Wednesday, 17 July 2019

The Indian factor

Protecting ‘borders’ in the wake of Easter Sunday attacks:



The then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Minister of Immigration and Border Protection Scott Morrison sign an agreement to pave the way for Australia to hand over two Bay Class patrol boats to Sri Lanka Navy. The deal was finalized during Rajapaksa’s visit to Canberra in April 2014. The then Sri Lanka High Commissioner in Australia Admiral Thisara and Austraoian High Commisioner in Colombo Robyn Mudie look on. In spite of change of governments, Sri Lanka – Australia closely cooperate to prevent human smuggling.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

A high profile Australian strategy is being currently implemented in Sri Lanka to curb illegal migration. Australia cannot be faulted for trying to protect its borders. Sensible governments always take measures to defend their borders. Australia is proceeding with its controversial strategy in the face of criticism from various interested parties. Australia’s priority, obviously, is to block illegal migration, at any cost.

Australia is the only country to launch a propaganda campaign, in Sri Lanka, to discourage illegal migration. In fact, some countries encourage illegal migration by accepting those who propagate blatant lies to secure political asylum. The Australian stand on illegal migration differs from that of its allies, especially Canada and the UK.

Australia has recently warned again that illegal migration will not be tolerated. The Australian advertising campaign seeks to underscore the continuation of its tough border control policy.

A four-point Australian plan addresss a four specific issues in respect of existing border controls (1) Australian border control policy remains the same, in spite of change of government, in May, 2019 (II) All unauthorized boats, seeking to enter Australian waters, will be turned back (III) No basis for human smugglers claim that border controls are done away with and (IV) Those found to have violated Australian border controls will never be accepted again.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison formed a majority government, following the May 2019 election, though many expected a Labour Party win.

Unlike many other democracies, Australia has mandatory voting for people aged 18 and over – or they risk a fine.

Advocates say the mandatory system depolarises the vote and reduces the influence of lobby groups, though some disagree. Sri Lanka’s Election Commission should seriously discuss with political parties, both represented in parliament and outside, whether legislation can be introduced to make voting mandatory. Such a move is in line with Election Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya’s much-touted project to encourage voting.

Australia invests heavily in long-term plans to curb illegal migration. In accordance with its strategy to deter illegal migration, Australia liaises with countries including Sri Lanka and launched a joint project with Sri Lanka with the previous Rajapaksa administration to prevent Sri Lanka being used to launch boats carrying illegal immigrants. The Australian project continues even after the change of government, in January 2015.

During a recent interview with the Commander of the Navy, Vice Admiral Piyal de Silva, the writer sought his views on Sri Lanka’s relations with Australia. ‘A bigger Navy for post-war Sri Lanka’ published in the July 10, 2019 edition of The Island dealt with a range of issues. The following is The Island query and VA De Silva’s response regarding Australian efforts to curb illegal migration.

The Island: Sri Lanka’s relations with Australia, in the maritime domain, seem to be continuously improving. Can you explain the current status? VA De Silva: "We have collaborated with Australian efforts to curb human smuggling operations, originating in Sri Lanka. We have been able to neutralize several smuggling syndicates over the years. Australia included Sri Lanka in a large scale military exercise, ‘Indo-Pacific Endeavor 2019’. In recognition of our efforts to curb human smuggling, Australia, in 2014, gifted two Bay class patrol boats previously used by the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service (ACBPS). They were commissioned as SLNS Mihikatha and SLNS Rathnadeepa. Early last year, Australia donated two main engines to replace those of SLNS Mihikatha. In January this year, Australia gifted three stabicraft. In addition, Sri Lanka also received 10 combat rubber raiding craft."

Despite criticism of the Sri Lankan military, at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council, Australia continuously backed Sri Lanka, primarily due to the latter extending unrestrained support to the controversial Australian project to curb human smuggling. Human smuggling is a highly contentious political issue there with consensus on punitive measures to curb unauthorized entry. Australia regularly advertise both on print and electronic media as part of its overall measures to discourage would-be immigrants.

SLN’s Maritime Strategy 2025

‘A bigger Navy for post-war Sri Lanka’ received mixed reactions with some retired, as well as serving military officials, warning of dire consequences unless tangible measures were taken to prevent illegal boat movements between Sri Lanka and India across the Indo-Lanka maritime boundary.

One officer queried why The Island had ignored a vital security issue - perhaps the most important in the wake of the Easter Sunday attacks. The officer underscored the pivotal importance of the government taking tangible measures to prevent unauthorized boat movements to and from Sri Lankan waters. Responding to a query, the officer asserted that our maritime strategy should be fully geared to effectively block sea routes, leading to and from the north of Kalpitiya, up to Pooneryn, and north of Pulmoddai, up to Nagarkovil. The official explained: "The Palk Straits, covering northwards from Kalpitiya, in the Western coast, and northwards from Mullaitivu, in the eastern coast. North Western Command headquartered at Mullikulam responsible for Kalpitiya to Mannar, North Central Command headquartered at Talaimannar covering Mannar to Devil’s Point, Northern Command based at Kankesanthurai taking care of the area from Devil’s Point to Chalai and finally Trincomalee headquartered Eastern Command responsible for Chalai-Mullaitivu sector."

