National Security, Serious Business of Belling the Cat

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By N. Sathiya Moorthy

Reports that in the early days after schools reopened across the country following the Easter blasts, VIPs did not send their children to attend classes does not augur well for the system that they are supposed to have put in place for the rest of the citizenry and the Nation as a whole. Coupled with it all is G. L. Peiris’ charge that the security agencies let nine arrested people walk away from Courts with bail orders, if true, says even less of the post-blasts preparedness in matters of prosecution, leave alone investigations.

‘Call Gota’ seems to be the slogan post-blasts, if one went by the recent Colombo talk of war-time American Ambassador, Robert O. Blake Jr. Speaking in capital Colombo, Blake recalled the tech-team that Gota had put in place during the war years and how he also ensured intelligence-swapping among various agencies (without ‘turf wars’?) which went a long way in ending LTTE terrorism a decade ago.

Blake did not say it, nor does he have to say it, but it is becoming increasingly clear that there is a need for a Gota-mindset in matters of national security, even in peace-time. It raises larger questions about the post-war ‘security state’ that Gota and the Rajapaksas were still supposed to be obsessed with, even five long years after the war.

Designate him ‘Defence Secretary’ or whatever, it is sad that a decade after the end of the LTTE war, the Nation has not been able to produce another ‘security coordinator’ of Gota’s calibre. It is equally pertinent that under the Rajapaksas, no one in the Government spoke out of tune or out of turn. Their complaints, if any, were that they were not allowed to speak their mind in public, sending out confusing and contradicting signals, before and after Rajapaksa rule.

Leaking like a sieve

When the Rajapaksas ‘reigned,’ no one, including President Mahinda or Defence Secretary Gota, spoke on matters of security, unless absolutely necessary. If they did not open up entirely to the global leaders and their envoys, permanently located in the country or special visitors, it was possibly because Colombo leaked like a sieve, and they knew it better.

It was possibly thus that ministers, then and now, like Rajitha Senaratne, had little to say in public and muddy the waters. Whether or not there was any fish to be caught was beside the point. It was also thus that when war-time Army Commander Sarath Fonseka spoke out-of-tune, and on policy-matters, which was not his mandated domain, he was chastised, though supposedly in private.

Fonseka’s declaration that the strength of the armed forces would be doubled, with hundred thousand troops added in the first year, came after the war was over, and everyone was convinced that the LTTE too was over with it. Through the last months of the war, Fonseka, as Army Chief, was also quoted by a South African newspaper to the effect that the Tamils were ‘minorities’ in the country, and should behave/act as one, or, words to the effect.

Whether humiliating and cashiering him and sending him to long months in prison was the right way to ‘chastise’ Fonseka is still a question. If there was then more than that met the eye, again, the Rajapaksas have not spoken about it, even long years after the war. Nor was all those post-war heavy-handedness justified, even if not all the allegations were true or even half-true.

A fortnight and more after the blasts, President Maithripala Sirisena wants foreign Governments to withdraw their ‘travel advisories’ which could hit tourism and the economy hard. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is still talking about the medium and long terms. After chastising Parliament for holding back his anti-terrorism draft, he has since underscored the need for better technology to swoop on terrorism.

Neither of them are addressing the short and immediate term. President Sirisena speaks of normalcy and that it has already been restored, but why not address the medium-term concerns like the blasts’ impact on the economy. Premier Wickremesinghe seems to be already there, talking about what the Nation lacks and not what the Nation could have done with whatever was there.

If nothing else, Premier Wickremesinghe should be talking, and talking behind the scenes, about what went wrong with the early ‘Indian alert’ on Easter blasts, which he had acknowledged on day one. The way investigations seem to be going about with no real output, What the SLPP’s G. L. Peiris said in terms of bail-for-nine belonged here.

Fighting the war with the LTTE, with the determination to end it in their time, the Rajapaksas did everything that might have qualified for a ‘police raj.’ Yes, the urban elite had every reason to complain on specifics, but the rural poor did not – or, that is what the general belief was until Elections-2015 acknowledged the emergence of a ‘rural elite,’ who could also be influenced by social media.

