THE REIGN OF MAHINDA RAJAPAKSE (3)
Posted on March 14th, 2017
Sri Lanka developed a strong confident armed force due to the Eelam war. This sector made a notable impact in other security sectors too. In 2006, the Defence Ministry, of which Gotabhaya Rajapakse was Permanent Secretary, set up Rakna Arakshaka Lanka Ltd, (RALL) a fully government owned company consisting of ex-armed forces personnel. RALL provided security services to government installations and institutions such as the Mahaweli project and Petroleum Corporation. The army and police personnel, who were guarding these earlier, were released for duties in the war zone. Rakna Lanka provided security services to 49 government institutions during and after the war. It came under COPE.
When sea piracy increased in the western Indian Ocean, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) marked out a High Risk Area where piracy threat was greatest. Private maritime security companies (PMSCs) started providing security to ships going into this Area. They based their operations off Sri Lanka and obtained weapons belonging to Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) from Rakna Arakshaka.
The PMSCs were attracted to Rakna Lanka because it was a government owned enterprise operating under the Ministry of Defence and all its guards were ex- service personnel well trained in handling firearms and fully vetted by the authorities. Also the weapons used by Rakna Lanka belonged to the government of Sri Lanka and there were no problems about the legality of those weapons.
Sri Lanka stored the weapons of private maritime security companies at the navy armory in Galle starting December 2009. By 2012, the number of firearms coming into the Galle armoury had increased greatly. What started with just 12 firearms as a temporary measure to help in the fight against piracy soon became a flood with well over one thousand foreign owned weapons lying in the Galle naval armoury at any given time. The navy was making around Rs. 80 million a month from storage fees.
In 2010, several foreign private maritime security companies led by Protect Risk Management Solutions and Varic Security Offshore suggested to Rakna Lanka that they should hire out armed sea marshals to be deployed on ships. The Maritime Security arm of Rakna Lanka was established in March 2011. Rakna Lanka provided the men and weapons to the private maritime security companies that approached them and obtained a fee for their services. Rakna Lanka provided its first on board security team to Inter Ocean Services Ltd to deploy on board MV Emerald.
Rakna Lanka also provided refresher training to foreign sea marshals at the Katukurunda firing range. These courses were organized when a private maritime security company made a request through their agent in Sri Lanka. This also brought in a good income.
Avant Garde Security Services was founded by Major Nissanka Senadipathy in 1996. This was started not only as a business but to provide job opportunities for war veterans. Avant Garde gave employment to many retired ex-servicemen and war heroes. Avant Garde developed into the largest security company in Sri Lanka employing over 6,500 personnel, many were ex-servicemen. Avant Garde has had an unblemished record of over 17 years, in providing security to organizations including key blue chip companies, banks and financial institutions.
Avant Garde Maritime Services was created as a subsidiary in 2011 to provide onboard security, using sea marshals against sea piracy for ships. Companies had approached Avant Garde and asked it to provide sea marshals for fishing vessels in the Indian Ocean. Avant Garde canvassed and secured several such agreements and in this way, brought business to Sri Lanka.’ None of the foreign maritime security companies with agents in Sri Lanka were involved in this niche business, observed analysts.
Avant Garde Maritime Services entered into a joint venture with RALL to provide facilities for international maritime security services. This partnership between Rakna Lanka and Avant Garde took the maritime security industry in the Indian Ocean to new level.
Avant Garde established several ‘forward operational bases’ along the coast of Africa and the Middle East. There were operation centers in Seychelles, Mauritius, Maldives and Djibouti. Avant Garde thereafter proposed the establishment of several centers in the Indian Ocean in a ‘Closed Circuit Network’ (CCN) where any RALL weapon issued from one location could be returned to any other location of this closed circuit network. . CCN was established in 2012 through a joint venture with RALL. But it was Avant Garde that had conceptualized and executed the idea. The operation progressed satisfactorily and smoothly.
Avant Garde at the request of Rakna Lanka prepared a proposal to set up a floating armoury outside Galle as a joint venture so that these weapons were taken out of Sri Lanka into a privately administered armoury. Floating armories operated under international maritime law and supervision of the UNO. A floating armoury was established in Galle in 2012 under direct supervision of the navy, Avant Garde and RALL. It functioned without a flaw thereafter. It received praise from India and was an example to others.
