The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna’s woes with the nomination lists continued in the second round as well though at a lesser level than during the first round. The biggest blow to the fledgling political party during the second round was the rejection of the SLPP list for the Tirappane Pradesheeya Sabha in the Anuradhapura district which many in that party consider a sure win. In addition to Tirappane, the SLPP nomination lists for the Jaffna Municipal Council, the Valikamam North, Valikamam East, and Delft Pradeshiya Sabhas were rejected in the second round. In comparison to the lists rejected in the first round, the rejection of some lists in Jaffna where national political parties cannot hope to win, may seem to be a minor setback. However, at the last presidential election, Mahinda Rajapaksa did get a substantial number of votes in the Jaffna peninsula and there was the expectation that the Podujana Peramuna would have been able to get a certain number of representatives elected in the north.
For example, Mahinda Rajapaksa got 5,959 votes in Kayts, 7,791 in Vaddukkoddai, 5,705 in Kankesanturai, 7,225 in Manipay, 6,211 in Kopay, 3,937 in Udupiddy, 4,213 in Point Pedero, 5,599 in Chavakachcheri, 5,405 in Nallur, 4,502 in Jaffna, 13,300 in Kilinochchi and 4,607 postal votes in the Jaffna District at the last presidential elections. Overall, Mahinda Rajapaksa got no less than 74,454 votes in the Jaffna District which works out to nearly 22% of the total votes cast. This was not a bad performance at all given the fact that the 2015 presidential election was the lowest point ever reached by the Rajapaksa government in the north after the war ended. Even if due allowance is made for the fact that this included the votes of the various allies of the time such as Douglas Devenanda’s EPDP, still there is the possibility that the Podujana Peramuna contesting on its own may have been able to get some representatives elected to the Jaffna peninsula local government authorities.
At the 2011 local government elections, there were many local government authorities where the UNP got only one representative elected and dozens more outside the north and east where the UNP had only two representatives. In fact at that 2011 election, the UNP had only two representatives in the Akuressa Pradeshiya Sabha in a situation where the UPFA had two representatives in the Velvettititurei Urban Council – Prabhakaran’s birthplace. Hence if the Podujana Peramuna had been able to win just one seat each in the various local authorities in the Jaffna peninsula, that would have been quite sufficient to maintain a presence and make a statement. This is why the rejection of the nominations list in the Jaffna MC and the Valikamam North, Valikamam East, and Delft Pradeshiya Sabhas are also a significant loss to the Podujana Peramuna.
Presidential Commission to probe
Shangri La land deal?
The yahapalana government has been adept at shooting themselves in the foot and they took another major step in that direction by discussing in cabinet that a special presidential commission be appointed to investigate the alienation of the land on which the newly opened Shangri La hotel now stands. This land originally belonged to the Army Headquarters. The Shangri La hotel is the only worthwhile foreign investment that came into this country during the period of the yahapalana government. They are now trying to initiate an investigation into the alienation of land for this hotel project – the allegation being that the 10 acre land on which it stands was sold for USD 125 million around 2010. Owing to the relocation of Army headquarters which the sale of this land necessitated, the government further claims that Rs. 5 billion a year has to be spent on rent to house the installations of the Army that had to be shifted out and that this was an unnecessary burden on the Treasury. The President had also claimed that the shifting out of several units and offices out of the Army headquarters had resulted in a national security threat.
There is some speculation as to what would have caused this latest initiative against the Rajapaksas coming as it does after the opening of the Shangri La hotel in Colombo. Some think this may have been motivated by the alleged difference in the treatment meted out to President Sirisena and the leaders of this government on the one hand and the Rajapaksas on the other by the operators of the new hotel. It is said that at the opening ceremony, the President and the leaders of this government had less lavish treatment than the Rajapaksas when liquor flowed like water – or so we are told. Speculation is also rife that since all other means to corner Gota on the so called MiG deal and the Medamulana memorial having failed, the government has fixated on the alienation of land to the Shangri La project as a means of fixing him, and this time they have decided to do it through a presidential commission rather than using the courts.
