Nation’s safety comes first
A viable National Security strategy needs to be aligned with the aspirations of the people, and it must have public support. This will ensure the safety of the nation. The government’s prime duty is ensuring the safety of the nation while guarding against various threats, states Defence and Urban Development Ministry Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.
The Defence Secretary was addressing students following the National Interest Module of the inaugural MPhil/PhD Programme of the Kotelawala Defence University. The speech was on the topic, ‘Sri Lanka’s National Security Concerns’.
Text of the speech:
Combating such an enemy that employed guerrilla tactics required the Sri Lankan Armed Forces to grow significantly. Between the end of 2005 and the end of 2009, the number of Army personnel grew from 120,000 to over 200,000; its 9 Divisions were increased to 20; its 44 Brigades expanded to 71; and its 149 Battalions increased to 284. The Navy and the Air Force were also expanded significantly, and given tasks beyond their classic role. The upholding of security throughout the country also required the Police and Special Task Force to be strengthened, and the Civil Defence Force was revamped and significantly expanded.
Because of the internationalisation of the Sri Lankan situation during the previous decades, there was a great deal of foreign scrutiny on the progress of the Humanitarian Operation. By keeping the Indian leaders constantly informed about what was happening on ground, and by skilfully managing our relationships with other nations, it was possible for the war effort to continue unimpeded. Nevertheless, towards the end of the war in 2009, the Foreign Ministers of France and the United Kingdom arrived in Sri Lanka and attempted to intervene in the military campaign, although they did not succeed. Efforts by such parties to end the Humanitarian Operation reflect the tremendous influence that the LTTE’s international network had on foreign capitals. Many in the international community wilfully ignored the fact that the Government of Sri Lanka was duty-bound to protect its citizens from the aggression of the LTTE terrorists. Even after the war ended and peace dawned in 2009, this bias against the Government led to Sri Lanka being taken up at the United Nations Human Rights Council. Although the initial Resolution against Sri Lanka was defeated that year, two more were sponsored by the United States in 2012 and 2013, and successfully passed.
Today, Sri Lanka is a country enjoying the full benefits of peace, and it is engaged in a concerted push to accelerate its economic development and bring prosperity to its citizens. The country has much to catch up on. Three decades of conflict lost us countless opportunities for growth: foreign and local investment suffered due to fears about the war; tourists did not visit the country, and many of our best and brightest went overseas to build better futures for themselves. Countries such as Singapore, which were in a similar economic position to Sri Lanka when we reached Independence in 1948, developed at a tremendous rate during this period. This is because they did not have a major conflict to contend with. Sri Lanka’s prospects on the other hand were greatly curtailed as a result of the war. This is why the biggest responsibility of the Government of Sri Lanka even today, in the post war situation, is to ensure the continued security of the country. Without security and stability, there will be no economic development. The maintenance of National Security is therefore of the utmost importance.
The National Security of Sri Lanka needs to be addressed in context of the history of this country and the realities of its present situation, and most critically from the perspective of several responsibilities of the state. The state must ensure that the Sovereignty and Territorial Integrity of the nation is maintained, and that there are no threats to the safety of our population. Ensuring economic growth so that the people of the country can uplift their standard of living is also critical in order to prevent internal problems recurring in the future. Creating a favourable environment for Sri Lanka internationally is similarly of the utmost importance in keeping adverse external influence at bay. Securing the safety of our physical assets and safeguarding the nation’s democracy are also critical. Considering this overall context, it is clear that National Security must be understood within a unified, single framework that integrates the nation’s Defence, Law and Order, Foreign Policy and Economic Policy. These four areas need to come together in the creation of a comprehensive National Security Strategy. This is essential if Sri Lanka is to consolidate its present peace and stability and fulfil its potential.
Present National Security Concerns
There are several potential threats in today’s context that Sri Lanka needs to be concerned about. These include:
• The possible re-emergence of terrorism
• The emergence of other extremist groups
• The creation of ethnic divisions and communal violence
• The challenges of maritime security and border control
• The growth of organised crime
• Foreign interference in domestic affairs
• Non-traditional threats through technology driven new media, including social media.