Avant Garde operated three floating armories in Galle, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Oman. It had Flags of Convenience in many ports, and had a large number of personnel at sea. It is not possible even for a navy to develop this capability in such a large and diverse area of operation, said analysts. Avant Garde brought in foreign exchange of Rs 3500 million, in 2015.
Avant Garde was the undisputed leader of the 15 or more floating armouries operating in the Red Sea and Gulf of Oman. Avant Garde has received many awards and international recognition from organization based in Paris, UK, Brussels, Geneva and Italy. Avant Garde has been suggested as a model for other operations by the Indian Navy Commander and also the UK based Security Association of Maritime Industry.
Nowhere in the world were such well regulated and closely supervised services provided to the maritime security industry, with a streamlined system to hire out sea marshals and firearms for on board maritime security and a system of looking after the men deployed and collecting the weapons issued throughout the high risk area in the Indian Ocean, said analysts. Many have commended the performance of Avant Garde. It has won worldwide admiration for its anti piracy work.
At the 2013 ‘Galle Dialogues ‘ the Chief of Naval Staff of the Indian Navy, Admiral D. K. Joshi praised Sri Lanka for carrying out the business of having private guards on board ships and operating floating armouries in ‘an entirely regulated fashion’ and regretted that others were not doing it in the same way. A public-private maritime security service modeled on Avant Garde-Rakna Lanka-Navy operation in Sri Lanka should be adopted elsewhere too.
Mahinda Rajapakse’s three brothers, Basil, Gotabhaya and Chamal were very active during the Rajapakse presidency. All three were elected members of Parliament. They worked well together. Opponents of Mahinda were critical of the powers they wielded but others admired them. These Rajapaksa brothers will go down in history for their immense contribution to the country. One would like to see greater appreciation, said one observer. I have only scratched the surface of the many good things that could be said about what the Rajapakse brothers have done for the country. They should not be hounded like common criminals, said Rohana Wasala.
Chamal performed his duties well as Speaker of Parliament. Basil was commended by the residents of Gampaha for cleaning up the district. Basil proved to be an efficient manager. He worked from a small cramped office. Whatever he attempted he did with dedication, said Rohana Wasala. He courted no publicity and maintained a low profile. Basil was one of the three candidates who declared their assets, said Chandraprema.
He was also instrumental in maintaining good relations with India in 2009 when Eelam war was nearing its end. In 2008 Indian government was not stable, said Basil in an interview. It was a coalition government and Karunandhi, of Tamilnadu was important for them, he went on a hunger strike over the LTTE issue. High commissioner Alok Prasad said that the situation in Sri Lanka had created problems for them and he specifically asked that Basil be sent to India.
’Not knowing what to expect, I collected information from defense, foreign and even the fisheries ministry, also met senior judges of the Supreme Court to discuss legal terminology in case I had to enter into an agreement’ recalled Basil. ’Things went off well and I too was surprised at the manner in which everything fell into place within about 24 hours. Karunanidhi called off his fast and the tensions which had been building up against Sri Lanka dissipated. Our forces were able to continue with the military operations.’
Gotabhaya Rajapakse earned the respect and admiration of the country for his leadership role in ending the war. He then won admiration for his work on urban spaces. Gotabhaya could win wars and then play a major role in the country’s development, particularly its infrastructure, city beautification and environmental cleanliness, said his admirers. His first activity in this sector was to remove the stalls located on the pavements in Pettah, particularly Olcott Mawatha. The Defence ministry had requested this.
Several urban projects were undertaken after 2010, by the Ministry of Defence & Urban Development, Sri Lanka Land Reclamation and Development Corporation and Urban Development Authority (UDA), all of which were headed by Gotabhaya Rajapakse.
Sri Lanka Land Reclamation and Development Corporation improved the waterfronts in Colombo and suburbs. New lakes were created in the Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte area, including Rampalawatta, the low-lying areas of Pelawatta, and in Talawathugoda. The Weras Ganga was dredged and improvements made to the drainage system of the Bolgoda Marsh in the Weras Ganga Basin Storm Water Drainage & Environment Improvement Project . Significant improvements were also made to the overall drainage infrastructure. The 32 hectare wetland area in Baddegana, Kotte which is home to many species of birds was turned into a flood-retention area and developed into a recreational park, with nature trails, bird-watching hides and a jogging trail.
