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Sri Lankans file over a dozen cases against China-backed Colombo Port City

A Chinese railway coach is unloaded at the Colombo Port in 2019 (Photo: Gayan Sameera/Xinhua/IANS)

Sri Lankan opposition parties along with numerous civil society groups have filed several petitions before the Supreme Court against a controversial legislation related to the Chinese-backed Sri Lankan Port City.

The legislation—Colombo Port City Economic Commission—relates to the China-backed $1.4 billion Port City in Colombo and is a legal framework for setting up a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) within the Colombo Port City.

The Supreme Court has appointed a five-member bench to hear petitions next week.

The legislation, which has come under severe criticism from organisations ranging from holy bodies to lawyers' establishments and political parties to IT organisations, proposes setting up a Commission to exclusively provide services related to registrations, licenses, authorizations, and other approvals for business and other activities in the SEZ.

The slew of petitions filed before the Sri Lankan apex court converge on one point–the legislation violates the country's sovereignty, the constitution and labour rights. Some of the petitioners say that the powers conferred on the Port City Commission will impinge on the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the country.

The Colombo Page news website says that the petitioners have requested the Supreme Court that the bill be cleared by a two-thirds majority of the parliament and by a referendum if it has to become a law.

The notable opponents to the legislation include opposition parties, United National Party (UNP) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP); trade union, Inter Company Employees Union and, civil society organisations – Center for Policy Alternatives, Bar Association of Sri Lanka and the IT Professionals Association.

Among the religious personalities opposing the developments is Muruttettuwe Ananda Thero from Colombo’s Abayaramaya Temple. At a press conference on Thursday, Thero told media persons: "We will not allow Sri Lanka to become a Chinese Colony." He added that the clergy does not oppose the Colombo Port City or investments, but this project is posing a threat to Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and will become a Chinese colony.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa's government had tabled the legislation before the parliament last week. The project, which is a favourite with the current administration, is being built in Colombo to convert the Sri Lankan capital into a magnet for foreign investment. The project also aims at making Sri Lanka a maritime hub.

The China Harbor Engineering Company (CHEC) which had built the Hambantota Port in south Sri Lanka, is to build the Colombo Port City as well. China, which is managing the Hambantota Port on a long-term lease, had sparked global fears that the Indian Ocean island nation has fallen into the famed Chinese infrastructure and debt-trap diplomacy.

The Gotabaya brothers, both of whom are pressing for increased Chinese investments in their country, are facing a united challenge from across the social spectrum.