Lieutenant General Mahesh Senanayake took over as the 22nd Commander of the Sri Lankan Army in June 2017. The conduct of the army in the past, during the island’s civil war that it ended by defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 2009, and its contentious presence and role in the country’s Tamil-majority north and east since then continue to dominate the discourse around post-war resettlement and reconciliation. Amidst growing calls from the Tamil political leadership and the people for demilitarisation of the war-scarred areas, what is the army’s role and vision as Sri Lanka tries transitioning into peace? Excerpts from an interview in Colombo:
It is nine years since the civil war ended. The period has witnessed some crucial political developments, including a regime change in 2015. The current government came to power on the promise of strengthening democracy. In this post-war context, how do you see the role of the army?
The Sri Lankan army had been a traditional army, a ceremonial army, back in the 1970s, early 1980s. Due to the negative incidents that took place in the early 1980s, the army was expanded to face the challenges and threats that came in the way of the country’s territorial integrity and internal security. The army put in the main effort to ensure there is peace that the people aspired for, making many sacrifices. In recent history, Sri Lanka is the one and only country on the world map that has eradicated terrorism from its soil. We are a victorious army.
Once the combat is over, it is the responsibility of the army itself to understand its role and task. The last nine years were very critical to understand what happened 30 years ago. What must this government and army do to ensure that we don’t go back to the roots of the conflict that began 30 years ago? We have to find a mechanism, a commitment within the country to satisfy our own people more than the people outside. Today, we are closer to a better solution. Democracy was restored, elections were held [in 2015], good governance was brought in.
In this context, we are right-sizing and building a capacity-based army. We have to give back to the people by right-sizing and ensuring that the war will not recur. We are engaging with the people in the north and east to identify our responsibility. The 30 years of war were brutal, many lives were lost on both sides. This is a sort of testing period for us. Maybe till 2020. I believe that will be the time to take a good jump. As Chief of the Army Staff, I can say that the army is the only organisation which has the biggest capacity, be it human resource or anything else.
In Sri Lanka, as in some other parts of the world, the military is highly politicised. How are you negotiating that?
In the past, extra politicisation was there. Of course, the war is an extension of politics, we do know and understand that. But today, with the change of government in 2015, we are proud to say that we are not under pressure. As an army commander, I am not under pressure from my Minister, the President, or the Prime Minister. That means, politicisation of the armed forces has been curtailed or is very minimal.
In 2015, we had [presidential] elections in a democratic way. There were a lot of allegations on the armed forces — especially the army — that they got involved in politics in January 2015. The same year, in August, we had [parliamentary] elections. The same people who earlier accused us were asking, ‘Where are you?’ This February, we had another election [local government polls]. People say many members of the armed forces were voting against the government. That means there was no politicisation or pressure. We never pressured our soldiers to vote a particular way; we allowed them to vote for the person they wanted. There may be a few individuals who have their own affiliations with political parties, but otherwise generally they have the right to decide what they want to do.
You served as the Commander of the Security Forces in Jaffna in 2016, overseeing some efforts towards resettlement of the war-displaced Tamil community. President Maithripala Sirisena recently told Parliament that 85% of people’s land occupied by the military has been returned. Why did it take this long?
Based on our study after the war ended, we evolved a 2020 plan and a 2025 plan. We know which land can be released at what time. Before 2015, there were many other reasons, the people were not sure what was going to happen. But after 2015, and that is why I say there is no politicisation or pressure, the decision is being taken by the armed forces itself. We have understood where it is strategically and tactically important to stay, what the nodal points are. We decide how best we can bring normalcy, giving the maximum to the people who are legally entitled to it.
I look at it like this. This is a country in which we have Internally Displaced Persons’ [IDP] camps. About 3,00,000 [civilians] joined us after the humanitarian operation. As many as 13,169 ex-LTTE cadres surrendered. Our aim is to make this country free of IDP camps. You should not have internally displaced people in your own country. I can understand somewhere else, but not here.
But there are reasons for them to stay in camps. One, they don’t have the land. Secondly, in some instances, the people who stayed back [and did not migrate] belong to the third generation, and don’t own land. We are addressing this by engaging with the Tamil political leadership in the north and east, for them to understand that ‘this is your army’. This is not a Sinhalese army, this is a Sri Lankan army.
Until now about 80% of the land has been released. The remaining? Still 2% of the land mass is yet to be de-mined. We had three types of minefields — one laid by the Sri Lankan armed forces, we have the records for that. Secondly, those laid by the LTTE, we do not have the records for that. And thirdly, those laid by the IPKF [Indian Peace Keeping Force], we don’t have records for that too. When you say humanitarian de-mining, it should be 100%. It will take time. So, 2020 will be our target for that.
On April 13, we released 683 acres in Palaly, a critical area. It was a very bold decision as far as the Sri Lankan armed forces are concerned and we took it. We calculated the risk, nobody pressured us. Frankly, even the government or the political leadership did not know that we were going to release land there.
In another four to five months, we will return more land. We have identified some private land on which armed forces are stationed. We cannot compromise on national security. For that reason, we have to have some troops in those areas, and we are shifting them to state land. I need some finances for us to resettle.
The Resettlement Ministry has paid LKR 150 million to the army as compensation to relocate from private land that the people once lived on, or cultivated. Given that the Defence Ministry has the highest budgetary allocation, why would you need these additional funds, which are meant for people’s resettlement, to return the land that rightfully belongs to the people?
