Last week’s front page news item in the Sunday Times on the open warrant that had been issued on the evil mastermind of Easter Sunday’s bombings, and the Political Editor’s references to the manner in which the defence agreement, ACSA was signed with the USA, leave one with the inevitable conclusion that there is a [...]


Sinking deeper into the security quagmire


Last week’s front page news item in the Sunday Times on the open warrant that had been issued on the evil mastermind of Easter Sunday’s bombings, and the Political Editor’s references to the manner in which the defence agreement, ACSA was signed with the USA, leave one with the inevitable conclusion that there is a whole lot amiss in the country’s security apparatus.

The news item, regular readers will recall, referred to the hitherto unknown fact that the man believed to have been the planner of the Easter Sunday carnage was already on the radar of the Police Terrorism Investigations Department (TID). They had followed up on several leads and obtained an open warrant for his arrest, but the man, by then, had gone into hiding.

It now appears that he was notorious in the Eastern Province as a potential perpetrator of violence, and some sensible leaders of his own faith had wanted him not just arrested, but physically eliminated. On the one hand, political patronage in the Eastern Province provided this dangerous man with some sort of protection, while the TID’s search for him dissipated with the arrest of its own chief on charges of complicity in a plot to assassinate the President.

Taken together, the man was allowed to plot his scheme with his coterie of followers, while the country was consumed by the political upheaval connected to the October Palace putsch of last year. Knowing the radar was on him may have accelerated his barbarous plan though he probably did not know the TID radar was switched off. It would seem the Indian Intelligence had, however, picked up the ball the TID had dropped, but again, this time with the TID virtually incapacitated, the rest of the Sri Lanka Police failed to see the red signals flashing.

Then, there is the reference to ACSA, the agreement signed in 2007 and renewed in 2017 with the United States. It now allows US military ‘boots on the ground’ – with weapons and radio equipment. What the Political Editor wrote about, like that of the TID story, comes as news ex post-facto, in this case two long years after.

It shows the President as Commander-in- chief of the Armed Forces and Minister of Defence paying scant regard to officials who said that the agreement needed to be studied properly because it contained several attachments with far reaching ramifications relating to the country’s sovereignty. It is possible that the officials, and the Tri-Forces chiefs sat on the papers showing no urgency, but for the President to have said he ‘doesn’t care about the attachments’ and order his officials to just sign the agreement blindly betrays a serious if not dangerous deficiency in the manner in which State security is being handled at the very apex of the country.

A Supreme Court judgment of yesteryear held that the Defence portfolio must be under the Executive President. Prior to the 1978 Constitution, the President was the Head of State and Commander-in-chief, but it was the Prime Minister who held the Defence portfolio.

President J.R. Jayewardene became Minister of Defence with the 1978 Constitution, but when the security of the State got badly compromised with the growth of the LTTE, he appointed a separate Minister of National Security. In 2001, with a cohabitation government, the then President relented under pressure from her advisers to give the portfolio to the Prime Minister’s party. She, however, took it back on the strength of the SC order.

The issue is not whether the Defence portfolio should be with an Executive President, but how efficiently he or she handles the job. Clearly, an Executive President is immersed in political activity, especially in this case when he is cohabiting with a party with which he is openly at odds. This needs a good set of officials and advisers – to whom he must at least listen before taking decisions.

In hindsight now, the President seems to have understood the faux pas he has committed the country to, and is now saying “No, No” to every other defence agreement with the US. On the other hand, he is trying to balance the scales by signing defence agreements with China, raising the ire of India. None of these agreements is made public. Not that going before the Cabinet or Parliament means much, given that none of them bothers to study these voluminous papers, or would have understood the contents even if translated into local languages. Statutory think tanks established to analyse and strategise are also the least helpful.

The Indian Ocean security issue is warming up, meanwhile, with all eyes now on the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore where the US is expected to ramp up its military and geo-economic aims to curtail the growing presence of China in these waters and around it. China on the other hand is sending its Defence Minister for the first time to the conference.

Both China and the US link their agreements to trade concessions, investments and aid – there’s nothing for nothing these days. But the whole point is that the Sri Lanka Government does not weigh the pros and cons when considering these agreements usually hatched in secrecy and incubated in darkness — and the big time power-play at work almost wraps Sri Lankan leaders around their little fingers.

How can a Government think at macro level when it cannot even sort its issues at micro level? The Police Department is also under the President. He took it over when he felt the assassination attempt against him was a genuine threat. He does not have any of his party ministers in the Cabinet and this gives new meaning to the phrase “it’s lonely at the top”.

From all accounts, the President is not going to yield to his UNF coalition partner’s pressure to hand over the Police Department to them, leave alone make the former Commander of the Army, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, the minister thereof. The UNF has a genuine grouse complaining that it is receiving the flak for the incompetence on the security front when the control centre is the Presidential Secretariat. These are the inherent problems of an Executive Presidency and a cohabitation government gone wrong. And the country will have to live with such imperfections.

There is, however, a higher duty cast on the country’s political leadership to ensure the security of the individual citizen, and the security of the State. The citizens expect no less from their elected leaders as the country struggles to get back on even keel.



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