Shock waves in Navy: Sandagiri's extension sinks six senio

After extended term, Navy Chief off to Boston
Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri, who this week won a three year extended term of office to serve as Commander of the Navy until he is 58 years, flew last night to United States to attend a seminar for senior executives.

Titled "Senior Executives in National and International Security," the seminar is being held at the Harvard University in Boston from August 18 to 30.

Though the seminar is not specifically meant for those at the level of Security Forces commanders, the Ministry of Defence had nominated him to take part
That is not all. Navy funds were utilized to obtain and upgrade for a business class journey The United States Embassy in Colombo had politely declined a request by Vice Admiral Sandagiri's aides for a Business Class ticket on grounds that participants to this seminar were being issued only Econmy Class tickets.

The US Embassy which follows strict protocol, has always made available Business Class tickets to service commanders whenever they were invited to take part in official engagements.

During the previous People's Alliance administration, invitations to seminars, workshops and other such related events which were not at the level of service commanders were handed down to senior officers.

This was both to allow them international exposure and also an opportunity for career development.

The commanders, however, were permitted to accept, with the approval of the Defence Ministry, personal invitations from friendly Governments and to take part in other events where their military counterparts participated. They also accompanied other dignitaries on visits abroad.

One of those who participated in the same Harvard University Seminar last year was Major General Anton Wijendra, then Security Forces Commander, Jaffna and now Deputy Chief of Staff of the Army.

The Commander of the Sri Lanka Navy, Vice Admiral Daya Wickrema Kumara Sandagiri created military history this week.

Due to reach his age of retirement after becoming 55 years on September 1, this year, he sought a year's extension of service. The Ministry of Defence duly recommended this to President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, Commander-in-Chief. Conceding his request would have meant a retirement on August 31, 2003, instead of next month. But the file was returned from the Presidential Secretariat to the Ministry of Defence with queries orclarifications. They were answered and the file sent back.

And, last Monday afternoon, the file was back from the Presidential Secretariat with a decisive endorsement. President Kumaratunga, as Commander-in-Chief had extended Vice Admiral Sandagiri's term of office by three years. He will now remain as Commander of the Sri Lanka Navy until August 31, 2005 or until he reaches 58 years. What earned him this historic reward is not clear but the move has set off shock waves in an already divided and demoralised Sri Lanka Navy.

In the Navy, which is over 64 years old now, not one single Commander has been granted an extension of service up to 58 years of age. That included the four Britishers who were Commanders since 1938 (in the Royal Navy, the precursors) and the ten Sri Lankans who have followed thereafter.

Just two days after winning the unprecedented extension of service, Vice Admiral Sandagiri held a string of news conferences, individually talking to journalists from various newspaper groups and TV stations.

That was his main engagement last Wednesday.

It has been customary in the past for service Commanders to obtain prior approval from the Defence Secretary before such news conferences, interviews or when making public statements on official matters. The former Defence Secretary Chandrananda de Silva, followed this procedure and Commanders who did not fall in line were reprimanded.

Whether Vice Admiral Sandagiri obtained such approval from Defence Secretary Austin Fernando, before Wednesday's news conferences is not clear.

If indeed such approval was obtained, one need hardly say, the embarrassment all round was worst confounded by the declarations of the Navy Chief. He literally usurped the role of his own Commander-in-Chief when he declared that his extended tenure of three years "would not affect the promotional prospects of the next six senior-most officers below him."

He vouched that these six senior officers could receive promotions in due course and even extensions of service when they reach 55 years, the age of retirement - a declaration which could only come from President Kumaratunga as Commander-in-Chief. The example he cited for extensions being granted beyond retirement age were not from the Navy, but from the Army.

If it was purely to assuage the feelings of the six senior officers whose hope of becoming Commander one day has been shattered, it should have emanated from someone higher in the defence establishment. In fact, this should have been clear to Vice Admiral Sandagiri since his own appeal for an extension of service, after reaching the retirement age at 55 years, was directed to his Commander-in-Chief, President Kumaratunga, through the Ministry of Defence.

Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri, became the first ever Commander of the Si Lanka Navy, to receive an extension of service upto 58 years. Among the ten Sri Lankans who have commanded the Navy so far, only Rear Admiral Victor Hunter, served one year beyond his retirement age of 55 years. Here are their details:

Rear Admiral (late) Royce de Mel
Served five years and a week. Was 43 years when he retired.

Rear Admiral (late) Rajan Kadirgamar
Served nine years and seven months. Was 48 years when he retired.

Rear Admiral (late) Victor Hunter
Served three years and 15 days. Was 56 years when he retired.

Rear Admiral Basil Gunasekera
Served six years and two months. Was 46 years when he retired.

Rear Admiral Alfred Perera
Served four years and 19 days. Was 53 years when he retired.

