Hong Kong-based Shangri-La Asia invited war-winning Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa for dinner on the night of Nov 17, the day after the opening of its Colombo hotel by President Maithripala Sirisena.
Shangri-La Chairperson, Kuok Hui Kwong, the daughter of Robert Kuok Khoon Ean, was there to welcome Rajapaksa, who had cleared the way for the post-war mega tourism investment project.
Sri Lanka brought the war to a successful conclusion in May 2009.
The ground breaking ceremony for the Shangri-La project was held on the morning of Feb 24, 2012 with the participation of then Minister Basil Rajapaksa. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa wasn’t present. The then UNP Mayor of Colombo A.J.M. Muzammil, currently Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in Malaysia, was among those who had been present. In spite of hostility between the UNP and the Rajapaksas, key UNPer Muzammil threw his weight behind the project. In fact, Muzammil worked closely with Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to transform Colombo.
Having identified the invaluable land, where the Army Headquarters and Defence Ministry were situated at, for its project, Shangri-La made its move. Those who had been aware of Shangri-La’s plans were hesitant and certainly not confident of their success. They felt fearful of Defence Secretary Rajapaksa’s reaction.
But, following swift negotiations, the agreement was signed on Dec 28, 2010. Lt. Gen. Jagath Jayasuriya was the then Commander of the Army with his predecessor General Fonseka in government custody after having been arrested within two weeks after the conclusion of the 2010 January 26 presidential poll. The writer always felt that the decision to arrest Fonseka was nothing but a monumental blunder of the previous administration.
Ironically, the opening of Shangri-La took place amidst speculation that the government is planning to take Gotabhaya Rajapaksa into custody.
Shangri-La had no option but to invite members of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration and some key members of the previous government, separately, due to animosity between the former and the present rulers. What a shame. Among those who had been invited, on the night of Nov 17, were former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, former External Affairs Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris, former Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga, President’s Counsel Gamini Marapana, Attorney-at-Law Sampath Mendis, MP Namal Rajapaksa, MP Lohan Ratwatte, MP C.B. Ratnayake, MP Pavitra Wanniarachchi and some personal friends. In fact, the Shangri-La dinner coincided with Mahinda Rajapaksa’s birthday.
GR exploits JRJ’s blueprint
Addressing the annual Viyathmaga Convention at Golden Rose Hotel, Boralesgamuwa, on March 4, 2017, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, perhaps for the first time publicly discussed his role in the Shangri-La project. Declaring that Sri Lanka suffered for want of what he called a workable formula to achieve post-war development objectives, the war veteran compared the period, in the aftermath of the successful conclusion of the war, in May 2009, with that under the current yahapalana administration.
Rajapaksa stressed the pivotal importance of swift and bold decision taking.
The former Defence Secretary said that the former government had acted swiftly, and decisively, to attract foreign investment though some such efforts were seemed not feasible. There couldn’t be a better example than the government finalizing on agreement with Shangri-La Hotels, the former Gajaba Regiment veteran said.
Declaring that red tape shouldn’t in anyway be allowed to undermine investments, Rajapaksa recalled Chairman/CEO of Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts, Robert Kuok Khoon Ean, wanting the Army Headquarters land for his Colombo project. In fact, the hotels chain at the time had proposed to build hotels in Colombo, Hambantota and Batticaloa, and was one of the key investors wanting to exploit Sri Lanka’s success in defeating terrorism.
“Khoon-Ean’s request for army headquarters land caused a serious problem for me. It was a serious challenge. How could I shift the headquarters of the war-winning army? The army had been there for six decades. It had been the nerve centre of war for 30 years,” said Rajapaksa.
Rajapaksa went on to explain how he exploited a decision taken by the first executive president JR Jayewardene to shift the Army Headquarters, to Battaramulla, many years back. “Within two weeks, in consultation with the Secretary to the Finance Ministry, Dr P. B. Jayasundera, and the Board of Investment, measures were taken to finalize the transaction. The project was launched to shift the Army, Navy and Air Force headquarters to Akuregoda, Pelawatte, in accordance with JRJ’s plan.”
The Hong Kong-based group announced the purchase of 10 acres of state land, in January 2011. Shangri-La Asia Limited announced plans to invest over USD 400 mn on the 30-storeyed star class hotel with 661 rooms.
The hotel is the second property in Sri Lanka for the leading Asian hospitality group, joining Shangri-La’s Hambantota Resort & Spa, which opened in June 2016.
Rajapaksa said that the top Shangri-La executive had referred to the finalization of their Colombo agreement to highlight the business friendly way the then administration handled the investment. Shangri-La had no qualms about recommending Sri Lanka as a place for investment, Rajapaksa said.
Rajapaksa lamented that the previous government hadn’t been able to properly inform the public of its post-war achievements and it had suffered the January 2015 presidential polls defeat. The previous administration’s failure, Rajapaksa asserted, had helped those all out to oust it. That declaration was made in the presence of former President Rajapaksa and former minister Basil Rajapaksa among others at Golden Rose Hotel, Battaramulla.
