Arjuna’s game-changer ends nine-day Hambantota port strike | Sunday Observer

Arjuna’s game-changer ends nine-day Hambantota port strike

Hambantota Port centre of controversy

Vice Admiral Ravindra Wijegunaratne was the most decorated officer to take up the position as the country’s Navy Commander.

He has been awarded the Weerodara Vibhushanaya the highest award for non-combat bravery and the gallantry medals Rana Wickrama Padakkama twice and Rana Sura Padakkama for individual acts of bravery in combat, the service medals Uttama Seva Padakkama and Sri Lanka Armed Services Long Service Medal.

He was, at one point, the youngest Navy officer to be promoted to the Rear Admiral rank in the Navy. When he became the Navy Commander last year, many believed he thoroughly deserved the position.

The Navy Commander, however, found himself in the middle of a major controversy last week, over an incident where he allegedly assaulted a journalist covering the workers’ protest at the Hambantota international port.

Culmination

The incident, however, was the culmination of a chain of events that took place over a few days. It all started when a group of employees at the port launched a protest campaign, bringing its operations to a standstill, and as the protest intensified, two merchant vessels were held hostage, plunging the government into a fresh debacle.

The protesters were demanding the government to reverse its decision to develop the Hambantota port through a Public Private Partnership (PPP) with a Chinese company. They claim they would lose their jobs if the government entered into such an agreement.

They added a clause to their protest, however: In the event of a continuation of the PPP agreement with a Chinese company, they demand they are absorbed into the permanent cadre of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA).

The protestors obstructed the operations of merchant vessels berthed alongside the jetty and the adjacent facilities, by using heavy machinery and gantry cranes to block the movement of ships.

The two ships directly prevented from moving were, NYK Line’s car carrier the Hyperion Highway and the general cargo ship MV Hoyanger: The Hyperion Highway, a Japanese-owned vehicle carrier with over 7,000 vehicles bound for the Middle East, was prevented from leaving for nearly four days.

There is no gainsaying the fact that holding a ship and its crew to ransom amounts to piracy - and aside from the financial loss incurred to the two ships the government has also had to pay damages: USD 400,000 is the demurrage charges for four days of non-operation.

It goes without saying that the situation necessitated immediate action to rescue the merchant ships and their crew, and it is against this backdrop that the Navy intervened to rescue the two vessels.

Issuing a statement after the incident, the Navy said, it had intervened in accordance with the (ISPS) Code, which ensures the security of all ports in Sri Lanka.

The ISPS Code holds the Navy as the competent authority relating to security at ports and harbours: The Code, which came into force in 2004, prescribes responsibilities to governments, shipping companies, shipboard personnel, and port/facility personnel to “detect security threats and take preventative measures against security incidents affecting ships or port facilities used in international trade.”

The ISPS Code was introduced after the 9/11 incidents in the United States, in response to perceived threats to ships and ports, across the world, and Sri Lanka had agreed to comply with it while Mangala Samaraweera was Ports and Aviation Minister.

The official website of the Sri Lanka Navy also states, the Navy is responsible for the implementation of the ISPS code in Sri Lanka:

“Owing to the terrorist activities where they have carried out attacks using suicide cadres against Naval units berthed at Trincomalee, Kankesanturai and Karainagar, and many attempts against merchant ships off Kankesanturai and in Colombo Harbour, it has become essential to protect these harbours round the clock. Sri Lanka Navy is the designated authority for implementing International Ships and Port Facility Security (ISPS) Code in Sri Lanka,” it said.

This shows the Navy did not go beyond its authority when it intervened to rescue the two merchant ships captured by the protestors at the Hambantota harbour.

FMM and IFJ

However, a fresh controversy arose when Navy Commander Ravindra Wijegunaratne was seen assaulting a provincial journalist covering the protest. The footage of the incident went viral over the last weekend, with many parties demanding action against the Navy Commander.

Among them are the Free Media Movement (FMM) and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) which have demanded that the government conduct an inquiry against the Navy Commander.

The FMM said, the Navy Commander had used derogatory language on the journalist and attacked him while surrounded with armed navy officials, even while the journalist identified himself as the media covering the protest.

‘This incident has to be taken very seriously…,’ the FMM said in a statement. ‘…It is regrettable to see such non-professional conduct from a Navy Commander (when) an ordinary person with basic knowledge would not engage (in such conduct),’ the statement read.

A group of journalists also held a protest in Colombo, on Thursday, to demand action against the Navy Commander. It was the first large scale protest by journalists in Colombo, after the new government came to power.

The government was quick to respond to the incident. Issuing a statement, Government Information Director General, Dr. Ranga Kalansooriya said, the government had initiated an inquiry into the alleged assault.

In the same statement, however, Kalansooriya went on to say that the journalist had violated basic ethics while covering sensitive conflict situations.

“It is highly expected that journalists adhere to the highest standards of ethical practices when covering these types of conflict situations,” he said.

This statement was greeted with mixed reactions by media and political circles.

Kalansooriya’s reference to the journalist’s conduct raised some concerns in the media fraternity: Many asked how it was that the government could claim the journalist had violated ethical practice, before the commencement of an inquiry.

The statement by the Government Information Department’s Director General made no comment on the conduct of the Navy Commander, who was caught on tape assaulting the journalist. This too earned the ire of some sections of the media fraternity.

If the journalist obstructed the Navy officers or attempted to break into the defence line, the Navy should have handed him over to the Police for further action. In this instance, it is clear that everyone has acted on the heat of the moment, without thinking of repercussions of their individual actions.

Dialogue

Against this backdrop, an organization named ‘the Young Journalists Association of Sri Lanka’ held an event at the auditorium of the Government Information Department, to discuss the government’s response and the Navy Commander’s act.

