- ACSA with US renewed, but Cabinet only glossed over the 80-page document
- India also expresses grave concern on why its intelligence warnings were not acted upon and whether South India will also become an IS terror target
- President and PM at cross purposes on foreign policy, defence and security
When elephants fight, an African proverb says, it is the ants that get crushed. In essence that encapsulates how the small and weak become dangerously vulnerable when big powers fight for dominance and even hegemony. That is Sri Lanka now.
President Maithripala Sirisena returned from China on Thursday after adding another explosive chapter to this big nation power play. His Media Office head-lined a statement saying, “three significant agreements with China on national security and development were signed.” However, there was no mention of what these agreements were or the different titles.
The events leading to the China visit were indeed interesting. In February this year, President Sirisena had been invited for the Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilisations (CDAC). Though he accepted the invitation, no confirmation was sent. The Easter Sunday massacre saw the Chinese Ambassador in Sri Lanka Cheng Xueyuan seeking an urgent appointment. It was promptly given. Cheng raised concerns over the presence in Sri Lanka of security and intelligence personnel from different countries including the United States of America and Britain. China was very worried about the security of its own investments in Sri Lanka, he explained. Just two days after this meeting, Ambassador Cheng sought another hurried meeting with President Sirisena.
This time there was a message for President Sirisena from Chinese President Xi Jinping. He has said that President Sirisena should come to Beijing. Sirisena confirmed he would. In what was a very significant development, when he arrived in Beijing, President Xi chaired a joint Sri Lanka-China bilateral meeting on security co-operation with Colombo. One of the key decisions was on “strengthening co-operation in the defence sector and sharing intelligence between Sri Lanka and China” — an aspect that has been incorporated into the new defence agreement. President Sirisena briefed the meeting on the Easter Sunday massacres carried out by pro-IS Muslim extremist groups.
Before he left Colombo, President Sirisena had hoped to ask for fifty more Jeeps for the Police, in addition to the ten handed over in Colombo days earlier. He explained that Sri Lanka did not have the technological expertise and equipment to trace persons who were promoting terrorism and spreading false information. President Xi agreed to provide both expertise and equipment. He will also send a technical team to Sri Lanka to train personnel. President Sirisena also agreed to a government-to-government deal for hi-tech surveillance of Colombo City on the lines of “smart cities.” This will also cover the Hambantota Port and the Colombo Port City, both constructed with heavy Chinese funding.
China concerned over US presence
In Beijing, Sirisena changed his mind. Instead of asking for 50, he asked for 100 more Jeeps. President Xi said “yes,” and added China would provide a grant of Rs 2,600 million for the Sri Lankan Security Forces. In addition, he said, China would hand over different types of equipment worth Rs 1,500 million to Sri Lanka Police. President Sirisena also had a meeting with Chinese Premier Le Keqiang. A surprise visitor for Sirisena was Wang Yang, Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference National Committee. He asked the President why the Easter Sunday attacks were carried out and he replied, “It is to destroy Sri Lanka.”
It is a matter of time before details of President Sirisena’s latest agreements will enter the public domain. One of the agreements, the Sunday Times has learnt, deals entirely with defence and security related matters. It is thus clear what prompted President Xi to urge Sirisena to visit China was the increasing military role of western military powers, particularly the United States. Added to it was the visit of intelligence and security personnel after the Easter Sunday massacre.
It is also noteworthy that President Xi met only President Sirisena, the sole Executive President to attend the conference on Asian civilisation, a Presidential source said. The other leading dignitaries, the source said, were met only by Chinese Premier Le Keqiang. They were Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni, Greece’s President Prokopis Paulopoulos, India’s President Ram Nath Kovind and Singapore’s President Halimah Yacub. There were 2,000 other participants.
President Sirisena hurried to China to work out security deals that became a serious cause for concern for Beijing. In fact, his absence from Sri Lanka saw attacks on Muslims, mosques and their businesses. In one ghastly episode that was videoed, three-wheeler scooter drivers refused to transport a bleeding Muslim carpenter slashed by a sword forcing two police officers to lift him by the legs and shoulder and trudge to a hospital. He died. To their credit, both the Security Forces and the Police came down hard on the pro-IS Muslim extremists, who at one time preached hatred against other faiths, They were arrested and interrogated. That helped Security Forces to crack the network further. A near normalcy is still limping back.
