An invisible force behind H’tota port strike - - Minister Arjuna Ranatunga | Sunday Observer

An invisible force behind H’tota port strike - - Minister Arjuna Ranatunga

Arjuna Ranatunga  Pic: Lake House Media Library

Ports and Shipping Minister Arjuna Ranatunga says there was an invisible force at the bottom of the Hambantota Port workers’ strike. In an interview with the Sunday Observer, the Minister said, those who couldn’t look after these young men have promised that if they come to power again, the strikers will get permanent jobs at the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA).

These are mere political mumbo-jumbo. The Hambantota Port runs as a separate entity, we can’t afford to have SLPA people there. I agree with the previous regime when they built this port and formed the new private company and employed these people.

I believe they were thinking of a joint venture with a private party, and that’s why the workers were taken to the Magampura Port Management Company and not to the SLPA. But now, they are painting a different picture. They should not destroy the country as they did in the past nine years. If we are doing something wrong, let them show it.

Excerpts of the interview:

Q: There has been much confusion about the Hambantota Port workers’ strike. While you gave an ultimatum to the workers, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa has requested President Maithripala Sirisena not to sack the strikers as reported in the newspapers. Could you explain this ?

A: No one wanted to sack the port workers. The Former President took them to the Magampura Port Management Company. If they were so concerned, they could have employed them at the SLPA. They started the Magampura Port Management Company and youths were taken to it. When we had the joint venture discussion, the first thing I told the Chinese party was that not a single employee will go out. They were not keen about employing 500 people. I was keen on adding another 50 to the project and they agreed for the entire staff. We discussed about a higher salary for them, so that, the jobs were secure and then, we went on to the second clause. Unfortunately, these people used them for political purposes. Now they are trying to show a different picture. It is sad to see some of these political leaders behaving in this manner.

Q: There are conflicting views on the alleged attack on a media person by the Navy Chief. Has the media person or the Navy Chief or both, overstepped their limits? What is the Government’s action on the controversial issue?

A: We viewed some of the videos, but couldn’t see a single point where the Navy Chief assaulted the media person. On the other hand, there was a security line and the media person was on the wrong side of the line. When you are at the wrong place at the wrong time, you can get into trouble.

We could have complained to the Police because not a single media person was given permission to come to the Port. We didn’t do that. We wanted them to report the protest from outside, and it was a big risk they took by going inside the Port. If something happened to the ships, the entire blame would go to the Navy Commander and the Navy. It was more like a piracy and is so unfortunate that the Hambantota Port is called the number two level risk port. We have not been even close to risk level, but now, we have come to number two risk level, especially, due to holding the two ships hostage.

I am totally against attacking the media. But in the outstation areas, these media people try to get their story into the television by hook or by crook, so that they get paid. It is very unfortunate. Sometimes, they cross the line to get better pictures. The other issue is, how to identify a media person? They are not dressed like media personnel. Even a terrorist can say, “I am a media person, don’t touch me.” These are areas where the Government needs to have proper rules. We don’t have this issue in Colombo. The media people covering any event in Colombo know their limits. But these others are not permanent hands and they don’t know media ethics. I am not criticising them. I feel they should be trained and made aware of media ethics.

In my view the Navy Commander was absolutely right. Two strikers came on television and talked about the oil tanks, saying they could burst. They were telling a different story and talking about two foreign ships anchored in the port. It indicated that they can do anything they wished. Many politicians are trying to capitalise on the situation. It is unfortunate that when the Sunday Leader Editor, Lasantha Wickramathunga was assassinated and the Sirasa media institution and Rivira Editor Upali Tennakoon were attacked, not a single media association, individual or politician in the previous Government uttered even a single word, because they were so scared. I don’t think the Government should worry about this because all these are politically motivated acts.

Q: There is mass public opposition to the alienation of lands to Chinese companies in Hambantota. Are such protests politically motivated or is there any justification for them?

