CBK hits back in battle for defence
Sixteen months of deliberations on lop sided defence reforms and three different draft laws, one after another, yet to reach Parliament to deprive her powers over defence and security, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, swung into action last Friday to send a strong message to the UNF Government - that she remains the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces.

She extended the term of office of the Commander of the Army, Lieutenant General Lionel Piyananda Balagalle until June 30, next year. He was due for retirement on December 31, this year. That is not all. She appointed the Army Chief, the senior most among the three serving commanders, as Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). He will now head the Joint Operations Headquarters (JOH).

The post of Chief of Defence Staff, an exalted military office where a serving senior officer co-ordinated the activities of the three services, particularly on counter terrorist operations, fell vacant after the retirement of Gen. Rohan de S. Daluwatte on June 4, 2002. In an unprecedented and historic move, Defence Minister, Tilak Marapana, named Defence Secretary Austin Fernando to act in the office of the CDS.

In that capacity, Mr. Fernando who had little or no professional experience in defence and security matters, presided over weekly conferences of service chiefs and heads of state intelligence agencies. In the past, the CDS and the service chiefs used these weekly conferences to assess intelligence information that posed threats to national security and agreed on collective action to be pursued. Thereafter they kept the political leadership apprised.

With a ceasefire in force, the fact that political compulsions slowed down or altogether prevented the formulation of collective measures during Mr. Fernando's tenure is no secret. Thereafter, on May 29, this year, Mr Fernando directed Lt. Gen. Balagalle to co-ordinate the activities of the three service commanders and the Inspector General of Police.

With Friday's appointment, the Army Chief finds himself elevated from the role of a mere security co-ordinator to be the most powerful serving military official in Sri Lanka - the Chief of Defence Staff. In that capacity he can issue lawful orders not only to the Army but to the Navy and Air Force as well. This is the first time a serving commander has been named as tri service head, a practice followed in many countries including the United States and neighbouring India.

It was only last Thursday Lt. Gen. Balagalle had returned to Sri Lanka from the United States. He had travelled to Hawaii to take part in a conference of joint chiefs of staff of pacific armies. Hawaii is home for the US Pacific Command that covers 50 per cent of the earth's surface, 60 per cent of the world's population, 43 countries, 20 territories/possessions and ten US territories.

On Friday Lt. Gen. Balagalle had taken part in a religious ceremony at Army Headquarters to mark the 54th anniversary of the Sri Lanka Army. Barely an hour after he had retired to his office, two letters arrived through a special messenger from the President's Office. Both were good news to a one time head of Army intelligence who was preparing to retire at the year end after a near 38 year military career.

Both letters dated October 10, in Sinhala, were signed by the Secretary to the President, W.J.S. Karunaratne. One titled Extension of Service said the President had extended his term of office until June 30, 2004 acting in accordance with the Pensions and Gratuities Regulations under the Army Act.

The second letter which was only titled as Appointment said the President had invoked provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act - a law which the UNF Government promised the LTTE it would not enforce since being voted to power in December 2001 - to appoint him with immediate effect as Chief of Defence Staff in addition to his existing duties. The letter said this appointment would be gazetted shortly.

By Friday evening, a news release from the Presidential Secretariat broke the news of the latest action by President Kumaratunga. It surprised both Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremasinghe and his Defence Minister, Tilak Marapana.

Friday's appointments, The Sunday Times learnt, were the direct outcome of a third attempt by the UNF Government to formulate draft laws to deprive the President of powers she now enjoys under the constitution as Commander-in-Chief. The latest draft laws were reported exclusively in these columns last week. Legal think tanks of the People's Alliance, The Sunday Times learnt, have been poring over the provisions of the latest draft since it became public (Situation Report -October 5). They are examining the ramifications arising out of each provision and what they perceive are the Government's motives behind them.

Besides the extension of the tenure of office and the appointment of Lt. Gen. Balagalle as Chief of Defence Staff, authoritative sources say, several other "pre-emptive" measures to thwart what they call attempts to erode the powers of the President and Commander-in-Chief, currently enshrined in the Constitution, are in the offing in the coming weeks. Another significant point, according to these sources, is President Kumaratunga's decision to only grant six month extensions, where felt necessary, instead of longer terms as previously done.

