Sri Lanka: 2016 —The year of National Security Rhetoric

Let’s say goodbye to 2016, and let’s warmly welcome 2017 as the matter of responsibility to ensure the public safety and establishment of social life beyond the mere rhetoric of national security unlike in the last year!


by Nilantha Ilangamuwa

(December 29, 2016, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Just few more days left to start a fresh year but same people, same attitudes, same dysfunctionality in most of the governmental institutions; same failures than achievements in the public sector. The indicators are that the Culture of habitual plundering of State resources continues with some politicians and their stooges. With the little belief that is left in us let’s say Happy New Year!

Almost in the same breath, we ‘see with our little mind’s eye’  in the New Year-  the heavy weight of State debt expanding further, the storm in financial crisis blowing more strongly to spread the debris from our past; and the sharpening of internal crisis within the government. Let’s turn around and observe what we produced in 2016. It was the year more rhetoric came to the public debate rather than focusing on facts and figures. Neither truth nor principles mattered in many debates. When it came to National security, the debate has been overlapped by many irrelevant issues which have demoralised the opportunities to understand ground reality.

However, the entire year was soberly decorated mainly by two incidents while opening the path to entertain their viewers to local media outlets. First, the famous public telephone conversation the Inspector General of Police Pujith Jayasundara conducted with one of the ministers of the Government. Pujith being a submissive bureaucrat assured delivery as per the request made by the politician. Consciously or subconsciously he has taken the true ccoloursof the carrion political influence to the public stage.

Second, the situation managed by Sri Lanka Navy Commander at the Magampura Mahinda Rajapaksa Port ( Hambanthota port)  where two international commercial ships, one of which is the world’s third largest car carrier, owned by K-Line, were taken “hostage” by protesters who were employees of the private entity which is responsible for managing the port. The company was established during the previous government headed by Mahinda Rajapaksa. It is quite amusing, that Rajapaksa has not only given those public projects his name but has also installed his own political henchmen to control them.

These two incidents have rendered us the opportunity to taste Sri Lankan culture under the cover of “national security” and have insight into the real rules through which the Country is being administered.

AGMS

The year began with a kick and punch by Avant Garde Maritime Services ( AGMS), a firm paid to gain “Socrates award” offered by Europe Business Assembly, one of the notorious shoddy forums for “business awards”. The news went viral after AGMS spent millions to publish the information of the award they won through the local media to whitewash their dirty deeds. The real facts relating to this company were carefully avoided and most of the local media maintained strange silence over the incident.

However, as a result of some bold steps by the Bribery Commission in Sri Lanka, suspects were taken to Court where they managed to escape through bail. It became the drama of the year when those suspects switched faces as war heroes and they wore and showed off the medal for “patriotic services” they have contributed to this nation.

By end of the year, AGMS saga came to a neutral pause and the next hearing is due in the last week of February 2017. Unfortunately, it seems that the lesson taught by the so-called floating armoury controversy is yet to be learnt. Despite many distorted facts by captains of media outlets, the Commission examining the AGMS has clearly indicated the wrongdoings of this company.

Two major recommendations out of many made by the Commission at the conclusion of their investigation, stand out. First, punitive measures against those responsible for discrepancies in the number of ammunitions held and tampering with weapon serial numbers as well as making false declarations based on such. Second, recommendation was action against AGMS for leaving GoSL (Government of Sri Lanka) weapons ammunition and accessories in a foreign vessel without proper authority. Let’s see in year 2017, how impartial our justice system is and how well we can preserve the very idea of civil liberty and principles of national security in the island nation. 

Vociferous & Ungracious IGP in Sri Lanka

Meanwhile, by the time the first quarter passed, Sri Lankan authority successfully seated at the top, the most vociferous and ungracious person in the history of Sri Lankan Police Service. Pujith Jayasundara was appointed as 34th Inspector General of Police of Sri Lanka, on April 20th this year. From the very first day as IGP, Pujith started to commentate on the police service and use the opportunity to praise his personal achievements.

