Defence Secretary Must be A Defence Expert
Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, Major General (rtd) Kamal Gunaratne, in a candid interview, speaks of the Government’s intention to strengthen national security. He emphasises that a security expert should handle the defence of a country and that his appointment as Secretary Defence was apt.
By Anuradha Herath
You have been appointed to the central administration of the defence authority of the country. How do you perceive it?
A: Any State has a Governing mechanism in place. The Executive and the Legislature run Ministries. And, the Defense Ministry is a vital Ministry.
The crucial strategy of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s policy manifesto is ensuring national security. A country cannot be developed without national security and the Ministry of Defence is essential. Presidents are the Ministers of Defence and the Defence Secretary is directly answerable to the President.
One may wonder why I was appointed while there were many other senior administrative officers. The reason being the importance of national security.
How do you clarify this?
A: If a non-defence professional runs the Ministry of Defence, it may result in disaster .The best example is the Easter Sunday attack. As a defence expert, I do not think the terrorists were shrewd, it was just a matter of the lackadaisical attitude of the Security authorities at the time, as they had got information about the attack, 97 times but did not act.
We need a defence expert as Defence Secretary to avoid such incidents. I believe that I have the experience and expertise from the beginning to the end of the war. I can smell impending threats! Therefore, I have assumed that responsibility and I hope to give my maximum with the help of my groups.
In your view, is there a threat to national security at the moment?
A: A terrorist attack or a foreign invasion is not the only threat to national security. Providing relief during natural and man-made disasters come under this category. Lives of people have to be saved during epidemics. Then there is separatism too. Although we annihilated the LTTE on 19 May 2009, we have failed to defeat separatism.
We saw the rise of racist gangs in social media in the recent past. Is the situation under control now?
A: These extremist groups who want personal gain through racial and religious disharmony. Financial gain might be their aim, using innocent people as bait. Our country is victim to extremism from several angles. One is separatism.
Those who supported the armed revolt of the LTTE are now promoting separatism via advocacy. Further, a respected world religion has been twisted to create religious fanatism leading youth to destruction. The result was the Easter Sunday attack which could have spread further.
What is the political undercurrent of this kind of extremism?
A: Various political organisations act for their benefit. However, we had setbacks in terms of intelligence, and the President instructed me to take all intelligence arms under one umbrella. Now, we have weekly meetings of all Heads of Intelligence. We monitor extremist organizations. We will not allow extremists to raise their heads.
Police exposed a plan of a second attack by Zahran and his gang. What is the guarantee that it will not recur?
A: Religious fanaticism, separatism or poverty leads terrorists to do what they do. The LTTE was had a separatist ideology while Zahran and his gang were distorting religion and propagating the wrong ideology. Such people are ready to commit any destruction, and the first wave caused massive damage.
Now we have unified the three Armed Forces, Police, Special Task Force and State Intelligence and taken the situation under control. We have blocked all possibilities of a second wave. I am confident about it.
What is the progress of investigations regarding the Easter Sunday attack?
A: Investigations were initially very slow during the past regime. They bypassed the right way to proceed. After I was appointed , I studied the entire process and deployed the best officials to investigate. This is not political revenge. We want to give justice to the families of the 290 plus persons killed and 500 others who were injured. We are bound to do justice to them.
Are the intelligence units that were paralyzed previously, active now?
A: By the time I got this post , the intelligence wings were pursuing one another. For example, the CID arrested TID or Military Intelligence cadres. Everyone worked in unison in the past, and now we have reinstated that situation.
Deploying the Military for civilian affairs and giving senior State positions to Military officers have come under severe criticism. Will it lead to the militarisation of the Government, as many people seem to think?
A: I do not agree with thatt. The President was sworn in November 2019. A Cabinet was sworn in, and Secretaries to Ministries were appointed after that. Among the 30 or 40 Secretaries, the only Military officer was me and only one retired Military officer was appointed as ambassador. He is Admiral Mohan Wijewickrama, High Commissioner to Pakistan. Pakistan requested for a retired Military officer. The allegation of militarisation is misplaced. However, Military being deployed to control the spread of COVID-19 was admirable.
An excellent rapport should exist between the Military and health sectors. Therefore, the President appointed the best radiologist of the Army Medical Corps as Secretary of the Ministry of Health. General Sumedha Perera was appointed Secretary to the Agriculture Ministry two weeks ago. He is an expert in Agriculture.
A special Presidential Task Force to build a Secure Country, Disciplined, Virtuous and Lawful Society was appointed under your leadership. What is its purpose?
A: Certain evil forces in this country work to destroy society. One such element is the drug menace. Another is organised crime by the underworld.
But all these are directed by jailed criminals.
A: Yes. We have identified these elements.
Can you tell us directly who handles these things?
A: Underworld leaders are sentenced to prison for crimes they have committed and are safe there. As far as I know, no underworld leader has died naturally. They end up killing one another. Underworld leaders fear to live outside.
They make use of the security within Prisons to carry out their nefarious activities. Most Prison officials are corrupt. The President appointed the Task Force to monitor these elements . However, it was misinterpreted by social media. Reforms in Prisons to suppress crime and the drug menace is one of the main tasks.
No government was able to suppress the underworld and drug menace. Changing the Commissioners of Prison and other officials will alone not annihilate the underworld.
A: Mere change of heads will not work. A leader takes into considearation the mindset of heads to be appointed.
Why weren’t politicians appointed to the Task Force? Are they indisciplined?
A: politicians can’t handle the duties of this Special Task Force . This Task Force comprises Police, Special Task Force, intelligence units and the Army. Chief of military intelligence, Commanders of the three Armed Forces, Commandant of the STF and Commissioner-General of Prisons are represented in the Task Force.
