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Sri Lanka struggles to build foreign reserves

Dollar shortage poses 'crisis' moment as government plans sales of state assets

A solitary cargo carrier docks at the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka. (Photo: Marwaan Macan-Markar)

HAMBANTOTA, Sri Lanka -- A South Korean ship unloads its cargo of cars at a terminal in Hambantota port, providing the only sign of life at Sri Lanka's newest harbor, sited on its southern coast. The rest of this $1.4 billion port, built with a loan from the Export-Import Bank of China, sits idle. In some areas, weeds are spreading. Visitors to the port's administrative offices must tiptoe around feral dogs stretched out in front of an empty entrance hall.

Emptiness has dogged the port since it opened in 2012. Five years later, only a handful of car carriers drop anchor each week. The ruling coalition government, led by President Maithirpala Sirisena, says the port is a "white elephant" left by the previous regime, led by the autocratic former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Mounting operating losses, estimated at $235 million, deepen the impression that the Magampura Mahinda Rajapaksa Port, as the facility is officially known, was a Rajapaksa vanity project.

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