Mahinda in Mara mayhem at Matara
By Nalaka Nonis

A 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.

Officials of 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.

PM 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 on Tuesday.

Responding to 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.

But critics 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 minister.

Another major 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.

Minister Wijesekera 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.

Critics say 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 January 1952.

The Archaeological 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.

Matara Municipal 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 empire.

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