Kalansooriya, the official who issued the statement and Deputy Media Minister Karunarathne Paranwithana attended the event, representing the government.

The first government politician who expressed his views on the incident was Deputy Media Minister Paranawithana. The Deputy Minister condemned the assault on the journalist and said the government did not, at any point, approve of the Navy Commander’s action.

“We cannot accept the Navy Commander’s conduct and the language. The navy chief should have thought about the situation in the country and about the mandate given by the people to the government. All state officials should act according to that mandate” he said.

While making his position clear about the Navy Commander’s issue, the Deputy Media Minister said, there was a political factor behind the protest at the port.

“We should identify the political agendas behind taking union struggles to such extremes. There is an attempt to create a chaotic situation in the country. Even some of the media institutions are involved in this plan. Apart from commercial interests, media organizations also have political interests,” he added.

“The Navy intervention to rescue the ships was perfectly legal. The Navy even had the power to open fire at protesters, if they refused to leave the merchant ships. It is the task of the Navy to protect the ships and the port. But, we do not approve of the Navy Commander’s conduct and his language,” the Deputy Minister explained.

Addressing the same forum, Kalansooriya said his statement was misunderstood by the media fraternity.

“When I read the statement the next day, I realized that their misunderstanding was fair. We do not approve of the Navy Commander’s behaviour. But, there should be a broad dialogue on media ethics and the way journalists should act in such situations.” “There is a code of ethics for media, formulated by the Editors Guild of Sri Lanka. But, it largely covers the print media. There is no code of conduct for broadcast media at the moment. That, however, does not give them an open licence to do as they please. There are commonly accepted values. We cannot digress from them,” he said.

Despite the explanations by the Deputy Minister and the Director General, the Navy Commander came under severe criticism from the journalists and media freedom activists who attended the forum.

PM’s meeting

It was against this backdrop that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe met the Navy Commander on Thursday afternoon.

During his discussion with the Navy Commander, the Prime Minister said a permanent Navy camp would be set up in Hambantota, along with the future Chinese funded projects in the area.

He said, only a few ships came to Hambantota in the past and added that with further improvements in the pipeline, the port will become quite busy. The Prime Minister also thanked the Navy Commander and the Navy for taking prompt action to release the two ships held by the protesters.

Commenting on the workers’ issues, the Premier said, Hambantota Port in the future will be managed by a new company formed jointly by the China Merchant Company and the Ports Authority. He said, the China Merchant company has given an undertaking that all workers will be absorbed into the employment cadre under the existing conditions.

The Navy Commander also presented a detailed report on the Hambantota incident to the Prime Minister. “The Government received a bill of US$ 400,000 from a shipping firm for the delay they faced due to the ship seize,” the Prime Minister said.

“Who will ultimately pay the bill?” he asked, indicating that the public will have to pay the price for the port workers’ union action.

The incident has also allowed the government’s political opponents to cash in on the situation. UPFA MPs Namal Rajapaksa and Wimal Weerawansa said in Parliament, on Saturday, that the government had deployed the Navy to attack protesters at the Hambantota harbour. Interestingly, this was the same group that vociferously defended the Army’s attack on protesters in Rathupaswala demanding clean drinking water.

In a more surprising turn of events, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, addressing a political meeting at his office in Battaramulla, criticized the government’s move to deploy the military to control a civilian protest. This came from a man who is directly responsible for the deployment of army to disperse a civilian protest in Rathupaswala - an incident that added a black mark to the country’s political history. In the face of this crisis, Ports and Shipping Minister Arjuna Ranatunga took a firm stance. Speaking to reporters in Colombo earlier this week, Ports and Shipping Minister Ranatunga warned that major shipping lines may abandon the Hambantota Port if worker unrest continues.

“We are redirecting some of the ships coming to the Hambantota Port to Colombo. We are losing the rest. The damage by the protesters is severe,” the Minister said.

“We are yet to witness and assess the damage to the 13-storied building which is under their control. It has been reported that they have encroached on the premises, shut down the CCTV system and electricity,” he said, adding that some of these protesters were former members of the ‘Nil Balakaya’. “We are not sure whether they have damaged the computer system as well. The crane machines were damaged. Acts of vandalism of this nature cannot be accepted,” Ranatunga said, describing the protest as an act of sabotage”.

“We have let the law enforcement authorities to take things under their wings,” the Minister said.

Ranatunga also said, the protesters’ behaviour had shattered the confidence of Chinese investors who have shown willingness to develop the Hambantota port.

“How can I take responsibility of these workers? If the Chinese company asks us are these the kind of people you are going to recruit to the company, we would be speechless. These protesters were not in any way at a risk of losing their jobs due to the agreement signed between the government and the Chinese company,” Minister Ranatunga said, asserting that he was also against the privatization of the port. Later, he went on to lay an ultimatum to protesting workers, saying they should report to work before 2 pm, on Thursday.

“If they don’t report to work, they will be treated as having vacated their posts. In the event of the posts being vacated, his Ministry is prepared to recruit new employees to fill the vacancies,” he asserted.

We can recruit people from the Hambantota area if any vacancies come up. Until we recruit new employees, we shall temporarily transfer workers from the Colombo port to Hambantota to ensure the smooth running of the port,” he added, explaining the government’s position.

Ranatunga’s ultimatum was the game-changer. An hour before the ultimatum, the port workers called off their strike, agreeing to report to work as requested by the subject Minister. They reported to work before 2 pm on Thursday, ending the 9 day protest – the longest union action by port workers in recent history. Although the protesters called off the union action, the Police are now conducting investigations to nab those who damaged state properties and committed acts of sabotage, during the protest. 

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