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Sunday, 16 January 2011





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Outgoing Navy Commander Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe:

Training and professionalism took him to the top

Quality training and professionalism were the key factors behind Admiral Thisara Samrasinghes’s success during his Naval career to reach the highest rung in the Sri Lanka Navy as the 16th Commander and to retire as an Admiral completing 36 and a half years of service. His contribution to fight LTTE arms smuggling in international waters put the Sri Lanka Navy on a pedestal, globally.

He was always sought for critical appointments in the Navy due to his operational commitment and the vision he had to make things happen. The experience he gained as the Commander of the Northern and Eastern Naval areas during the most critical period of the country paved way for him to reach the top.

“More than anything I have achieved I value the respect and honour received from my subordinates and also from my superiors said”, the outgoing Navy Commander in an exclusive interview with the Sunday Observer.

“You become the Navy Commander not the day you become the Navy Commander, you become the Navy Commander on the day you leave the Navy, you become the Navy Commander if you have lived upto the Navy’s Command”, he says.

Following are the excerpts of the interview:

Q: You are to retire from the Sri Lanka Navy after serving it for 36 and half years. What made you join it?

A: I started my career as a Naval officer not that I wanted to be in the Navy in particular but because the Navy selected me following my career at Royal College with achievements in sports and cadeting. I reached the top in the Cadet Corps by becoming the RSM. That achievement encouraged me to seek a military career. It was the Navy who selected me and I was not particulary keen to join the Navy. I was more Army oriented. But the Navy selected me first.

Q: You have set records here and abroad when you were undergoing training during your Naval career. How do you recall them?

A: When I joined the Navy the competition was stiff I got to the top of the batch and was selected to the Dartmouth Naval and Maritime Academy, UK. At Dartmouth also I had stiff competition and got to the top of the batch. I still hold the record where I was given a prestigious appointment being a foreigner. I achieved these because I was an all rounder.

Then I went to India and the United States for mid career courses. There too I topped the batch competing with 30 other foreigners who had completed their staff courses. I went to US without my staff course. I had to compete with countries like Australia, Japan and Korea.

My specialisation was in India on navigation at the National Defence College, Delhi in 2005. The training was the base for my appointments. My thesis ‘The Strategy to Defeat Maritime Terrorism’ competed with 91 Brigadiers and Generals and won. My background in the operation directorate from 1997 onwards helped.

Q: What were your key responsibilities prior to your appointment as Navy Commander?

A: I first commanded a short patrol craft in 1981. I served in gun boats, and the fast attack craft squadron in 1985. I served and commanded fast gun boats in the surveillance zone in the North. My sea time was in the North and the East, never in the West or the South. The sea experience dealing with maritime terrorism was the core. On land I commanded the operational bases Elara in Jaffna.

I trained many. They are knocking at the door of becoming Admirals. I was the Training Commander at the Academy and the Commandant of the Recruit Training Centre. In Colombo I served at the headquarters and in the South as Commandant and Area Commander. From 1997 to 2000 I handled operations as the Deputy Director of Operations.

Q: What was the most important and critical period of your Naval career?

A: The 2006 - 2009 period which was the most critical period of the country. Many governments and militaries had tried to win over terrorism for over 25 years with no success due to act of efficiency and leadership. The Secretary’s leadership in stratergising and coordinating the military to see that the HE’s vision was fulfilled was a key issue.

Q: How did you contribute to the humanitarian operation?

A: The Commander decided I should be Director General Operations in 2005 although there were others senior to me. I had to see that the military directives of the Commander were executed. In 2006 I was sent to the East. The strategy was planned to search for the LTTE floating warehouses operating far away from our shores. It was vulnerable and I was in control of the coast line upto Pulmudai. We were in control of Muttur and Kinniya town. Then my commander decided I should go to the North. Normally you don’t go from East to North. But they were critical years. Such movement has happened only twice before. My predecessor Admiral Samaratunga also went from East to North. I was in the North in the final year of the humanitarian operation. In 2008 November we had a terrorist attack which we successfully repulsed. Of course they damaged a merchant vessel.

Q: You represented the Navy and the Government at various forums prior to becoming the Commander also. Your experiences?

A: I was exposed to foreign negotiations at various levels in the areas of purchases, training and operations with countries like Israel, India, USA. This gave me experience in Naval diplomacy and negotiation skills, to get the best for my country within the framework agreed by the government. I was a member of high powered delegations specially in the Prime Ministerial and Presidential delegations to Indonesia in 2006 and to Libya in 2009.

Q: Being a sportsman how did you contribute to the uplift of Navy sports?

A: I worked hard. I spent lot of time in developing Navy sports - cricket, rugger and athletics. I silently did my best to bring the Navy rugger team to glory. My personal time was given. I did it genuinely not looking for recognition.

Q: How do you see your appointment as Navy Commander?

A: I am grateful to HE and the Secretary Defence for having confidence in me, for the investment they made on me to lead the Navy, specially during on this period of transition. My priority was to see that at terrorism will not reappear.

Q: What were the reasons that led to your appointment?

A: The most critical was that I ran directives of the Commander in situ. Rear Admiral Samaratunga and I shared the North and East for two years the experience and training made us fit for appointment.

Q: What were the changes you made so that terrorism will not happen again?

A: Two things. Increasing the number of fishing marshalling points which were restricted to the North to the rest of the country, where fishing harbours had 500 to 600 boats sailing out without check. This ensured that nothing comes back to our shores specially from the strategic islands of the Palk Straits. Cross border communication between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka is important. We manage and control the situation.

