Sri Lankan ‘white elephant’ Chinese tower to open

COLOMBO – A huge green and purple communications tower in Sri Lanka financed with Chinese debt that has become a symbol of the ousted Rajapaksa clan’s closeness to Beijing will finally open this week, its operator said on Monday.

The 350m Lotus Tower – visible from all over Colombo and built for an estimated US$113 million (S$158 million) – has been plagued by corruption claims since construction began in 2012 under former president Mahinda Rajapaksa.

It is one of several “white elephant” projects built with Chinese loans under Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa, elder brother of Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa who was ousted from the presidency in July after months of protests over Sri Lanka’s dire economic crisis.

The state-owned Colombo Lotus Tower Management Company said they had decided to open its observation deck to visitors from Thursday and earn ticket sales to minimise losses.

“We can’t keep this closed. The maintenance costs are huge,” chief executive Prasad Samarasinghe told reporters. “We want to earn the upkeep of the building and turn this into an entertainment centre.”

The company hopes to rent out office and shop space, including a revolving restaurant just below the observation deck offering views of the congested capital as well as the Indian Ocean.

Broadcasters say the structure, which cannot cover the island nor improve current transmissions from a mountain in the centre of Sri Lanka, is of no use as a communications tower.

A local media outlet on Monday called it a “towering story of pride and waste”, a vanity project of Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa who wanted a copy of Beijing’s 405m Central Radio and TV tower.

During his decade in power from 2005 to 2015, Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa borrowed heavily from China for infrastructure projects which failed, including a deep-sea port handed to Beijing in 2017 on a 99-year lease.

Sri Lanka’s current economic crisis is partly blamed on Chinese debt which accounts for more than 10 per cent of Colombo’s US$51 billion in external borrowings.

Sri Lanka defaulted on its debt in April and earlier this month agreed to a conditional bailout of US$2.9 billion from the International Monetary Fund.

It depends on the Sri Lankan government striking a deal with creditors including China to restructure its borrowings.

Beijing has so far only offered additional loans instead of taking a cut on outstanding borrowings.

China has loaned billions for infrastructure projects in Asia, Africa and Europe under its gargantuan Belt and Road Initiative, which critics say is saddling nations with debt.

Citing Sri Lanka as evidence, the United States has accused China of “debt-trap diplomacy”. Beijing says such claims are completely false and has instead accused Washington of exacerbating the debt burden of developing countries. AFP