The Question of the Future of the Keeramalai Presidential Palace
During the civil conflict in Sri Lanka’s north, lands in the Naguleswaram area in Walikamam North of the Jaffna peninsula were taken over by the military. On this land, in the J/226 Naguleswaram village officer division, a five-story presidential palace was built by the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration in 2012. 12 years after the war’s end people of the peninsula are vigilant as they wonder about the future of this structure.
The historic Keeramalai village is situated adjacent to the lands that were taken over during the war. To the west of the Kandasami temple of Mawattapuram in Thellippalai, this distance is barely three kilometers. The army still occupies 117 acres of land in Kankesanthurai, which includes a navy camp, the Walikamam North local government office, and part of the cement factory. The presidential palace in question, too, is situated in this land. According to a surveyor plan dated 02 September 2019, the presidential palace is situated on 12 hectares of which the house structure covers a land extent of 9.95 hectares. The total extent of the claimed ground for this project runs across 17 private lands. During the United National Front for Good Governance reign, the navy was to hand over 62 acres back to the use of ordinary people. This included the land taken by the presidential palace.
In 2015, when the former President Maithripala Sirisena attended a district coordinating committee meeting in the Jaffna District Secretariat, Northern Provincial Council Chief Minister C.V. Vigneswaran and Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP M.A. Sumanthiran inspected the presidential palace. As the Jaffna press reported, they demanded the palace to be handed over to the Provincial Council. The Presidential Palace is now to be auctioned through the Board of Investment (BoI) as an international conference centre for which the cabinet has granted approval. People of the area, however, are skeptical whether the asset will be handed over to a foreign power. Quelling such doubts, the government has announced that the premises would be given to a government institute which, in turn, has prompted speculation whether plans were being matured to have the palace privatized. The presidential palace is situated barely a kilometer from the Kankasanthurai port. This close proximity has the potential of attracting China to invest in its site.
Meanwhile, two citizens whose lands were run over by the presidential palace project have filed petitions in the Court of Appeal demanding their land back. One of the petitioners is Ragavan, the son of former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. Dr. Indranathan Ashirvadam, a wealthy landowner in the area, lives in Kandy. His property rights were vested with his son, Prof. Rajan Hoole. The latter handed over this property to the divisional secretariat. Hoole claimed that he is willing to seek the course of the law to ascertain his rights.
Sadaiamma mausoleum and monastery, the Krishnan, Kadirai Adavar, and Solai Vairavar temples are all situated within close proximity to the presidential palace. Each of these shrines are over a century old. People conscious of these historical and cultural icons have a reasonable concern over their collective future.
The chairman of the Walikaman North local government council Somasundaram Sukeerthan said that the presidential palace had been built in an area adjacent to 64 critical venues. These include Hindu temples, freshwater springs, ancient caves in Keeramalai etc. “The previous office of our Pradeshiya Sabha is in the military-controlled area, merely 500 meters from the Kankesanthurai junction. Although the return of these lands were promised to us, so far only a certificate has been issued”. Sources claim that plans are afoot to offer this land, including the cement factory, for an industrial zone. The move will increase the price of land by two-fold, and politicians may be expecting to obtain more commissions through these deals.
The Keerimalai coast is a strategic area that can be manipulated to control the 20 square nautical mile area from Madagal to Point Pedro. Even at present, people suspect that communication equipment are being used in deserted areas around the presidential palace. During a recent visit to Jaffna, the Indian High Commissioner announced that they hoped to reconstruct the Kankesanthurai port in the near future. This was claimed to be a part of long term plan to restart the ferry service for passengers and goods from Jaffna to Rameswaram in India.
In close proximity to India, Mannar and Puttalam on the west coast consist of untraversable deep seas. The Keerimalai coast, therefore, is crucial to monitor movements there as suspicions are rife that smuggling activities – including those by non-Sri Lankan and non-Indian nationals – take place along this isolated coastline. Due to these reasons, land in the Keerimalai-Kankesanthurai coastal area has a crucial geo-political significance and is highly valuable for any power because of the advantages it presents.