Hambantota Port: Some Basic Facts from the Spot Today

Lakshman F. B. Gunasekara,** responding to a SET of QUESTIONS from Michael Roberts [in black …with His Answers in blue]

For my own edification I would appreciate your THOUGHTS on any – or all — of these specific areas …. Or alternatively if you can point me towards some authoritative article which clarify the issues in useful ways.

A = Which Ministry or department is in charge of the day-to-day operations of the Port and is there any Chinese participation in this admin/supervision?

The running of the port’s harbour marine-side operations is by SL Ports Authority, but all logistics (cargo loading/off-loading, ship crew servicing, ship servicing etc etc) is done on contract by a Chinese company which is a subsidiary of the giant, Hong Kong based China Merchants Group (which has similar and more complex operations all round the world). Port security is (in addition to Harbour Police) is maintained by a Navy troops unit while the Navy runs its own small naval base facility on one side of the harbour.

ALSO SEE http://www.adaderana.lk/news.php?nid=44680 … dated 9 December 2017 with Ranil Wickremasinghe in lead role

 B = What are the economic and other statistical details for (1) costs and (2) incomes and (3) ships that have downloaded goods and/or refueled at the port from say 2009-2017

Don’t have time to search for data, but the actual port is now doing what it is primarily supposed to do in its first phase:- i.e. receiving car carrier loads of Indian manufactured motor vehicles for quick transhipment out of India to various vehicle markets all over the world.  All motor vehicle transhipment, which was earlier done at Colombo, is now fully done in Hambantota. Refuelling facility just starting up and I don’t think any ships have docked for this yet. But the port services company is already operating feeder vessels that meet cargo/cruise vessels in mid-ocean (offshore) and providing fuelling, other re-supply (food, equipment) and also minor repairs and other technical services that do not need harbour docking.

The SLPA website has all the shipping statistics.

C = Are there any Chinese officials and/or labourers still attached to the site?

 I visited Hambantota a month ago and interviewed the Chinese CEO and Lankan Chief Ops Manager there. The Chinese CEO said that there were several senior technical officers who were from China living in nearby Corp provided housing. All the rest officers are Lankan – about 20. They also use about 300 other operations personnel who are all Lankan. Along with the Vocational Training Authority, the company runs subsidized technical training courses for locals to provide them with the skills for future employment in Hambantota port and also to be available to any other port venture elsewhere – clearly a CSR programme.                                                                                  

D = Were there any side-benefits arising from the Chinese involvement in the port building ………such as, say. the “sleaze trade” associated with Chinese or Thai or local masseurs/prostitutes?

I have visited Hambantota Port three times over four years so far, all for reporting purposes (for The Yomiuri Shimbun), and although we moved around and talked to all kinds of people, including those who are hostile to the Chinese operation (and also to the ecological damage incurred), but have yet to hear of anything about sex trade and other sleaze.

E = There have been accusations coming out of KENYA about Chinese racial prejudices etc ….. Any similar encounters of this sort in Hambantota or Colombo port?

Have heard not direct complaints about this – in Hambantota, there are some complaints that the Chinese there are aloof and not friendly. But no reports at all of outright elitism and racism.

** Lakshman F. B. Gunasekara is an experienced and senior journalist who has been associated with several news chains over the years and is Sri Lanka Correspondent: The Yomiuri Shimbun (Japan) / Columnist: Sunday Observer (SL), Sunday Morning (SL)  …. while serving (gratis) as an ëxternal contributor” to the new Sunday Morning;lk  run by Dulip Jayaweera and Varuni Amunugama.


I sent this Set of Questions  a few days ago to a number of academics and journalists in Sri Lanka. Lakshman Gunasekara has been the first to respond … and  has done so  so in concise and useful way.  THANKS. Lakshman. 

The issues here have, of course, to be linked to investigation of the allegations re the Chinese debt trap”. Such claims are one facet of the TWISTED NEWS and insidious dissimulation mounted by Western news agencies (such as the NY Times and the London Financial Times) servicing the US Department of State — whose primary target is Mahinda Rajapaksa.

When the Hambantota project was under fire long ago as one aspect of the anti-Rajapaksa campaigns Gerald Peiris (to my mind one of the island’s best economists as a geographer) indicated that the assessment had to be long-term because the shipping companies planned their schedules years ahead. This cautious note seems to be borne out by Lakshman’s data. 

I was also in favour of the project and the road links being pursued by the governments of that day because the port could serve as  a “growth pole” over the long-run and counterbalance the hegemonic domination of the island by the Colombo metropolitan area.  This hope has been shattered by the further consolidation of Colombo’s hegemony via the Colombo Port expansion (also Chinese in several ways). That stressed, I would underline two sets of economic activity under the period of Rajapaksa rule that deserve recognition: viz, (B) the road and bridge building along the eastern coast plus the Pooneryn bridge; and (C) the expansion and conversion of Oruvil as a trawler port. My thinking here is guided by the long-term impact of road, bridge and railway building in the Central provinces of the island during the British Raj –just read Ananda Wickremeratna’s chapter on the transport network in the UCHC History of Ceylon  edited by KM de Silva (1973).

To permit a visceral hatred of the Rajapaksas to guide the evaluation of  such issues and to be taken in by the fake-cum-twisted stories in the world press is to fail one’s duty as a Sri Lankan. Nor should my question about the “sleaze trade” be deciphered as a moral evaluation on my part. I see the sleaze trade of prostitutes and masseurs as one line of economic activity. Let Hambantota bloom like Colombo, Bentota and Negombo.

