26th November 2000
Hours before embarking on an overseas visit last Friday, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, appears to have answered a question that has baffled the security establishment since the Parliamentary elections on October 10.
She named Prime Minister, Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, as the acting Minister of Defence, until her return to Sri Lanka. A letter to the effect was handed over to him by Secretary to the President, Kusumsiri Balapatabendi and he took his oaths before Speaker Anura Bandaranaike.
That move came as the first clear indication that President Kumaratunga would not have a Deputy Defence Minister, at least for the time being, and would call upon Premier Wickremanayake, to officiate during her absence from the country. In other words, President Kumaratunga, will personally spearhead the new People's Alliance Government's twin track policy of waging war and talking peace with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
This is in marked contrast to her earlier move to appoint her uncle, Anuruddha Ratwatte, who has held the Deputy Defence Minister portfolio for six years under the previous People's Alliance Government. A former volunteer Second Lieutenant, he zoomed over subsequent ranks to become a Colonel before retirement to enter politics. But the ongoing separatist war was to see Col. Ratwatte create military history unprecedented in any armed conflict in the world.
After the re-capture of the Jaffna peninsula in 1995, he was promoted to the rank of a fully fledged "General." In battle fatigues, more often used by the Army, and in some instances even the Navy and Air Force, he toured the battlefields of the north and east in the company of Commanders, TV crews and photographers. He personally directed many a military campaign since becoming Deputy Defence Minister. That was until the disastrous 19 month long "Operation Jaya Sikurui" (Victory Assured), the costliest operation in the nation's military history. It left more than 3,500 soldiers dead and over 9700 injured. The operation began on May 13, 1997 and President Kumaratunga, ordered its halt on December 4, 1998. The move saw President Kumaratunga, personally taking over the conduct of the military campaign.
Yet, the re-appointment of Minister Ratwatte, after the PA Government won a second term at the October Parliamentary elections, became a certainty, despite speculation to the contrary, after President Kumaratunga, invited him for a lengthy meeting of the National Security Council. (Situation Report – October 29)
As reported in these columns, Minister Ratwatte took part in a crucial, nearly seven hour long special meeting of the National Security Council on October 26. It focused on military plans for the future conduct of the ongoing war against Tiger guerrillas and related matters. He had been invited by President Kumaratunga since Deputy Ministers for the 44 Cabinet portfolios had not been named by then. During the NSC meeting, Minister Ratwatte, himself raised several queries that related to proposed military action. For obvious reasons one cannot discuss details.
However, when 35 Deputy Ministers were sworn in for 29 Ministries on November 3, exceptions included those for Ministries of Defence, Finance and Media. The suspense over the post of Deputy Minister of Defence continued. The period of uncertainty became the most difficult moments for military top brass. Many did not want to give the impression they were ignoring Minister Ratwatte though he was not the Deputy Defence Minister. They showered him with invitations for various official functions.
Minister Ratwatte was to politely decline them. Early this month, he was to explain he would be away from the country.
It was only on Thursday Minister Ratwatte returned to Sri Lanka after a two week long official trip to the People's Republic of China in his capacity as the Minister for Power and Energy. He also had a meeting after his return with President Kumaratunga. Hence, he was very much in Sri Lanka when Premier Wickremanayake was sworn in as the acting Minister of Defence. Why then was Minister Ratwatte, invited to a crucial National Security Council meeting to be given an insight into future military plans, not appointed Deputy Defence Minister ? Why was he not made even acting Minister of Defence ?
According to a highly placed Government source, second thoughts over his re-appointment arose over placing the Police Department, or the law and order machinery, in his hands. "The task became increasingly difficult for President Kumaratunga, after further matters relating to the events that took place in the Kandy district during the Parliamentary elections arose," the source said. "Some of these matters have become the subject of continued investigation or action in Courts," the source added.
It is no secret that Minister Ratwatte's controversial election campaign in the Kandy district came in for severe criticism. His own ministerial colleague and PA General Secretary, D.M. Jayaratne, himself charged there was thuggery and intimidation of voters by Minister Ratwatte's supporters. Joining in was one of the leaders of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress/National Unity Alliance and now Cabinet Minister, Rauf Hakeem.
Police have been probing allegations over the use of State vehicles, armed men and military deserters during the polls campaign. They have also been probing complaints over seizing and stuffing of ballot boxes in some polling stations allegedly by supporters of Minister Ratwatte – a move that prompted Elections Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake, to annul the count of votes in some polling booths.
