Q To start off with, can you introduce yourself to our readers?
Born in Polonnaruwa, I schooled at the Kuliyapitiya Central College and Veyangoda Central College. I entered the Engineering Faculty in 1973 and graduated with an honours degree in Civil Engineering. Later, I went to Belgium for my Masters degree. I am a Chartered Engineer and a Fellow of the Institute of Engineers - Sri Lanka and Institute of Management. I am also a Chartered Environmentalist and a member of the Institute of Environmental Professionals. That is my professional and academic background. I am married and have two children. My son who is a Software Engineer lives in Melbourne, and my daughter is a Chartered Accountant and lives in Sri Lanka.
I am blessed with a grandchild. After a long career in the Irrigations Department, I retired from government service and worked at the International Water Management Institute and the Japan Bank. I held the Chairmanship of many corporations including the Geological Surveys and Mines Bureau, Central Environment Authority, Foreign Employment Bureau, Land Reclamation Authority and the National Water Supply and Drainage Board. After this government came into power, I was appointed Chairman of the Urban Development and Water Supply, and thereafter Secretary of Defence.
QYou have extended your service as a government servant all along and have been working in sectors that mainly focus on infrastructure. How is the shift from such fields to the military treating you?
I consider the shift very comfortable. If you take my career at the Water Supply and Drainage Board into account, I had dealt with 39 Trade Unions. But now, there isn’t a single Trade Union. Handling Trade Unions was very difficult. One of the biggest differences between other institutions and the Defence is that the latter is a well disciplined place. I have a well-disciplined military who work on commands.
They comply first and if they have any issue, they complain about it later. I think whichever the department one works in, you have to follow the three ‘M’s; Men, Material and Machinery. Wherever you work, you deal with these three basic resources and if you could manage them well, any place would be ideal. This is a hot seat; there are things that are happening all the time. At certain instances you have to be proactive and at other times, reactive. I am comfortable here.
QThere is a notion today among the public that the defence mechanism has weakened and that National Security is not the priority anymore. It is said that there is some sort of a lapse in it. You are looked at as being the point man or symbol of this. How do you respond to it?
Yes. I think we should break the security eras of this country into three timelines. The period of conflict, transition and the era after January 8 last year. During the period of conflict, the military was the priority and it was given all resources to combat terrorism. The military was very strong at the time. The men and officers of the military were quite satisfied with the resources at their disposal. Then followed the period of transition when we did not have many combat operations. Yet, there was surveillance and in order to establish peace, there were certain procedures to be followed. Also, during that period, the military was involved in rebuilding war-affected areas.
However, after the last presidential election, there was a transformation. Although we had addressed issues of infrastructure, we had not answered the concerns of the Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese who lived in these areas. Our role has, therfore, changed today. Our presence is not felt in the field because we are confined to our barracks. But, whenever the people want our help, particularly during situations of disaster, the military is ready to extend their services. We mobilise during these times. Yes, people can criticise, but there are no abductions taking place now. We have certainly given media freedom.
So anyone can say anything. This was not the case in the preceding years. Back then, there were so many restrictions for an individual even to enter the Defence Ministry. But today, hundreds of people are given access to meet me. We have in fact changed the attire of the guards over here. You will not see camouflaged uniforms or fully armed soldiers now. We are getting back to normalcy. This is what we wanted. Anybody can come and talk to the Defence Secretary as there is access; there are no convoys of vehicles when the Defence Secretary is moving. If someone thinks it is relaxed - it is towards the positive, towards reconciliation, towards a military in time of peace.
Q A reason for this outcry is the persecution of intelligence personnel for acts carried out allegedly under the instructions of the previous government.
Well, if I am instructed to carry out a particular task which is against the law, and suppose I comply with it, then that is wrong. There is no difference of it being done at that time or this. One cannot, under any circumstance, engage in illegal acts. One has to work within the authority. If the command is not right, there are various means and ways of expressing it. If you go ahead with such a command, without consulting or raising an issue about it, then you are at fault.
Q But there has been concern raised within the intelligence community that their morale has weakened as a result of this. How do you perceive this?
There is nothing to hide about this. There are several cases pending, namely, the Lasantha Wickremethunge murder, Ekneligoda, Pararajasingham and Raviraj murders and the case of Thajudeen which is not related to the military. In these cases, we have taken a back seat. We have not interfered with civil investigations conducted by the Police Department, the Terrorist Investigations Department (TID) and the Criminal Investigations Department (CID). They have found evidence and are proceeding with investigations on suspicion that the intelligence people are involved in these cases. They informed us that they need to probe these matters. They will continue with it in conjunction with the Attorney Generals Department. Let them prosecute officers who are at fault.