A: There are two areas. One is to establish Free Trade Zones in Hambantota to create jobs in the area. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was controlling the South for the last so many years. But what sort of employment did he generate in that area? Now the Chinese Government is requesting about 15,000 acres to develop industries. By this, not only the youth in Hambantota but those in the South and even in Moneragala areas will get job opportunities. It is something the Government is looking at. But, we have to be careful when we allocate lands, especially, because of the elephant issue. Whether we can give 15,000 acres is something we have to consider. It could be slightly low, may be about 10,000 acres. It is up to the Government to decide. We won’t be able to get the country into the next level without launching these activities.

As far as the port is concerned, I believe, we have to go for the third phase, in which we have to allocate some lands belonging to the public. We paid almost Rs.2 billion as compensation last year, after we assumed office. They had not been paid a cent until we came to power. I presented a Cabinet paper and got Rs.2 billion from the Treasury to pay these people. If we get lands from the public we will compensate them, either with land or money.

Q: The Hambantota Port should function without any obstacles. How would you ensure this in the larger interest of the country?

A: We gave ample time for the workers to think about and come back. I went personally and told them if one job is lost, I will not remain as Minister. I gave them that guarantee. This strike was politically motivated, on political agendas. I wanted to treat them as young men because I also have a 26 year old son. So I know their attitudes and the way they normally behave.

I am not blaming these young men because they were concerned about their jobs. Some of them are married and have children. As the Minister, it is my responsibility to protect the 480 employees. We didn’t agree to some of their proposals. We were concerned about how we can get more for the country and the people.

It was unfortunate that these political agendas came through and some who have been running the country for so long couldn’t do a single thing, and are now trying to tell us what we should do.

Q: The fact that the Hambantota Port remains rather non-operational could be the reason to hand it over to China for its development as an international port. Your comments?

A: I don’t blame the previous regime. I think Hambantota is the ideal location to build a port. It will be in the Silk Route. But the amount of money spent to develop the port is unbelievable. It was built by China Harbour Corporation, whose project proposal was US$ 750 million. When we discussed with them, they said the value is US$ 750 million. But our loan is almost US$ 1.4 billion. It means we have spent about US$ 650 million more and that money has gone somewhere. These are the areas I tell the Government to look into. It is not a small amount. If this Chinese private- government party didn’t come forward, it would be difficult for us to pay the loans and go ahead. About 60 percent of the profits we make in Colombo go to pay the Hambantota Port loan. If we can settle the loan, we can develop Colombo as another major port.

Q: Strikes, public agitations and worker unrest in a port are bad internationally. Do you suspect any invisible hand operating underneath?

A: Yes. Certainly, we can see it. The people who couldn’t look after these young men tell the country that if they come to power, they will get permanent jobs at the SLPA. These are mere political talk. Even I prefer to have them in the SLPA. But we can’t do that. Hambantota Port runs as a separate entity so we can’t afford to have SLPA people there. Who will pay their salaries? Sometimes, I agree with the previous regime when they built this port and formed this new private company and employed these people. I believe they must have been thinking of having a joint venture with a private party. But now they are trying to show something else. They should not destroy the country as they had been doing for the past nine years. If we are doing something wrong, let them show it to us. If any Government Minister is corrupt, let them tell us who they are. We will stand with them to ensure justice.

Q: What are your comments on the Joint Opposition’s complaint that the strikers were clubbed by the Navy while the Police could have been deployed to defuse the situation?

A: We had a discussion with the Police. The Navy had to protect the ships. That was our major concern. But we allowed the workers to protest. But when it came to the two ships, we were worried. I was afraid about the oil tanks. If something happened to the oil tanks, the entire Hambantota area would have fallen victim to it. When I visited the place some of the strikers were drunk, I could smell alcohol. They never had a problem of getting food, drinks or tea. They were protected by a certain group. One good thing is, the villagers in the area didn’t support them. They were trying to drag the villages into it but they didn’t respond, because they know what a struggle we had to endure to protect the port.