Once such a period is over, she is to review whether further extended terms are required under the circumstances. But a more significant move, the source added, was a careful review of longer extended terms already granted to senior officers. This is to ascertain whether such extensions are now required in the best interests of the service concerned, and if not, how they should be curtailed.

The UNF Government's defence reforms have run into serious controversy ever since Defence Minister, Tilak Marapana, signed a decree on July 5, 2002 appointing a three member Committee - Defence Secretary, Austin Fernando (Chairman), Treasury Secretary Charitha Ratwatte and one time Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Denis Perera. The decree issued to the Committee itself has been flawed. It called upon the trio to "examine and report on the stated matters, by the dates given having considered written and/or verbal submission from service personnel where applicable and considered necessary."

The scope of the Committee was restricted over a subject of defence reforms that affected practically every citizen of Sri Lanka. There was no broad based consultation with the public at large or the rank and file of the armed services except for selected sections of officers, both serving and retired. This again, is in addition to selected service oriented organisations being consulted.

A more ironical situation came about due to the inability of both Mr. Fernando and Mr. Ratwatte to take part regularly in the sittings of the Committee. This was in view of their commitment to duties that centred around their substantive official positions. The result - Lt. Gen. Denis Perera, who retired long before the outbreak or exacerbation of the separatist war and thus had no first hand knowledge of what went on having to work on his own in what came to be called a “one man show”. In the past months, he has been undertaking official visits to military installations all by himself though the visit has been termed as one from the Defence Review Committee.

The fact that his role has earned the ire of President Kumaratunga became public when she replied Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremasinghe, early this week over the ongoing exchange of letters concerning the Tiger guerrilla build up in the Trincomalee district. Here is the relevant reference:

"The only programme in the sphere of Defence that I am aware of, which you have constantly tried to implement without success, is the one where you and your Minister of Defence and a so-called Defence Review Committee headed by a long retired general who has never fought a war, is to attempt to grab the powers of the Executive Head of State and Commander in Chief with regard to Defence matters."

It is now Premier Wickremasinghe's turn to respond to this letter. But a source close to him says he is not interested in continuing "this acrimonious exchange of correspondence." He is to write a "short but firm" reply and let the matter rest, says the source. A wise move indeed since the Premier has a number of important political issues to focus on.

That apart, President Kumaratunga's terse observation about defence reforms makes one point very clear - if it has not received broad based public consultation including those within the military establishment, it does not have the endorsement of the People's Alliance, the country's main opposition.

This only means that if and when there is a change of Government, all the paper work of this controversial committee will end up in one place - the waste paper basket or in an incinerator. Is this ongoing effort therefore not a colossal waste of the tax payer's money? Foreign Governments, particularly the United Kingdom which doled out funds and lent even experts to this controversial exercise, will also have several questions to answer.

Through their actions, by not ensuring checks and balances they have involved themselves in the country's partisan political battles. The consequences are now becoming clearer. Have they not, therefore, wittingly or unwittingly, contributing to the instability of a country by not ensuring the proper, declared ideals of defence reforms have been executed? Is it not their moral responsibility to have ensured there were checks and balances?

Ever since the deliberations of the Defence Review Committee began, The Sunday Times has made a series of exclusive disclosures. When the first chapter of the Committee's recommendations, which related to Higher Defence Control was made public (Situation Report - September 29, 2002), a draft Joint Chiefs of Staff Act (Situation Report - October 27,2002) was formulated in double quick time.

This was even before the armed forces commanders were called upon to make their observations. Thereafter, a draft Higher Defence Control Act was made public by The Sunday Times (Situation Report - June 29,2003). The provisions of this draft act drew protests from armed forces commanders (Situation Report - July 6,2003) and that saw the birth of the latest draft revealed exclusively in these columns last week.

According to the latest draft, which the Government's legal advisers say are in accordance with the Constitution, the UNF Government wants to set up a Defence Board presided by the Minister of Defence to be responsible for (1) the consideration and advice on matters in relation to Defence Management (2) and supervise the implementation of defence policy.

The cumulative effect of the draft law is the fact that the Cabinet will run the country's defence establishment. A Security Council is to exercise powers and functions "as are determined by the Cabinet of Ministers." Imagine a crisis situation where time and prompt action are essential requirements in the interests of national security. It will not be the armed forces commanders who will sit together and plan out strategy at once. It has to start with Cabinet decisions.

