If much of our attention is on terra firma - or dry land, we quite often forget that we are a maritime nation. Last week, the Sri Lanka Navy celebrated its Diamond Jubilee amidst pomp, pageantry and serious discussion though for centuries, our peoples have been seafarers venturing to faraway lands. Kings sent their armies and their ambassadors, waging war and peace. Our maritime provinces have welcomed traders and fishermen and tried to repel foreign conquerors.
These celebrations took place in the backdrop of the looming presence of Somali pirates now entering the waters of the Indian Ocean and kidnapping Sri Lankan sailors and refugees meeting with horrific deaths in a shipwreck at Christmas Island off the coast of Australia, the victims of a growing human smuggling trade involving Sri Lankans also.
Such is the importance of the sea around us that a Sri Lankan diplomat once headed the United Nations Law of the Sea conference, and a former Prime Minister made an Indian Ocean Peace Zone proposal to the UN General Assembly which adopted it.
In more recent times, a non-state actor, the LTTE, believed that the waters around the north and east of this island belonged to it. Through a fairly well-knit organisational network, exploiting lax laws, both in foreign lands and international waters, the LTTE was able to store weaponry purchased from underworld arms markets of the world, buy ships at auctions and trans-ship this deadly cargo through smaller fishing craft to destinations in the north and east of Sri Lanka to fight a guerrilla insurgency for three long decades until it capitulated to a superior state military machine in May last year.
Whatever the cries for investigations into alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka by the pro-LTTE Diaspora, now used as a catspaw by western governments trying to teach Sri Lanka a lesson for not listening to them in the fag-end of the war against terror in this country last year, the military establishments of these very nations understood the gravity of the security situation that prevailed and empathized with the way it had to be tackled.
Now that the non-state actor is out of the equation, there is a greater need on their part to ensure good relations with Sri Lanka at least via its Armed Forces given the country's strategic geo-political location in a future world order. That is arguably why the Sri Lanka Navy succeeded in getting as many as 19 countries with five heads of the Navy, Admirals and Fleet Commanders from India, Pakistan, Britain, France, Australia, the US, Bangladesh, the UAE and other countries., to attend its celebrations in Colombo. Nine countries including Russia and China sent their warships for a sail-past. Countries from South East Asia were unable to attend due the prevailing tensions in the Korean peninsula.
It was a diplomatic victory. It also shows clearly how the uniformed gentry has gained acclaim and recognition worldwide among their peers while the pin-stripe suited diplomats in charge of foreign policy have miserably fallen down on their job. There were mini-diplomatic victories on the sidelines with the Indian Naval chief interacting with his Pakistani counterpart on 'neutral soil'. In the backdrop of continuing blunders by the Ministry of External Affairs (the Oxford fiasco and antagonising Nepal being the latest) it is understandable if some ask whether the Government should revert to placing the Ministry of Defence and External Affairs under the Head of Government as was the case from Independence until 1977.
From the papers presented at the symposium titled 'S5 - Sustainable Support for Security and Safety at Sea' (see ST-2 for Sri Lanka's paper presented), the Indian Ocean region is replete with wide-ranging problems in the modern world.
The emergence of the LTTE as a non-state actor as well as the brazen seaborne attacks on Mumbai last year and now the increasing presence of pirates, drug and human traffickers makes it imperative that there is a 'radical change' in the Navy's inventory, attitude, preparedness, training and the way irregular warfare in the maritime domain is combated.
In a paper presented in August this year, the Defence Secretary referred to a vessel named MV Sun Sea that was spotted off Thailand's waters earlier this year. The cargo ship was believed to be carrying 200 persons, including "a considerable number of LTTE cadres" towards Canadian waters. These were trained fighters. Fluid international laws in the high seas and weak domestic laws encourage human trafficking. Yet as much as Sri Lanka complains about countries in the region allowing their coastline to be used for arms shipments and terrorist activity in foreign lands, the same accusations could be made about the lackadaisical policing of Sri Lanka's shores to identify and neutralize the launching pads of these human smuggling cartels - which in turn, make life so much more difficult for the genuine traveller to those countries.
Marine pollution, with its environmental aspects, has for years impacted on Sri Lanka's beaches. Often are the instances when beach-goers end up with black tar like sludge on their soles, from the dumping of waste from oil tankers and large cargo ships. The illegal exploitation of sea-based natural resources, over-fishing and bio-security are among the other issues that landlubbers tend to ignore but which are of immense importance to an island-nation.
The security of the region, however, will remain of utmost priority; especially in view of India and China vying to be super-powers and the thirst for uninterrupted oil supplies to these burgeoning economies in the years ahead. Coupled with the opening of the Hambantota harbour and President Mahinda Rajapaksa's desire to open a new era 'Silk Route' in the seas - the trade link between the West and the East, the need to place still greater emphasis for attention cannot be underplayed.
We have been harping for some time on the urgent need to activate the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for Strategic Studies. It has been dormant ever since its inception in memory of the late Foreign Minister whose own brother was a Commander of the Navy, and one who understood very early the need for such an institute. This too might be brought under the Defence Ministry as successive Foreign Ministers have miserably failed to give it any life.
Citizens of Sri Lanka will no doubt salute their Navy for protecting the territorial waters of this country over the years. The participation of foreign Navies, particularly all five permanent members of the UN Security Council is a statement by itself that the world places high importance on non-aligned Sri Lanka. It is now up to the Government and the Navy not to rest on their laurels, but to ensure 'blue waters' for the people of this island-nation with 'plain sailing, fair weather and stern seas' in the years ahead.