IGP Pujith Jayasundara: Man of the Year in Sri Lanka 

They were the days that the Joint Opposition organized the Padayatra (pilgrimage on foot) in the middle of the year, when the IGP was exceptionally busy in arranging tight security to ensure public order. He answered a call from his junior while addressing an event in a Colombo suburb and ordered him to do as he was told. Later, he was bombastic in public stating the necessity of bending the law. Criticism of the IGP spread and again the needs of the Public were sidelined.

The vociferous behavior of the IGP is nothing less than the symptom of the very epidemic of deteriorating Public Service. If any government was truly concerned about restoring the management principles of such institution, first and foremost need is to take necessary steps to eliminate “political interference” and find a way to establish Accountability and Transparency. The Police Commission is playing a vital role, but the Commission is suffering from malnutrition of inadequate resources. But, the minister in-charge has promised the public that he will ensure that the Sri Lanka Police Service would be the best police service in Asia.

Let’s take it that the Minister has measured Asia correctly from Japan to Iran when holding such rhetorical dream in contrast with those who were having “Wonder Asia” as the political slogan for nothing but looting the nation during the previous government. It’s not a question of being the best, but the most important need is for Sri Lankan Police to eliminate fantasized descriptions followed by working on practical solutions to real problems.

According to the crimes report by Police, nearly 7,592 crimes of a serious nature such as murder, sexual abuse and robberies have been reported this year between January and November. It said 575 crimes including 39 murders, 198 cases of sexual of abuse and 64 robberies were reported in November alone. The social crisis is very clearly highlighted by the statistics. To solve such problem, not only police but every citizen in the country has a pivotal role to play and the politicians who are exercising “executive power” need to be honest enough to address this issue.

Sri Lanka to be eligible as a country that prevent crimes is currently far behind many other countries in Asia. The country has only one DNA laboratory which is also privately owned. How can any institution prove genuine service without addressing the very crisis within the institution itself ? Talking about installing CCTV cameras in every police station without recording facilities or measuring anti-bribery action without improving working conditions, are nothing but the mockery of politics.


The dream of being the next Army Commander was on knife edge and many senior officers started “monkey politics” to grab the seat. At one stage, the Army Commander summoned many seniors to his office and warned them to handoff the petty political engagement to be the Commander. However, throughout the rough and tumble, many internal matters came to light.


The lucky Army Commander

Sri Lanka’s Army was a controversial institution throughout the year. On the one hand the Commander of Army, Lieutenant General Chrithanthe De Silva managed to solve most of the booming internal crises until third quarter of the year by being lucky to get one year extension. On the other hand a fire broke out at the armory of the Sri Lanka Army camp in Kosgama, Avissawella and civil society’s criticism of the Army Intelligence capability filled the debate most of the year.

The dream of being the next Army Commander was on knife edge and many senior officers started “monkey politics” to grab the seat. At one stage, the Army Commander summoned many seniors to his office and warned them to handoff the petty political engagement to be the Commander. However, throughout the rough and tumble, many internal matters came to light. The entire episode represents the distortion of the institute which is yet to be cleared of political debris. Especially during the last fifteen years, Sri Lanka Army was strongly  politicized and it has clearly self-divided  into party politics to gain personal benefits resulting in the deliberate avoidance of independent administration of law and order and hence  the dignity of the Institute. At one time, one of the predecessors of the current Commander used Army funds to print politically motivated documents to urge his colleagues to vote for the interested party.

It is one of the  saddest sights  to see such  fate of an institution where an officer like Lieutenant General Deshamanya Joseph Everard Denis Perera a former Army Commander,  made strong contributions to establishing discipline needed to uphold the principles and values of the institution. Most of the procedures to improve accountability, transparency and evaluation evaporated and were replaced by the malignity of political influxes. Most of them seem to have deliberately neglected the primary lesson needed to be learned by every serviceman – as presented in the St. Crispin’s Day speech, the famous speech from William Shakespeare’s play, Henry V. “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he to-day that sheds his blood with me, Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile, This day shall gentle his condition.”

