For heaven sake do something or shut up
Air Force spokesman, Wing Commander Ajantha de Silva
“The sooner the Wing Commander's wings are clipped and his mouth sealed, the better....”
There is an oft quoted line from Samuel Johnson's life of Boswell. No doubt other words of Johnson have been cited in other circumstances. But these particular words seem to be singularly appropriate in the prevailing context in Sri Lanka.
Patriotism, said, Johnson, is the last refuge of a scoundrel. Patriotism in itself is not to be derided. But when it becomes the fig leaf behind which some hide their mediocrity, incompetence and insouciance, wearing patriotism like a badge of courage on the sleeves of one's tunic, whether the lily-white top of our traditional dress or of a military uniform, it degrades that national sentiment.
One might even excuse the plethora of patriots that have emerged from the woodwork like ants from a disturbed ant hill. They exist not only in Sri Lanka but even among the widely scattered diaspora, mouthing inanities on war and peace.
One of the more recent problems is that officials and bureaucrats who should traditionally remain in the background and maintain the kind of reticence expected of them, have joined the fray in waving their patriotic flag and trying to show an increasingly cynical public that they are more catholic than the Pope or, to be charitable, make their presence also felt in the public arena.
Whether this is to try and justify the positions and duties thrust upon them or they have hankered after, is a moot point. But this tendency to crave media attention or use the media to air thoughts that should remain outside the public domain is surely a matter of concern.
So we have a range of public officials from the foreign secretary to a clutch of defence spokesmen who open their mouths far too often to make utterances that are better left unsaid or settled elsewhere rather than through the media.
Though I have felt for some time now that this unfortunate and unhappy tendency should be publicly aired, the present comment is prompted by some observations in last week's The Sunday Times.
Fellow columnist Iqbal Athas brought up two issues that are of particular concern. One was about an Air Force spokesman, Wing Commander Ajantha de Silva whose performance on a private TV channel drew fire from Columnist Athas who said that Ajantha de Silva had blamed the media for the four successive air attacks launched by the LTTE. Since I did not view this programme I cannot account for the officer's abstruse logic, if one might resort to understatement.
"He dropped a bombshell when he declared men or women in his organisation were corrupt for they sold information to the media for money."
"Now the loud mouthed spokesman, The Sunday Times learns, is to face an inquiry……"
The Political Editor of The Sunday Times went further adding that after the March 26 Tiger attack on the SLAF's Katunayake base, Wing Commander de Silva had telephoned media organisations and appealed to them not to report that the radar at the air base did not work.
The Political Editor was even more critical of the SLAF spokesman's antics on TV which only goes to show the danger of having incompetent or over zealous persons placed in sensitive positions.
The sooner the Wing Commander's wings are clipped and his mouth sealed, the better it would be for the credibility of the service and the government he is said to serve.
But he is not the only one guilty of faux pas. There are other spokesmen, especially in the defence establishment who should be better advised to speak less and do more in the way of taking positive steps to eliminate or minimise security dangers when they are brought to light instead of trying to muzzle the media with threats, veiled or otherwise.
Iqbal Athas also remarks that intelligence is investigating reliable reports that the Tigers have ten light aircraft instead of the five they are said to possess.
The LTTE air wing has been very much in the news since it was activated on March 26 with attacks on the SLAF base.
Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona has even gone to the extent of saying that it poses a threat to nuclear facilities in southern India.
Such speculation seems gratuitous in the light of remarks made by military spokesman Prasad Samarasinghe who is quoted in the Indian media as saying that Sri Lanka does not consider that the LTTE poses such a threat. He is reported to have said that the authorities have not even considered this possibility.
"We certainly have had no discussions on anything like this," Samarasinghe is quoted as saying.
The fundamental question is not whether the Tigers have five or ten aircraft or whether they pose a threat to Indian facilities.
The real issue is what did Sri Lanka's political and military establishments do to mitigate the effects of such an asset all this time?
Neither could claim with any conviction that they were not aware the LTTE was trying to acquire or had acquired an air asset.
As far back as November 7, 2004 The Sunday Times carried evidence from an extremely reliable source regarding this.
On that day in a news report from London headlined "Tigers armed with aircraft, claims London-based think tank," I wrote that "The LTTE has acquired two aircraft and a helicopter, says a prestigious international think tank based here. The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) says in its latest publication that the Tigers are equipped with a light helicopter, the Robinson R44 Astro and two light aircraft whose make has not been identified."
I was quoting from the IISS publication Military Balance 2004-2005.
"Asked for more details on the capabilities of LTTE aircraft and whether they could be armed and, if so, with what weapons, Colonel Christopher Langton, editor of Military Balance and head of the Defence Analysis Department told The Sunday Times that he could not "supply this information for the moment."
The news report went on to say that no outside agency, particularly a think tank also dedicated to accessing and logging the military capabilities of states and non-state armed groups, had so categorically stated the presence of aircraft in the hands of the LTTE.
"It now appears that the 2003-2004 edition of Military Balance had also mentioned the LTTE's air 'power'. So it would seem that the LTTE acquired the aircraft in the last year (2003) or so. Some observers now wonder whether the large number of packages brought into the country by LTTE delegations returning to Sri Lanka after the so-called peace negotiations and which were allowed to pass unopened by the Customs could have contained parts of the light aircraft."
This report was 2 1/2 years ago and I referred to this exclusive report from London in this column on March 6, 2005, shortly after former US presidents George Bush (snr) and Bill Clinton had visited Sri Lanka following the tsunami.
During their meetings with President Chandrika Kumaratunga, she is reported to have taken up the issue of the LTTE aircraft with them, obviously in an appeal to major international players to do something about this air asset.
In that column headlined "In-laws, outlaws and their flying machines," I referred to the fact that several months earlier Iqbal Athas had reported about the airstrip being constructed in the Wanni.
Now that patriotism and traitorous acts are raised whenever the media exposes lapses-political or military – the public that is potentially at the receiving end of offensive and defensive actions might well ask what our sofa patriots and media critics in the political and military establishments were doing when the media was providing them with vital information that they did not appear to possess.
In this column on March 6, 2005 I said "The one clear advantage Sri Lanka's armed forces have is air superiority. It should have been clear even to the purblind the LTTE would try to minimise, if not neutralise, that advantage. Just as they created a naval strike force, they were bound to try and change that advantage."
In fact I added jokingly that "By the time the president deals with this through diplomatic channels, Air Eelam will be landing at Iranamadu Airport and Scandinavian Airlines Systems (SAS) at Kilinochchi Airport. But don't rush to your travel agent – not yet anyway."
The tsunami disaster also provided a great opportunity for the Tigers and their supporters or sympathisers abroad to rush through container-loads of vital material, some of which had no relevance to the assistance required by those affected.
Had those containers been systematically examined, Sri Lanka would have earned the wrath of western governments and their NGO cohorts for delaying much needed aid for tsunami victims and that we were adding to the humanitarian disaster.
That was the unfortunate price Sri Lanka had to pay for allowing several hundreds of NGOs, many of them spurious with few credentials to back their claims, unrestricted and unsupervised access.
But that does not absolve Sri Lanka's political leaders of the time, including those that permitted LTTE delegations to return with excessive loads of baggage that went unsupervised, and the security forces heads of the day for not taking appropriate action when information was staring them in the face.
The media played its role by informing the leaders and the public. The media did not fail the nation.
It is for the public to decide who did.