Like deciding on procurements, a public secret where corrupt practices continue to flourish unimpeded, decisions on national security will also be subject to lobbying, canvassing and most of all, influenced by stacks of dollars or rupees. If that is bad enough, one will not be surprised when the day arrives where open (perhaps world-wide) tenders are called for advice before decisions on national security are made. Bidding can become a money spinner.

What does the latest draft law say about the equivalent of the Chief of Defence Staff, the post of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee? Here it is: "The Chairman shall not whilst serving as Chairman exercise military command over the Committee or any one of the armed forces." In other words, a military officer (without doubt someone who is senior-most in his career) called upon to be Chairman of JCS will just be a figure head. Where will the orders come from? Who will issue them?

The further the so-called Defence Review Committee continues to function, the more irritants it will cause to the already shaky world of co-habitation. Would it not be better for Premier Wickremasinghe to call off these reforms, save the colossal expenditure over the “one man show”and think of it once the biggest issue before the country - the peace process - is accomplished. He can then focus on a Government-Opposition joint effort at defence reforms where the civil society will also participate. That will indeed be truly a reform.

This way, at least the nation's security establishment will not face any division - the same threat the nation is facing over the ongoing UNF Government's peace dialogue with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).The UNF Leadership must act before it is too late.

Extension and the chain reaction
Here is a line up of the chain command of the Sri Lanka Army sequel to Friday's extension of the tenure of office of Commander, Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle.
Due to retire on December 31, this year, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, Commander-in-Chief, has extended his term until June 30, 2004, a period of six months.

Consequently, Major General Lohan Gunawardena, Chief of Staff, who was tipped to become the next Army Commander, will have to retire on November 22, 2003. This is when he reaches 55 years.

Maj. Gen. Gunawardena, reached his maximum mandatory period of three years in the rank of Major General and was due for retirement on December 4, 2000. He was granted two annual extensions. Thereafter, Defence Minister Tilak Marapana, issued a gazette notification making provision for Majors General to continue to serve in their rank until they reach 55 years, the age of retirement.

Last week, Mr. Marapana issued another gazette notification extending this exemption to ranks equivalent to Majors General in the Navy and the Air Force. Last year, Mr. Marapana wrote to President Kumaratunga recommending the appointment of Maj. Gen. Gunawardena as Army Commander. He had recommended Lt. Gen. Balagalle to a post of Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee - a position the UNF Government sought to create through their controversial defence reforms. However, this recommendation was not given effect.

The next in line to Maj. Gen. Gunawardena, Deputy Chief of Staff, Major General Shantha Kottegoda, assumed office last Wednesday. He reaches his age of retirement on November 5, 2004.

Others in the senior chain of command include Major General Chula Seneviratne, Director General - General Staff (DGGS). He reaches his age of retirement on December 9, 2004. Major General Sarath Fonseka, Security Forces Commander, Jaffna. Reaches retirement age on December 17, 2005.

Major General Susil Chandrapala, Security Forces Commander, Wanni. Reaches retirement age on October 29, 2005. Major General Nanda Mallawaratchchi, Security Forces Commander, East. Reaches age of retirement on August 2, 2006.

Navy tightens security in deep seas off Trinco
The Eastern Naval Area Headquarters in Trincomalee has intensified patrols in the north-eastern deep seas following reports of possible attempts by Tiger guerrilla vessels to smuggle in military hardware.

For obvious reasons measures put into effect cannot be elaborated on. However, it could be said that the Navy's efforts are being supplemented by the Air Force. Heavily equipped SLAF Beechcraft reconnaissance planes have been conducting regular flights to monitor movement of ships in the deep seas off the shores between Mullaitivu and Batticaloa.

These measures come in the backdrop of exclusive revelations in The Sunday Times last week about a guerrilla cadre on board an LTTE arms vessel committing suicide whilst in an Indonesian port.

The vessel has been identified as "Agasthi". The Sunday Times reported that a guerrilla cadre committed suicide after biting a cyanide capsule. Both the body of the dead guerrilla cadre as well as the vessel had been released. The Sunday Times learnt that the dead guerrilla had been in possession of a forged Bangladeshi passport carrying a Muslim name. According to authoritative sources, large sums of money is said to have been used to secure the release of the body of the dead cadre and the ship.