Commander of Army, Lieutenant General Chrithanthe De Silva

However, the incumbent deserved the one-year extension to remain while decolorising the dreams of many. In term of management, it was a wise decision by the Commander in Chief, the President. This could be an opportunity to restore the principles of this institution to ensure the dignity, morality, prestige, quality, and respectability of all servicemen and women. Nothing is more important than to establish  internal management based on principles rather than personal favours or flavours.

“In order to enhance the morale and contentment of soldiers, many a welfare project, initiated for the benefit of family members of fallen or injured War Heroes as well as for all serving members, are now in progress. It is expected to focus the attention on other diversified fields; education, capacity building, housing and healthcare etc.,” Lieutenant General De Silva pointed out while commemorating 67th Army Day this year.

There is nothing much to talk about the one and only Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka who is nothing more than a political puppet of this government as he is ravishing the status of one chosen to solve the most urgent problems in the Defence establishment. But many argued that he is behind arresting most of senior security officials including his onetime pal, later turned professional foe, Ex- Special Task Force Commandant KLN Sarachchandra.  DIG Srachchandra was later released on bail.

Meanwhile, the Sri Lanka Army intelligence was much in the hotspot throughout the year. The vaguer criticism against the intelligence directorates of Sri Lanka Army, came from civil society groups who were making accusations of preventing the investigation into alleged murderers. Therefore, the Sri Lankan Army commander decided to replace the head of intelligence prior to completing his four-year term.

However, Brigadier Suresh Salley, former Director of Military Intelligence (DMI) who is now defence attaché in the Sri Lankan mission in Kuala Lumpur is one of foremost intelligence officers the country has ever produced. The role he played during the civil war against the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) and the aftermath of vanquished the Tamil Tigers was little known to the public but those who were engaged in the subject are very well aware of his contribution. A man of trilingual capability, he belongs to an ethnic minority in the country and was behind some of most crucial operations during the war. More recently his vital role in understanding the growing tendency of fundamentalism in Sri Lanka, as well as finding details on the Sri Lankans who are involving in the Islamic State (IS), were exceptional contributions to measures against the threats facing the country.

But the Criminal Investigation Division has accused him of not cooperating in the investigation against the intelligence officers who were allegedly blamed for gunning down, Prageeth Eknaligoda and Lasantha Wickrematunge. Therefore, groups representing civil society have taken this issue into the public arena, through which they have urged immediate replacement of the Intelligence head. This has been taken as the very first incident through which civil society demonstrated its influence in such appointments.

The disadvantage of such interference is that the exposing of identity of the intelligence agents is worse than making mere accusations to invoke public attention. Secondly, those who critique the Intelligence often have little or no knowledge about the subject matter. This is nothing but vicious, obtuse, senseless and blunt way of deconstructing the crisis. It is clearly indicated by the fact that at the end of the year, nothing has changed in relation to those investigations. But, rather those investigators were accused of being politically motivated and some of the investigations on more vigorous crimes seem to be leading nowhere.

In addition, former top Tamil Tiger who broke away from the LTTE in 2004, established a paramilitary known as Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pullikal (TMVP) against the LTTE, Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan (nom de guerre: Colonel Karuna Amman) was arrested for misusing State vehicle when he was exercising ministerial portfolio during the previous government.  One time hero among Sinhala community turned into a looter of the state resources. He was later released on bail. 

Jayampathy Vs. Gagan

Meanwhile, of lesser concern but very important changes occurred in Sri Lanka Air Force where Air Chief Marshal Gagan Bulathsinghala lost his dream to continue his command. As a result, Air Marshal Kapila Jayampathy has assumed duty as the Commander of Sri Lanka Air Force in September. Gagan was expecting service extension while keeping the cold-war in the institution flaming. The cold war went to the extent of one made making a proper complaint before the police against another on surveillance.