In discussing terrorism, it is first of all important to appreciate the sheer scale of the problem that the Government of Sri Lanka was confronted with as a result of the LTTE over the past three decades. Since the 1970s, the LTTE grew from a small organisation of armed individuals to a large, sophisticated terrorist outfit with very advanced combat capabilities. At its height, the LTTE had more than 30,000 battle-hardened cadres; access to large stockpiles of modern armaments, ammunition and equipment; a sophisticated naval wing and a fledgling air wing. For a considerable period of the conflict, the LTTE was able to maintain the illusion of a functional state apparatus in the territories it dominated. It also had significant influence in foreign capitals as a result of its extensive international network. Defeating the LTTE required a concerted effort on the part of the Sri Lankan Government. As a result of the unwavering leadership of His Excellency the President Mahinda Rajapaksa, this task was achieved in May of 2009.
In the immediate aftermath of the war, there were a number of issues that needed to be dealt with. First was the problem of nearly 300,000 internally displaced people who had been used as the LTTE’s human shield during the last phases of the war. Then there was the need to demine the North and East so that those areas would be safe for human habitation. This resulted in the recovery of hundreds of thousands of mines and improvised explosive devices laid by the LTTE during its retreat. Infrastructure development and reconstruction of those areas after years of neglect under the LTTE’s dominance was another significant issue that had to be dealt with, after which it was possible to resettle the IDPs in their places of origin. One of the most important issues was dealing with the nearly twelve thousand surrendered LTTE cadres and four thousand detained cadres. The Government took the bold step of rehabilitating nearly all of them so that they could become productive citizens in future. The vast majority of them have already been reintegrated with society.
Amongst other post war achievements has been the disarming of other armed groups that used to operate in the North and East, and the encouragement these groups have been given to contribute to society through democratic processes. The restrictions that used to be in force on movement, fishing, high security zones etc., have all been removed. Democracy has been completely restored, with free and fair elections taking place. Economic growth in the North and East has been truly remarkable in the recent past, and it is clear beyond doubt that normalcy has been restored to the people.
Despite all of these very positive developments, however, the threat of terrorism re-emerging still persists. One of the main reasons for the LTTE’s success during its heyday was its extensive international network, which has been in operation for many decades. Following the ambush and massacre of 13 soldiers in the North by the LTTE in 1983, there was a major communal backlash against the Tamils in the rest of the country. As a result of the July 1983 riots, a large number of Tamil people left Sri Lanka and travelled to countries such as Canada, the United Kingdom, Malaysia and parts of Europe. These countries granted asylum to these immigrants, and later granted them citizenship. As such, there is a large population of immigrant Sri Lankan Tamils in other countries. A small minority of this population supports the LTTE even to this day. Extremist elements within this community, together with LTTE agents and operatives, including trained terrorists who fled Sri Lanka at various times during the war, comprise the LTTE’s international network.
After the demise of Prabhakaran, the LTTE’s former procurement chief Kumaran Pathmanadan, better known as KP, took control over this network and indicated that it would continue to work for the separatist cause through peaceful means. However, a breakaway faction emerged almost immediately, led by Nediyawan, who wanted to continue Prabhakaran’s ideology of violence. Nediyawan’s group, was previously known as The Tamil Eelam People’s Assembly or the Tamil National Council and is now known as the Tamil Coordinating Committee, Based in Norway, this group has been working with other international groups to promote the LTTE’s separatist cause in many parts of the world. The Tamil Coordinating Committee has control over most of the assets of the LTTE’s international organisation, including its media networks such as Tamil Net.
Following the arrest of KP in August 2009, Rudrakumaran took over the leadership of the main network and began working towards establishing a “Government in Exile”. This group now fashions itself as The Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam. In the guise of fighting for Tamil rights, its primary objective is to lobby foreign Governments for the establishment of a separate state in the North and East of Sri Lanka. The so-called “Transnational Government” has about twenty “Ministers” and “Deputy Ministers”, and was formed with assistance of an advisory committee comprising prominent pro LTTE activists, including foreigners who have been helping the LTTE for many years. There has recently been a revolt within the TGTE, where one third of its members loyal to Nediyawan, went against the leadership of Rudrakumaran because they wished to engage in more radical action.
