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    A sound strategy for defence, national security

    January 28, 2020

    April 21, 2019 began like any other day. It was Easter Sunday. While the faithful were flocking to Churches, others were planning to spend a leisurely day out. Sri Lankans were just one month away from celebrating 10 years of peace, following the victory over the LTTE.

    It took just a moment to shatter that hard-earned peace, as bombs placed by fundamentalist extremists went off in several hotels and churches around the island, killing more than 250 and injuring many more. It took a while to realise that this was an ISIS-inspired attack. Terrorism had again raised its head in Sri Lanka, albeit in a different form. The result, however, was almost the same – the needless destruction of lives and property for vague aims.

    The attacks exposed a gaping vacuum in our security and intelligence apparatus, which had been neglected by the previous regime. Foreign and local intelligence agencies had warned of an impending terror attack in Colombo, but the warnings went unheeded at the top political levels. Sri Lankans, regardless of their ethnicity, religion or political affiliation, felt totally insecure.

    There was a collective realization among the populace that Sri Lanka should have a leadership that gives priority to national security and defence. After all, if better security and intelligence measures were in place and if the intelligence warnings were heeded, this tragedy could have been prevented.

    It is in this backdrop that the people saw Gotabaya Rajapaksa as a potential statesman who could revitalize the defence, intelligence and security apparatus. After all, as a former military officer and later as Defence Secretary, he has an intimate knowledge of defence matters and requirements. He also straddled both military and civilian worlds as a former military officer and then a civil servant, which meant he could consider military matters from a civilian perspective as well.

    National security

    For a populace frustrated by a serious lack of attention on national security, it was an easy choice to elect Gotabaya Rajapaksa as President. Making his very first speech as President at the sacred precincts of the Ruwanweli Maha Seya in Anuradhapura, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa stated that national security would be a priority for his administration. “I consider ensuring national security as a fundamental facet of governance. We will implement a national security mechanism that will free the country of terrorism, underworld activity, extortion, drug trafficking, violence against women and children and all types of crime,” the President told the Nation.

    The President elaborated on this in his Policy Statement delivered in Parliament on January 3 this year. “In our policy, National Security occupies the foremost place. We have already taken steps to strengthen the national security apparatus. Talented officers have been given appropriate responsibilities again. We have taken steps to ensure proper coordination between the Armed Forces and the Police, who are collectively responsible for maintaining national security. The network of national intelligence agencies has been reorganised and strengthened. We will take all necessary steps to make our motherland a safe country free of terrorism, extremism, underworld activities, theft and robbery, extortionists, the drug menace, disruptors of public order, and the abuse of women and children.”

    He also explained his vision for ensuring Sri Lanka's sovereignty and security in a globalised world: “We follow a neutral foreign policy. We must strive to maintain friendly relations with every country. However, we can never give up our independence. We must establish an honourable governance that will allow this country to maintain its sovereignty, security, national pride, and deal with all nations on equal terms, without demonstrating weakness in our diplomatic or trading relationships. We will never allow other countries to take over our economically significant geographic regions or physical resources.”

    The President has indeed kept to his words from a defence and national security perspective. He has revitalized the intelligence mechanisms, appointing experienced officers to top positions. Today, intelligence is not only about tracking local and transnational terrorist movements such as ISIS. There are so many other threats that we need to keep an eye on – international narcotics and gun running, human smuggling and trafficking, online hate speech and hate preaching, underworld crime, money laundering, white collar (financial) crime, hacking, online identity theft, cybercrimes, child porn and online exploitation networks are among the other issues. This covers a vast array of issues and we should have a top-notch intelligence team to assess and track these. It is also important to monitor social media for potentially incendiary material that cause public disorder or disharmony.

    With the Police again under the Defence Ministry, there will be a greater role for the Police and the STF in tackling organised underworld crime and other vices such as illicit liquor, illegal gambling and malpractices, bribery and corruption, which tend to make society immoral. Another big challenge is how the Tri Forces should be mobilized in peacetime, now that April 21 is firmly behind us. The challenge is to ensure that such an act of terrorism never occurs on Sri Lankan soil again. The President has met this challenge with a two-pronged strategy – ramping up the intelligence gathering network and enhancing physical security. Hence his decision to mobilize the Armed Forces throughout the country to face any eventuality. Since there is no Emergency in place, the Armed Forces will work closely with the Police in this endeavour. This is a very reassuring move for the public.

    Quite apart from maintaining security per se, there are many other endeavours that the Armed Forces are engaged in, under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s guidance. The Army plays an invaluable role in clearing up the last few remaining landmine hit areas in the country. It is also engaged in an anti-dengue drive and a beach clean-up drive. The other two Forces (Navy and Air Force) are engaged in similar ventures that serve the public. This is also part of the President’s strategy of bringing the Police and Armed Forces closer to the public to build a better rapport between them.

    The President has also emphasized the importance of our Police and Armed Forces personnel gaining advanced education in the “Knowledge Century” replete with many new technologies ranging from Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, Autonomous Vehicles, Robotics, the Internet of Things, Biotechnology, 3-D Printing, and Automation. The President has noted that these technologies will reshape economic growth in developed and developing countries over the coming decades. He has stated that such transformative technologies must be adopted at their early stages.

    Security and intelligence gathering

    In this regard, the President has placed his trust in the General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University which was established under the Sir John Kotelawala Defence Academy Act No. 68 of 1981 with the aim of producing highly qualified Tri-Forces officers. In 2009, the then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa elevated this into a University. The establishment of the Medical Faculty, registration of local and foreign cadet officers, introduction of Postgraduate degrees for research and development activities, establishment of the Southern University in Suriyawewa and the construction of a state-of-the-art hospital were some of his achievements vis-à-vis a Kotelawala Defence University. The President has said that the General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University should strive to be an exemplary higher educational institution not just in Sri Lanka, but in the region as well.

    Defence is a vast subject that requires a thorough grounding and knowledge of conflicts past and present as well as the latest trends in security and intelligence gathering. As the first-ever Sri Lankan President with a battle-hardened military background and a public service stint, Gotabaya Rajapaksa understands perfectly well the future challenges the country will face in these realms. This is why he has formulated a long-term vision for the country’s national security, one that will hopefully not change drastically despite any changes in the political landscape. It will be a long-lasting blueprint that serves the country’s interests locally and globally.


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