The Metro Colombo Urban Development Project was a five-year project, using a USD 220 million World Bank grant. It was implemented by Ministry of Defence and Urban Development, starting 2012. There were two components, flood and drainage management in the Colombo Water Basin, and urban infrastructure in Metro Colombo. This was one of the fastest executed World Bank projects in Sri Lanka. The contracts were awarded under open bidding, according to World Bank’s strict guidelines.
Under this project, the city’s drainage infrastructure and flood prevention scheme was upgraded. Canals, locks, floodgates and drainage tunnels were improved, clogged canals were opened. Outer Colombo suddenly had newly opened up water ways which were pleasing to look at, and Inner Colombo was given a newly scenic Wellawatte Canal. Beira ‘Lake’ was rescued. Its gates, tributaries and output channels were unblocked, unauthorized settlements were removed and Beira canal became delightfully visible along its length.
Many ‘green spaces’ were created in Colombo at Independence Square, Water’s Edge, the Japan Sri Lanka Friendship road, and the Nawala Wetland Park near Nugegoda . They had bicycle tracks and walkways. These tracks became extremely popular. Thousands of people, of all ages and social levels used these walking tracks and bicycle paths on a daily basis, to exercise and relax in. This was good for their health and doctors commented favorably on these spaces. There is a finish as well. The lamp posts are artistic and the ground level lights carefully chosen.
Existing parks like Viharamaha Devi Park were also cleaned up, made attractive and given walkways and cycle paths. There were walkways and jogging tracks at Bellanwila, Mahara, Mabole, Pelawatte and Wattala. Unused lands in outer Colombo were developed into community spaces. At Nawinna, an empty land used by drug addicts was turned into a public playing field and bus park. ‘This was done by Mahinda Rajapakse ‘said the grateful residents. The walls and hedges around public buildings, playgrounds and other public areas were demolished, providing extensive vistas and giving an ‘open, relaxed atmosphere’ to Colombo.
To digress for a moment, the public were also enthusiastic about the improvements to Gampaha and Mahiyangana, both of which had been cleaned up in the Rajapakse regime. There was a walkway at Udugampola and a children’s park with merry go round at Marapola in Gampaha. The Greater Dambulla Development Plan also included walkways.
The infrastructure of Colombo city was improved. Markets and railway stations were upgraded into clean and orderly facilities. The Central bus stand was reorganized and the waterway by it, hidden by shops till then, was exposed. Roads were widened and traffic lights installed. Pavements were redone, with high quality bricks, making them pleasant and safe to walk on. Covered bus stands with seats were constructed. Public toilets with modern facilities were built. Greater Colombo Wastewater Management Project, funded by the ADB, started in 2014.Colombo’s grossly outdated sewerage system, installed in the 19th century, was at last removed and a new system installed. This was an urgent need, but no other government except Rajapakse took it up.
Garbage collection was neglected in Colombo and there were piles of garbage all over. Gotabhaya set up a separate division within the Police to monitor whether the companies awarded contracts to maintain the cleanliness of streets and public areas were doing their job satisfactorily. The police were on the job as early as 5 am. ‘This is exemplary work, on the part of Gotabhaya ‘said one observer. In a recent newspaper article in Singapore, a visitor to Sri Lanka has praised the fact that there was no litter on the streets, even in the area around the busy central railway station, said Gotabhaya with pride in 2012.
The World Bank project helped to give new life to colonial buildings. Sri Lanka has a very rich architectural heritage from colonial times in Colombo, said Gotabhaya. There are a lot of buildings still standing that date back to the British and the Dutch periods. Some of these buildings have wonderful architectural features and some are in a state of preservation only in Sri Lanka. We want to preserve these important buildings as part of our heritage.
The British period buildings in Fort such as Cargills were given a face lift by the Urban Development Authority. The Town Hall was also taken in hand. Its grounds were made more attractive, unnecessary structures were taken down. Historic buildings on the verge of collapse were given a new lease on life. The Dutch hospital in Colombo Fort was converted into a public open space housing high-end shopping and restaurant facilities. It was made financially viable by renting the spaces; otherwise government could not have maintained it. This venue is very popular and the business community is asking for more facilities of that nature, said Gotabhaya.