Another prominent LTTE-linked group emerged out of the British Tamils Association, which was active since 2001 in supporting the terrorism of the LTTE in Sri Lanka. In 2006, the leader of the BTA, Arunachalam Krishanthakumar, alias Shanthan, was investigated on suspicion of supporting terrorist activities. As a result of these suspicions about the BTA, the British Tamils Forum was formed in 2006 to carry on the same activities in a new guise. The BTF acted as an umbrella organisation that mustered support from the immigrant Tamil community and local British politicians for dividing Sri Lanka. With Shanthan’s arrest by British authorities in June 2007 for providing material support to terrorism and his conviction in April 2009, as well as the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009, the role played by the BTF needed to be changed to suit the post-war environment.
As a result of this, the Global Tamils Forum emerged in February 2010, with many of the same members as the BTF. The head of the GTF is the so-called Father Emmanuel, a Priest who was once hailed by Prabhakaran as “a freedom fighter who has given leadership to a movement committed to setting up the homeland to Tamil Eelam”. Father Emmanuel has been engaged in a propaganda campaign against Sri Lanka for many years, targeting Tamil expatriates, Foreign Governments and International Organisations. He is known to have visited LTTE strongholds in Sri Lanka in mid-2000 to conduct training for selected youth who were earmarked to take up overseas appointments for fundraising and propaganda for the LTTE.
Under Father Emmanuel’s guidance, the GTF has successfully influenced a number of politicians from various political parties in European countries as well as the United States, Australia, Canada, and India to support the separatist cause. In addition, the GTF has courted officials within international organisations such as the United Nations, the European Union and various international non-governmental organisations to obtain their support. Part of the success of the GTF in these activities can be attributed to the involvement of influential pro-LTTE foreigners in it. These include Mrs. Joan Ryan, a former British Parliamentarian who has become the Head of the GTF’s Secretariat.
Yet another group that is active internationally in supporting the separatist cause is the LTTE Headquarter Group, which is based in France and headed by Vinayagam, a senior intelligence cadre who managed to escape during the final stages of the war in Sri Lanka. This is a group that is known to engage in Human Smuggling, with some of its past operations including the sending of the “Sun Sea” and “Ocean Lady” vessels from South East Asia to Canada in 2009 and 2010. The members of this group generally maintain a low profile and their movements are kept to a minimum as most of them have been issued Red Notices by Interpol for their involvement in criminal activities. They also keep their distance from both Nediyawan’s and Rudrakumaran’s groups, but maintain links with the GTF.
All of the LTTE-linked groups are coordinated by the GTF and united by one overarching objective. Their unwavering intent is the division of Sri Lanka and the establishment of a separate state for Tamil Eelam. There are several strategies through which they will try to achieve their objective. These include:
The winning of international opinion for the separatist cause,
• Increasing international pressure on Sri Lanka in various areas; including pushing for international investigations into war crimes and claims of genocide, and by encouraging international monitoring of the national reconciliation process,
• Undermining all efforts of the democratically elected Government of Sri Lanka to create a better future for its citizens through reconciliation and economic development, and
• Continuing to push for the resumption of conflict through reorganizing local pro-LTTE elements within Sri Lanka.
Some of the efforts of these LTTE-linked groups have been successful to a certain extent in that despite the war having ended four years ago, the internal affairs of Sri Lanka have been kept at the forefront of the UNHRC’s Sessions as well as at the top of the agenda of several prominent international NGOs even in the recent past. It has to be noted that many of those who create this pressure by claiming to be human rights activists and victims of state repression are actually trained LTTE cadres and operatives who are now fully engaged in propaganda activities. It is very important to understand that their attempts to put pressure on the Government through international bodies such as the UNHRC and non state actors such as international NGOs is designed to strengthen those who work against Sri Lanka’s interests.
