in Mara mayhem at Matara
By Nalaka Nonis
300-year-old Mara tree of historical value flourished here
till last week. Now it has been chopped down on the orders
of Minister Mahinda Wijesekera who says he sees little value
in such Mara trees which has set off a huge political controversy
in the district. Pic by J. Weerasekera
A major political
row has broken out in the Southern heartland of Matara, with its
new strongman and Minister Mahinda Wijesekera being accused of riding
rough and hard over historical and archaeological interests to push
ahead with a massive sports complex.
At the centre
of the multifaceted controversy is the cutting down of a historical
300-year-old Mara tree to make way for the massive sports complex
and what some residents say is a 20 roomed tourist guest house.
the Archaelogical Department, JVP leaders and environmentalists
in the area are accusing Mr. Wijesekera of being arrogant and insensitive
to historical interests in the pursuit of what they see as one of
his political projects.
But Mr. Wijesekera
is hitting back with a different story. A tough minister told The
Sunday Times the outcry over the cutting down of the Mara tree was
foolish and fallacious as he saw no archaeological, historical or
religious value in the Mara tree.
calls for report
Amidst a swirling hard-hitting controversy over the chopping
of a Mara tree and other disputes and with different groups
telling different stories, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe
has called for a full report on the situation.
It was taken up at a summit between the Prime Minister and President
criticism that he had cut down the Mara tree while sparing a Jak
tree Mr. Wijesekera asked," So what?" He said the Jak
tree gave fruits and other benefits to the people while the Mara
tree performed no such role and he saw no reason why it should block
a project which would provide benefits to thousands of people in
terms of facilities for soccer, netball, tennis and other sports.
hit back saying the one time Marxist had spared the Jak tree because
of some colonial hang-up in that it was supposed to have been planted
by King George. Rejecting charges that the sports complex was a
cover for a private 20-roomed guest house he was building for himself
nearby, Mr. Wijesekera claimed he was only renovating his own residence
and critics were blowing things out of proportion.
The sports complex is coming up in an area coming within the old
Matara fort and critics are also throwing other allegations at the
dispute is the demolition of a well known tennis club building in
the area to make way for the sports complex. Officials of the tennis
club the only one in the Matara district said they had been assured
by the minister that there would be no demolition. But suddenly
on April 19 everything came tumbling down. Many lawyers are members
of this club and one of them said they saw the demolition as an
act of betrayal because the minister was the patron of the club
and had come there regularly especially for impartant occasions.
He said they
had wanted to go to courts to stop any demolition but the minister
had assured them the building would not be brought down and thus
they dropped the move for court action. Now they were left with
nothing but a loss of about one million rupees.
fired back at the club and its lawyers. He claimed the club building
was an unauthorised structure and what he had seen was more boozing
than any sport. He said he was the patron of the club but public
interest was more important to him.
In a related
development the Bar Association of Sri Lanka has also joined the
"Mara battle", charging that the offices of two lawyers
had been destroyed with their coats, documents and all. A BASL official
said they were considering legal action.
that under the law, approval from the Archaeological Department
was necessary to cut down the historical 300-year-old tree and the
minister had got no such approval. This was confirmed by an official
of the Archaeology department.
The critics insist the minister is not renovating his residence
but building a plush hotel just about a kilometre from the spot
where he chopped the Mara tree.
They say the
minister's sports complex is intended to complement his new hotel
and in any event they ask why another sports complex is needed just
opposite the Sanath Jayasuriya stadium. But the minister's supporters
say the Jayasuriya stadium is only for cricket and other sports
also need to be given a boost. The Mara tree is situated in the
historical Matara Fort which was declared an ancient monument in
Department has the authority to allow or prohibit the construction
of any buildings in such areas. When building projects and other
activities were launched in this area last year, Archaeological
Director Dr. D. H. Wijepala had written to the the Attorney General
asking him to take immediate action to halt the construction of
any unauthorised building and the destruction of any archaeological
sights there. He said political intervention appeared to be threatening
archaeological interests- but little or no action has been taken
by the legal authorities.
Commissioner W. Yapa is also reported to have complained to the
police over the destruction of large trees and archaeological sites
but police took no action apparently due to political influence.
A JVP Municipal
Councillor said he also had complained to the police that the Mara
tree was being cut but the police had told him it was too late at
night and they would come the next day. When they did it was too
late for the tree.
Adding to the
confusion and controversy Matara's Government Agent G.S. Ediriweera
said this land came under his purview now and the Municipal Council
had no say in it. The GA said that since the tree came under his
purview, approval from the Archaeological Department was not necessary.
Minister Wijesekara said he was doing everything for the people
of Matara under this Greater Matara development plan but the area's
JVP leader blasted him saying he was trying to build a political