Temple Trees wedding tamasha
Posted on September 8th, 2018

Those who have had the opportunity of visiting the luxury reception/banquet hall built at ‘Temple Trees,’ the prime minister’s official residence during the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime are well aware that it is an extravagance that a country in our economic situation could ill-afford. The building of the opulent carpeted and chandeliered air-conditioned facility is without doubt an act of utmost profligacy of a governing elite that thought nothing of expending billions of tax rupees for their own benefit and glorification. Soon after he became prime minister in 2015, Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe took pleasure in showing guests around the place so that they could see for themselves how public funds had been lavishly expended on ego trips of the then rulers.

The facility came into the news recently when a ruling party MP, Chathura Senaratne, the son of Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne who is both highly visible (and audible) in his role of a government spokesman, hired it for his wedding. The JVP raised the matter in parliament and Senaratne Jr. quickly responded by saying that he had paid over Rs. 2.1 million for the wedding and provided a photo copy of the banker’s cheque favouring the Secretary to the Prime Minister. There was no break-up of how much the venue itself had cost and what was paid for connected services like food, drink and décor although one report said the hall charge was Rs. 450,000.

The prime minister’s office was at pains to assert that the wedding had not been held at ‘Temple Trees’ itself but at an adjoining building on the same compound, no doubt to counter the allegation that was being widely bruited around that the prime minister’s official residence was being converted to a Magul Maduwa by the yahapalana rulers. The whole business had apparently been discussed at a meeting of the UNP parliamentary group and following what had been said there, which has not been revealed to the public, it was decided that the hall will not in future be rented out for weddings. If there was nothing wrong in the first place of hiring it for Chathura Senaratne’s lavish wedding (the social media has been replete with details including the opaque glass invitation, the fruit and flower table décor and what not), then why is the practice being done away with for the future?

The groom’s minister-father has been quoted saying that this venue was obtained because it was not possible to get a booking at one of the big hotels. It is well known that wedding bookings are tight at the luxury hotels particularly on auspicious days with such booking being made months ahead. If the demand exists, and the venue can be successfully marketed at a price, what is the harm in letting it out and some of the big taxpayer bucks spent in building it recovered? The prime minister’s office justified the original renting of the venue for the Senaratne wedding. It must now justify why it should not be rented out for such purposes in the future. The public deserves to be edified on the reasons for not letting it out and realizing its commercial potential. There have been other social events including shows there and official state receptions have been hosted there too. We do not think the Senaratne wedding was the first at the venue and there have been others as well. Quite apart from these events being held at the hall, there have been weddings held in the official residence proper with small receptions hosted at such events, most probably with taxpayer funds.

We live in a country where the social mores and culture of the well-to-do and the well connected is such that they like to have VIPs including presidents and prime ministers as attesting witnesses at the weddings of their offspring. It would be convenient for the dignitaries to sign at their official residences rather than go elsewhere to do the honours and such conveniences have been availed of in the past. There have been reports that the former president asks couple who want him to attest at their weddings to come to his official residence in Colombo and have the marriages duly registered there. Nobody would or should object to that. In fact some couples who found that President Sirisena often does his morning constitutional walking in the Independence Square area, beautified by the brother of the man he ousted from the presidency, go there to have themselves photographed with the president who is happy to oblige.

Now that there has been a controversy about the Senaratne wedding it would be useful if somebody in authority let the people know how much it cost to build the luxury reception facility next to ‘Temple Trees’, what was the past practice in letting it our commercially if that was in fact was done, what would it cost somebody to avail of the facilities and other details. Given that the people paid to build the place, they are entitled to the information which we presume would anyway be available by way of a Right to Information inquiry which the present rulers, whatever their shortcomings, have made available to the people.

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