Situation Report

15th February 1998

Writing with a gun at my head

By Iqbal Athas

At the golden jubilee exhibition at BMICH, a model of the airport incorporating minute details is on display, making this vital installation vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
I can still feel the thrust of the barrel of an automatic Browning pistol on my temple and chest as I write this.

Last Thursday night’s encounter with the group of armed men, those who believe in only one culture - the rule of the gun - were out to deliver a message. Somebody somewhere is hurt about the exposures in these columns. It is not the heroes in the battle front who are paying with their dear lives protecting the territorial integrity and sovereignty of their motherland.

It is the corrupt for whom the ongoing separatist war has become an industry, one that is so lucrative that the dividends are in billions if they are not in millions. For some of their godfathers, the kind of encounter I went through may be an occupational hazard. The moral, it seems, is do not expose corruption or misdeeds. If you do, armed gangs can crash into your bedroom, hold a pistol at your temple and even kill you. On the other hand, if you have erred, no longer are the accepted norms, a resort to the laws of the land, a logical course.

Certainly not the best news for those aspiring to become journalists in this modern era of information technology. Unless of course they choose to toe the line, extol the virtues of those who preach lofty ideals and churn out success stories by the week. One is reminded of William Randolph Hearst who said “News is something somebody wants suppressed all the time. The rest is advertising.” That was the American newspaper tycoon’s definition of what is news.

It looks as if some of the powerful and the influential have given new meaning in Sri Lanka to what Hearst has said. If the news that you do not dish out hurts, send your goondas with automatic pistols to threaten or kill them. Once you succeed in this exercise, the people will be very happy, or so they believe. There will only be success stories and all things will be hunky dory.

Whether the gun toting goons are unleashed only after other options have been exhausted is not quite clear. The other options I refer, though not in the same order, are many. Once you identify those who do not “toe the line”, mount surveillance and catch all those “informants.” If that fails, launch a campaign in the subject’s neighbourhood and brand him a terrorist or a brothel owner.

If that does not work, send men in trailer bikes to their homes when the subject is away and make inquiries whether women were available for fun. Even if that does not produce results, pick up someone from the north, apply some make up on his face and get him to face a TV camera. Ask him to say that the subject is helping the LTTE and have it well publicised. Supplement that campaign with a psychological propaganda pitch - letters from “front” organisations, venomous anonymous letters and even whisper campaigns.

And when your options are exhausted, send your goondas with weapons and ammunition (purchased to eliminate terrorism) to drive fear into them or simply kill them.

My encounter Thursday night, is perhaps the most closest brush with death in the peaceful environment of my home. In my career as a journalist covering the separatist war over the years, there have been many an instance where I have come close to death. That is in the battle area. This incident was at my home, where like any other free citizen, I have had the comfort and confidence to live with my family without fear.

That has now changed not for me alone, but for my wife and my seven-year-old daughter. Every time a door opens or I move from one room to another, we will have to make sure there are no well built men carrying automatic pistols waiting to thrust it on our temple or chest. When I move out on the road, I will have to look behind to ensure these men do not follow me.

Elsewhere in today’s The Sunday Times, my colleague, Imran Vittachi, recounts my ordeal leaving me to focus on other matters of importance over the last week.

The talking point in the defence establishment last week was about the Commander of the Sri Lanka Air Force, Air Marshal Oliver Ranasinghe.

His term of office will officially expire tomorrow, Monday February 17. If that is no extension of service is granted to him.

Recommendations of a Presidential Committee of Inquiry that made strong strictures against Air Marshal Ranasinghe not withstanding, influential sections of the Government were lobbying for a longer extension of service. His public relations man, Squadron Leader B.F.J. Hasheem, has been very busy in the past weeks publicising the SLAF successes in the battle areas. Hardly a day passed without an account of some base or the other being destroyed.

On October 26, The Sunday Times exclusively reported the findings of Presidential Committee of Inquiry that investigated 16 SLAF air crashes which occurred between April, 1995 and May, 1997. It was headed by Defence Secretary, Chandrananda de Silva and comprised General Denis Perera, a former Army Commander, Air Vice Marshal Pathman (Paddy) Mendis, a former Air Force Commander, Cyril Herath, a former Inspector General of Police and C.R. de Silva, Additional Solicitor General.

The Committee held that the loss of two Avro aircraft following LTTE missile attack in April, 1995, killing over 100 soldiers, may have been averted if the Commander of the Sri Lanka Air Force (Air Marshal Oliver Ranasinghe) had taken intelligence reports seriously.

An SLAF Avro was destroyed by suspected LTTE missile attack on April 29, 1995, killing 51 persons on board. The next day, another Avro was also destroyed in similar fashion killing 54 persons on board.

The Committee said that the Commander had admitted that the Directorate of Military Intelligence gives various intelligence reports. He had declared “if he were to accept all such reports there would be no Air Force flying.”

The Committee declared: “This answer epitomises a complete lack of responsibility by the Commander and had he taken the intelligence reports seriously, the loss of Avro aircraft may have been averted. It also appears the Commander’s statement that he did not believe the LTTE to possess Stinger missiles as “the USA has recovered all the Stinger missiles from the American continent and was paying US $ 2,000 for all missiles surrendered in Afghanistan.”

