Task Force Appointed by President Only for a Short-term – Admiral Jayanath Colombage
Director-General of the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL) and Additional Secretary to the President for Foreign Affairs, Admiral Professor Jayanath Colombage talks to Ceylon Today on the country’s security and why the President appointed the Task Force with military personnel taking the lead. He also points out that that the priorities of the Government have shifted due to the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) spread in the country and globally.
Excerpts of the Interview: By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan
There is a rumour that you are tipped to be the next Foreign Secretary. Is that coming?
A: I have no idea whatsoever. I am the Additional Secretary to the President for Foreign Affairs and heading the INSSSL. Everything is based on the wish of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
We are living with the pandemic with no clear cut date as to when it would be eradicated. Is the Government going to review its foreign policy to suit our country with the pandemic which has driven the economy to zero? What are the new strategies, the Government has focused on as regards foreign policy?
A: With COVID-19, the world will change. A new normal will prevail. On foreign policy concerns, it may not change dramatically, but the economic models will change and the way countries look at it will change. The health factor will change but I don’t know whether there will be a paradigm shift in foreign relations. But there will be a question on the superpower status.
A superpower means, a country that could control others or influence militarily, economically and internationally. It can be a small or big country which could be a superpower. Now we have a situation where the so-called superpowers did not handle COVID-19 well. A large number of people have died in those countries, whereas smaller powers like Sri Lanka have handled it well.
Now the question is, what is more, important for a country. Is it the might of the military, economic, international or people’s lives? Many countries went on the line of that human rights should be the priority, but now the result is different. Sweden boasted they will never impose restrictions on their people and that they will only guide them.
The United States of America (US), the UK, France, Italy and Germany all these countries have sunk completely with the pandemic. Sri Lanka’s policy has been “Don’t let even one life taken away’’. Therefore, the superpower status in the post-COVID-19 is not going to be the same. In that sense, we need to correct our economy and go on, and for that, we need to be somewhat self-sufficient as far as we can.
In the pre-COVID-19 world, food items were imported. It is an import-dependent economy and now we have realised, we cannot be so because the global supply chain has been interrupted and countries have become self-conscious. I presume in the next 20 years, all countries will focus more on their agriculture, food security and health security.
Are we going to concentrate on these two values?
A: Yes, we have to. At the same time, the role of international organisations will come into play. We had many such organisations, like the World Health Organisation (WHO), but the realisation that you cannot only depend on these organisations during a pandemic because we have to look after the citizens. The US is challenging the WHO over misusing funds and accusing them.
That is not a good sign for an international organisation. The other agencies and regional organisations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has not practically done much. That means everyone is concentrating on their country first, whether you tell it openly or not. So the focus is shifting.
So is there a drastic change in our foreign policy?
A: We will have to maintain a similar stance to hold to neutrality, not get caught up with the major power game, not to be biased or take sides, and not to allow any major power to use our country for their military or strategic advantage.
We have also categorically said that we have an India first approach where strategic security is concerned and also continue to concentrate on agriculture, medical and economic security as well.
What is your take on the US’ Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) where a grant of USD 480million worth projects are lined up?
A: I have not studied it but the thinking is that, after the General Election is over, there will be a new Parliament that will study the MCC report. The committee appointed to look into it is still conducting various deliberations and talking to all stakeholders. It is a grant but we have to see whether there is anything detrimental to the country. We will revisit the proposal after the poll is over.
The loan facilities Sri Lanka had obtained from various international parties is mounting and people lament that we have not tackled the matter craftily. The Prime Minister had urged India to go soft on the loans and we don’t know if China was asked too. How are we to pay back the loans?
A: I am not an economist, and not dealing with the country’s economy. Before COVID-19 we were in very bad shape. I think our debt is somewhere between USD 53-57 billion to bilateral and multilateral lenders and several international organisations. With the COVID-19 we took a nosedive.
We were anyway plunging after the Easter attacks in 2019 and were slowly recovering. The forecast is, our GDP is – 1.5 % growth for this year which means trouble. The President has pleaded with the WHO, the IMF, and the World Bank to give us a moratorium and not to demand to pay back. We want international donors to consider Sri Lanka’s situation.
Having seen that the superpowers in trouble with the pandemic, should there be a shift to concentrate on regional powers, with the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC)?
A: SAARC hibernated for many years now. Recently, Indian Premier Modi convened a webinar on a virtual meeting of SAARC leaders and all leaders, excepting the Pakistan leader (his Health Minister represented) and that was a good initiative. From the BIMSTEC side, we could not hear much during the pandemic, although they are very active since SAARC is lying low. Also, I think the BIMSTEC has better prospects to succeed with a better arrangement for us to thrive because there is no such issue in this region focusing on the Bay of Bengal.
There was criticism regarding the Port City. But today it is happening and calls have been extended to international investors. But there are a series of issues relating to the law and being an investor-friendly country. What is the Government doing about it?
A: My thinking is that the Port City land is ready and it is time to make it happen or function. The two key components are the law to govern this special area within the framework of Sri Lankan law. It is going to be an international financial centre. The other aspect is investor-friendly and Ease of Doing Business Index, we are ranked below 100 and we need to do a quantum jump at least within this year by 20 ranks. With that in mind, the President has revamped the Board of Investment and their main task is to make it more investor-friendly, e-governance, a one-stop-shop for all inquiries and implementations. I know these activities are happening and it would minimise corruption, wastage and delays.
However, a faction of society is talking about the country being militarised. Will this not create negativity in the minds of international investors and donor countries?