The former Defence Secretary mentioned the Avant Garde Maritime Services (AGMS) another private enterprise that exploited the international demand for security services in the face of pirates’ threat. The AGMS had brought in foreign exchange and created employment opportunities though the project went awry after the change of government, in January 2015. The law could be exploited, used here to the advantage of those in power, the former Defence Secretary said.
The writer explained the move to shift Army Headquarters and the Defence Ministry from Colombo in a lead story headlined ‘Shangri-La to push MoD, Army Hq out of Colombo city: Army Hospital expected to be converted into a museum’ (The Island, January 4, 2011). The report certainly surprised many, including some members of parliament, who hadn’t been informed about the Shangri-La investment. Although they appreciated the substantial investment, many found it difficult to comprehend the war-winning Army having to vacate its headquarters.
Having gradually vacated the land, over the years, the Army now retain only a small portion of what was previously its headquarters land. Serving Army Chief Lt. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake is going to be the last Commander to be there. Lt. Gen. Senanayake remains at the Commander’s Secretariat while work is underway at Akuregoda, where the three services headquarters as well as the Defence Ministry would be located.
Interestingly, the launch of ground work, at Akuregoda, coincided with the finalization of the agreement with Shangri-La, in Dec 2010. The Army is yet to complete the vacation of the land sold to the hotel complex.
LTTE targets SLA HQ
Two LTTE female suicide cadres mounted an attack on the Army Headquarters, on the morning of Nov 24, 1995, killing 16 persons. The dead included civilians. The second, far more serious attack, was mounted on the afternoon of April 25, 2006, in the high security area, within the complex. Had the LTTE woman suicide cadre succeeded in eliminating the then Army Chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, Sri Lanka wouldn’t have been able to bring the war to a successful conclusion. In spite of having had suffered serious injuries, Lt. Gen. Fonseka, returned to command the Army, in late July, 2006, much to the relief of those who had cherished the armed forces triumph over terrorism. Fonseka could have quit the Army but he decided to take the challenge.
Sinha Regiment veteran, Fonseka, Sri Lanka’s most successful Army Chief, and now Field Marshal and Regional Development Minister, wasn’t among those invited by Shangri-La.
Moving Army out of Colombo was unthinkable during the war, or even after. The then Defence Secretary Rajapaksa’s decision shocked the Rajapaksa government but no one dared to question. His decision was final.
In the run-up to Eelam War IV, newly appointed Defence Secretary recommended Fonseka as the Commander of the Army though many resented the proposal but none dared to oppose it. In the wake of its abortive bid to assassinate Fonseka, the LTTE made an attempt on Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s life, on Dec 1, 2006, as Prabhakaran stepped up pressure on the government.
Fonseka, in his testimony in the White Flag case, recalled how Gotabhaya Rajapaksa rushed to the Colombo National hospital, within five minutes, after he gained consciousness seven days after the suicide attack and assured government scholarships for Fonseka’s daughters to study in the US. Anoma Fonseka and daughters had been present at the time the Defence Secretary had visited him.
Colombo was under siege and Shangri-La wouldn’t have dared even to contemplate investing in Colombo. But, within three years, the armed forces brought the LTTE to its knees to pave the way for major foreign investments to come in.
In his address to the annual Convention of Viyathmaga, in March this year, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa explained the pivotal importance of rapid decision making process (Shangri-La investment a case in point, with strap line, Doing away with ‘red tape’ for the greater good – The Island, March 5, 2017).
Post-rainbow revolution developments
In the wake of the January 2015 change of government, the new leadership caused chaos with the suspension of the China-funded Port City Project, a little distance away from the Shangri-La project. Many an eyebrow was raised when the then Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake declared, in mid March, 2015, that funds wouldn’t be made available to Akuregoda Defense Complex project until the exact cost estimation of the project could be clarified.
Lakna Paranamana, of Daily Mirror, quoted Karunanayake as having said that as a responsible government they couldn’t simply release tax payers’ money unless it’s certain that they were put to good use. “Presently, this project seems like a bottomless pit and we need to know the depth of what we are getting into. From the current state of finances, allocated for this project, it seems as if they are building a complex that’s even bigger than the Pentagon!”
The declaration was made in the wake of the 2015 Feb. treasury bond scam that shook the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration. In fact, the yahapalana administration never recovered from the treasury bond scam and now is pathetically struggling to overcome the growing crisis.
In mid June 2016, cabinet spokesperson, Dr. Rajitha Senaratne announced the suspension of the Akuregoda project. Citing financial irregularities and mismanagement of funds, Dr. Senaratne alleged that all cabinet papers on the project, had been prepared according to the whims and fancies of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.
The suspension order was made public a few months after the second far bigger treasury bond scam, in 2016 March.
Obviously, a section of the government couldn’t stomach mega projects undertaken by the former Defence Secretary.
Today, thanks to the Presidential Commission of Inquiry, the world knows how issuance of treasury bonds had been manipulated, on two occasions, for the benefit of Perpetual Treasuries and some of those Central Bank of Sri Lanka employees, who connived in the scam.