It was Government strategy to establish ourselves in the coast lines which were isolated. There were serious lapses specially in liberated areas in places like Nachchikuda, Silavathura, Tammenna and Mullikulum. Luckily the Army could liberate them and we could strategically position ourselves along the Eastern coast in Mullaitivu, Chundikulam, Veddathalthivu and Vettilaikerni. We have also not forgotten the South Beruwala, Panadura, Negombo, Puttalam, Panama and Arugambay.

We don’t see the enemy now coming with weapons. These rehabilitated are going into the mainstream. We should be 100 percent sure to know what is happening around them.

Q: Can the Navy relax at this juncture?

A: We should stabilise so that in the next two years we should have a solid foundation. Everyone has been given a job to do. That part should be done with absolute efficiency. We need to emphasise on training. I took personal interest to instruct new batches recruited to teach English and public speaking. I encouraged them to read and write. Unfortunately we are not learning Tamil enough. A large number of English instructors were recruited to the Navy for this purpose. We have to be out at sea with people who we must communicate with. If I don’t know your language I don’t know your feelings. Learning Tamil and English was given priority.

Q: You said the Navy has to do more than what was done during the war to defend the country from terror organisations. Reports say there are ten ships operating elsewhere. What should the Navy do to neutralise them?

A: What I meant was that we must be mindful of the situation. We have a clean country. If there are ten more LTTE ships intelligence, surveillance, negotiations, coordinations has to work, foreign support has to be secured. We must plan our strategies. I had a seven point strategy to knock off the potential outsiders from our shores. Our centre of gravity had shifted away from our shores. Our centre of gravity was Mullaitivu. Now it is all over this Diaspora. So that potential, the ability of financial support the logistic all these must be considered. If we fail they will acquire things and put on boats and will start coming here.

The Navy has to take speedy action. For which we need to have good vessels to go and remain there. If they penetrate our barriers we have to pursue them and knock them off. We should not allow them to land.

Q: The Navy went out to sea and destroyed LTTE floating warehouses. Can we follow the same strategy at this point?

A: At that time we had to destroy in self defence. They were firing at us. I would have loved to have apprehended them, if it was possible. It is not a case of destroying. It is a decision when you stop the ship. We must revise international maritime laws.

We went because it was hurting us. The wound was ours. The man without the wound also should look for them and stop them for the rest of the mankind. If I send out a vessel now the orders and rule of engagement is that if it is an innocent get yourself convinced that it is innocent. Be hundred percent sure in your decision.

Q: What measures did you take to minimise corruption and waste in the Navy?

A: Measures were taken to ensure that people won’t rob and waste resources and funds, buying effective results. There are two signals that I have sent to conserve electricity.

We have half an hour self imposed power cuts, self imposed less movements to save electricity and fuel and the Eastern Command saved Rs. 1.9 million in one month. Navy House saves electricity through self imposed power cuts.

Q: The Navy initiated projects at commercial and community level. What is their progress.

A: The troop carrier vessel Jetliner has become the most squghted in the country.

We initiated the project to clean the canals in the city. The Commander Western Naval area initiated the project and now the Navy Headquarters handles this. We are expanding boat services upto Panadura and Ja-Ela.

That will reduce the flood situation in Colombo.

Fishing marshalling point have bring revenue to the country. So we are directly involved in these projects. The Civil Engineering Department has become the most sought for construction.

Q: What is the biggest achievement of the Navy in the post conflict period?

A: The message generated through the 60th anniversary celebrations of the Sri Lanka Navy. The fact that 19 countries responded and five Veto Powers of the UN participated was significant.

Russia, China and India sent their biggest ships for the first time in history.

Q: Could you realise your dreams in your Naval career ?

A: I had a dream of doing well but not of becoming the number one wanted to be of service to the Navy. I was looking for what I could give back to the system and not on what I could get.

In that sense I have achieved my goals. More than anything what I have achieved is the respect and honour from my subordinates and also from my superiors and come to this position.

It was a goal I have set in my life to reach the pinnacle. You don’t aspire for the post. I acquired the best possible qualifications so that the decision makers didn’t have doubt that I could do the job.

There is another aspect: You become the Navy Commander not on the day you take up the post. You become the Navy Commander if you have lived upto the Navy’s command. HE and the Secretary Defence thought I was fit for the post and I have to fulfil the requirements of the job.

Q: Do you leave the Navy as a satisfied man?

A: Absolutely. For what I have been to the Navy. For what I have fulfilled as an obligation to the Navy and for my country. At the initial stages it is for the Navy but as a senior you become part of national policy. I have no regrets I feel good. But the judgement should not be mine.

Q: As a Naval officer you’ve done much and as a citizen you can do more. What are your plans to serve the country after you leave the Navy?

A: I am available. The President, the Secretary Defence and decision makers know where my strengths are. Of course 36 and a half years is quite a long period. My family hopes I would spend some time with them. I have confidence and still can work long hours.

Q: How do you envisage the future of the Navy?

A: The future Navy should be with coast guard help, a strongly guarded coastline with maritime domain awareness, with coastal radar surveillance controlling fishing fleets and the Palk Straits, with surveillance of our shores, territorial waters at the high seas.

We need vessels trained sailors, technology. We are a technical service and need larger vessels to be out at sea and smaller vessels to guard coastal deployment. Seasonally ships from North East to the South West.

So our small boat concept must continue to control the fishing. Medium vessels are important. If a situation arises we need to have ships to lift capability. We need vessels to see into fishermen in distress far away at sea. Marine pollution, natural disasters, we need to be geared to. Energy exploration offshore is one of the main themes of the Government. We need to be capable of operating and protecting facilities out at sea. The ferry services from Thalai Mannar and Colombo.

We need to participate at development activities. Men only won’t improve the Navy. We need to improve our infrastructure. Quality training needs be given.


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