Colombo Racecourse building was an eye sore for decades. It had initially been scheduled for demolition. Instead it was renovated and transformed into an up market shopping and restaurant complex. A new building housing the Ministry of Sports was added in the same architectural style. The pavilions and grounds were used for other activities such as the Good Market on Saturdays. Tripoli Market was converted into an IT expert City, companies such as Millennium IT moved in. The Independence Square Arcade was created using Auditor General Department building and ‘the lunatic asylum building’ next to it.
Another project to upgrade the housing stock is the redevelopment of dilapidated private houses in areas such as Slave Island and Union Place, said Gotabhaya. The owners of these houses are cooperating with investors through Public Private Partnerships that will establish high quality mixed developments in these up market locations. As a result of these initiatives, more land will be freed within Colombo for the establishment of commercial, residential and recreational spaces.
Colombo has many unauthorized settlements at shanty level. Many of these are on the lake, canal, roadway and railway track reservations. These settlements lack basic facilities and sanitation. Under the UDA ‘Resettlement of Underserved Settlements Project’ 70,000 families were to be housed in high rise buildings designed and constructed to a good standard. The buildings would be located in close proximity to the original homes of these families, so that they do not need to find different jobs or send their children to different schools.
Each high rise had twelve floors. Each housing unit was 400 square feet with two rooms and all amenities including proper sanitation. Ground floor was reserved for business and public purposes. The income generated from the ground floor would be utilized for maintenance of the housing complex.
In 2012, 10,000 housing units were under construction, with a further 15,000 planned for 2013. The first units were at Henamulla, Aluthmawatha, Ferguson Road, Cyril C Perera Mawatha, Edirisinghe Mawatha, Maligawatte CGR land site, Dematagoda CGR land site, Estate 31-Orugodawatta site, Estate 54 & 66 sites, and Government factory land, Kolonnawa.
Gotabhaya’s postwar effort in the transformation of Colombo and other towns through the development of infrastructure deserves acknowledgement and praise, said Premilla Wijesinghe. In just five years the city of Colombo has blossomed into a garden city equal to any city in the world. Prime Colombo properties were cleared of shanty towns and dwellers were re-settled in housing complexes across the city, uplifting their life style and standards.
Colombo became once more the most gracious of cities, with it’s newly spruced up colonial architecture open parks and public spaces, restaurant and hotel of international level and a cleanliness the city had not experienced in a long time said Mahes Ladduwahetty. Under Gotabhaya urban Sri Lanka has seen a cleanup and polish as well as an upgrade never before in its post independence history, she added.
I have witnessed his personal supervision of several of the high rise buildings with architects, said Premilla Wijesinghe. He visited sites late in evening. Gotabhaya made sudden site visits as well. Once I was amazed to see him give instructions to provide support for a young tree which was growing a bit crooked. Gotabhaya executed his plans meticulously and delivered results with military precision. ‘If there is one ministry that is working well, that is the Defence ministry, said Dilrook Kannangara.
Once the Eelam war ended, Sri Lanka had a large military with no war to fight. Gotabhaya used them for development projects. The Town Hall was done by the army and Tripoli by the navy. The military provided a disciplined, dedicated work force, at no extra cost. There was technical expertise too, from the military engineers. Gotabhaya must be congratulated on the manner in which he utilized the armed forces for his urban development projects. He turned the tri services personnel who could have been demobbed and sent home at great cost to the treasury, into massive nationwide developments effort, said one observer.
The pathological animosity, even revulsion, shown towards the work done by Mahinda and Gotabhaya Rajapakse deserves special mention. This is part of the well orchestrated opposition to Rajapakse, crafted in the west. But it is more than that. It also reflects the deep resentment and hostility of the western oriented elite, mainly non Buddhist, to any success achieved by the ‘godayas’.
These anti-Rajapakse elite decided on a simple strategy. Nothing the Rajapakses have done is good. It is all bad. The roads he built, including the super highways is a mistake, no one needs them. In fact, the entire infrastructure created by Rajapakse is unnecessary. It is not the ‘immediate need of the people’. The many mega projects, highways, harbors, airports were wasteful extravagance.