Can Sri Lanka ignore threats posed by the perpetrators of the Easter Sunday attacks having access to India across the Indo-Lanka maritime boundary? While increasing the OPVs (Offshore Patrol Vessels/Advanced Offshore Patrol Vessels) and frigates up to 20, the Navy should adopt a tangible ‘hybrid’ strategy to cover high seas and ‘threats’ closer to the land. The Navy cannot be unaware of the continuing threat posed by unauthorised boat movements.

Did Zahran Hashim ever use an unauthorized sea route to reach his contacts in India? Hashim led suicide bombers tasked to target three churches and three hotels. Now there is controversy as to why the suicide bomber, assigned to target Taj Samudra, failed in his task. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekera, MP, who is also President Maithripala Sirisena’s spokesperson, queried as to how the Taj escaped the blast. The issue came up last Wednesday (10) when the lawmaker appeared before the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC), inquiring into the Easter Sunday carnage.

Hashim perished in the suicide attack on Shangri-La. Political commentator Gevindu Kumaratunga recently queried as to why two suicide bombers targeted Shangri-La whereas all other targets were taken by a bomber each.

Sri Lanka paid a very heavy price for not having the required assets to protect its seas. In spite of eradicating the LTTE, in May 2009, Sri Lanka remains vulnerable to attacks mounted by external parties, operating with or without the knowledge of foreign powers.

Close on the heels of the Easter Sunday attacks, a section of the media reported a Sri Lankan software engineer, suspected of having provided technical and logistical support to the Easter Sunday suicide bombers, was monitored by Indian intelligence agencies three years ago for links with Islamic State operatives, based in India. The media identified the suspect as Aadhil Ameez, a 24-year-old, under Indian scrutiny since 2016.

DMI on Zahran’s project

The National Security Council (NSC) should examine the naval strategy, currently in place, to detect boat movements across the Indo-Lanka maritime boundary. The possibility of local elements, working with foreigners taking advantage of organized Indian poaching in Sri Lankan territorial waters, cannot be ruled out. Brigadier Chula Kodituwakku, Director, Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) explained as to how Zahran developed contacts with the Islamic State during his stay in India. A selected group of journalists, including Colombo-based Indian correspondents and other representatives of international news agencies, received the briefing at the President’s House a couple days after the Easter Sunday carnage.

The DMI Chief didn’t indicate as to how Zahran reached India. Unfortunately, the writer neglected an opportunity to seek clarification as to how the leader of the National Thowheed Jamaat travelled to India.

Brig. Kodituwakku didn’t indicate whether the DMI was aware of Zahran’s return from India.

Kodituwakku concluded his presentation by attributing the NTJ bombings to four specific factors (I) battlefield setbacks suffered by Islamic State in Syria (II) Islamic State influence (III) Massacre of Muslim worshipers in a New Zealand mosque and (IV) domestic reasons. Although, the media sought an explanation as to what the domestic reasons were, they didn’t receive a response.

The government should in fact, inquire as to why Sri Lanka’s premier intelligence service, the DMI, failed to identify the threat posed by the NTJ and its allies on its own. Sri Lanka’s failure to swiftly act on intelligence provided by India shouldn’t be mixed up with the DMI fiasco. Had there been proper DMI inquiry into the killing of two police constables at Vavunativu, Batticaloa, in late Nov 2018, the NTJ would have been most likely exposed. Unfortunately, the DMI neglected its responsibility. The Criminal Investigation Department(CID) and the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID), too, were clueless as regards Vavunativu killings until Zahran’s driver revealed the NTJ’s direct involvement, following his arrest in the wake of the Easter Sunday attacks.

Fifty-three-year-old Muhammad Sharif Adam Lebbe alias Gaffur, said to be Zahrans’ driver, was arrested by Kattankudy Police and later handed over to the CID. Lebbe is among those who had been detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).

Sri Lanka should inquire into Zahran’s links in India. Did Zahran promote Islamic State in India during his stay there? Or did Islamic State get in touch with Zahran during his stay in India? Specific information as regards NTJ operation provided by Indian Intelligence to Sri Lanka on April 04, 2019, revealed the level of Indian infiltration into Zahran’s network. How come our own intelligence services failed to make a fresh threat assessment, even after receiving Indian warning?

Moneragala District MP Ananda Kumarasiri-led PSC inquiring into the Easter Sunday attacks is yet to ascertain as to why the then Chief of National Intelligence (CNI) retired DIG Sisira Mendis refrained from passing the Indian warning to the DMI.