As Commander-in-Chief and Minister of Defence, President Kumaratunga, who will now have to personally direct the military machine against Tiger guerrillas, has a long list of priority measures waiting for her when she returns to the country.
The LTTE designated year 2,000 as the "Year of War." It comes to an end next month. During the current year, the LTTE has continued its string of "Operation Ceaseless Waves," unleashed in the Wanni last year, thus ousting the security forces from their encampments that dominated over a 1,000 square kilometres of territory. Following on that success, they forced the security forces to withdraw from the Elephant Pass
Defence Complex in April, this year, pushed them to the rear from their defences in Pallai and seized more territory in the Jaffna peninsula.
Beginning September 3, this year, a further modernised and re-equipped security forces have launched six military offensives against the Tiger guerrillas. There have been territorial gains and losses. But a significant fact remains that they have still not been able to fully evict the guerrillas from the territory they hold in the Jaffna peninsula, leave alone Elephant Pass and its environs. That too despite Government claims that the guerrilla strength was a mere 5,000 with a sizable component being made up of very young boys and girls.
The Government's declaration it had not shut the door to peace talks will further heighten its commitment to regain at least some of its losses since November, last year, both in the Wanni and the North. Interestingly, the coming year will turn out to be the "Year of War" for the security forces whilst the latest peace initiatives continue.
Many a measure in this direction has got under way. The Army's latest recruitment drive to enlist 10,000 troops has not had its desired response. The campaign, which began on November 1, unless extended, will come to a close on November 31. Yet, Army officials are happy they have been able to recruit over 2100 men so far. They have now been sent for training.
Whilst some of the equipment to modernise the Army, Navy and the Air Force have already arrived, the remaining requirements are due in the coming weeks.
The Army has wrapped up a US 7.8 million deal two weeks ago for armoured vehicles from Russia's State-owned Promexport after a three member delegation arrived in Colombo. Although with Promexport, the deal will see the birth of a new military trade relationship between Sri Lanka and Russia's newly created State organisation Rosoboronexport.
Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a Decree on November 4, for the establishment of a Federal State Unitary Enterprise Rosoboronexport by way of the merger of the federal state unitary enterprise State Company Rosvooruzhenie and Promoexport.
Rosoboronexport will now be a state intermediary for the export/import of military products and will be the successor to Rosvooruzhenie and Promoexport. All the proprietary and non-proprietary rights and duties of the reorganised Rosvooruzhenie and Promexport, including those on the contracts, which have already been signed, shall pass on to Rosoboronexport, according to President Putin's decree.
The Sri Lanka Air Force, which has improved its air capability with the acquisition of the Mig-27 (NATO identification Flogger), has also begun taking delivery of its new fleet of Kfir interceptor jets. Further acquisitions include Mi-24 Hind combat helicopters and transport aircraft.
The Sri Lanka Navy is also undergoing an ambitions modernisation programme, which for the first time in more than 50 years of existence, will see the birth of an Air Arm and a Blue Water capability. It has already taken delivery of missile armed fast attack craft from Israel. An
Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV) with facilities for an onboard helicopter, purchased from India, will soon become the latest addition.
With the role of the Navy receiving special attention, particularly in view of the increased recognition that it is the first line of the nation's defence, may also see some important decisions being made by President Kumaratunga upon her return. With this in view, on November 9,
President Kumaratunga signed a proclamation extending the validity of Regulations she had earlier promulgated under the Army Act, Navy Act and Air Force Act. The Regulations, gazetted on June 13, this year, were to have expired on December 12, this year. It has now been extended until December 31 of the same year.
These Regulations covered the extension of services of officers of the Army, Navy and Air Force (Situation Report – June 18). In promulgating them in June, this year, President Kumaratunga, empowered herself to retain in the same rank, the service of an officer presently holding the rank of a Brigadier or Major General or their equivalent ranks in the navy and Air Force - Commodore or Rear Admiral and Air Commodore or Air Vice Marshal respectively. This is by extending the service of the officer, or by appointing him in his substantive rank, at the time of his retirement, beyond the age of 55 years or beyond the period stipulated in respect of such rank.
The Regulations empowered the President to retain the services of an officer subject to the following conditions:
If the officer concerned holds an unblemished record of service and good conduct for a period of ten years immediately preceding such extension or re-appointment.
Provided, however, that the services of an officer should not be retained beyond six months from his reaching the age of 55 years.
Or exceeding a period of six months from the date of such extension or re-appointment, whichever is later.
