Lieutenant General Mahesh Senanayake, who assumed duties as the 22nd Army Commander on Wednesday, believes that the country would not face a difficult situation at the international level if we spoke the truth and work accordingly.
During an interaction with the media, among other matters, he pointed out the manner in which the Army as an institution should respond to the war crimes allegations made against it and the reason he left the country while in active service.
Q There has been much discussion about the issue of alleged war crimes in this country and the allegation was mainly levelled against the Sri Lankan Army. How do you see this situation and how are you going to deal with it under your stewardship?
Discipline is our military strength and we would like to continue improving it and this needs a lot of effort. There should be discipline all the time otherwise there is no Army. I don’t know whether those who are pointing fingers at the army officers and soldiers have first-hand information about their allegations; whether they were there at the time or whether they were just basing it on hear-say or on some rumours. So there are doubts about those allegations. As an army officer, I know that neither the officers nor rankers had engaged in that kind of activity. However, since there were allegations against the army, investigations are being carried out and we are cooperating with
As you know, when compared with normal citizens, soldiers are under two sets of laws; one is the civil penal code and other the military penal code. So if anyone in the army had violated those two sets of laws we would definitely take necessary disciplinary action.
Q As an organization, you have not yet responded to the global and NGO allegations against the army after 2009. For instance the allegation that 40,000 people were killed as revealed in Geneva. Do you have any plans to rectify this issue by way of revealing the truth?
This situation will not arise if we speak truth and work accordingly. There may have been such shortcomings in the past. In my capacity, I would take necessary action to correct them, if any. I also saw an absence of parallel mechanisms to correct any misunderstandings. If we had such preparation a situation of this nature would not have arisen.
"There may have been such shortcomings in the past. In my capacity, I would take necessary action to correct them, if any."
Q There are also allegations against the army’s intelligence unit over kidnapping and killing of journalists and there are charges that the army is not cooperating with these investigations. Will there be any change under your administration?
Currently, CID investigations are in progress. I know this is problem of international interest. I hope to clear the situation with the assistance of my officers and soldiers, who were there during the war as well as those with expert knowledge about the area and legal experts to gather more information about those allegations. We are doing it in the interest of the country. Wrongdoers must be punished.
Q In the recent past there were several reports that soldiers in service or army deserters were involved in several crimes in the country. This is a grave situation because the crime rate in Sri Lanka is increasing. How do you hope to tackle this situation?
The army has a cadre base of 200,000 and it is the only institution in the country with such a cadre-strength. So there may be a few such incidents in which the soldiers might have been entangled in. This is a social issue. But continuing to talk about these Hamuda Sebala and Hamudawen Penagiya Sebala, etc., gives a wrong interpretation. Would you attach such tags on a member of any other organization. But the media does not identify them in the way it gives tags to an army wrong-doer. There you have the problem. Anyway we will definitely take action against the wrongdoers under military law. There is an increase in Sri Lanka’s crime rate but the soldiers are not the ones who had committed all the crimes in the country.
"I don’t know whether those who are pointing fingers at the army officers and soldiers have first-hand information"
Q There is much debate about releasing lands in the Northern Province. Many parties including the Opposition in Parliament are accusing the Government of releasing lands as a threat to national security. Northern Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran is saying the army should be removed from the Northern Province?
Before I assumed duties as the Chief of Staff, I was the Jaffna SF commander for fourteen months. The war ended in 2009 about eight years ago. All the people are our people and are Sri Lankans. So as a government as well as the army, we should look after country’s citizen. The army had acquired a large extent of land in the North during the war and it was a necessity at that time. After that there was a monitoring period. Now we know the ground situation there. So, except strategically important locations and other important military bases we have to release the lands because doing so is not a threat to national security. The decision should be taken by those who have expertise on such matters. We can’t take advice from those who speak about these matters on public platforms.
Mr. Wigneswaran is a friend of mine. He may have his political views. As an army we are not bothered about his statements, neither now or in the future. We are ready and on full alert to meet any emergency situation. No one should be worried about it and politics is not a concern of the army.
Q According to the Army’s seniority list, you were the fifth senior officer. However, you have been promoted to the rank of Lt. General and appointed Army Commander by the President on a merit basis, disregarding the seniority list. Would you follow this practice in the future?
The army officers’ seniority list had been prepared according to the date of joining the army. Not according to the birth date. When selecting me, the President, the Prime Minister and Defence Secretary might have decided to appoint the army commander considering the skills shown during the war and disregarding the seniority list. It is a positive trend. I’m not the first officer to hold this post in the army. In 2009, the eighth or ninth most senior officer at the time was appointed army commander. So this is the second occasion. I too will give due recognition to those who exhibit their skills under my leadership.
Q You had to leave the army some time ago and re-joined later, appointed Chief of Staff and now the Army Commander. What do you think about it?
Take me as an example. I have some 30 years of fighting experience in the army. In the last battle, I was the Director Plan. But due to some reason I had to leave the army. I never criticized the country or the decision makers at that time. I was advised to leave the country for my safety. I left the country with the help of my lawyers. Only then did I realise the importance of the ‘family’. I waited patiently for a day such as this to happen. Some day you will be given the chance. I consider it a privilege to hold such a post today and my patience has borne fruit almost two-and-a-half-years since re-joining the army. I have never gone behind anyone seeking anything.
"I hope to clear the situation with the assistance of my officers and soldiers, who were there during the war as well as those with expert knowledge about the area and legal experts"
Q Can you give the reason to leave the country?
I will only say that I was never a political victim, but consider myself as a victim of circumstances. I have never been involved in politics in my life.
Q According to recent media reports, Sri Lanka is facing a possible threat from the ISIS face an may attempt to attack the US embassy by air. People are worried about these reports. How do you analyze the security threat considering these reports?
Honestly, there is no such situation at all. There are no such threats faced by the country. But some groups might spread malicious rumours to prove or showcase their agendas. However, in such an eventuality, the Army, Navy, Air force and the police would be well prepared to counter any threat to the country.
Q What are the shortcomings you have identified in the army and the Army Intelligence Unit?
As far as the army is concerned, the situation at present is different from that which prevailed in 2009. We must proceed on a Capacity Base rather than on a Threat Base. Threats are dynamic and to suit the changes we have updated our plans and done a logistic survey accordingly. We are taking all the initiatives to modernize and sustain the army.
With regard to the Intelligence Unit we do not see any internal discrepancies. Different individuals have different points of view. But our units are progressing smoothly. We are playing our part well in the intelligence network which is being operated jointly with the other armed forces. But it is probably inconceivable to the outsiders.