A: The President is a taskmaster. He means business. He wants to get things done. Long before the WHO gave COVID-19 guidelines, we were the first to start working on it in the world. The President understood the situation and the danger. He initiated an action committee and he based his decisions on science and medicine. Our Health Ministry can handle it but a countrywide pandemic cannot be handled by only them. He realised this. So to carry out the mission, we needed a mechanism and he thought the Army Commander and his troupe can handle it and initiated a COVID-19 Task Force. When you say Task Force it gives a military connotation.
After that Task Force was created, there were other Task Forces were organised such as a Task Force to preserve the heritage of the country, uplift the economy and agriculture.
These Task Forces are for a limited period only based on the requirement. Parliament is not functioning excepting for a small Cabinet; the President needed people to undertake these missions. The members of the Task Force are retired military persons. These persons served the military for over 35 years. They are sent abroad for studies and various assignments funded by the Government. His or her exposure is different. They are well-trained and well-disciplined. Moreover, they matured and have gathered vast knowledge. They are used to performing a given task. They don’t give excuses.
They believe in never postponing for tomorrow that could be done today. Also, in the last five years, civil security was in a mess. Now approvals are being sent to Cabinet that in fact should not really come. The public servant, even if he wants to hire a room for work, requests the Cabinet to do so. They want everything to be approved by Cabinet. This way one cannot work. This is why the President had to tell the Central Bank what to do. The President has great trust in the military seniors that they will deliver and abide by the framework, take feedback, do course corrections and deliver it.
How are your functions as a former Navy Commander?
A: I am retired. I am the only Admiral Professor. I have been a lecturer in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, and in Japan and I have travelled to 46 countries.
I have spent more than eight years overseas for studies on State funds. I have completed two MAs in International Relations and International Studies. I have four postgraduate diplomas and one PhD in Military Science. The Government had invested in me and I have to deliver.
I retired at a prime age of 55. I have gained knowledge and exposure. So, is it wrong for the President to appoint me for something he considers necessary? I am doing a 100 per cent civilian job and my background is suitable for the job. In the US the Secretary of Defence was a retired General. This Task Force is a short- term plan and if the President sees better people, he will tell me “Thank you for your services” and appoint those persons.
The incumbent Government’s Cabinet Minister Wimal Weerawansa called you a CIA agent because you are with a think-tank called Pathfinders Foundation. What is the commotion here?
A: I don’t want to comment on what a senior Government Minister had said about me. But I need to make some corrections: I am not in Pathfinder as I have retired from the organisation seven months ago. Pathfinder is a wonderful organisation. It has a small team with the highest visibility in the country. All knew this think-tank through the Media because the small team at Pathfinder Foundation did quite a lot of work.
I have no special affinity with any particular country. While I was working there, I may have organised and participated, been a speaker and been part of the discussions in 20 events with China and another 20 events with India. Also around 10 events with Bangladesh and with Pakistan I have participated. But with the US, I have only been a participant and not even been a speaker.
After the Easter attacks when security is beefed up, Sri Lanka has been delisted by the European Commission from the High-Risk Anti- Money Laundering and Countering the Financing of Terrorism (AML/CFT). Isn’t it contradictory?
A: The LTTE was the most effective terrorist organisation in the world for these two activities. No other terrorist organisations can even come close to this group be it ISIS, Abu Sayyaf, Jemaah Islamiya, IRA etc. The LTTE was the most sophisticated group and the war ended but the battle is still on.
The LTTE was very clever in investing in temples, schools, real estate, convenient stores, gas stations, TV stations, satellite network and were calling the shots. The return on this huge investment is coming big time since there is no war. Their funds used by the younger generation to justify their existence is by pressuring international organisations, foreign governments etc., to go against Sri Lanka.
We cannot be relaxed with them or on the next battle that is with religious extremists. The President has revamped intelligence organisations and brought it under one umbrella. Capable officers are being appointed now. Intelligence is given primary position in national security but were placed lowest in the last five years. That is why with 92 warnings (All those signs of blasting the motorbike, defacing the Buddha statue etc.,) were ignored. Intelligence was not coordinated, not given a hearing and not widespread.
They were not spread all over the country. On religious extremism, what we now hear from the Presidential Commission is damaging and very dangerous. To recall what these people were up to, I think we are lucky that only 250 odd people perished because if they wanted to kill more, they could have easily done that. We have to monitor religious extremism and those preachers coming from other countries.
Within the maritime domain, hybrid warfare and grey zone tactics have complicated the security environment in the South Asian region. Sri Lanka is strategically positioned and we may get caught up in this warfare. What are your views?
A: The best advantage is that we are positioned that way even before civilisation spread. But this major factor also can be a disadvantage as well, because right now Sri Lanka is the focus of attention of the major powers, within the region and outside the region.
We should not be one-sided and against the other but work with everyone issue-based. We also need to be mindful of the maritime security domain because it is critical for all in the region. Hybrid warfare can be a combination of artificial intelligence to military intelligence or a combination of cyber warfare. We see limited wars like in Iraq, conflicts within the countries. We should be mindful of the Indian Ocean itself because there is an increase in militarisation, nuclear weapons, ships, aircraft and submarines are plenty in the Indian Ocean.
In 1971 Sri Lanka proposed the Indian Ocean to be a zone of peace and in 2020 too, we wish it to be the same. We don’t want militarisation of the Indian Ocean and it is unlikely it will happen. A regional organisation like the Indian Ocean Rim Association, Indian Ocean Naval Symposiums and the Galle Dialogue contribution to maritime security are great initiatives. We must work together to have an international rule-based maritime order in the Indian Ocean.