Needing explanation

Today, when Premier Wickremesinghe is talking about a new anti-terror law to deal with the post-blasts situation, the Rajapaksas are shouting themselves hoarse, in their turn. It is another matter that the Premier has not explained why he had to withdraw the earlier anti-terror law, or why he introduced a new piece of legislation in Parliament when there was nothing on record to show that whatever terrorism was rearing its ugly head, after all!

The question is if this is going to be the new norm for Sri Lanka, all over again? If so, the Government needed to educate and enlighten the people at large, take the polity, the public and more so Parliament, into confidence. It could well re-activate the National Security Council (NSC), and the Premier cannot stay away without complaining, but blame it all on the President for keeping him out.

Neither can make their inefficiency and ineffectiveness an excuse in the cover of ulterior political motives that had nothing to do with the larger concern of national security. It is another matter, neither the President, nor the PM or any of the other participants in the NSC meetings, for instance, have said if the ‘Indian intelligence inputs’ on the Easter Sunday blasts, were shared in the forum, discussed, and a decision was taken.

That is to say, what if Premier Wickremesinghe continued to participate in the NSC meetings since October, when alone such invitations/intimation ceased to come his way. Or, what is the statutory/Executive mandate of the NSC and is it a personal property of the President of the day, that the incumbent could trifle with set procedures, if any, at least on matters that could be put on record, and are usually put on record.

Under the circumstances, should the President’s Office explain if the Indian intelligence, or from wherever the early alerts came, was shared with the NSC and other appropriate authorities? If so, how, if not why? There is nothing in the public domain to support or contradict any rumours on these claims.

In context, the President’s Office, for instance, cannot take umbrage under the authority of the three-man commission appointed by incumbent Sirisena, to bring out the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, about the Easter blasts. Without casting aspersions on the honourable members of the panel, headed by a serving Justice of the Supreme Court, the technical argument still could be that the President is both the appointing authority of the Commission and also the recipient of the panel findings. Caesar’s wife, it need not be reiterated, has to stay above board and early on.

Owing responsibility

It is not about anyone owing responsibility alone. There is much more to the political instability that the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo have inflicted on the collective responsibility to Parliament and the people, which they have been flouting with gay abandon, almost from the very moment they took over. The question of accountability cannot be replaced by fact-finding of any kind.

But then, the idea is not to reopen selective targeting of political opponents as and when the panel report appears. In the past, on the infamous ‘Bond Scam’ Report, the Government hedged tabling the whole report on the Table of the House in Parliament. Everyone found every reason and justification, not to table the same, though it was all about political corruption and nothing to do with national security, in the conventional and not-so-conventional sense of the term.

Today, after Colombo was allowed to burn, the Neros of present-day Sri Lanka cannot have their way still and continue to fiddle in the middle of nowhere, taking the Nation down with them. There has to be a sensitive and sensible approach to terror-management at the Government and the people’s levels, and nothing can be achieved unless someone wants to address the core issues and concerns, without hedging and hawing, if only to save his own skin or to peel off the other man’s!

Who then can be entrusted with the responsibility – whether on the new-terrorism of the post-LTTE kind, or specific to Wickremesinghe’s new anti-terror law, or both, comprehensively?

Whether the panel, if and when appointed, needs to wait for the findings of the presidential commission or not is something that Parliament alone should be allowed to decide. No one should, however, be surprised if the Nation’s divided polity begins trivialising the work of this committee or that committee, this report or that report, if only to score a debating point, to the entire exclusion of the job of national security at hand!

The question is who is to bell the cat, when and how. But one can be sure, no cat wants to bell itself, but only the others – as the mice dance around merrily, LTTE, IS or even the long-forgotten JVP, or something else that may be hiding in the shadows still, and who knows?

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary policy think-tank headquartered in New Delhi. Email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)