Colombo’s quest for peace after long war

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Colombo’s quest for peace after long war

A shift in focus from the use of hard power to soft power on global issues, is a feather in the cap of the Sri Lanka Army. The Lankan country is fast moving towards peace and stability, and is without an enemy

This month, the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) held its annual defence seminar in Colombo, shifting  focus from the use of hard power — in which alongwith the Navy and the Air Force, it excelled, though at some cost — to soft power on global issues. Lest we forget, the SLA defeated the two-decade-long Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna insurgency in the south in 1990 and the deadly Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) after a 30-year long campaign in the north in 2009, both with some help from India.

Few militaries have succeeded in subduing an insurgency and terrorism; Sri Lankan security forces have uniquely outclassed others by eliminating root and branch, a rural and urban insurgency, contributing profitable takeaways, especially post-conflict, where the thrust was on five R’s — Reconstruction, Resettlement, Rehabilitation, Reintegration, and the big R, Reconciliation.

The mastermind of the earlier conferences was the indomitable former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, popularly called Gota, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s enormously powerful younger brother, a retired Colonel from the famous Gajaba Regiment. Not a leaf moved without his nod. With a regime change in 2015, the unthinkable happened on September1, ironically the day the conference opened. Instead of Gota inaugurating the event, as he used to till 2014, his arch enemy from the Sinha Regiment, now Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, whom he got dismissed and imprisoned, lit the lamp. Ignominiously, Gota was in the spotlight on the front pages of national dailies charged by the bribery commission in a Colombo court for corruption. The question doing the rounds in Colombo is: Will Gota go to jail? Gota, alongwith Rajapaksa and Army Chief General Fonseka, are the three architects of the war victory.

Coinciding with the seminar was President Maithripala Sirisena’s statement that the defeats of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and war-winning leader Rajapaksa paved the way for a lasting solution of the national question of reconciliation. He also said that the previous Government had caused serious damage to the country’s relations with the UN and the West, which were being repaired by his Government. Though visiting UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said encouraging words on the peace process, he touched a raw nerve by comparing what the Sri Lankan Security Force (SLSF) calls a humanitarian operation in the last phase of the war with Rwanda and Srebrenica. Notwithstanding the extreme comparison, Sri Lanka is moving towards peace, stability and reconciliation and is without an enemy.

After the end of the Cold War, Britain’s Chief of Defence Staff  (CDS), Field Marshal Lord Edwin Bramall, told me: “We have no enemy now, we have to find one.” Bar an isolated incident involving two LTTE in the Kilinochchi jungles in 2013 and the threat of violent protests by the Tamil diaspora like the one faced by a Sri Lankan diplomat in Malaysia (it was intended for Rajapaksa), Sri Lanka, despite the 12,800 hardcore LTTE deradicalised and integrated into society, the LTTE’s resurgence is remote. According to Sara De Silva, the counter-terrorism expert at Kotelawala Defence University, the revival of the LTTE is only notional, compelling the SLA to chivvy its soft power for remaining relevant and productive.

The absence of a military challenge has activated thinking on ‘rightsizing’ the nearly 200,000 SLA, but no troop reduction is contemplated for now, though the military is no longer on the privileged pedestal given to it during the Rajapaksa period. The military is engaged in nation-building and in aid to civil authority with its soft power skills that no other institution in the country is endowed with. Flood and landslide relief, which is common, road-building, housing and repair works are some examples of military assistance to the civil society. The military is gainfully running holiday homes, tourist resorts, golf courses and other lucrative missions in the North-East. Three thousand acres of land has been returned and 7,000 acres is still with the military. Cantonments are likely to come up in war-affected zones. The visibility of SLA has reduced and northeners are enjoying much greater freedoms than any time in the past.

New opportunities lie in UN peace-keeping and international de-mining missions. At present, more than 5,000 Army and police personnel are deployed on five missions. A new mission to Mali will entail despatch of 750 officers and troops. Sri Lanka has the potential to provide at least two more counter-insurgency-weathered battalions. Defence cooperation with the US is the centre-piece of improving relations with the West. Between July 24 and August 23, 13 Marine Expeditionary Unit, a Pacific Command delegation and USS Frank Cable, a naval submarine visited Sri Lanka. A week-long exercise Pacific Angel, by Pacific Command and regional military experts, was held in the northern Province as a medical and humanitarian assistance programme.

Historically, India maintains the lead in defence assistance and military training programmes with Colombo, bagging around 1,500 slots in training institutions. Service-to-service, inter-Coast Guard and Ministry of Defence level interactions are held regularly to deepen and strengthen military cooperation, including construction of naval ships for Sri Lanka by Indian dockyards. The Indian Ocean has become the regional centre of geo-strategic gravity and Sri Lanka commands passage across the crucial sea lanes of communication. US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Atul Keshap said the 21st century is in many ways, the Indo-Pacific century and Sri Lanka is well poised to take advantage of its strategic location. While New Delhi is shifting gear from continental mindset to an Indian Ocean maritime strategy,   Sri Lanka, having vanquished the LTTE, is rightly poised to augment its naval capability. A Chinese submarine surfacing twice in Colombo in 2014 created ripples in New Delhi-Colombo relations and remains the red rag to a bull.

It is in this context that India Foundation invited Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to Singapore to deliver the keynote address on the Global Power Transition in the Indian Ocean. He advocated an Indian Ocean order with accepted rules and code of conduct to upholding the freedom of navigation (by avoiding the conflict and confusion in East and South China Seas). Like Lakshman Kadirgamar’s  famous definition of South Asia highlighted India’s centrality, Wickremesinghe has underlined India’s rise and South Asia’s domination of the Indian Ocean.

Two hundred ships pass every day below Galle and Hambantota ports of Sri Lanka. Its Navy, having sunk 10 LTTE ships between 2005 to 2007, is battle-hardened to monitor crucial sea lanes, but with more reach and teeth. The annual Galle Dialogue in November can determine the Indian Ocean regime with the requisite ingredients of hard and soft power.

(The accompanying visual is of, from left to right, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, Defence Secretary Karunasena Hettiarachchi and Army Commander Lt Gen Chrishantha de Silva, arriving for the Defence Seminar)

(Image courtesy: Ministry of Defence, Sri Lanka)

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