The Committee made severe strictures on the procurement of aircraft, the lack of morale and on other alleged irregularities.

If Air Marshal Ranasinghe, who is regarded as the most influential among the service commanders in their relationship with sections of the PA leadership, his deputy, Air Vice Marshal Anslem Peiris, will have to retire on Tuesday, February 18.

That again is if an appeal made by AVM Peiris to the Ministry of Defence for an extension of his term of office is not granted. Defence officials say that if Air Marshal Ranasinghe’s extension of office, for which strong lobbying is under way, is granted by President Chandrika Bandaranaiike Kumaratunga, as commander - in - chief, the term of office of AVM Peiris too would be extended. But some defence officials believe that would give rise to other problems.

They point out that the same Presidential Committee observed that “there appears to be open conflict between the Commander and his Chief of Staff. Some of the remarks made by the Commander in the Court of Inquiry proceedings leave no doubt whatsoever regarding this. As a consequence of this open conflict, the Chief of Staff has been sidelined from the decision making and command process. In a disciplined service, this has had its effect ‘down the line’ and there appear to be two camps backing one or the other.”

One source in the National Security Council said yesterday it was likely that Air Marshal Ranasinghe would be granted a “very short extension” that will enable him to complete his departure formalities. According to the source, he is likely to be succeeded by Air Vice Marshal Peiris. There was, however, no independent confirmation about this. A decision is expected to be made tomorrow.

Notwithstanding these developments, the SLAF’s propaganda pitch in the past months have raised questions about publicising sensitive military information. The SLAF calendar for 1998 (SITUATION REPORT JANUARY 18) contains large sized colour photographs of every aircraft in their possession and every type of bomb, shells and ammunition used by them. Some of them are shown with the bombs placed in their exact positions before take off.

In this instance, one would be silly to accuse the SLAF of providing information to the enemy. After all, information and photographs about such aircraft can be obtained from foreign magazines or the Internet. With satellite televisions at one’s finger tip, one is often able to sea how some of these aircraft operate.

Despite all this, Air Marshal Ranasinghe and his Public Relations Manager, Sqn. Ldr. Hasheem, were angry when computer graphics of SLAF aircraft appeared in this column. Their worry ? Well, they thought it would be information to the enemy. If that argument, as I said before, as absurd as it is, is applied, then providing colour pictures in calendars would be worse.

But the very people who preached about the virtues of not passing sensitive military information to the enemy were responsible last week for what may be called a colossal security blunder.

A large scale model of the Bandaranaike International Airport was on public display at the Air Force enclosure at the exhibition to mark the Golden Jubilee of Sri Lanka’s independence at the BMICH. The model had all the details - where the SLAF base was located, the runways, parking apron, arrival and departure areas, the access roads, the Air Traffic Control Tower in addition to several other vulnerable points. This scale model received wide publicity over television when there was reportage of the exhibition.

Even a school child is aware that the Bandaranaike International Airport is easily one of Sri Lanka’s highest security zones. Just days before The Prince of Wales, chief guest for independence celebrations arrived in Sri Lanka, the SLAF took charge of security at the airport. Photographing the airport areas is prohibited. Strict checks are done on those entering.

And yet a full scale model of the airport with a military base on one side is put on public display and later televised. All those who are interested in knowing details about the layout of one of SriLanka’s top security zones has to do is obtain a video copy. Do those who were responsible for this task think that the LTTE does not monitor TV transmissions or are unable to obtain a copy.

It is well known in the military that prior to carrying out attacks on security forces establishments, LTTE cadres are lectured to by their senior cadres using scale models. These models are constructed by the LTTE after months of reconnaissance by their intelligence operatives. And the model of the highest security zone in Sri Lanka is readily made available.

The entire approach of the SLAF to the matters commented upon demonstrates a cavalier attitude to the serious concerns of security and management which bears out the opinions expressed by the Presidential Committee of Inquiry.

Even to a layman unfamiliar with the arcane intricacies of matters concerning command and management of the Air Force, it would be strikingly apparent that the situation in the Air Force is one best described as right hand not knowing what the other is doing. But the unbelievable absurdity that crowns it all is the dilly dallying over the decision of command.

That Air Marshal Ranasinghe is clinging on to his command with Air Vice Marshal Peiris on the sidelines uncertain of his position and the next in succession, Air Vice Marshal Jayalath Weerakkody, more perplexed reflects the state of confusion that prevails. If such be the situation at the top, one shudders to think of the dilemma facing those in the chain command and furthermore the quality of management that exists in the situation. And that too with a separatist war on.

The ludicrousness of the situation is further magnified by the fact that it remains in issue in spite of the strictures opined by the Presidential Committee of Inquiry against Air Marshal Ranasinghe.

The whole defence establishment appears to be in the dark about the report, its contents, the structures and comments made therein. What seems to have been lost sight of is that those proceedings were meant to make a constructive contribution to remedy any lapses that existed in the Air Force.

It is not an issue which relates to one person or his position, but a matter relevant to the Air Force as a whole. Thus it is a matter deeply of concern to the effective conduct of the war and to the public a concern it evokes.

Go to the Fifth Column

Return to the Editorial/Opinion contents page

Go to the Situation Report Archive