Army to be “right-sized” to meet present and future challenges : Firm focus on maintaining hard earned peace | Sunday Observer

Army to be “right-sized” to meet present and future challenges : Firm focus on maintaining hard earned peace

Pic: Rukmal Gamage
Pic: Rukmal Gamage

As Sri Lanka marked the ninth year since the end of its long armed conflict this week, the Sri Lanka Army opted for muted memorial ceremonies to honour its war heroes and all those who suffered during the three decades of devastation. According to the Commander of the Sri Lanka Army, Lieutenant General Mahesh Senanayake, instead of large victory parades and constant brouhaha which only led to the waste of public funds, the main focus now should be on maintaining the hard earned peace for the country’s future generations.

Remembering the thousands of soldiers who laid down their lives for the country, while many continue to be missing and injured, Senanayake sat down with the Sunday Observer to also speak about a changing Sri Lanka Army, post war national security and various allegations that continue to follow the Armed Forces nine long years since the last bullet was fired on May 18, 2009.

Q: Why has the Sri Lanka Army decided to have more toned down ceremonies this year to mark the end of the war?

After nine years since the end of the country’s long drawn conflict, the Sri Lanka Army wanted to look at marking the significant point in history in a different way. Today’s requirement is not to harp on a victory won. It is to maintain this hard earned peace. Armed Forces are all about glamour but it is not meant to be displayed at every given chance. However, not every social segment may understand this due to their own agendas. But, our brothers and sisters in the North and East have their own sentiments and these must be respected as well. Therefore, more muted ceremonies have been organised to mark the event as the Army’s main focus now is to maintain peace.

Q: Since the end of armed conflict, how has the Army’s perception changed towards national security?

During the war, the army identified and gained vast amounts of knowledge on various threats to national security. Since its conclusion during the past nine years we have done an important study to formulate two plans aiming at being completed in years 2020 and 2025.

As a result of these studies, the role of the Army in a post-war situation has been identified while most importantly we were able to determine the required armed forces strength for Sri Lanka today. Therefore, the Army is now in the process of right-sizing the force to suit the country with national security in mind.

While national security cannot be compromised at any cost we have also understood the importance of joint operations between the triforces with the backing of the Special Task Force and Police. For example, if the Navy and the Coast Guard are strengthened, for an island country like ours the requirement for forces on land is minimal. Therefore, the Army is now encouraging and supporting the strengthening of the Navy. Thereafter, the Army will look at right sizing the Army with training, institutions and deployment will take shape to accommodate these aims. Despite criticisms, this is also why the Army released large amounts of land back to the people through its understanding that it would not harm the country’s national security.

Throughout the years we were a threat based army due to the war, but now we are looking at a capacity based army, able to face any eventuality to do with security, natural disasters, unconventional situations such as, drug trafficking and even international terrorism threats by implementing sustainable modernisation plans for the Army in the post war period to ensure national security.

Q: What changes is the Army making to transform into a peacetime armed force and are these plans on track?

We are definitely on track in meeting these goals. There may be delays however, due to factors such as, financial constraints. Currently, we have divided the Army into three segments to suit the country’s needs in the modern day. As a result, one third of the Army is combat-ready which we feel is sufficient in today’s context. Another one third is focused on nation building to assist the country’s development while the remainder focuses on administration and UN deployment etc. within the force.

As for the North and East, political promises by certain individuals have been made to move the Army out. But, this is not what the population needs. It must be understood that only the Army has the capacity to assist those in the North and the East to rebuild. Today, there are soldiers building homes for internally displaced persons (IDPs) and even Ex LTTE cadres, despite not owning a house themselves back in their villages. This is our commitment to the people and how we are trying to ensure that a war will not recur in this country. Currently, we are educating our soldiers to make them understand what the country requires of them during peace time.

Q: What has the Army been doing to make itself more inclusive of minorities, including from the North and the East?

We would be the happiest to have those in the North and East join the Army. But in fact, there should be more people joining the Police in these areas, as policing is more important now during peacetime. However, there is an obstacle, as during the last 30 years their education was disrupted and many don’t have the basic qualifications needed. Nevertheless, the Army has now recruited around 300 youth from the North including ex- LTTE members who were screened and cleared to work in the Army. As the Commander of the Army I am pleased that this reintegration is taking place.