Every officer whose services have been retained in terms of this Regulation shall be placed in a Supplementary Post and such post shall be deemed to be suppressed upon such officer ceasing to function in such post.
The immediate beneficiary of the Regulations when it was gazetted on June 13 this year, was then Major General Lionel Balagalle, Chief of Staff of the Army, who reached 55 years, the age of retirement, on June 14. It could be safely said that the Regulations were promulgated to almost entirely accommodate him. This enabled him to remain in office. He was later promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General and assumed office as Army Commander on September 24.
Besides Lt. Gen. Balagalle, the only other beneficiaries of the Regulations in the Sri Lanka Army were one major General and three Brigadiers. There were none in the Sri Lanka Air Force who came within the provisions of the Regulations.
The only other exception came about in the Sri Lanka Navy. The Chief of Staff of the Navy, Rear Admiral Daya Sandagiri was to have retired on March 8, this year, upon reaching the maximum of three years in the rank of Rear Admiral. On an appeal made to the Ministry of Defence, he was, however, granted an extension of service "until further notice."
Soon after the new Regulations were gazetted on June 13, Navy Commander Vice Admiral Cecil Tissera, wrote to Rear Admiral Sandagiri, informing him that he would cease to be Chief of Staff of the Navy on December 12, the day the Regulations expired. The extension of the validity of the Regulations by President Kumaratunga (on November 9) until December 31 means Rear Admiral Sandagiri remains Chief of Staff of the Navy until that date.
In effect, President Kumaratunga's decision to extend the new Regulations until December 31 has prolonged the term of Rear Admiral Sandagiri by 19 days. Beneficiaries of the move will be the Major General and the three Brigadiers in the Army.
If in fact Rear Admiral Sandagiri was to retire on December 12, adding a mere 19 days to his service and permitting him to continue as Chief of Staff of the Navy, makes hardly any difference.
If he was informed in writing that his term would end on December 12, this year, he had not received a fresh letter from the Commander of the Navy that he would continue until December 31, in view of the extension of the new Regulations.
That notwithstanding, the extension of the Regulations has given rise to widespread speculation that Rear Admiral Sandagiri will be the next Commander of the Sri Lanka Navy. That is if Vice Admiral Cecil Tissera, who has served a four year term and due to retire on January 27, next year, is not granted an extension – a move that seems more likely. Previous Commanders of the Navy have not held office for a few days more than four years. But there is no time bar in holding such an office.
Vice Admiral Tissera is also staking a strong claim for an extension of service. His continued service, sources close to him argue, will help enhance closer co-operation between the Navies of Sri Lanka and India.
Vice Admiral Tissera was on a week long tour of India, early this month, and held extensive talks with his Indian counterpart, Admiral Sushil Kumar.
He is learnt to have secured assurances from the Indian Navy of continued training for Sri Lanka Navy personnel besides a number of other matters.
But an extension of service purely on those grounds, defence sources say, would set a new precedent. Moreover, a new incumbent could always develop on the relationship built by Vice Admiral Tissera, these sources point out.
That is the decision President Kumaratunga has to make upon her return from the overseas tour and certainly before December 31, when the extended Regulations will expire. Some of the procurements made by the Navy recently have become the subject of controversy. One recent instance was when a firm in an European country was awarded a tender after it was found to be most suitable.
But in a strange turn of events, the tender was cancelled and a fresh tender had been called.
The diplomatic mission of the country concerned is learnt to have raised issue with President Kumaratunga over this matter.
It is not only Rear Admiral Daya Sandagiri who has received a 19 day extension of his term as a result of the extension of the new Regulations. So has Rear Admiral Terrance Sunderam, Commander, Eastern Naval Area. His term of office too was due to expire on March 8, this year but was extended "until further notice." However, after the promulgation of the June 13 Regulations, Vice Admiral Tissera also wrote to him stating that his term would end on December 12. Though he has not received any letter to the contrary, the extension of the Regulations until December 31 enables him to remain in office until that day.
If he receives a further extension, he would emerge as the Navy's Chief of Staff if Rear Admiral Sandagiri assumes command. In the event of his retirement, the position would fall on Admiral A.H.M. Razeek, Commander, Western Naval Area.
Whilst the return of President Kumaratunga is being awaited for these changes and other important decisions, the security forces have been on a high state of alert this week in view of the LTTE's annual "Martyrs Week." The week ends today with its leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, making his annual "policy statement," which both the Government and the Colombo based diplomatic community are awaiting with anxiety.
Please send your comments and suggestions on this web site to