Underworld goons exchanged fire while Police were looking on. Are they ignoring the defence authorities?
A: There may be a few rotten eggs. Do not think that every armed police officer will act bravely.
Shouls society be negative and criticizing?
A: No. a case in point is the robbery that took place at the National Hospital on 9 June. Two unarmed new recruits of the State Intelligence were there. They pursued the robber together with a women Police official from Matara and apprehended him with the money. They showed their professionalism.
In stark contrast, three armed police officers who did not retaliate while underworld goons fired at a shop in Moratuwa only showed their cowardice.
You said the Government has appointed officials with a vision. Can you give a guarantee that they will be able to act independently?
A: This is a problem related to our country. They can act independently. The President intends to ensure national security. I have the freedom to work towards it. I know the President since the time I was a junior officer in the Army, and I understand his intention . If I have doubts, I get the President’s advice.
Killing criminals under the guise of taking them to find weapons also takes place. However, Police say the criminal was shot dead while making good his escape. What is the truth?
A: We must not underestimate the Judiciary. The Police cannot just kill people. Magistrates and Judicial Medical Officers visit the crime scene for the inquest. I have never been to such crime scenes. If the judiciary gives the verdict, it has to be accepted. The Judiciary will not simply agree to the Police for shooting.
On 9th June, 61 mobile phones were found in Negombo Prison. The underworld use them to organise crimes. How will you solve this problem?
A: The Task Force has just begun work. The new Commissioner-General of Prisons has just taken over. We requested for a professional to be appointed to the post and it was granted. Eighty mobile phones were found in Prisons in one day! Mobile phones have been used earlier from within the Prisons.The new mechanism is functioning efficiently.The Task Force will mitigate the crime wave in the country.
Society appreciated defence institutions’ and the intelligence units’ role in the COVID-19 operations. However, the Director-General of Health Services warned about a probable second outbreak. How prepared are you?
A:. We have an excellent rapport between the Ministries of Defence and Health. However, I do not agree with the probability of a second outbreak of COVID-19. I may be wrong because I am not a health expert. However, I have managed the Army and intelligence. We commanded a disciplined Army . We always deploy personnel considering their skills and training.
The answer to your question is this. The virus is chasing the people. It is running to get its target. Our intelligence units track the virus and identify the target. We get there before the virus. We quarantine the target and sometimes lockdown the entire area. That mechanism is functioning well now.
Do you mean the social situation is normal now?
A: After 30 April, no COVID-19 case was identified from society for 40 days so far. All the cases were from the Navy and from those who had come from abroad. We can bring it under control.
More than half the COVID-19 cases in Sri Lanka were Navy personnel. Do you take responsibility for it as the Defence Secretary?
A: I can easily pass the buck but, as Defence Secretary, I take the responsibility. However, the public is not aware of certain facts. About 30 drug addict COVID-19 careers in Suduwella were about to spread the disease. I directed the Navy Commander to immediately arrest them and to send them to quarantine. The drug addicts could have spread the disease throughout Seeduwa, Ja-ela and Wattala areas if they were allowed to roam freely. Some were transported for quarantine by force.
However, the Navy never complained that they lacked facilities like masks and other personal protective equipment. They swiftly acted and stopped the spread of the disease. However, the virus spread among them and 98% did not have any symptoms. We took care of all of them.
The credit of controlling the spread of disease from the Navy cluster to society must also be given to the Commanders of the Security Forces and even I am responsible. Remember that, 25% of the personnel are always on leave. We re-called them.
In camps, they live as a community, social distancing is not easy. However, now more than 500 patients in the Navy cluster are cured.
Police attacked a peaceful protest on 9 June. Do you admit that it is a misuse of power?
A: Police did not exceed their powers. There was a Court Order against the protest under quarantine regulations. Everyone must respect the Courts. They did not heed Court Order and continued the protest. That is against the law. If they do not heed Police request to disperse, what is the next step? They have to be forcibly disperse them.
How can you endorse Police attacking citizens?
A: Did you see any batton charging there. I saw one Police officer assaulting a civilian who was arrested when that person was taken into a vehicle.
They used force to put them into vehicles. What else must they do? Can they ask a monk or a priest to come there to preach to them? Would they disperse had Police done so? They came to create problems. No one was injured, but more than 50 suspects were produced in Court. Is it illegal?
Don’t you recognise the right of the people in a democracy to protest?
A: It is a right, but there are times that are suitable for protests. You can see that there is a space allocated for protests marked by two huge signboards near the Presidential Secretariat. The Defencse Ministry is also closeby. They could have used it.
The previous regime did not allow any protestors to pass the Galle Face roundabout or Lipton Circus. We respect democracy more than them. That is why we have allocated a space for protests. One can say that the President is a former Military officer and the Secretary Defence is also an Army officer. They can argue that we are suppressing people.
Nevertheless, remember that we have provided a space for democracy. Meanwhile, no water cannon, no rubber bullets were fired after the present President took over. No one was baton-charged. Our boys work hard even without sleep to save the country. How can you justify subversive acts at a time like this, I do not know.
Another Task Force was appointed to safeguard the archaeological resources in the Eastern Province. What is the present situation in Muhudu Maha Viharaya ?
A: No religion or race is relevant to preserve archaeological assets. We will safeguard historical heritage of any creed or race. Our ancestors built them for us. We must protect them. If valuable ancient rock artefacts are removed and taken to make hearths and to wash clothes, there is something wrong somewhere.
The present Government’s involvement in this endeavour is to safeguard the Muhudu Maha Viharaya before it is completely destroyed as a result of the lethargic attitude of the Archaeological Department and the former government.