Q: Recently you established a Directorate of Overseas Operations to answer to allegations of war crimes, can you elaborate on its role?

With UN peacekeeping missions becoming important to the country, as the Army Commander it is my responsibility to ensure that those being deployed are vetted and given security clearance to work anywhere in the world.

But due to various pressures put on the Sri Lanka Army it was decided that a separate directorate should be established, with UN peacekeeping missions not being its only mandate.

Of course, security clearances are the immediate concern. In the meantime, during discussions we realised, the government, along with various Ministries and agencies was working hard to clear the name of the country and its armed forces while the Army has only up till now been furnishing information needed for this. Therefore, this think-tank will maintain a data bank to answer allegations against the Army in a methodical and responsible manner.

Q: Does the Army feel underappreciated or that its services have been forgotten?

During the war, the Jaffna Peninsula was under siege but the Army ensured that shops and hospitals in the North were functioning even at the height of the war. Not a single death during the war was reported due to hunger because the Armed Forces were carrying food to the North and East and distributing at great risk. We even helped LTTE cadres who got injured in the thick of the battle and transported them to Colombo for treatment. This is part of the Army’s humanitarian services that people have forgotten. No war was ever fought with zero casualties but we tried our best to safeguard civilians by only attacking during daytime and always announcing warnings. But the LTTE was using civilians as a human shield.

We lost 20, 000 soldiers in the war with almost 4,000 missing in action. In Batticaloa, the Police lost 600 in a day. They continue to be missing to date but this is not highlighted nor discussed. I think it is high time we did that.

Q: Recently Sandya Ekneligoda, the wife of missing journalist Pradeep Eknaligoda said she had hoped the Army would be more helpful towards investigations on missing persons after you took over as Army Commander. But allegations are that the Army is not providing the necessary information. What are your comments on that?

I invited her for a discussion. I have also been clear about the difference between a war hero and a murderer. The Army has not tried to conceal the wrongdoings of its soldiers during war with around 20 now in jail because of crimes committed in the battlefield.

We are doing our best to support investigations. But if the information that is being requested does not exist, not even the Army Commander can provide them. Whether they were ever maintained, I personally have no knowledge. Or whether they were ever maintained secretly by intelligence units, I am unable to answer that as well.

If someone asks me for a document of a soldier from a regiment I can get the information and a copy will also be available on payment at the records division. But we must understand that intelligence units are closed groups and only they know what information they maintain. Meanwhile during the war though log books were maintained some entries were never entered due to security procedures. At times, I have been asked for information on various mobile numbers taken under aliases and who they belong to but this information too we do not possess.

After becoming Commander I did another round of inquiry but there was not much I could find that was already not provided. Currently we are co-operatively working with the Office of Missing Persons. There are so many military personnel missing, that I have urged those families to also seek redress through the OMP.

Q: It has been nine years since the war ended and allegations of war crimes against the military first emerged. The army has always maintained blanket denials about these allegations. But is it inconceivable that in the fog of war, certain military units operated with impunity outside the conventional command structure of the army?

It is highly unlikely that there can ever be groups operating outside the command structure of the Army because the Army is in fact a very structured organisation commanded by the Army Commander.

A Commander should not allow anyone else to command his troops and if he so allows, there is no requirement for him within the force. In today’s context we have groups that have been formed to closely work with the STF, for example, to combat the drugs issues but this is all known and centrally controlled by the Commander. Therefore, if such groups existed or continue to exist, a Commander should be held responsible for their actions. It cannot be said that he had no knowledge of it.

Q: Some have alleged that benefits offered to ex servicemen and military widows have been curtailed. Is there any truth to this?

The Ranaviru Seva Authority has been working towards providing all that is necessary for our veterans while the, Directorate of Veteran Affairs along with the Rehabilitation Reinforcement Battalion has been helping war widows and their families by providing, scholarships, housing, employment etc.

There are of course certain policies and processes in government, so that there can be delays in providing their demands. For example, the government has promised servicemen who left the forces prior to completing 12 years of service all they asked for, but there are delays.

Those with ulterior motives are pushing these soldiers onto the streets. The delays could be due to a discipline issue, which requires it to be sorted before being given what was promised.

Also while the government policy is that widows who remarry lose benefits awarded to war widows the Army has ignored those policies and done their best to support these families.