Hundreds of supporters of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Friday protested outside the Indian Consulate in the southern town of Hambantota, against the government’s move to privatise a nearby airport, police said.
The police clashed with the protesters who pelted with stones, and fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse the crowd of nearly 1,500 people. Twenty six protesters were arrested and four policemen were injured, according to a spokesman. The protest comes months after Sri Lanka decided to study a proposal from India to “operate, manage, maintain and develop” the country’s second international airport in Mattala near Hambantota, where China holds a majority stake in a strategic port it earlier built.
Protesters, including villagers and Buddhist monks, handed over a memorandum at the Indian Consulate, which underscored locals’ concern over the government’s move to “lease out national assets to foreign entities”, sources told The Hindu .
Commenting on Friday’s protest, Namal Rajapaksa, opposition parliamentarian from Hambantota and son of the former President, said the protests were not targeted at India. “The locals just wanted to record their protest against the Sri Lankan government’s decision to privatise national assets,” he told The Hindu .
Both the port and airport were built during Mr. Rajapaksa’s term, with huge Chinese loans. Deeming them a commercial failure, his successor government revised the deal with China, selling it a majority stake in the port to service the $8-billion debt Colombo owes Beijing. India has offered to invest $205 million in the airport, while Sri Lanka would pitch in the balance $88 million, according to a cabinet paper. No final decision has been taken on the agreement.
“The public anger is not against any other country. It is a struggle against our own government,” Namal Rajapaksa said.
In a similar agitation in Hambantota in January, protesters marched against the government’s reported move to take over private land for an industrial zone in Hambantota, in which China will have a major stake. At least 21 people were injured when they clashed with Sri Lankan government supporters there.