Almost 30 years of civil war, which ended in May 2009 with the defeat of Tamil Tiger rebels, have put Sri Lanka to the test. The costly war and the risk of terrorism delayed its development for years.
For Rajapaksa, the new port facility “is a great symbol of our moving away from the days when we said we are unable to develop for lack of funds, to a time when we can show how the country can be developed through our own strength”.
“From this port will emerge our true economic independence,” he added, noting that the new port should “lead to the emergence of tens of thousands of employment opportunities.”
Hambantota is one four ports Rajapaksa wants to build or revitalise to make Sri Lanka a rich trade hub, given the island’s central position in the Indian Ocean, not far from the coast of India.
The new port facility comes with a US$ 1.5 billion price tag, and will start operating in November. It is expected to handle 2,500 ships a year.
The overall project will be finished in four phases. Once it is completed, it will be able to handle 33 ships at a time, making it the largest port in South Asia. The second phase should cost US$ 600 million and be built by 2014. It will include a container terminal.
Sri Lanka already handles around 6,000 ships annually in its one port in Colombo on the western coast, which requires ships plying the East-West shipping lane to divert course.
The new port is right in the middle of that lane and will have 14 tanks with a total capacity of 80,000 million tonnes. Eight tanks will be used for bunkering whilst six will hold aviation fuel and LPG.
A 15-floor administrative complex is also under construction as part of the project.
President Rajapaksa thanked the Chinese government for providing a US$ 425 million loan. The money is part of a US$ 6 billion drive to rebuild the island nation's infrastructure.
This loan is part of Beijing’s investment drive in developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. In exchange for capital, these countries sell raw materials to China or provide Beijing with strategic locations. This is the case of Sri Lanka, given its position in the Indian Ocean.
For Sri Lanka, this has led to strong pressures from India, which fears that China is building a network of ports across the Indian Ocean as far as the Arabian Peninsula.
In his address, Sri Lanka’s president said that the new port will be followed by the construction of the second international airport at nearby Mathhala, completed in the near future with the development of airports in Palali and Ratmalana.
Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne, former Ports and Aviation Minister Chamal Rajapaksa and Sri Lanka Ports Authority Chairman Priyath Bandu Wickrema also attended the opening ceremony.