There is also the view that this talk of a presidential commission into the Shangri La land is only to mollify the UNP because the report of the bond commission is to be released in the next few days before the end of the year and Sirisena was trying to soften the blow for the UNP by talking of a similar presidential commission to investigate the Shangri La land transaction. Whatever the true reason for this talk of investigating the Shangri La land deal, it could not come at a worse moment when all eyes are on the newest luxury hotel to open in Colombo. Every present and potential investor in this country will now be watching what happens very carefully. This is a country that shot itself in the foot very badly in this regard the moment they came into power by halting all Chinese funded projects including the Port City which was inaugurated by the President of China himself. The sight of an elected government in a country treating China, the main investor in the world, in that manner would have caused consternation among existing and potential investors in this country.
Unsurprisingly, after this government promising good governance came into power, the foreign direct investment coming into this country declined precipitously from USD 1,528 million in 2014 to USD 970 million in 2015 and still further to USD 801 in 2016 and this was expected to fall further in 2017. That was hardly surprising when investors in this country are treated like thieves that have come to burgle one’s house. Now just after a showpiece investment brought in by the previous government has just commenced operations in Colombo, the government is at it again. Just as they had to go on their bended knees to China after their earlier misadventure, the government is most probably going to end up with egg on their faces if they appoint a presidential commission to look into the Shangri La land transaction. Even if an investigation is carried out into a transaction under the radar to ascertain what happened, none should make a song and dance of making an investigation when a prominent foreign investor is involved. This government especially should be mindful of the spectacle it makes.
But a spectacle is what this government seems to need. They seem to be angling for something like the bond commission, with hearings and the press reporting the proceedings on a day to day basis. You will have Gota and the other Rajapaksas coming to give evidence as well the owners and executives of Shangri La Hotels. The message that will go out to all potential foreign investors will be – never invest in Sri Lanka unless you are willing to face years of litigation and investigations. After having driven off potential investors with such a show, the government may not have much to show for their pains. This was a transaction that took place with all the necessary cabinet approvals with the valuation of the land being done by the Government Valuer as has been publicly stated by the present State Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena. As for the shifting of the forces headquarters to Akuregoda in Battaramulla, this was a plan that had been in the works from the time of President J.R.Jayewardene. The plan then was to shift all administrative buildings to the Kotte area and the Akuregoda site had been earmarked for the Army headquarters more than three decades ago.
Implementation of JRJ’s plan
It had in fact the J.R.Jayewardene government that had begun making commercial use of the prime land on which the Army headquarters was located on Galle Face. The land on which the Taj Samudra hotel now stands also used to belong to the Army. It had been sold to the Hotel Taj Samudra in the early 1980s. Thereafter the war intervened and the plan to shift the Army headquarters to Akuregoda was on hold for more than three decades. With the end of the war, these decades old plans were revived by the Rajapaksa government. The money from the sale of ten acres of Army headquarters land to the Shangri La hotel was to be used to build not just a new headquarters for the Army but for the navy and airforce and the entire defence establishment. While the land for the defence force headquarters had been allocated by the J.R.Jayewardene government, the first building designs had been carried out by the Chandrika Kumaratunga government.
However no buildings were put up on the even under the CBK government site due to the lack of money and the escalation of the war. The defence force headquarters at Akuregoda is not really a Rajapaksa project but like all other projects begun and completed under the Rajapaksas such as the Hambantota port, the Mattala airport, the Norochcholai power plant, the Upper Kotmale project etc this too was a project that had been on the drawing boards for decades under various governments. The way the Rajapaksa government saw to it that this project got off the ground was not by taking any loans to build it, but by selling a part of Army HQ land to Shangri La Hotels and putting the money into a defence ministry bank account so that no money would be needed from the Treasury in the form of annual allocations to build the Akuregoda complex.
Had this plan been implemented, by now all the armed services would be housed at the Akuregoda complex and no rent would need to be paid to house the various Army units and offices that had been moved out of the old headquarters complex. However what happened was that as soon as this government came into power, they raised a mighty hue and cry saying that the proceeds of the sale of the Shangri La land had been deposited in a ‘private account’ by Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and was being misused. It was not that this government did not know the difference between an account maintained by Gotabhaya Rajapaksa in his own name and an account maintained by the Defence Secretary in his official capacity through the Defence Ministry – they just wanted to use any pretext available to hurl allegations at the previous government. Within days of the new government taking office, on January 18, 2015, the newly appointed Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake claimed at a press conference that a sum of Rs. 7,500 million had been ‘found’ in the bank account under the name of the former Defence Secretary and that the money has now been transferred to the Treasury.