Commander of Sri Lanka Air Force, Air Marshal Kapila Jayampathy

However, it is time to take proper actions against the corruption and mismanagement of the resources in this institution and restore the managing principles to benefit not only the servicemen and women but also the general public. As Air Marshal Kapila Jayampathy rightly pointed out during Air Symposium 2016, it is time to strengthen the technology of aviation power in order to ensure security strategy, trade and connectivity.  In his presentation while quoting, Brigadier General William ‘Billy’ Mitchell who is regarded as the father of the United States Air Force, Kapila has repeated, “ in the development of air power, one has to look ahead and not backward and figure out what is going to happen, not too much what has happened.”

Sri Lanka Navy under Ravi

The year 2016 was one of the most crucial years for Sri Lanka Navy under Vice Admiral Ravindra C. Wijegunaratne a man behind some of the most important areas of improving the institution. Ravi is due to retire during the second month of 2017. He took over the command of the Sri Lanka Navy on 11th July 2015. Within a period of less than two years his contributions and the controversial role played by him were well noted nationally, regionally as well as internationally.

He is the second youngest officer to join the Navy, in 1981 when he was in 18. The youngest was late Admiral Ananda Silva who joined Royal Ceylon Navy when he was at 17 years and 8 months. As it was little known to the public he is the first officer who reached helm and on his first day in the office as the Commander of Sri Lanka Navy, said that he will retire when he reached 55 years whereas many other predecessors did their best to remain as long as they wished while creating serious management issues in the institution.

Much more than being just a commander, Vice Admiral Wijegunaratne was focused on restoring the managing principles while paying homage to true heroes of the institutes. In one such incident,  “on the 70th birth anniversary of the co-founder of the Sri Lanka Navy Special Boat Squadron (SBS), late Commander (VNF) Cedric Martenstyn, which fell in October 2016, Sri Lanka Navy renamed their Arrow Boats as “Cedric” in honour of him.”


Rhetoric in the name of “media freedom” straw the broth of national security. It was the incident truth were buried while launching an irrational knavish attack against Sri Lanka Navy. But, truth is out there, which, unfortunately, is nothing important in the political life in this country.


Second major step was establishing Sri Lankan Marine Corps as a collaborative project between Sri Lankan Navy and the United States Marines. In his, W-Memo narrated the important of newly minted Sri Lankan Marines, wrote and circulated by Navy Commander noted, “I must especially mention here the unconditional assistance given by the U.S. Marines in imparting the much needed professional skills to Sri Lanka Navy Marines. Training and exchange of subject matter expert knowledge from the U.S. Marines come at a time we most needed them. We are indeed fortunate to acquire basic skills and professional know-how from one of the leading Marine forces personnel in the world. The U.S. Marines and sailors of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit embarked aboard amphibious transport dock USS Somerset (LPD 25) arrived in Trincomalee for a Theater Security Cooperation (TSC) exchange with the Navy’s Marine Corps is presently honing basic military skills and small boat operations that could support HA/DR missions.”

The first badge of the Sri Lankan Marine Corps of a 175 group of men is due to compete their training in January 2017.

However, despite all positive contribution the Navy Commander credited, the possible mayhem thwarted  at the Magampura port has turned to much criticism in the public domain just because of many were not aware the truth behind scenario. He was targeted by many media outlets and then those who are eager in creepy publicity based on the video went viral where a journalist was having a difficult time in his “reporting”.

Rhetoric in the name of “media freedom” straw the broth of national security. It was the incident truth were buried while launching an irrational knavish attack against Sri Lanka Navy. But, truth is out there, which, unfortunately, is nothing important in the political life in this country.

However, the whole episode was concluded after managed to secure the principles of the maritime convention ratified by this country. But Vice Admiral Wijegunaratne did not forget to write a W- memo to narrate the situation in the port and reasoning the steps he has taken, which was later circulated among the relevant divisions in the Navy.

“I am proud to say that the officers and sailors who were deployed in Hambantota on that day did an outstanding job to get the harbour operations back to normal. We exhibited to the entire nation the level of our professionalism. From taking control of the forcefully held pier until the safe sailing of MV Hyperion Highway, it was the Navy that ran the entire harbour operations. Even now we are fully prepared to assist as well as to run the entire harbour operations by ourselves. That is why I said I am proud of the officers and sailors who were actively involved in redressing the tense situation on that day. If not for them, even my presence would have not achieved the expected results,” he has noted in the W- Memo.