In this context it is important to realise that there are groups even within the democratic mainstream in Sri Lanka that obtain funding from the LTTE’s international network and pro-LTTE elements overseas, which more or less openly talk about achieving the very same objectives that the LTTE had. Though they appear to have a democratic face, their actions and remarks clearly show that the extremist separatist ideology has not yet disappeared. Their ultimate objective is achieving the division of Sri Lanka. As a result of their actions and statements, it is very much a possibility that certain radical elements will feel empowered to once again attempt to take up arms in the name of separation. This is a major National Security threat that needs to be taken with the utmost seriousness.
In addition to the threat of terrorism, Sri Lanka also faces a potential threat from other extremist groups. These are the remnants of the radical groups that were involved in previous insurgencies. Some of these groups are trying to reorganise within Sri Lanka and mobilise people to once again take up their extreme left wing causes. There is information that some of these groups have started to link up with the LTTE-linked groups to create further problems in Sri Lanka. Some of their activities include radicalising students and encouraging them to take to the streets in various protests. Though such activities are still in their early stages, they pose another serious National Security concern that we need to be vigilant of.
Another growing concern in the post-war environment is the increasing communalism amongst ethnic groups, which if left unaddressed, could result in the rise of ethnic tensions in the future. During the period of the war, it was not only the Sinhalese and Tamil communities that were affected by the terrorist separatism of the LTTE, but also the Muslims. After the LTTE started engaging in ethnic cleansing in the North in the early 1980s, it expelled the Sinhalese community from Jaffna and soon after turned its attention to the Muslims. Several massacres were carried out at Mosques in the East, and in October 1990, the LTTE expelled more than 75,000 Muslim residents from the North. This was followed by further brutal attacks on Muslims in vulnerable villages near the territory dominated by the LTTE. In this environment, the Muslims also started to organise themselves for their own protection against the LTTE. After the LTTE’s defeat, some of these groups have begun to engage in activities that stem far beyond self-protection. There is some information that some of these groups have even tried to link up with the global Islamic terrorist movement. This is a situation that requires careful monitoring.
On a broader scale, it also has to be acknowledged that one of the consequences of the terrorist conflict Sri Lanka endured for thirty years has been the increased insularity of ethnic groups. Rather than identifying themselves on the basis of nationality, the communities of Sri Lanka have begun to identify themselves on the basis of their ethnicity or their religion. Instead of calling themselves Sri Lankan, they identify themselves as Sinhalese or Tamils or Muslims or Buddhists or Christians. This fragmentation of the Sri Lankan identity is most unfortunate, because activists within these communal groups seek minority rights or ethnic rights rather than working within the framework of a common national identity.
The cross-border links that can arise as a result of such insular ethnic or religious identification is also very troublesome. It is clear that there are some in the Tamil community who identify themselves more with the Tamil community of Tamil Nadu than with their fellow Sri Lankans. This has been encouraged by some parties overseas who wish to promote the idea of a greater Tamil Nation. Similarly, it has been observed that there are some foreign groups that wish to encourage Sri Lankan Muslims to identify themselves more with the global Muslim community, thereby reducing their integration within Sri Lanka. This trend has been particularly prevalent in the post September 11 world, in which there has been a tendency among certain groups to try and influence the global Muslim community towards religious extremism has become visible.
The increasing insularity and cohesion amongst minority ethnic groups has also led to the emergence of hard line groups from the majority community: the popularity of certain political groups and movements can be viewed as being largely a response to this trend. In turn, the emergence of hard line groups in the majority community causes further tensions amongst other communities, which leads to a vicious cycle of greater fragmentation of the Sri Lankan identity. Sri Lanka had enough divisions in the past that ultimately led to conflict; we must learn the lessons from our past and ensure that history is not repeated. This is therefore a very serious National Security concern at the present moment.
The maintenance of maritime security is another serious National Security Concern that the Government needs to be vigilant about. As an island, Sri Lanka does not have land borders to worry about, but maintaining maritime security is a serious challenge. In the past, the only maritime security issues that had to be dealt with was the illegal movement of Indians into Sri Lanka and the smuggling that took place between Sri Lanka and South India. Preventing these threats was one of the foremost duties of the military in the 1950s and the 1960s. However, with the development of the LTTE and other terrorist groups in the 1970s and beyond, maritime security became a major concern to Sri Lanka.