This was money lying in an account in the Taprobane Branch of the Bank of Ceylon. Gota had to counter this allegation stating that this was an Operational Account held with the Bank of Ceylon Taprobane Branch dedicated for the use of financing the construction of Army Headquarters building at Pelawatta. He pointed out that the account was created with the approval of the Cabinet with the money realized from the sale of the Galle Face land where the Army Headquarters was previously located. He explained that after the relocation and construction work was started, withdrawals were to be made from it based on the progress of the construction work undertaken by various contractors and suppliers and that the account is operated by the Chief Accountant and other authorized officials of the Ministry of Defence under the overall supervision of the Secretary of Defence.
All cheques had been issued with two signatures upon the receipts of certified payment vouchers. The account had been originally opened with about Rs. 20 billion in 2011 and withdrawals have been made each year thereafter for the payment of certified claims from contractors. The names and signatures of authorized persons are available with the Bank and Chief Accountant of the ministry and the annual deposit balance is reported on the Government balance sheet. After the change of government, the new defence secretary became the automatic custodian of that account. This matter was promptly laid to rest after the Secretary of Defence newly appointed by the yahapalana government B.M.U.D. Basnayake, confirmed that the account held with the Bank of Ceylon’s Taprobane Branch, containing nearly Rs 8 billion, is not under the name of his predecessor and that it belongs to the Ministry of Defence.
For doing so, Basnayake was removed from his post and has not been given any noteworthy posting thereafter. As for the decision to sell off the Army headquarters land to a hotel project, Gota was later to explain to a Viyath Maga audience that he was faced with the dilemma of having to shift the headquarters of the war winning army which had occupied those premises for six decades and which had been the nerve centre of the war for 30 years. Yet he had gone ahead because this planned shift had been on the drawing boards for decades and there was also the need to promote foreign investment. Shangri La is one of the biggest foreign investments ever to come into Sri Lanka under any government. In addition to the two hotels already functioning in Hambantota and Colombo they have other developments in the pipeline in Colombo and the eastern province as well. In recognition of this fact the present government too has allocated an additional three and a half acres of land from the same location to the Shangri La project.
Even though leaders of this government went in their numbers to the opening ceremony of Shangri La Colombo and even allocated additional land for the project, according to Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, President Maithripala Sirisena had even spoken in cabinet about a threat to national security with various units of the army being located in 15 different places while the Akuregoda complex was being built. Addressing a press briefing at the SLFP headquarters last week Samarasinghe said that at the last Cabinet meeting, President Maithripala Sirisena, in his capacity as the Defence Minister, had warned that housing army personnel at separate locations was a threat to national security and had enquired as to why the army was temporarily relocated in such an ad hoc manner. Samarasinghe said that several Cabinet Ministers at this point had urged President Sirisena to appoint a Presidential Commission of Inquiry to investigate the matter. The President had neither accepted nor rejected the proposal.
It will be interesting to examine whether there was any real security risk by temporarily housing various units and offices of the army in various locations. In the first place, that temporary relocation was carried out by the government that put an end to terrorism. If any government had a good understanding of the security environment in this country, it was the previous one. In any event, even when the war was on, the army always had detachments and camps in areas they wanted to dominate. Very often these detachments and camps were located deep in enemy territory. The duty of the army is to provide protection to others, and not necessarily to seek protection for itself. After the war ended and the terrorist military machine was completely wiped out, there was no real risk of an army installation being attacked anywhere in the country – even in the former war zone and to say that there was a security risk in army units and offices being located in various places in Colombo, is nonsense.
Another question to be considered is whether retaining the army headquarters at Galle Face would provide more security to the army headquarters than the Akuregoda complex. Commonsense would indicate that it does not. Sri Lanka is an island and any enemy approaching the country would do so either by air or by sea. In the case of an enemy that approaches by sea, the Sri Lanka army headquarters at Galle Face would be completely dependent on the navy for protection because it faces the sea across the Galle Face green. In 1987, during the tumultuous events surrounding the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord, an Indian warship was anchored off the cost of Colombo to come to the aid of the government. This was largely due to fears of an army coup against the then government in protest against the accord with India. Had any operation been necessary, the Indian warship would have been able to pulverize the entire army headquarters without setting foot on shore. In that respect, one could argue that the Akuregoda complex being located as it is between the air fields of Katunayake and Ratmalana, is a much more secure location.