“Those who know about my character know that I am a person who commands men from the front, not from behind. And that is exactly what I did on that day too. I only wanted to ensure that the ships were released and we would clear the situation as soon as possible. The Navy did exactly that and restored normalcy. But, unfortunately, many gave resounding publicity to the action that I took to physically move a journalist outside the perimeter line as no one was allowed to record our actions and drills. The majority of the citizens praised what we did in Hambantota,” he further added.

Sri Lanka Navy Commander Vice Admiral Ravindra C. Wijegunaratne

Most important question that Navy is now searching for the answer is who would be the successor of Vice Admiral Wijegunaratne. According to the seniority of the hierarchy, Rear Admiral Travis Sinniah who is currently commanding the Eastern Naval Area is ranking number one. But, one of the most concerning  issues in such appointment is that the one who is going to command the institution is required to have at least one and half years prior to retirement age. Counting based on this basic principle, Commander Northern Naval Area, Rear Admiral Piyal De Silva would be the person who has most of the basic requirements.

Nonetheless, in this situation the government will have to take the decision with greater care than ever before. Especially a person like Travis who was politically victimised during the previous government played a pivotal role during the war, restrained subsequently after the new government came into power. He was a mastermind behind most of the operations against the LTTE’s shipping network. Whoever is going to command the institution, should not let it down to deteriorate to the situation in the past where most of the commanders and their wives were seen to lower the credibility of their contribution.

As the year was about the end, Air Symposium 2016, 67th Army Day and 66th Navy Day were coloured  the three institutions while making avenue to rethink, redesign and reengineer, whereas annual Defence Seminar organised by Sri Lanka Army and annual Galle Dialogue organized by the Sri Lanka Navy where expanded to have wider discussion on national security and other aspects of the defence apparatus.

Admiral Harry B. Harris, USN, Commander US Pacific Command one of most influential figures in US Navy and a man who came under much criticism over the suicide of inmates at Guantanamo Prison, Cuba, was in Sri Lanka as a key speaker of the Galle dialogue has taken much attention. Over 43 countries including India, China, Japan, Russia and Germany represented the dialogue and fretfully shared their thoughts on the tendencies of maritime security.

Arguments vs. counter arguments have decorated the waves of defence throughout the year. The dismantled opposition which is starving without political themes came to the main topic over their warning on the possibilities of a military coup. The rumours were smashed before the public by senior Defence officials including Navy commander.

But, nothing has completely stopped the attitude of uncertainty within the society. On the one hand, the gang Aava held responsible for minor scale crimes in Tamil dominated areas has won much media attention. On the other hand, retired military officers have celebrated “war literature” by producing many books. Such events have created golden opportunity to restart friendships among those who have maintained antagonism during their tenure. On one such occasion, former Navy commander Admiral (retired) Wasantha Krannagoda shook hands with Retired Rear Admiral Mohan Wijewickrama during a book launch. Admiral (Retired) Karannagoda prevented Mohan then the Governor of North Eastern Province from entering any navy base in the area. But the present political climax helps them rejoice on certain political grounds. Nothing would be better than taking words from Khrushchev of USSR in yesterday’s world. “How can we not rejoice, comrades,’ asked Khrushchev in 1958, ‘at the gigantic achievements of our industry? What other state has ever built on such a scale? There has never been such a country!’

What a wonderful world.

Let’s say goodbye to 2016, and let’s warmly welcome 2017 as the matter of responsibility to ensure the public safety and establishment of social life beyond the mere rhetoric of national security unlike in the last year!  Nothing better to conclude the year’s summary by quoting Orwellian sage words, “all political thinking for years past has been vitiated in the same way. People can foresee the future only when it coincides with their own wishes, and the most grossly obvious fact can be ignored when they are unwelcome.”


 (Nilantha Ilangamuwa, editor of Sri Lanka Guardian.)


 

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