Vice Admiral Asoka de Silva
Served three years and seven months. Was 55 years when he retired.

Admiral (late) Ananda Silva
Served five years and 11 months. Was 55 years when he retired.

Admiral (late) Clancy Fernando
Served one year and 16 days. Was 54 years when he died in a LTTE attack.

Admiral Mohan Samarasekera
Served five years, two months and 11 days. Was 49 years when he retired.

Admiral Cecil Tissera
Served three years, 10 months and six days. Was 53 years when he retired.

Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri
Has so far served one year, seven months and 18 days. Will retire only on August 31, 2005.

How could he, therefore, make offers of promotions or extended terms of service to others? How could he publicly assure what is being granted to officers in the Army could be extended to the Navy too? Whose official view does his statements represent, the United Front Government, the People's Alliance or Vice Admiral Sandagiri's own? Even if the answers are not publicly known, it clearly underscores the lack of proper control and direction from the Ministry of Defence down to the upper echelons of the armed forces. Many a glaring instance has surfaced in the past seven months. The saga over the three-year extended term for Vice Admiral Sandagiri is no exception. More on that issue later.

Contrary to Vice Admiral Sandagiri's claim, the six senior-most officers under him will have to quit the Navy during varied periods, long before his retirement takes effect on August 31, 2005.

Thus, they will not be able to aspire to become Commander. Only the =Commander-in-Chief can grant an extended term of service, which is solely discretionary. In the case of the six senior officers, even if such extensions are granted at the end of their terms, it will, at most, help them only to remain in their present positions. This is how the six senior-most officers in the high command of the Navy are placed:

Rear Admiral Mohan Wijewickrema, Chief of Staff, a widely respected professional, was the next in line to become Commander even if a year's extension of service was granted to Vice Admiral Sandagiri.
He was confirmed in the rank of Rear Admiral on March 8, 2001. Hence, his mandatory three-year maximum period of service in the rank ends on March 7, 2004. He would, therefore, have to quit on this day, which is a year and nearly six months before Vice Admiral Sandagiri retires on August 31, 2005.

The same applies to Rear Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda, DirectorGeneral of Naval Operations (DGNO). Like Rear Admiral Wijewickrema, he was also confirmed in the rank of Rear Admiral on March 8, 2001. His mandatory three-year maximum period of service in the rank will also end on March 7, 2004, a year and nearly six months before the retirement of Vice Admiral Sandagiri.

Rear Admiral Sarath Ratnakeerthi, Commander, Eastern Naval Area and Rear Admiral Sarath Weerase-kera, Commander, Northern Naval Area, are due for confirmation in their current rank with effect from January 1, 2002. Hence their mandatory maximum period in the rank will end on December 31, 2005, eight months before the retirement of Vice Admiral Sandagiri.

Rear Admiral Nandalal Thuduwewatte, currently on a year long stint at India's National Defence College is due to be confirmed in his rank with effect from April 1, 2002.

Hence, his mandatory maximum period in the rank will end on March 31, 2005, five months before the retirement of Vice Admiral Sandagiri. Rear Admiral Dayananda Dharmapriya, Commander, Western Naval Area is due to be confirmed in his present rank with effect from June 1, 2002. Hence, his mandatory maximum period of three years of service in the rank will end on May 31, 2005, three months before the retirement of Vice Admiral Sandagiri.

It is a legal requirement that officers completing their mandatory maximum period of three years in the rank they hold, retire unless they are promoted to the next rank. An exception is when the Commander-in-Chief grants an extension of the period of service in the same rank or higher.

Whether some or all these six senior officers will receive extended terms, thus blocking the promotional prospects of others down the line, at this point of time, is purely speculative.

On Friday, Vice Admiral Sandagiri was in Trinco-malee to be on hand with Prime Minister Ranil Wic-kremesinghe, who inaugurated the "Yuga Dekma" exhibition and chaired a meeting of the United National Party National Executive Committee yesterday. He was summoned to Colombo on Friday by President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, just hours before she departed on a private visit to UK. He drove down to Colombo for a brief meeting.

The rationale behind the move by the UNF Government to originally recommend an year's extension of service to Vice Admiral Sandagiri, The Sunday Times learnt, was in view of what was described as serious infighting between the number two (Rear Admiral Wijewickrema) and the number three (Rear Admiral Karannagoda), both very capable officers.

It was argued that an extended term to the Navy Chief would see these two officers retire from service.

Infighting or factionalism in the security forces is nothing new or peculiar to the Sri Lanka Navy alone. In Sri Lanka, it exists in the armed services and Police too. It is in fact a common phenomenon in security forces around the world though they are not allowed to manifest to such alarmingly disturbing levels like in Sri Lanka - a feature which could jeopardise and endanger national security.

The Commanders in charge contain it by ruthlessly enforcing discipline and meting out punishment, sometimes very harsh.

