The Sunday Leader

The Hambantota Port Declared Open

By Dinouk Colombage in Hambantota – Photos by Lalith Perera

President Rajapaksa personally overseeing operations, ‘Jetliner’ making history as the first ship to enter the port, Cargo ship ‘Seruwila’ docks in front of cheering crowds, Hambantota port returning to an earlier time and The first piece of cargo unloaded, signalling the port open

After weeks of speculation and hype surrounding the Hambantota Port, on November 18, the ‘Magampura Ruhuna Mahinda Rajapaksa Port’ was opened by President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The port has been described by those involved in the celebrations as ‘a gift to the people of Sri Lanka on the President’s birthday’.

An elaborate ceremony was organised to mark this historic occasion. The event was attended by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Speaker of Parliament Chamal Rajapaksa, members of parliament and foreign dignitaries including the Representative of the People’s Republic of China and the Ambassador of China. A notable absentee at the event was, Minister of Economic Development and brother of President Rajapaksa, Basil Rajapaksa. Along with the VIPs, a crowd in excess of a thousand filled the pavilion and lined the harbour in anticipation of the first boat entering the port. The excitement was made apparent through the noise the crowds were making on arrival; many of them hastily made their way to their seats in anticipation of the event.
Prior to commencement of the celebrations, VIPs mingled with members of the media providing interviews. The Sunday Leader spoke exclusively to Namal Rajapaksa, Hambantota MP and son of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. When questioned on what the opening of this port meant to him as a representative of the people of Hambantota, he responded that “it was a dream come true, after years of hard work the results are being shown.” He further added that Hambantota “has the potential to be a global city, the opening of the port today is just a starting point.” He continued by explaining that “the harbour was a testament to the people of Sri Lanka and what they are capable of.”
As the auspicious time of 10.32 am approached, the masters of ceremony announced the arrival of the President. Over the speakers, pirith was broadcast signalling the start of proceedings. The crowd’s attention was drawn to the screens as the President, along with First Lady Shiranthi Rajapaksa, unveiled the plaque commemorating the event. The crowd’s noise levels increased as it was announced that the first boat would shortly cross the ‘golden gates’ signalling the port open to the trading routes.
The media surged forward crowding the pier in hope of capturing the moment, whilst the crowd pushed against the barricades. Blue balloons appeared amongst the people illustrating their support for the ruling party. ‘Jetliner’, the naval vessel slowly approached the gates lined with priests chanting further pirith evoking blessing on to the harbour. Along the side of the vessel were the words ‘Visit Sri Lanka 2011’, portraying the intention that Hambantota will open Sri Lanka up to the world.
With the attention of the media and the audience on the docking of the vessel, they had failed to notice that a dance was underway celebrating the occasion. Choreographed by Channa Wijewardena, the performance was a mix of ballet and traditional dance depicting stages of Sri Lankan history. The costumes were elaborate, yet the performers were ungainly on stage failing to recapture the attention of the audience.
The conclusion of the performance saw Speaker of Parliament and former Minister of Ports and Aviation, Chamal Rajapaksa invited to present the first speech of the day. Drawing attention to the fact that it was Mahinda Rajapaksa’s birthday, Chamal spoke of the port being the gift from his younger brother to the people of Sri Lanka. He further explained that this was the project which would take Sri Lanka forward in development. Following Chamal Rajapaksa’s address, Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne was invited to the stage. In a speech similar to those witnessed during a political rally, Jayaratne urged the people to use the opportunity presented to them to continue to strive forward. The crowd, of whom the majority had lost interest in proceedings, applauded at intervals.
The attention was drawn back to the pier as the auspicious time of 11.51am approached. It was at this time that the first pieces of cargo would be unloaded, the parts of a Buddha statue addressed to the Sri Dalada Maligawa in Kandy. During the unloading process, a large explosion was heard from the distant construction site. Credit goes to the presidential security who ignored the blast and allowed the proceedings to continue. With the unloading complete, the Hambantota port was declared officially in operation.
The crowd was treated to a song depicting a conversation between three different generations. The involvement of a little boy in this performance brought the crowd back to life as many of them rose out of the seats in an attempt to see him. As the song neared its conclusion, the crowd began to wander away from the pavilion many choosing to hover near the docked boats. The Representative of the People’s Republic of China gave a speech after the performance to what was now a disinterested crowd. The representative drew attention to the fact that this project had been made possible through the cooperation between the people of Sri Lanka and China. He highlighted China’s desire to continue nurturing the bonds between the two nations.
Mahinda Rajapaksa was finally invited to give the concluding speech, what was earlier a crowd lacking interest now became an alert audience. As Mahinda Rajapaksa approached the stage, he was greeted with cheers and the crowd held aloft posters thanking him. Those in the front rows held up blue flags and posters paying tribute to the President. Similar to D.M. Jayaratne’s speech, the crowd applauded at intervals yet continued to maintain a sense of restraint. President Rajapaksa explained that Sri Lanka was now looking to compete on five different levels; air, naval, power, trade and IT. He said that the Hambantota port project was his way of delivering on the promises made five years ago of bringing peace to the country and then development.
With the conclusion of the proceedings, the crowd began to disperse many of them returning to the buses that had brought them to the event. Along the Galle Road, leading up to the new stadium, many of these buses had stopped to have the lunch which had been provided.