Just hours before his departure last Monday morning, Sirisena chaired a special cabinet meeting. There, State Intelligence Service (SIS) Director Nilantha Jayawardena briefed ministers on the security situation. He gave good news — that the main cell of the IS-backed local Muslim extremist group had been broken. He forecast that there would soon be a return to normalcy. The briefing, interesting enough, has not been left in the hands of the Chief of National Intelligence (CNI), retired crime investigator, DIG Sisira Mendis. He sits at the apex of the country’s intelligence mechanisms as the top most official. Ministers also briefly talked about new laws to ensure national unity and curb hate speech. President Sirisena, however, neither referred to his China visit nor what he would do there. He kept it to himself.
Why did it become necessary for President Sirisena to fly in a hurry and sign a defence related deal with China? It was clearly the result of a cat-and-mouse game initiated under his very own tutelage. His second Defence Secretary (Engineer Karunasena Hettiaratchchi, now Sri Lanka Ambassador to Germany), renewed the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) with the United States. Serving now as Defence Secretary is General Shantha Kottegoda. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa directed him to relinquish office in 2005 to give way to the then Major General, Sarath Fonseka, who was promoted Lieutenant General and appointed Army Commander. He later led troops to victory against Tiger guerrillas. Kottegoda was named by Rajapaksa as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Thailand.
Important enough, it was President Sirisena, as Minister of Defence,who placed before the Cabinet of Ministers a voluminous memorandum dated June 30, 2017 to obtain approval for the ACSA. It was signed the in August 2017. The ACSA is renewed every ten years. On March 5, 2007, the then Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, signed the ACSA with the then US Ambassador, Robert O Blake Jr. With the cover it ran into ONLY eight pages. The one recommended by President Sirisena and approved by the Cabinet, however, ran into more than 80 pages and lists all the US defence and security mechanisms that could be allowed into Sri Lanka. See list in box story. It is not unusual for ministers not to study cabinet memoranda. Thus, there are occasions when the implications of what they approve do not register in them. Some do not even know such approval has been given. The agreement and the resultant developments cause concern for China now. And President Sirisena rushes to Beijing to counterbalance it. His statecraft raises more questions than it answers and places Sri Lanka in an extremely dangerous position.
Bilateral talks on security between China and Sri Lanka under way
Signing the ACSA on behalf of the US Defence Department was then Ambassador Atul Keshap, easily one of America’s most consummate diplomats to serve in Sri Lanka. That gave access to all US military entities to help Sri Lanka (or in the reverse Sri Lanka to help US) in “unforeseen circumstances or exigencies” when one of them may need “Logistic Support, Supplies and Services.” There was an arrangement for each other to pay for costs involved. Yet, it would be a joke to say the US would need any military support, supplies or services from Sri Lanka except Sri Lanka’s land, water and the strategic location. In how many other countries has the US caused instability through its military involvement? Over a period of time, the use of ports, airports and the country’s air space by US military vessels and aircraft grew manifold. This increasing trend, strongly backed by some leading government politicians and detested by others, did cause concern in many circles here abroad. All this was going on without the glare of publicity.
Those in the US and government officials here claimed that ACSA was an arrangement which the US has with more than 85 countries and had no serious security connotations. Why then was such a harmless document not presented in Parliament? There are political leaders who say ad nauseum that all matters should be presented to Parliament so the Sri Lankan public would know. Even the aftermath of the Easter Sunday massacre is to be probed by a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) though there are sceptics who are worried it will not help. One of them cited the PSC on the Central Bank bomb racket where the report was studded with footnotes from government members who disliked the findings.
None other than ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi figured in a video, for a second time ever, as reported previously. There he admitted the Easter Sunday attack was a revenge for vengeance for “the fall of their last redoubt Baghouz.” This attack was carried out by US backed Syrian forces. So, the IS hit-back in Sri Lanka was to avenge the US-backed killing. It was a public secret that non-aligned Sri Lanka was now a US ally. Another deal with the US was being strongly canvassed behind the scenes. That is the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), a move which has led to apprehensions at the highest levels of the military establishment.