The Sunday Times learnt that local authorities in Colombo have now sought the help of friendly foreign intelligence agencies over this matter. As naval patrols were intensified, on Wednesday Parliament was debating the security situation in the east, particularly the Trincomalee district.

It was The Sunday Times (Situation Report - August 3) that exclusively revealed how the LTTE camp at Manirasakulam, now set to remain despite all protests, is endemic of the gradual transformation of the landscape around Trincomalee.

The report said Tiger guerrillas have opened up new military camps, re-occupied ones they abandoned and set up a string of satellite camps around bases that existed. The map accompanying the report told the story of this changing environment. Newly recruited cadres have been trained and moved in. New weaponry and communications equipment have been widely distributed, the report revealed.

During last Wednesday's debate in Parliament, TULF Parliamentarian R. Sampanthan (Trincomalee District) who was making reference to The Sunday Times report said "sometimes this investigative journalism transgresses the limit of investigative journalism and tends to become somewhat imaginative journalism. It is also packaged and presented to the public at large as investigative journalism.

The respect of the reports pertaining to the so-called camps opened up by the LTTE after the signing of the Ceasefire Agreement, no source is quoted by these investigative journalists. They have not gone there. They have not seen for themselves. They have not discovered the truth themselves. It is just there ipse dixit."

Remarks from Mr. Sampanthan drew a sharp retort from Lakshman Kadirgamar, former Foreign Minister and now senior international affairs advisor to the President. He said "Mr. Sampanthan of today is not the Sampanthan of yesterday. Today his dream world is peopled by romantic heroes. Only two years ago he was a very moderate, objective, well balanced person who took a comprehensive view of the country's interests.

Today when he speaks he exhibits a kind of hysterical admiration for the LTTE and so passionately champions their cause. That it seems to me that he has abandoned objectivity completely - which is sad. It is sad in the case of any person if that happens. It is not a question of not knowing what the imperatives are but it is sad because the contribution that Mr. Sampanthan and others made, particularly him, over the years to the debates of this House".

Defence Minister, Tilak Marapana, in his speech confirmed the revelations made in The Sunday Times (Situation report of August 3). Here are excerpts from what he said: "When we entered into a ceasefire, our aim was to solve the problems we had with the LTTE not by the use of force but through negotiations.

If that is our aim, then we must try to give the peace process a genuine chance without once again dragging the country to a burdensome war. This is not to say that we should tolerate anything and everything and allow the LTTE to get stronger and stronger and be suddenly surprised by an attack which we are unable to withstand. We have to act judiciously, be mindful all the while and take every new factor into consideration to face any eventuality in the future.

"Sir, it is true that the LTTE strength in the areas surrounding the Trincomalee harbour have increased during the cease-fire period. I do perceive this as an increased threat. "What happened with the cease-fire was that army did not move about from their camps into the area south of the harbour.

We claim this area to be under our control but we have, since the withdrawal of several camps and troops from this area in 1995, not been able to effectively dominate this area. The LTTE has taken advantage of this and increased their presence in this area. Mr. Deputy Chairman, to my mind the significance is not the number of camps in which this increased strength are stationed. What is important is the fact that the LTTE strength in this area has nearly doubled since the time of the cease-fire.

"We know that during the last 18 months or so gradually the LTTE have been coming into this area. They have been roaming in this area for a long time. They have gradually stationed themselves in this area. So, to our mind what is important is not that there are 12 or 13 camps but we consider the larger presence of the LTTE in the area as the threat that we have to contend with if some unfortunate incident is to happen. We have taken this into consideration.

That is in preparation of our military strategies to defend the harbour and the civilian population in this area as well as for the eventual offensive against the LTTE should the occasion arise.

"We know that. We are not oblivious to the obvious. We know that the LTTE cadres have gradually crept into this area and they have established a stronger foothold. We are concerned about the increased strength in the LTTE cadre and we have taken this all important factor into consideration and our strategies are so structured to meet any eventuality.

"Heavy artillery has been in this area. The Hon. Kadirgamar rightly mentioned that the most important factor, where the security of the harbour is concerned, is the presence of this artillery. I assure this House that it is not as though the Government and the forces have blissfully permitted the enemy to surround us without making adequate preparation to counter any threat.

"I certainly do not subscribe to that view that along with the peace process one cannot also strengthen our security. I believe that the two must go parallel to one another and that is always our thinking".

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