Even the credit for winning the Eelam War is cleverly taken away. Rajapakse did not win the war alone. It was won with assistance from India. Gotabhaya’s urban improvements are not his, this was a “World Bank project”, said his critics. The conservation of old buildings was done wrong. Arcade should have had arched windows, not rectangular one. The two steps at the entrance to Dutch Hospital do not resemble the original steps. The use of the armed forces for nation building efforts was also criticized. It was wrong to use the military for menial tasks.
There was animosity to the creation of parks. One critic said in very emotional language, that the Parliament grounds was once a hive of sports activities ,with families playing cricket matches there. Now it has been turned into well-manicured lawns, where children are not allowed to run on the grass. There is ‘environment police’ who stop them and they have to walk only on the paved paths. The play ‘Walking Path’ also showed the military repressing those who used these parks.
One possible explanation for this animosity is that things have been made difficult for future ‘terrorists’. Earlier, people could hide by leaping over the nearest wall or hedge. Overhead surveillance could not find them. Now with the walls and hedges gone, there is nowhere to hide. The slums and the pavement hawkers would have been helpful in anti-government activity, for messages at least.
Slave Island’s rabbit warren of tiny houses, home to Muslims are being demolished to create modern apartments, complained one Muslim. The Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) and International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) looked at the woes of those who were re-located from shanties and slums to high rises by Gotabhaya .They interviewed samples from the Dematagoda and Wanathamulla high rises and published their findings.
Some tenants definitely are happy, said the researchers. They now have electricity, running water and toilets. The flats do not get flooded like their old homes did and someday they will own the unit. But most are not happy. They were forced out of their homes by the military, they said. “We didn’t come here willingly. They demolished a section of our house and I dragged my children like animals and came here.” Many feel deeply nostalgic for their old homes.
The Wanathamulla residents came from the wattas in Torrington Place, Colombo 7. At Torrington, they were not living in squalor and they were not squatting on government land. 70.3% of the sample had lived in a permanent house. 48.8% had indoor bathrooms. 78% of houses had piped-water and 90.4% had electricity. 25.8% had live there for more than 30 years. 47% had been there from 11-30 years. 20.9% had a deed and owned their land.
There is no sense of community among the occupants of the high rises. They are unable to connect to their new homes, and they feel awfully insecure. ‘These families are struggling to adapt to a new kind of life in the high-rises, so distinct from their familiar networks in the old settlements’. They had problems. Those who worked in Colombo 7 found their livelihoods affected. Muslims in Methsara Uyana had no mosque.
The architectural design had defects. Electricity meters were inaccessible. The lids of the water tanks on the roof would get blown off by the wind, leaving residents sometimes drinking water polluted by the corpses of dead animals. Maintaining lifts, keeping public areas and playgrounds clean will not be easy and UDA should not take on the role of landlord. Lastly, how were future generations to be accommodated in these flats?
We must not view the working class poor as impediments to adding social and economic value to the city, the reports advised. We must stop looking at people through the narrow lens of title holder and non-title holder. People invest their savings in improving their homes, and may have lived in this one area for generations. The state has recognized these people on paper – they pay taxes, they are on the electoral register, they pay utility bills. We should not be relocating people involuntarily.
Ashley L. S. Perera however observed that the Rajapakse government took the courageous step to remove slums from the city centre of Colombo. Although it caused some distress this removed a hindrance which affected the smooth function of the city. The Yahapalana decision to let the informal sector back into the city should be severely condemned as it will impair the growth of the city.
Rajapakse’s critics say, very correctly, that there was much corruption under him. However, ‘critics see only the negative side of progress and speak of nepotism, bribery and corruption. The real corruption is in the big investments, not in small ones’ warned Keerthisinghe.
I do not propose to provide a comprehensive list of ‘Rajapakse corruption’ since Yahapalana is doing that so well. But here are two instances of corruption. In Anuradhapura I was told by our young van driver that he and another friend had been successful at a state job interview. ‘Since we were selected, we went home and did not bother looking for another job. After waiting for some time, we inquired and found that another lot had been selected and had already started training.’ He did not vote for Rajapakse. I was also told that the Chairman of a state bank had recruited a new batch of employees after stringent evaluation. A young powerful politician with links to Rajapakse had come in, swept the entire list aside and insisted that his list be substituted. (Concluded)