way they missed even a thermal image of the angry phantom of the deep.

With another delay and another 40 million dollars later to blast the infernal rock to kingdom come from its ocean grave, the second stage costing over 850 million US dollars, proceeded forthwith. But though the basics were in place to conduct the normal course of business of a seaport which is to harbour ships in its safe waters and have it load and unload cargo for some reason or the other the fleet of merchant vessels breezily sailed in the horizon giving the port the thumbs down, even though it was only 10 nautical miles away from the busiest east-west shipping routes.

The fall of the Rajapaksas in 2015 was akin to the fall of Ruhuna and the Hambantota hope which had raised its head during the regime’s halcyon days, returned to its sleep again. The Sirisena-Ranil opposition, having painted the Hambantota Port, in the run up to last January’s presidential election, as another white elephant which was draining the national coffers, chose, upon achieving victory, to condemn it further as Mahinda’s folly; and left the port to bob along orphaned and the workers, who had been recruited by the previous regime and not made permanent, to be left all at sea as to their future fate. The few ships that arrived were let to make their appearances and unload and load their transshipment cargo. No active effort was made to promote the harbour; and as far as the government was concerned, it was worse than a resuscitable white elephant. It was a dead duck.

But how so ever grievous the folly, the port was not something that could be easily ignored. Not when it was costing the government millions to service the debt incurred in the project. Already over a billion dollars had been incurred in developing it. The third stage of the expansion plans which is expected to be completed in 2023 will cost billions of rupees more. With port losses already over 18 billion rupees, the government could not allow it to simply drift but had to do something to turn it around.

What it chose to do was to sell the port to a Chinese firm and barter equity for debt, thus reducing the massive debt burden the government had inherited from the Rajapaksa regime. With this announcement that the port will receive a new lease of life, hope stirred again that more prosperous times would roll for the region and for the nation. But after a lull 23 months of inertia, with its sleep disturbed, did the phantom arise perturbed? And did it wreak mischief to make all who invade his territorial waters, go wonky and act strange?

Last week, on December 7, the normally sober workers at the port, driven by a strange still unidentified force decided to paralyse the movement of two foreign ships berthed in the harbour, namely, the ‘Hyperion Highway’ and the ‘MV Hoyanger’ along with the crew and to issue demands to the Government to stop the port from being sold to the Chinese firm. They took control of the Administrative building and also used cranes to block the pathway of the ships to prevent them leaving.

What they did not realise, in their profound ignorance, was that by their actions they were effectively involved in an act of piracy. What the Somali pirates do on high seas, they were effectively doing within the port. It was a situation no responsible government could ever tolerate or pussyfoot. The international repercussions were enormous. The Government had to meet its international obligations. Even as the UNP government in the 1980s had to introduce hijacking laws into the penal code with retrospective effect to convict Sepala Ekanayake for hijacking a plane in mid air for love, here was the case where port workers were effectively hijacking a ship in port for jobs. The motive was no mitigating factor. All that mattered was the action.

If there was any hope for the resurrection of the Hambantota port it was nearly doomed for insurance premiums for ships daring to venture into Hambantota would rocket sky high and the port would be turned into a ghost harbour. Perhaps the workers still do not realise the gravity of their offence for the Government would be obliged and under a duty under international laws of the seas to bring the hijackers to justice. But the workers remained intransigent and the Government under the International Ship and Port Facility Security had to order the Navy to free the two ships under siege.
Perhaps not content in sending the workers on their insane mission to hijack two ships and to hold it as bargaining chips to achieve their demands, the wrathful phantom seems to have then turned its mystic munitions on the naval force that came to save the day.

From its watery lair in some subterranean cavern, perhaps it sent encrypted Morse signals to summon the Navy commander himself from some other port of retreat to action stations; and probably made him scupper his peaceful Saturday brunch, unwantedly in doing so. Or how else can you explain the peculiar incident that followed, the moment the naval vessel arrived at the quay but that it was the devilish work of the port’s perverse phantom, up to its mischief, up to no good?

Perhaps they may say it was a classic example of a gallant naval commander bravely leading his marines from the front. But what transpired last Saturday afternoon, unfortunately, did not come out that way, that day. Thousands of readers may no doubt have seen the video footage on social media which showed the Commander of the Sri Lankan Navy, dressed in a pair of blue shorts and a bright blue T shirt, appears from his cabin on the naval vessel, shouts out a harangue of abuse at the striking workers, and then clambering onto land, storming directly to a media person and shaking him by the scruff of his neck, to persuade him to leave the vicinity.

Deputy Mass Media Minister Karunarathna Paranavithana said on Thursday, “We cannot approve of the conduct of and the language used by the Sri Lanka Navy Commander. The Navy chief should have thought about the situation in the country and about the mandate given by the people to this government and that all these officials are under the people’s mandate. We regret the harassment the journalist underwent at the hands of the Navy commander”.
Right from day one since the resurrection of the Hambantota harbour began, the phantom of the port has been at work to make all involved in its restoration come a cropper and leave with a black mark. Take for instance the victims, those who got their hands burnt:

MAHINDA RAJAPAKSA: who started the project and who renamed the port as the Magampura Mahinda Rajapaksa Port without any apologies for vanity, not only lost the elections but is accused of committing the massive folly of harbouring a white elephant and causing billions of rupees in losses to the nation as a result.

THE PRESENT GOVERNMENT: the innocent inheritors of the Rajapaksa regime’s folly, who will no doubt be accused by future generations for palming off the strategic port of Hambantota to the Chinese to escape the country’s debt repayment problems merely because it did not have the ingenuity to find some other means to overcome the crisis

THE STRIKING WORKERS: who were led to believe that hijacking a foreign vessel was the same as occupying a building and staging a peaceful protest; who may probably face serious criminal charges for seizing control of foreign vessels in the near future if their illegal actions are interpreted as such under the international law of the seas.

THE NAVY COMMANDER: who unnecessarily overstepped his line and went beyond the call of duty to act out of character and in a manner unbecoming of his position as not merely an officer and a gentleman but also as the Commander of the Sri Lankan Navy.

But all’s well that ends well. Thanks to the Prime Minister’s intervention the port workers have been assured that the Chinese company has agreed to absorb the lot into their new work force when the handover is complete. The strike has thus been called off and the workers will be back at work. The almost indelible blot on the Navy commander’s record and on the Navy’s own impeccable record seems to have been partially erased by the Prime Minister’s acceptance of the Navy’s internal report on its commander’s conduct last Saturday. The Chinese company now stands assured that the agreement to take over the port, signed on December 8th will now proceed on its chartered course without hitting a rock.

Finally the phantom of the port seems to have met its match. But as it retires hurt to lick its wounds of defeat, it’s best not to sink into complacency that all will be well at the Hambantota Port in the days to come. If the Chinese don’t bring their wizard along and cast his spell to flay the ogre of the deep, no doubt the troubled port will be haunted again and again with new spectres of the unknown. The phantom sleeps tonight. But its presence should give rise to restless nights to the rest.

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