It would be pertinent to mention that retired Maj. Gen. Kapila Hendavitharana who had been the predecessor of Mendis, played a pivotal role in overall intelligence apparatus during the conflict, and after, though the change of government brought far reaching changes in the security setup. Hendavitharana was replaced by respected investigator though he didn’t have required experience in intelligence operations.

Following the intelligence debacle, the government replaced Sisira Mendis with Maj. Gen. Ruwan Kulatunga, a serving officer. Wouldn’t it be necessary to find out as to why the first yahapalana CNI officially deprived the DMI of intelligence received from India. But, even if the DMI hadn’t received intelligence, courtesy the CNI, the former cannot absolve itself of the responsibility for its failure.

Local Intelligence Community should be ashamed of its failure, especially against the backdrop of sufficient warnings received from both foreign and local ‘sources.’ In fact, Zahran had come to the attention of law enforcement authorities as well as intelligence services a couple of years ago. Zahran had been also under Indian scrutiny, both here and there. New Delhi seems to be fully aware of Zahran’s setup. Although Muslim political parties tried to play down Zahran’s involvement with them, the NTJ leader wielded sufficient power to discuss political arrangements with them, both at the last presidential and parliamentary election in January 2015 and August 2015, respectively. Zahran had been active during the last Local Government poll, in February 2018, though political parties sought to distance themselves from the mass murderer.

Nearly three months after the Easter Sunday attacks, Zahran’s project remains a mystery. The PSC should make every effort to establish the circumstances leading to the April 21 attacks. The legal action, initiated against the former Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando and suspended IGP Pujith Jayasundera, fundamental rights action taken by Jayasundera against him being sent on compulsory leave and the PSC probe should help Sri Lanka to establish the truth. Continuing arrests made by the police of youth who had received weapons training with Zahran in Blackpool, Nuwara-Eliya and Hambantota, among other places, underscored the need for a no holds barred investigation.

Zahran backed common candidate Maithripala Sirisena at the January 2015 presidential election. Having switched his allegiance to the UNP, Sirisena received the backing of a powerful US backed political grouping comprising the UNP, TNA, JVP and SLMC. A large civil society grouping threw its weight behind Sirisena.

Hizbullah glad Zahran is dead

Hizbullah told the PSC: "I met Zahran Hashim in 2015. He was not a terrorist then. He was a leader of a religious group. He summoned all candidates, who contested in our district, for a meeting. There he sought our agreement with a list of demands prepared by him. The list contained demands with regard to use of loudspeakers, seating arrangements for women, etc. We all agreed with him. Even Sri Lanka Muslim Congress candidate, UNP and UPFA candidates were there. Because we needed his support we agreed to his demands. He could muster 2,000-3,000 votes. Our objective was only obtaining votes.

"At the general election, Zahran worked against me. I couldn’t get around 2,000 votes because of him. I failed to enter parliament as I was short of 121 votes. Then, I was able to secure a National List slot. But Zahran staged protests in the East so that I could not become an MP. I am happy that Zaharan is dead because I can now win the next election without any trouble from his group."

Hizbullah, who backed Mahinda Rajapaksa, at the last general election, in August 2015, was brought into parliament through the National List when he was defeated. President Sirisena, in his capacity as the leader of the SLFP and the SLFP-led UPFA, accommodated several defeated candidates. Hizbullah was among those who had been rejected by the electorate but was lucky enough to be chosen by the SLFP leader.

President Sirisena deprived a number of deserving UPFA seniors of the opportunity to enter Parliament via the National List. Among those deprived were Dew Gunasekara, General Secretary of the Communist Party, who earned the respect of parliament and the public for spearheading 2015 parliamentary inquiry into the first treasury bond scam perpetrated by the UNP in late Feb 2015.

In January this year, President named Hizbullah as the Governor of the Eastern Province. Hizbullah succeeded Rohitha Bogollagama, one-time External Affairs Minister whereas President named two others, Azath Salley and Maithri Gunaratne as the Governors of Western and Central Provinces, respectively. Both Hizbullah and Salley quit their posts following accusations over their alleged links with the perpetrators of the Easter Sunday attacks. During a recent live interview on Sirasa, the ‘Pathikada’ anchor Bandula Jayasekera sought an explanation from Central Province Governor and attorney-at-law Maithri Gunaratne as to why he appeared for Abdul Razak accused of being involved with the suicide bomber Atchchi Muhammadu Muhammadu Hasthun from AFC Road Valachchenai who killed over 100 men, women and children at the Katuwapitiya church.

The National Front for Good Governance (NFGG) which backed the common candidate at the January 2015 presidential election, too, was accused of complicity in Zahran’s operation. NFGG leader Abdul Rahman denied the accusations at a special press conference while admitting that he, too, knew Zahran Hashim at the time of the last national election. Zahran seemed to have been involved with Batticaloa politics in a big way.

Maithri Gunaratne explained at that time he appeared for Razak the latter was not accused of any involvement with clandestine activities/terrorism. Razak appeared before the PSC where he was also questioned on his connections with the Katuwapitiya bomber. The inquiry seems to be far from over…...