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Row over dredging of ancient irrigation tank Sri Lanka by military camouflage-clad Chinese men

News Agencies | Updated on: 3 July 2021, 9:27 IST
Representative Pic

A controversy erupted over the dredging of an ancient irrigation tank Tissa Wewa in Tissamaharama in Hambantota District in Sri Lanka after media reports showed Chinese men clad in military camouflage outfits at the site.

Hambantota, a maritime inland port project in Hambantota District has been an area of focus for critics who have accused China of using dept-trap diplomacy to boost its geopolitical influence around the world. Colombo had to hand over the running of the Hambantota port to China in 2017 after it was unable to repay the Chinese loans used to develop it.

The Chinese dredging company had not sought the archaeology department's permission as it was obligated to do prior to dredging leading the department to halt the work, reported EconomyNext.

Cabinet spokesman Minister Keheliya Rambukwella dismissed concerns of possible Chinese military presence in Sri Lanka, claiming on June 29 that the outfits worn by the Chinese workers were similar to overalls worn by Sri Lankan workers at local automobile workshops.

At the weekly cabinet press briefing on Tuesday, Minister Rambukwella further said that if the archaeology act has been violated, there are laws that Sri Lanka can resort to.

"We strongly reject that we were silent and cowardly about the incident," he told reporters.
The minister said a joint investigation by the army and the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) had concluded that there was nothing untoward in the outfits worn by the Chinese workers and that they were simply a uniform worn by personnel attached to the dredging company, reported EconomyNext.

"As far as we know it was not the Chinese military. The CID report says those uniforms were overall kits. I have seen people working in garages wear such overalls," he said.

Asked whether Sri Lankan civilians are allowed to wear camouflaged outfits, Rambukwella said, "If it is a registered security firm, there is a list [of regulations] on how the uniform should be. If there are any deviations from that list, approval has to be sought."

Meanwhile, the Sri Lanka archaeology department said that it won't take action against the Chinese dredging company, reported EconomyNext.

Archaeology Department Director-General Prof Anura Manatunga told EconomyNext on Wednesday (June 30) afternoon that the department does not wish to harass anybody by dragging them to court.

"We are not going to take action without seeing the case. Simply, we cannot go to the courts. It's also harassing people. We don't want to harass anybody nor do we want to work against development projects," he said.

As per Manatunga, the company has since obtained permission from the department, no action will be taken against it.

The archaeology chief said the department's southern office in Galle received a formal request letter from the company on June 28, after which a team of officials visited the site.

According to Prof Manatunga, any future course of action will be decided upon the submission of the report.

"But what we want to see is, we want all the development projects working according to the law and rule of the country (sic)," he added.

Hambantota's location at the southern tip of Sri Lanka makes it a potential key maritime hub in the Indian Ocean.


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First published: 3 July 2021, 9:25 IST