****  ****


Roberts, Michael 2009a “The Rajapaksa Regime: Brickbats, Plaudits,” 17 December 2009, http://groundviews.org/2009/12/17/the-rajapakse-regime-brickbats-plaudits/

Roberts, Michael 2009b The Rajapaksa Regime and the Fourth Estate,” 9 December 2009, http://www.groundviews.org/2009/12/08/the-rajapakse-regime-and-the-fourth-estate/

Tudor Wijenayake:  “Hambantota and Colombo South: A tale of two ports”, 10 August 2015, http://www.ft.lk/article/455721/Hambantota-and-Colombo-South–A-tale-of-two-ports

Samarajiva:Sri Lanka can Cut losses and benefit from Chinese Investment in Hambantota,”  29 December 2016https://economynext.com/Sri_Lanka_can_cut_losses_and_benefit_from_Chinese_investment_in_Hambantota__Samarajiva-3-6955-6.html


Maria Abi-Habib: “How China got Sri Lanka to cough up a Port,”25 June 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/25/world/asia/china-sri-lanka-port.html

Bloomberg:    ‘China’s US$1 billion port in Sri Lanka where ships don’t want to stop,” 18 April 2018,  https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/south-asia/inside-chinas-us1-billion-p”ort-in-sri-lanka-where-ships-dont-want-to-stop

ADDITIONAL NOTES on Hambantota from Lakshman Gunasekera, 15 December 2018

  • By the way the SL business community is quite appreciative of the development of Hambantota as a port and has always been, from what business leaders, including shipping industry leaders have told me. However, they agree that the whole project could have been done quite differently without getting into debt in this manner and also they all say that Trinco, with its far greater potential should have not just be re-developed but that TRINCO SHOULD HAVE CONTINUED WITH ITS DEVELOPMENT AFTER THE BRITS LEFT AND LEAVING IT UNDEVELOPED ALL THESE DECADES HAS BEEN A CRIMINAL WASTE. I have commented about Trinco’s criminal neglect many times in Sunday Observer editorials and in my Observations columns.
  • Bloomberg is probably either lying or incorrect or slanting some bit information when it reports that ships refused to come to Hambantota.


1 = A Comment from Lakshman Gunasekara, 13 Dec 2018: “If had time I would have added more about the World Bank and IMF and donor country debt traps where, even if the loans are low interest, the borrowing country is compelled to buy all project goods from donor country and even give the contracts to the same.”

2 = A Comment from an Australian Researcher, 13 Dec 2018: This is very good Michael.  I go along with all of this…. I am getting tired of Western power interests meddling in countries like SL playing out a propaganda war against China.”


Nishan de Mel: “Lanka’s External Debt: 2010 and 2016 in Comparison …. There  is No Chinese Gonibilla Monster, 29 January 2018,   https://thuppahis.com/2018/01/29/lankas-external-debt-2010-and-2016-in-comparison-there-is-no-chinese-gonibilla-monster/

Michael Roberts: “Hambantota Port: Dirty Economic from the New York Times,” 28 June 2018, https://thuppahis.com/2018/06/28/hambantota-port-dirty-ecoomics-from-the-new-york-times/


Filed under accountability, american imperialism, centre-periphery relations, China and Chinese influences, commoditification, doctoring evidence, economic processes, export issues, governance, growth pole, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, island economy, landscape wondrous, legal issues, modernity & modernization, politIcal discourse, power politics, Rajapaksa regime, self-reflexivity, slanted reportage, sri lankan society, the imaginary and the real, transport and communications, truth as casualty of war, welfare & philanthophy, world events & processes

11 responses to “Hambantota Port: Some Basic Facts from the Spot Today

  1. Lakshman Gunasekara

    (1) one correction to your post:- I am NOT attached to The Morning newspaper but am an external contributor, writing a weekly column ‘Horizons’ on Sunday. I am not aware of the details of the ownership of the newspaper since I only coordinate with the editorial management.
    (2) COMMENTS:
    (a) I tend to reject this caim of a Chinese ‘debt trap’ primarily because that term implies that it is the Chinese government that ‘entraps’ the recipient country. In the Sri Lankan case that is not at all the case. Rather, it is the local political decision-makers who (presumably because of bribery or political gain) who rush into deals with Chinese companies and banks that then renders the country heavily indebted. NO BLAME should be attributed to China. In this harsh, cynical world of realpolitik geo-politics, China has every right to take advantage of local leadership opportunism and criminality to further its own interests. The Western colonial and neo-colonial powers set that precedent long ago. In fact, China has a good, relatively civilised, record to expanding geo politically WITHOUT the help of invasions, gunboat diplomacy and spy engineered coups.
    (b) I consider the Hambantota articificial harbour to be somewhat of a tragic over reach for a poor state like SL when we already have a huge natural harbour in Trincomalee awaiting exploitation of its vast multidimensional potential at a far more efficient investment ratio (given that the various anchorages are almost entirely natural and need little dredging). Hambantota should have followed Trincomalee and its far quicker returns.
    (c) relatively speaking the Southern Expressway is a collossal over-expenditure because the first expressway should have been where the urgent demand is – Colombo to Kandy and northwards.
    (d) the Hambantota international airport is an outright, criminal waste and so is the “international” conference centre, which is patently macabre. Those responsible should at least lose their civic rights for this waste of public funds.All this is disgustingly uncivilised, decadence.

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