In spite of despicable attempts to sabotage national projects, finally saner counsel prevailed. Hence the decision to go ahead with Akuregoda project. President Maithripala Sirisena on Sept 5, 2017, inspected the Akuregoda Defence Complex, as well as the Lotus Tower, under construction.
Wartime military spokesman the then Maj. Gen Udaya Nanayakkara received appointment as the Akuregoda project director in Aug 2011. Nanayakkara held that post till Sept. 2015 Maj. Gen. Mahinda Ambanpola succeeded Nanayakkara.
Within weeks after President Rajapaksa’s defeat, the new administration made its move against the Akuregoda project.
The following is The Island front page story, dated January 19, 2015: “Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake, in the third week of January, said that Rs 13.2 billion, in an account maintained at the Taprobane branch of the Bank of Ceylon, had been transferred to Consolidated Account of the Treasury. The matter was being investigated as the account belonged to the Ministry of Defence, he added.
The Finance Minister stressed that the MoD had no right to maintain such an account in violation of regulations and therefore the opening of the account was being investigated. The Minister alleged that several illegal transactions, including one involving Samurdhi, had come to light. He estimated the Samurdhi transaction (now under investigation) at Rs. 4 billion.
Responding to the allegation, former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said that the funds received from the Shangri-la transaction had been deposited there and the funds utilised for the construction of Akuregoda Defence Complex.
The former Defence Secretary said that the chief accountant of the Defence Ministry could explain the matter. Insisting that the particular account hadn’t been in his name, Rajapaksa said that a detailed response would be issued shortly (Ravi K orders Rs 13.2 b in MoD account transferred to Treasury, with strap line, Funds were meant for Defence Complex – Gotabhaya).
The writer obtained the above statements from Karunanayake and Rajapaksa in the wake of the former’s statement that the Akuregoda Defence Complex was even bigger than Pentagon.
Yahapalana role in Shangri-La expansion
In spite of strongly objecting to almost all projects launched by the previous government, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration pledged their commitment to them. Yahapalana support extended to Shangri-La is a case in point. Having secured 10 acres, from the previous Rajapaksa administration, Shangri-La purchased an additional three and a half acres, also on a 99-year lease, recently.
However, The Sunday Times recent reportage of the second Shangri-La land deal prompted President Maithripala Sirisena to direct cabinet spokesman, Dayasiri Jayasekera, to clarify the transaction. In other words, President Sirisena contradicted Development Strategies and International Trade Minister Malik Samarawickrema for alleging that the President gave three and a half acres, situated between the newly opened Shangri-La Hotel and Beira Lake.
Jayasekera explained the circumstances under which Shangri-La, through its Singapore based subsidiary Perennial Real Estate Holdings, acquired three and a half acres adjoining its latest hotel, situated on 10 acres, abutting the Galle Face promenade, in Colombo.
On the day before the opening of Shangri-La by President Sirisena and PM Wickremesinghe, Jayasekera explained how the government had re-negotiated with the Shangri-La Group what he called a much better deal than the one struck by the previous administration.
Jayasekera confirmed that the lease was for a period of 99 years.
The government leased three and a half acres of land at a rate of Rs. 13.1 mn per perch whereas the previous administration agreed to Rs 6.5 mn per perch.
According to Jayasekera the previous government had leased 10 acres at a rate of Rs 9.5 mn (with taxes) per perch.
Shangri-La opening on Nov. 16, 2017, and an assassination on Nov. 16, 1992
The LTTE assassinated then Navy Commander Vice Admiral Clancy Fernando, right opposite Taj Samudra, on the Galle Road, a little distance away from where Shangri-La is situated, on Nov 16, 1992. President Sirisena and PM Wickremesinghe opened Shangri-La on Nov 16, 2017. A suicide bomber, on a motorcycle, detonated explosives beside a car carrying VA Fernando, the only service commander to die in an attack before Prabhakaran made an attempt on Lt. Gen. Fonseka. Some believed the suicide bomber had rammed VA’s official car. VA Fernando earned the wrath of Prabhakaran for a bloody blockade of the Jaffna peninsula. The Navy operation mounted from Nagathevanthurai naval station, on the Vanni side of the Jaffna lagoon, during VA Fernando’s tenure, led to the attack. Prabhakaran picked Galle Road for the spectacular strike.
The killer pulled up within two feet of VA’s fast moving car at about 7.45 am, and detonated a bomb packed with iron pellets. The blast completely damaged the Mercedez Benz.
VA received the appointment as the Commander of Navy on Aug. 1, 1991.
Today, those in authority hardly remember sacrifices made by the armed forces. Sri Lanka, following the change of government, stunned the world by giving into unreasonable demands, to cancel the annual combined forces military parade, at Galle Face to celebrate the May 2009 triumph over the LTTE. Can there be a decision as idiotic as calling off a military parade to appease those who always believed in LTTE’s superiority and strength to somehow overwhelm the Army until the very end? This is while other countries celebrate their famous victories like D Day!