Just recently, the SOFA came into focus after a US serviceman carried out attacks on Afghan civilians. Since there was a SOFA between the US and Afghanistan, the question arose on whether the Afghan law would apply on the serviceman or the US law. It is well known that there is no formal template for a SOFA and (like the ACSA), they are written on the basis of the dialogue US engages in. It is in both the Sri Lanka government’s and its people’s interest to make a public declaration that it would not go ahead with SOFA and make Sri Lanka a bigger battleground of the big powers. However, that is unlikely. When one side of the government is against it, another side manipulates events in favour. That has become a pernicious vicious cycle.
On February 12, this year, as reported last week, the Commander of the Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Phil Davidson, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the US and Sri Lanka should co-operate militarily to thwart Chinese influence in the region. He noted: “….. Beijing’s actions in this regard have potential military ramifications as well. Beijing touts its need to safeguard citizens abroad and defend its expanding global interests in order to justify increased permanent PLA overseas basing and presence. Beijing is also exploiting growing debt burdens to access strategic infrastructure in the region. In December 2017, Sri Lanka handed over control of the newly-built Hambantota seaport to Beijing with a 99-year lease because Sri Lanka could no longer afford its debt payments to China. Over the last year, we have seen that countries across the region are becoming more aware of the threat Beijing’s economic policies pose…..”
To start with, President Sirisena’s second Defence Secretary helps the United States gain a strong military footprint in Sri Lanka. Parliament is kept in the dark. President Sirisena gets it approved by his Cabinet of Ministers without a study. Standing on that, the US is coaxing Sri Lanka into a SOFA and wants to checkmate China. On the other hand, China is now worried. In the aftermath of the presence of US intelligence and security personnel after the Easter Sunday massacre, China invites Sirisena to at least partly undo what he has already done.
It is in this paradoxical situation that President Sirisena rushed to China for a defence deal with Beijing which entertains apprehensions over increasing US military role in Sri Lanka. There has been no study of how such matters affect the country’s interests or the long-term implications. It is nothing more than naiveté and gross ignorance of foreign policy, defence and security issues. The fact that such actions affect future generations is lost on those concerned.
Does UNF endorse China moves?
This brings us to the question of the United National Party (UNP)-led United National Front (UNF) which is in governance. Two of its Law and Order Ministers — Sagala Ratnayake and Ranjith Madduma Bandara — held office successively till October last year. They were responsible for the Police. They were privy to intelligence warnings of a build-up of IS-backed Muslim extremists. Little or nothing was done. This saw politicians use influence to have suspects released from Police Stations on the grounds that they were their voters at an election. Together with their leader, Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe, they are now blaming President Sirisena for the Easter Sunday carnage. They are also demanding that the Police be placed under the UNF’s charge. This brings to the fore a string of questions.
There were three UNF members in President Sirisena’s entourage. They were Primary Industries and Social Empowerment Minister Daya Gamage, Justice Minister Talatha Athukorale and Transport and Aviation State Minister Ashoka Abeysinghe. The inclusion of the trio must have been with the endorsement and blessings of the UNP leadership. Was it done to demonstrate that they, too, were on board over President Sirisena’s actions? That way, do they endorse on behalf of the UNF the measures taken in China by President Sirisena? If not, did they undertake the trip only because it was a free junket supporting Sirisena only during the journey and stay? There were two others too in the delegation – Northern Province Governor Suren Raghavan and Southern Province Governor Keerthi Tennekoon.
Immediately after his return to Colombo, President Sirisena had plans to travel to Canada. He wanted to take part in the Global Summit of the US-backed Open Government partnership in Ottawa from May 29 to 31. Before leaving for Beijing, he had directed his officials to make arrangements. However, they were unable to get a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. It is not clear whether this was a diplomatic snub or not. It is known that some western nations have been displeased with President Sirisena since the constitutional crisis last October on the grounds that he violated the Constitution. According to diplomatic sources, this was the reason why most western leaders, including US President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, British Prime Minister Theresa May among others telephoned Prime Minister Wickremesinghe after the Easter Sunday massacre.
