Clashes between protesters and government supporters have erupted in southern Sri Lanka during a rally against a port deal with China.
The clashes took place as Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was attending an opening ceremony for an industrial zone near the port city of Hambantota, about 240km southeast of the capital, Colombo.
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Government supporters armed with clubs first attacked protesters organised by the opposition and led by Buddhist monks in Amabalantota, 22km from Hambantota. The protesters responded by throwing rocks.
It was not clear how many people were injured, but several people were seen being taken away in ambulances.
The villagers marched against what they say is a plan to take over private land for the industrial zone in which China will have a major stake. Lawmaker DV Chanaka, one of the protest organizers, said he fears the port area will become a “Chinese colony.”
“We are against leasing the lands where people live and do their farming, while there are identified lands for an industrial zone,” said Chanaka, the district politician. “When you give away such a vast area of land, you can’t stop the area becoming a Chinese colony.”
Buddhist clergy will follow an ancient tradition and issue a decree, asking the government to stop the leasing, said Magama Mahanama, from the Monks’ Organisation to Protect National Assets.
Historically, kings in predominantly Buddhist Sri Lanka are said to have abided by decrees issued by Buddhist monks.
“Ninety-nine years means at least two generations. When they [the Chinese] take root here, what’s the guarantee that we will have it back? There is a major threat of cultural erosion and demographic change,” Mahanama said.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, speaking to reporters earlier this week, said the partnership arrangement was necessary to free the country from the debt incurred to build the port. He blamed the debt on former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose government was friendly to Beijing.