For example, it is a well-known fact that the LTTE acquired a vast arsenal of weapons and equipment including artillery, missiles, mortars, armoured vehicles and even light aircraft. None of these items were produced in Sri Lanka, but were brought into Sri Lanka through the sea. In addition to military supplies, the LTTE’s cadres were initially trained at bases in Tamil Nadu. Given the recent activities of LTTE-linked organisations outside Sri Lanka and particularly in Tamil Nadu, this is very much a current threat even today.
The organised trafficking of persons or human smuggling is another significant maritime security issue. Organised groups, some of which are connected to LTTE-linked organisations, have lured many people seeking better economic prospects into this lucrative illegal operation. During this year alone, more than 440 such people have attempted to leave Sri Lanka illegally. Having sold their properties and handed over all their wealth to the operators of these schemes, the victims of human trafficking find themselves trapped on board unsafe vessels along with hundreds of others, travelling to countries that will most often refuse them entry. In order to make a compelling case for their acceptance by border control authorities abroad, such economic refugees often concoct stories about being persecuted in Sri Lanka, thereby damaging the country’s reputation. Furthermore, the mechanisms of human trafficking have enabled trained terrorists to escape justice in Sri Lanka and flee abroad to safe havens, from which they may once again attempt to cause problems to the country through other means.
A further consideration with regard to maritime security is the protection of our maritime assets. One of the problems Sri Lanka has faced in the maritime domain after the defeat of the LTTE has been the increasing incidence of pirate fishing in Sri Lankan waters by South Indian fishermen. These fishermen use illegal practices such as bottom trawling to maximise their catch. This causes serious damage to the healthy fish stocks in Sri Lankan waters, and also adversely affects the livelihoods of our own fishermen. These fishing boats that enter Sri Lankan waters illegally have also been known to engage in other criminal activities including drug smuggling. Protecting our waters from these fishermen, as well as from others who might seek to exploit our other oceanic resources including oil and gas, will be one of the key maritime security challenges for Sri Lanka in the future.
Somewhat farther afield, the threat of international piracy is also a concern for Sri Lanka’s maritime security. Many of the world’s most important Sea Lanes of Communications are located in close proximity to Sri Lanka, and both the newly built Hambantota Port as well as the Colombo port are ideally situated to service the hundreds of vessels that cross these lanes on a daily basis. The reach and sophistication of the pirates originating mostly from East Africa has been increasing in recent years. This factor undermines the security of these Sea Lanes and could pose a serious problem to shipping in the region in the future. This will have an impact on the country’s economic security as well, and is therefore another challenge that needs to be monitored.
With regard to border security, one of the concerns Sri Lanka has is the possibility of the country being used as a transit point for transnational crime. The arrest of certain elements connected with extremist regional terrorist groups in India and Pakistan have shown that they have used Sri Lanka as a transit point from which to coordinate their activities. Some who are known to have been temporarily sheltered in Sri Lanka by an International Organisation after claiming refugee status in the west, are known criminals who engaged in illegal activities such as credit card fraud, drug smuggling and counterfeit currency printing abroad.
Organised crime in Sri Lanka is another issue that needs to be addressed. As a result of the rise of terrorism and the insurrections Sri Lanka experienced over the last forty years, and the response required from the state, a considerable amount of arms and ammunition inadvertently fell into the hands of criminals. This led to the rise of the underworld, which is now engaged in a number of organised criminal activities including drugs, armed robberies, kidnappings for ransom and financial frauds.
There are also groups that engage in seizing land illegally. Tackling the challenges posed by organised criminal groups is another priority for the state.
In today’s environment, the possibility of foreign interference in our internal affairs remains a significant National Security concern. With the involvement of countries like India, Norway, and the United States of America in Sri Lanka as a result of the terrorist conflict, matters relating to this country’s internal affairs have gained increased visibility within the international community.
India in particular is very sensitive to what is going on in Sri Lanka because of the large Tamil population in its influential southern state of Tamil Nadu.
Especially during the elections cycle, Sri Lanka figures large in its power politics. In the recent past, we have seen even the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu attempting to pressurise the central government into opposing Sri Lanka internationally. This is a serious threat to Sri Lanka’s security, and perhaps even its sovereignty.