A more distressing development in this regard are concerns at the highest levels of the Indian government in New Delhi. The repercussions on Sri Lanka — the President’s side as well as the UNF — could turn out to be disastrous. This is when Prime Minister Narendra Modi, billed to return to power, is re-elected. Firstly, it was India that conveyed intelligence warnings of the impending IS-backed attacks in Sri Lanka. That included one which was on April 21, the very day. Secondly, soon after the Easter Sunday massacre, Premier Modi, who was on the election trail, telephoned President Sirisena who was in Singapore. It was only thereafter that he telephoned Premier Wickremesinghe. The message he gave both was that India would provide any help Sri Lanka needed to restore normalcy.
It has come to light that as far back as late last year, India provided intelligence to Sri Lanka that Zahran Hashim was the leader of the IS-backed Muslim extremist group in Sri Lanka. In April, India’s warnings were two channelled — one to the security forces about the impending attacks and another to those at the highest levels of the intelligence community. There are concerns in New Delhi after its National Investigation Agency (NIA) arrested on April 29 Riyaz Abubucker alias Abu Dujana, a native of Kerala. He has confessed that he had followed videos and speeches made by Zahran and had been posting them on the internet for more than a year. India’s fear is whether IS-backed terrorism would invade South India and pose a serious national security threat.
At India’s External Affairs Ministry in New Delhi, a high-ranking source strongly lamented that rather than “thanking us for the timely information we gave, we are being treated very unfairly.” Some “vested interests,” the source charged, were doing things “to suit their own narrative.” The source warned that there was a
“remote possibility” that no action was taken on their intelligence warnings “because there is a bigger worry this can happen again.”
The source was alluding to politicians and military officials whose public remarks in Sri Lanka have irritated the Indian government in no small measure. “We cannot comment on such issues,” an Indian High Commission spokesman in Colombo said. There were claims made that Zahran Hashim travelled to India. There was no official record to show his presence, the source insisted. India, the Sunday Times learnt, formally asked Sri Lanka to “provide any information on this matter so we may investigate it.” However, “we are disappointed the details have not been forthcoming. Instead of saying things publicly, they must tell us.” The reason, the source explained, is because of Indian concerns that “Sri Lanka should not become a launch pad or regional base to execute terrorist attacks on India.” Asked why India was being dragged into the issue, the source replied “maybe to deflect the narrative of failure of the security apparatus to act on intelligence we gave.”
That the Indian government’s reactions, particularly after it gave a string of intelligence warnings, are a glaring example of how President Sirisena as well as Premier Wickremesinghe’s foreign policy and related security initiatives have clashed head on. Added to that is President’s Sirisena’s appointment of ill qualified officials, one after another, as Defence Secretaries. Both, the President and the Prime Minister are moving in different directions. The result is a free for all.
Hours after his arrival in Colombo, President Sirisena chaired a meeting of the National Security Council (NSC) on Thursday morning. Alas, he has set an unhealthy precedent by inviting those who are not members to this key body, a move which has never been done before. This week the Presidential Secretariat even invited two former SLFP Ministers – Susil Premjayantha and Anura Priyadarshana Yapa. Both declined invitations saying they were signing as witness at two different weddings. They seem to have got their priorities right! The former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was very strict at NSC meetings and debarred participants from even making notes. The only exception was when he gave detailed instructions to armed forces commanders.
That the foreign policy perspectives as well as those related to defence and security differ when it comes to President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe was a known phenomenon. However, their different approaches during the time of a serious national security crisis do not augur well for the country. It is not only the big powers that want to make Sri Lanka their battleground. Sad enough, it is President Sirisena and the officials he named to high bureaucratic positions who have become principal shareholders of grave lapses.
The in-fighting between the President and the Premier has also become a factor. So, Sri Lankans are being crushed like ants by foreign power struggles in their own soil as well as the domestic battle of the two elephants. In all this, one thing comes out very clear. Sri Lanka will never be what it was before April 21, 2019. The so called Yahapalanaya or good governance has got embroiled in corruption, cronyism, and now, neglect and inaction.