Though I did not hear the deafening sounds of relief, there surely must have been many from different quarters back in our Resplendent Isle. Concerns began to mount as Chinese nationals in seemingly camouflaged military-type fatigues were spotted digging up the ancient Tissa Wewa in Tissamaharama not too far from the Hambantota port. It was [...]


The Chinese are coming or are they


Though I did not hear the deafening sounds of relief, there surely must have been many from different quarters back in our Resplendent Isle. Concerns began to mount as Chinese nationals in seemingly camouflaged military-type fatigues were spotted digging up the ancient Tissa Wewa in Tissamaharama not too far from the Hambantota port.

It was bad enough when hundreds upon hundreds of Chinese began dredging the sea to build the new port over which they have now a 99-year lease.

But now from being all at sea they had come on to the land and were reported to be digging around in the wewa that could damage our ancient irrigation and ecosystems especially if it was the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) with men and machinery that were at work, as some people feared.

As news of supposed Chinese military boots on the ground spread, environmentalists and archaeologists raised a hoo-and-cry while there was not even a hoo from some of our zealous patriotic nationalists who seemed quite oblivious to what was going-on and that without even the relevant clearance from the proper authority. After all, the project had been approved by a senior minister and who would dare question such beings.

Thankfully the environmentalists, archaeological excavators and some with civic responsibility were alert enough to stop any further possible damage to areas where there had earlier been archaeological finds and the danger of other artefacts being washed away with the silt naturally worried those who have a professional interest in seeing they are excavated and preserved for posterity.

So when it was announced by that ‘Voice of Government’ Minister Keheliya Rambukwella that army and police investigations showed the Chinese had done no wrong, peoples’ fears were quickly dissipated, that is those who believed in the words of spokesman Rambukwella.

After all, here were our “all weather” friends doing us a good turn by clearing our old wewa free of charge, deploying their own nationals and machinery never mind what they wear to do so and never even mind that they gifted us with the Wuhan virus and sold us the Sinopharm or Sinovac or whatever antidote at five US dollars a dose more than they sold to Bangladesh and reportedly Nepal, according to foreign media.

As usually avaricious businessmen would say business is one thing, friendship another. And did not Chinese leader Xi Jinping tell Sri Lanka’s leaders that if they are short of pocket money just to ask him and he would send a few billion renminbi and we could pay it back whenever it is possible. At least this is a story that was circulating around Getembe close to the university at Peradeniya several months back according to passers-by who stopped at the Getembe Buddhist Temple to make offerings and offer flowers.

The only problem with this generous largesse is that President Xi is not immortal. Nor are leaders elsewhere. Who knows what will happen in 50 years or even less. What if some new Chinese leader elected by the Chinese Communist Party — Chinese style — sends a special envoy to whoever is ruling Sri Lanka with a polite reminder like a pay-in slip from a Chinese bank in the Colombo Port City, along with a brief note drawing attention to that pocket money send some time back?

Not everybody believes that the Chinese are only passing through, as it were. Not many will be aware that most of the Hong Kong people are descendants of Chinese, particularly from Shanghai, who fled the revolutions and upheavals in China and sought refuge in this territory.

But as many Hong Kong businessmen recalling the past told me during my 10 years there, they had not intended to stay. They were in what one might call ‘transit’ to much greener pastures in the west. But they found the conditions amenable for business and given the entrepreneurial skills of the Chinese they made Hong Kong home until there were more millionaires and billionaires per square foot in what was derisively called “that Rock” than anywhere else in the world.

For those not quite acquainted with the history of the Chinese community in Sri Lanka, there were two waves of Chinese who settled down there. The first was somewhere in the 1870s and the second during the 1930s and later the war years. Some of them opened restaurants like the Dragon Café, starting in a small way, or drapery stores, the few that survive today at Wellawatte and Maradana (which I hope are still there) go back many years.

With China having a hold on the Hambantota Port and a good part of the Colombo Port City, both on 99-year leases, one would be foolhardy to imagine that they would pack their bags and quit saying Fḕi cháng xiè xiè (thank you very much). Certainly not, if there are still more than 95 years or more of the lease remaining.

It is the strategic locations occupied by the port and the Port City that are causing rising concerns among nations using the maritime sea lanes and others closer home, worried over their security.

Minister Rambukwella was quoted in the media as saying that the Chinese dredger had broken no laws. He was not referring only to the controversial uniform that the Chinese workers were dressed in. He was also referring to existing laws that required the Chinese company to obtain the approval of the Archaeology Department because the wewa was close to ancient sites.

What is inexplicable is why the Chinese company wrote a letter dated June 28 to the Archaeology Department Office in Hambantota seeking approval for the dredging to continue if Minister Rambukwella’s contention that the company had not violated any laws is correct and to be taken seriously.

One media report said: “The ongoing project to remove silt in the Tissa Wewa tank by a private company manning Chinese employees wearing a controversial military style camouflage uniform was suspended pending permission from the Department of Archaeology. Hambantota District Assistant Director of Archaeology Wasantha Alahakoon had informed the Department of Irrigation on the instructions of the Director General of Archaeology Anura Manatunga to suspend the project undertaken by a Chinese company.”

This is proof enough that the foreign company concerned had contravened existing laws and procedure. It is confirmed by the fact that the Chinese company had written only at the tail end of last month to the Archaeology Department seeking permission. Surely sanction is sought from the head of the department or concerned authority before starting the project.

So Rambukwella who is Media Minister has been misled by whoever it is or failed to make certain he was armed with the facts before he faced the media. Unless of course he wants to claim that the Archaeology Department has overstepped its mandate.

Which is it Mr Minister?

(Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor of the Hong Kong Standard and worked for Gemini News Service in London. Later he was Deputy Chief-of-Mission in Bangkok and Deputy High Commissioner in London.)


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