Military history is replete with instances where the higher authority dealt with Commanders when they themselves failed to maintain discipline and protect the dignity and honour of their organisations. One need not go far for examples.

The Indian security forces have maintained a great tradition in enforcing discipline, cracking down on cronyism, fraternising with politicians or bureaucrats for favours and preventing widespread politicisation.

A glaring instance that highlights this total lack of control and direction at the apex, the Ministry of Defence, to the security forces, is illustrated by revelations in a Sunday newspaper.

This is by no means to fault the newspaper for its disclosure. It was in fact salutary the facts were brought out in public to show how factionalism has sharply divided the Navy, caused dissension and lowered morale, but also exposed the apathy of the bureaucrats concerned in not taking any corrective action.

The revelation spoke of how Vice Admiral Sandagiri has complained to Defence Secretary Austin Fernando, that five serving officers - Rear Admiral Mohan Wijewickrema (Chief of Staff), Rear Admiral C.N. Thuduwewatte (currently at the National Defence College in New Delhi), Commodore D.C.I. Kariyawasam (Director, Naval Engineering), Commodore A.L.V. Abeysena (Director, Naval Electricity and Electronics) and Commodore J.H.M. Abeykoon Banda (Director, Naval Supplies and Secretariat) - were allegedly involved in a fraud of over ten million US dollars. This was in respect of the purchase of four Gun Boats from State owned Xinshidai Company of China.

Shocked by the disclosures that they had learnt for the first time from the newspaper in question, The Sunday Times learnt, some of the senior Navy officers mentioned in the report protested to a senior official in the defence establishment. They complained there was no inquiry of any sort before the allegations were levelled and asserted they were completely innocent.

The advice given by the senior official - state their own case before the same newspaper. They took the advice.

Then came a second revelation. This time the newspaper revealed the text of a letter the four officers, with the exception of Rear Admiral Thuduwewatte, (who is in India) wrote to Defence Secretary Austin Fernando.

They not only pointed out that the recommendation made by the Navy Commander is beyond all norms of justice, fairness and extremely unreasonable but alleged, "that the whole issue has been brought forward by an individual at Navy Headquarters."

The letter claimed that the Navy Commander (Vice Admiral Sandagiri) had revealed the identity of this individual to the Chief of Staff (Rear Admiral Wijewic-krema). This was when the Chief of Staff had met the Commander to raise issue over the first revelation.

The postscript to the events, The Sunday Times learnt, came when Vice Admiral Sandagiri met the same senior official in the defence establishment after the response of the four senior officers appeared in print. He told the official he would investigate how this response was leaked to the Sunday newspaper.

Vice Admiral Sandagiri was to later confide to a senior Navy colleague that the official concerned had asked him to probe how both reports, and not just the reply alone, were leaked. The embarrassed official had, however, not owned up to the Navy Chief that he had advised the men to give their own response to the newspaper.

But things have not ended on that hilarious note with the defence establishment disowning responsibility and palming off accountability on a matter that involved discipline, the well-being and effectiveness of the Navy. This itself questions how effective the Navy is in the circumstances.

There is a more shocking turn now. The officers concerned want to file violation of Fundamental Rights applications in the Supreme Court. What the officials in the Ministry of Defence have failed to resolve without embarrassment to the UNF Government, the Supreme Court will, in the months to come. Needless to say all what follows will be public. That in essence is the pathetic state of affairs in an important security arm of the State and the all important Ministry that is responsible for defence matters.

With such public display of indiscipline, one need hardly say, Vice Admiral Sandagiri, has a rough sea in which to navigate in the three years ahead of him. That is an onerous responsibility that involves the maintenance of discipline, team-work and cordiality at various levels of command.

The absence of these elements will only seriously impede the Navy's preparedness and readiness during a contingency.

It is no secret that the Tiger guerrillas have been successful in waging a high intensity war with Government troops in the past 19 years, only because they were able to successfully induct weapons from outside.

In the recent past, the Navy's role at sea has been dubbed as the "first line of defence" with priority consideration being given to their procurements.

But far from being prepared for any eventuality, one faction in the Navy seems to be viewing the other as the worst enemy.

This is whilst there are widespread complaints of Tiger guerrillas making preparations whilst talking peace. Such preparations, it is now public knowledge, include induction of weapons across the seas, recruitment and training of cadres.

The crisis, both for the defence establishment and the Navy, fortunate enough, comes during a truce. Otherwise, the consequences of bureaucratic inaction, sheer ignorance, vanity coupled with deteriorating discipline in the Navy would have had disastrous consequences. Is history repeating itself? The question should ring loudly in the ears of those in the political hierarchy.

And even louder to the public who are concerned not only with the effective maintenance of national security but also with the utilisation of public funds.

It would appear that public money is being utilised to maintain inefficiency.

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