What The Locals Say…

By Dinouk Colombage

With several projects such as the Magampura Ruhuna Mahinda Rajapaksa Port and the Mattala International Airport ongoing in Hambantota, it is expected that development will flow into the region. The Sunday Leader took to the streets of Hambantota in an attempt to gain insight into the feelings of the local populace on the current projects.
Upon entering Hambantota, the key feature which grabs the attention of its visitors is the long, flat road. An indication of the improvements in the infrastructure that is being undertaken in the region. As we continued to drive in, it was apparent that much of Hambantota was still a relatively rural town. The sides of the road were flanked by forest with intermittent intervals of paddy fields. The town itself possessed the look of a region left untouched by the expanding urban areas.
The Sunday Leader questioned the locals on how they felt about the development taking place in the region. Asoka Ranasinghe, a local shop owner, explained that he had run his shop for 20 years after inheriting it from his father. “In this time I have dealt with many issues such as the tsunami and economic hardship. In recent years the current projects going on are helping us through this tough period.” He explained that his business had suffered in the past and his eldest son had been out of work for almost a year. “The commencement of the construction of the port provided him with much sought after work.” Ranasinghe explained that his situation was no different to many other families in the region. He stated that with the job opportunities that have arisen from these projects, there has been a positive effect on local businesses such as his own.
Ruwan Siriwardane, a local rest house owner, explained that on a purely economical sense the development projects are beneficial for both himself and the rest of the community. “With the increase in activity in Hambantota, we have found a rise in domestic tourism. The foreigners don’t come but the locals do,” he said, when asked about whether he had noticed any changes within the region due to the construction. He further added however, “with the development we fear that the peace and quiet of Hambantota will be disturbed. None of us want to see Hambantota become a commercialised town like Galle.”
Official figures state that prior to 2007 over 60% of the population in Hambantota lived below the poverty line. Following the start of construction of the projects, the figure has dropped below 37%.
The people of Hambantota clearly have embraced the recent development projects ongoing in the region. They have however, made it known that they do not want their way of life disturbed or altered. Chamith Liyanage, a restaurant owner, stated that as long as the projects continued, business will be good. However, he expressed his fear that “with development comes uncontrolled expansion.” The residents appear determined to continue their way of life.

1 Comment for “The Hambantota Port Declared Open”

  1. mel

    Singapore will do everthing possible (Lee Kuan Yew) to deter the success of Hambantota – read recent articles by Mr. Yew. More has to be done to bring in the talent but If Hambantota fails then everyone in Lanka will feel the impact.

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