Sri Lanka President Maithripala Sirisena has announced to spend the 2 billion yuan “gifted” by China recently to launch a countrywide housing programme.
Chinese President Xi Jinping had on July 21 offered a grant of Rs 48 billion (US$295 million) to Sri Lanka to be utilised for a project of their choice.
Sirisena made the announcement at a ceremony to mark the start of construction of a Chinese-funded kidney hospital in his home constituency of Polonnaruwa, 230 km from the capital Colombo.
The President said Chinese ambassador Cheng Xueyuan to Sri Lanka had made the offer to him around a month ago, the Island reported. China wanted a proposal within a week, and Sirisena decided to utilise the entire grant to build houses in all administrative districts.
Sirisena said the proposal would be handed over to China and that Rs 1 million would be spent on each house.
The latest Chinese grant has come in the wake of allegations that China funded former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s 2015 re-election. Sri Lanka Parliament had last week debated the accusations pertaining to the Chinese funding made to the tune of US$7.6 million to back Rajapaksa.
China has had a long relationship with Sri Lanka, an island off the southern tip of India, it was one of the first countries to come forward to rebuild Sri Lanka after a 26-year civil war that ended in 2009.
The civil war in Sri Lanka raged intermittently between 1983 and 2009 – fuelled in part by tensions between ethnic majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils. The fight against the government was led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a militant organisation founded by V Prabhakaran that sought to create an independent Tamil state in the north and east of Sri Lanka. The government forces seized the last area controlled by Tamil Tiger rebels.
In recent years, Sri Lanka has been an active partner in China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and the latter has been trying to expand its influence in the island nation to checkmate its economic rival India.
Ironically, Soon after Sirisena’s election in 2015, Sri Lanka had suspended a US$1.5-billion Chinese luxury real estate project and other Chinese-backed infrastructure projects started under Rajapaksa over suspected corruption.
The project had also raised security concerns in neighbouring India, which has uneasy relations with China, because it appears to be part of a larger plan by Beijing to expand its presence and influence in the Indian Ocean region.
However, a year later, perhaps buckling under debt, the Sirisena government has allowed Chinese projects to resume after introducing a few changes. China’s ambitious use of loans to gain influence around the world is well-known.
Sri Lanka and China have been thick friends since – so much so the Chinese national anthem was played out before the Sri Lankan anthem at a function.
“Many an eyebrow has been raised over a government decision to play the Sri Lankan national anthem after that of China, at a state festival, attended by President Maithripala Sirisena, on Saturday (July 21),” the Island reported.
In December last year, Sri Lanka handed over the control of the southern sea port of Hambantota to China on a 99-year lease for US$1.12 billion. Opposition leaders said the deal as a sell out to China, even as India articulated fears of China using the port for military purposes.
The island nation – Ceylon as it was called then – was ruled by the Portuguese, the Dutch and then finally by the British for nearly 150 years till the country gained independence in 1948. It got its current name – Sri Lanka – in 1972.