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Corruption must be stopped in Sri Lanka for progress

Investigative journalists know that every administration has its deal-makers. And one of the mysteries of the Yahapalana govt is the #Hambantota Silver Park project. 

March 6, 2019: Cabinet approved Malik Samarawickrama’s memo to lease out 400 acres in Hambantota for a petroleum refinery as a joint venture between Silver Park International (Pvt) Ltd, Singapore, and the Ministry of Oil & Gas of Sultanate of Oman. 

It was said Accord and Omani Ministry signed the US$ 3.8bn deal to build a 200,000 barrel-per-day refinery in 44 months. Even Chinese investment into Port City stopped at US$ 1.4bn while China Merchants Port Holdings spent US$ 1.12bn to lease and manage the Hambantota port. 

The details were sketchy. And, on March 20, Oman’s Oil Ministry DENIED being part of the $3.85 billion plan, even after Sri Lanka announced its involvement. 

On March 21, Sri Lanka’s BOI admitted there was NO agreement with Oman’s Ministry of Oil and Gas. “However, we’re aware that Oman Oil Company has registered their firm intention to participate in equity up to 30%, subject to reaching agreement between the parties”. 

March 22: Meera Srinivasan broke the story that stakes in the deal’s Singapore-based company were held by a family member of former Union Minister of State, the DMK’s S Jagathrakshakan. 

The Indian address of the couple was 1, 1st Main Road, Kasturibai Nagar, Adyar, Chennai 600020, Tamil Nadu. This is where the Bharath Institute of Higher Education and Research, started by Mr Jagathrakshan, is located. 

Samarawickrama told Cabinet it’s our largest FDI to date. Even before Oman had agreed, he claimed: “The investment is from a Singapore registered company and the Ministry of Oil and Gas of the Sultanate of Oman is one of the equity participants with 30% equity.”

Cabinet papers pointed to 2 other prospective investors, including a Chinese party that had dropped out. The other, from Sugih Energy International, “is being pursued and will initiate upon allocation of initial plots of land, most probably in March 2019”.

So now there were TWO projects: Silver Park and Sugih International. Samarawickrama told Cabinet a joint memorandum seeking approval for incentives for both will be submitted in due course. 

March 25: Omani Oil and Gas Minister arrives for ground-breaking ceremony of the Hambantota refinery. Mohammed Hamal Al Rumhy also met Ranil Wickremesinghe, then PM. But a spox said it was a “courtesy call” and that the Minister had shown “general interest in Sri Lanka”. 

The spox also confirmed to @timesonline that the Omani Government had not invested any funds, nor agreed to invest any money so far on the project, but was awaiting the feasibility report to take a decision.

The project’s “main promoter” was interviewed saying discussions with the“$7bn assets-rich Accord Group Chief Jagathrakshakan “had begun as far back as October 2015”. 

Mohammed Riyas said had it not been for the delay in releasing the land, “the multiple benefits accruing exports-oriented project would have been commissioned by now”. 

On November 14, 2019—two days before the Presidential Election when it was prohibited to enter into such contracts—the BOI signed an agreement with Sugih International for a US$ 24bn oil refinery and petrochemical complex in Hambantota. 

The total investment of both: US$ 27.8bn. But there were no feasibility studies, no partners, no environmental impact assessments, no basis for the massive figures cited, no Omanis, just preliminary proposals and, in the case of Sugih, an “agreement”. 

Nothing came through.  When @timesonline filed a request in early 2020 under the Right to Information Act to determine the status of the project, the BOI issued a blanket refusal saying there was ongoing Criminal Investigation Department inquiry into the Silver Park project.

Mohammed Riyas, the promoter, told us that he has “no comment” on the project. Danny Lee, the Sugih International Director who signed the second agreement, was contacted via personal email (he appears to have changed workplaces) and did not reply.

Namini Wijedasa 

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