That army has two programmes. One is sustainment; the other is modernisation. To sustain the army, it is not only about land or capital investment. Maintenance of our inventory is key. We are spending about the same amount, but the value of money has gone down. When we shift from one place to the other, leaving behind some things, there is a need for redeployment or to establish something, for which you need capital. If the Government of Sri Lanka decides that money should be allocated from that Ministry, I am not interested in where the money comes from.
As per the Appropriation Bill ahead of the 2018 Budget, the Ministry of Defence was allotted LKR 260,711,375,000 ($1.6 billion) as recurrent expenditure and LKR 30 billion ($190 million) as capital expenditure, the highest allocation in the Budget. How do you justify such a huge allocation, nine years after the war ended? Is it for modernisation?
More than modernisation, it is for sustainment because costs have gone up. During the war, we were not living comfortably. In the post-war scenario, to ensure that there is no war again, the army is being deployed in different areas and the basics have to be given to them. Even that costs money.
You spoke about right-sizing. Why do you still need so many uniformed men in the north and east, almost a decade after you defeated the LTTE? The people have voiced concern over the army’s involvement in civilian activity, particularly in agricultural farms and as preschool teachers, seeing it as continuing militarisation. Why must the army get involved in these areas?
It is a perception among some segments of society. If you take north and east, take the capacity of any organisation. Thirty years of war have left our community in the north at a disadvantage. The government machinery was not functioning for decades. There was a big gap and our services are needed to address it. The armed forces deployed in the north are the only organisations who have the capacity to perform.
I have been discussing this with the [northern] Chief Minister, requesting him to use our capacity. Some can look at our presence negatively, but a majority will accept it. Then there is the question of security itself. By that I mean security concerns from non-traditional threats.
What are they?
For example, drugs, human smuggling. In Sri Lanka today, drug trafficking and drug abuse is a non-traditional threat. Our newspapers often report news of Kerala ganja being smuggled. We are in close proximity of our neighbours. Everybody is not doing it, the Indian government doesn’t do it, but it comes here. And it is being distributed. Our Tamil population has never experienced this threat in history, and that is why there is a security force requirement as of today, until the police does policing correctly. There is a gap in policing, law and order. The day that Sri Lankan police does proper policing, we will be the happiest to go inside a camp and play cricket or come back to the south.
In the north, definitely there is a reduction in our troops. We are in the process of right-sizing. This does not mean downsizing. The number may be the same but the deployment is different.
Is this the security sector reform that Sri Lanka committed to at the Human Rights Council in 2015? Where does that stand?
If I talk about the figure, when I joined the army it was totally about 10,000 in number. But at the end of the conflict, we were an army of 2,36,000. It has been reduced by almost 50,000 now. I agree that we are not exhibiting what we are doing. Then we want to discipline the society. We believe that by disciplining the society these problems will not be there. It has happened all over the world. But when we do it, it is interpreted differently. That is why you are asking that question.
Your army has been under international scrutiny for some time. Do you feel pressured?
If we were listening to only what the international community was saying, not only Sri Lanka, any other country will not prosper. We would have not won the war. The peace that everybody enjoys today, irrespective of whether you’re a Sinhalese or Tamil, north or south, would have never been there. So, at that time, with political will and public support, all armed forces, everybody got together and we finished that. Now we face allegations, those are baseless.
No war was fought with zero casualty. If the accusations against anyone are proved in the courts, there will be no sympathy from our side. We want to maintain discipline so we are ready to face any inquiry, but within the legal framework of Sri Lanka.
You spoke of non-conventional threats. But in terms of conventional threats, both domestic and international, how is Sri Lanka placed today in your assessment?
Sri Lanka is a peaceful country today. We are not expecting any external aggression but internally, being an island and with people living here with different motives, a few skirmishes could take place. But touch wood, from May 19, 2009, till date there has been not a single explosion or round of firing in the name of the LTTE or terrorism. That means we are a model to the world on how to progress in a post-conflict scenario.
But it is the responsibility of any nation to prepare for war. That doesn’t mean only internal, it maybe regional. We are our neighbour’s [India’s] closest friend, we have almost 1,00,000 Sri Lankans living there and we have more than 10,000-15,000 of them living here. It is a security concern, not a threat.
We have Muslim brothers and sisters living here, about 10% of the population. There is no Islamic State here. There are very few self-motivated people. They are not motivated by Madrasas, or by any mosque, but just through the Internet. They work here. It is common to any society, to other countries also. It is not organised, just a few individuals. Then it is our responsibility to ensure that a capacity-based army is ready for any eventuality. All this is manageable.
We have more than 12,000 Chinese who have come for work here. More than 10,000 Indians work here. They are innocent, but somebody could utilise or exploit them for their gains. There are 13,169 ex-LTTE cadres who are living with us. There are a few who are rehabilitated and are living abroad. They have enough reasons to create problems here for their own survival abroad. It is a fact.
Could you talk about military cooperation with Pakistan and China? Do you find any tensions or challenges in these partnerships when it comes to other relationships? For example, with India or the U.S.
Historically, Sri Lanka is a non-aligned country. We are neutral, so we value all our neighbours. Our biggest neighbour and best friend is India. We are looking forward to the Indian army chief’s visit [currently ongoing]. For army commanders, these regional visits are common. The Pakistan army chief was here. I went to Pakistan, met the President, the Prime Minister. I was in India in March but unfortunately, I was called back after the first day because of the problems [anti-Muslim attacks] in Kandy. I am waiting to go back to my college. I did my civil engineering degree in Pune. A majority of Sri Lankan army officers are trained in India.
We have exercises with India, Pakistan, the Chinese, and the U.S. because this is neutral. We believe we are a good strength for SAARC, whether it is economically or militarily. Because we are neutral.
(Source: The Hindu – By Meera Srinivasan)