This should not be taken as an attempt to weaken the entire intelligence community. Investigations will go ahead. It is the decision of the government, not mine. The government has decided to have credible investigations to show our people and the international community how credible our legal system really is. This accusation stems from the propaganda of some interested parties, as opposed to the real demoralising of the intelligence agencies or the military.
Q Can you say with responsibility that there is no demoralising of the intelligence community or the military?
I cannot give you 100% assurance. If you consider any public servant, you would come across many issues including cost of living, and others leading to demoralisation. There are 101 things that are happening in the country. Today, the people have the freedom to express their views by way of demonstrations. But, the military cannot because that is not something they could do. That is discipline. There are certain people who are unhappy about this, and they have their personal views. But that should not be taken as the total representation of the military or the intelligence community.
Even with the questionings and arrests, we do our duties without any interruption, with the same commitment and energy. You cannot please everyone. We can’t stop people expressing their views. Even journalists have that freedom. If you take today’s media into consideration, you will see that 80% are against the government while only 20% are for it.
Q Isn’t that reflective of a government that is doing wrong - as opposed to a new-found freedom?
No, that is wrong. It is not a reflection of what you claim it to be. Each project undertaken by the government has a majority of positives, which are not reflected in the media. The media only take the negative aspects which are minor. The newspapers only highlight the negatives. They simply want sensational news articles to appear on their front page. This is the problem. Some countries do not come out with crimes and sexual abuse cases on the front page. They are published in inside pages. Why? Because that is not the reflection of the entire country.
All the men in the country are not always involved in sexual abuse. If you come across five or six news articles relating to abuse on the front page itself, then what is the image of the country? Don’t you all have a responsibility? You are not reflecting the right picture. What I am saying is give the right picture.
Q There has been concerns raised regarding expenditure on training. Has there been a decline on military training and infrastructure?
I don’t think there is a problem. I have received enough funds for infrastructure development. We are offered with places for training by various countries. Earlier, we only had very limited offers, but today, the whole world is willing to provide us opportunities for training. At the time, we couldn’t get training from the United States,
the United Kingdom or any other European country which now extend invitations for training. The country is heading in the right direction. There is a shortage for training and we have referred this to the treasury and they will make necessary arrangements.
Q The recent incident in Salawa caused a lot of destruction. I have two questions about it; the first is, have the victims been compensated, and if not, why? Secondly, is there a change in the policy regarding the storage of weapons?
The policy will not change, but at that time we didn’t have storage space. Even previously, there were many requests from the military to shift the facility, but the people in charge of these matters had not taken any action. There was a proposal to shift this to Oyamaduwa which is not a very populated area. However,
it did not materialise. I prefer not to divulge the measures we take because they are classified. With regard to compensation, it is not my subject. I am only responsible for the incident that took place. The compensation mechanism is handled by the Disaster Management Ministry and other relevant government bodies. However, I assume that the victims have been adequately compensated.
Q Another concern that is placed at the centre of political discussion is the issue of land occupied by the military in the North and East. What is the current situation?
This is a wide subject, but I will briefly explain it to you. Our policy is to divest as much as possible the lands belonging to private entities and also the government. We wish to utilize these compounds efficiently. However, after this government took office, we have leased over 4,000 acres of land in Jaffna alone, if my memory serves me correctly. In the Eastern Province, there is only 153 acres of land to be released to the private sector. Further, we wish to release government-owned land, which we currently occupy, for development activities.
There are certain areas in which we cannot release the lands, for which we pay compensation. Despite the issues, we are progressing well. Presently, we occupy 2.14% of the total land area in the Jaffna District. People think it is much larger, but that is not true.
Q Another issue that sits at the centre of controversy is the presence of the military in the North. On the one hand there is a cry for its withdrawal headed by the Chief Minister of the North, and on the other there is a cry against it. What is happening with regard to the presence of the military?
We have reduced the military in these areas by about 32%. We have taken necessary steps to develop a new scientific tool, a software, which considers 12 factors and give a desktop result as to what the strength should be in every place. We are refining the procedure now. We will not bluntly withdraw or increase the military.
We will do it scientifically so that it will be more accurate. Through this, we should be able to lessen the numbers. However, I don’t agree with the views expressed by the Chief Minister. Where are we going to keep the military if not in the North and East? Why should there be an exception for these areas? We need to have military installation everywhere for the security of the people. I emphasise -the people, because we are not serving the goals of the politicians. We are concerned about the security of the people. The Defence Ministry is a non-political organisation and will work to ensure the security of the citizens and the country as a whole.