- Curfew can be lifted fully now
- But, we want to avoid nighttime gatherings
- Those in power ignored 97 warnings on Easter Sunday attack
- Archaeological sites in the east in pathetic condition
- Organised drug smuggling coordinated from within prisons
- not a single covid-19 patient has been reported from the community after April 30
- 97 percent of infected naval ratings were asymptomatic
- out of 20 High Commissioners and the Ambassadors appointed, there was only one ex-serviceman
Defence Secretary Maj.Gen( Retired) Kamal Gunaratne , in an interview with Daily Mirror, spelled out the mission of his office in containing COVID-19, the present status of the country and also responded to allegations regarding militarisation.
Q The Government has contained the spread of COVID-19 at community level. What is next?
Now the Government should be able to open up the country and its economy to outsiders. For the country to function, people should come from outside. They should come as tourists and investors. Now the only country which has officially declared itself open is New Zealand. I do not know about other countries. As you said we have contained the whole thing (virus) in our country. Of course we are getting patients these days; ten, fifteen or likewise. But, not a single patient has been reported from the community after April 30. For the past 40 odd days, no single patient was reported. It is a very good sign. It should have gone viral otherwise. The virus entered the Welisara camp. The first infected sailor was reported from Polonnaruwa. Immediately after he tested positive, all the service personnel, on leave, were recalled on instructions by the President. One third or one fourth of the strength of any force -Army , Navy and Air Force - is always on leave. The moment they were directed to report back to their camps, it was a huge influx. We had a huge problem in accommodating them. We had to maintain social distancing. The health authorities were very keen on entering the premises and inspected whether we were maintaining social distancing and observing other rules and regulations associated with quarantine principles. It was a huge problem. Still, we managed to confine it to the Navy. It spread among the Naval ratings. We managed to contain the virus within the Navy. More than 800 naval ratings were infected. The strange thing here is that 97 percent of infected naval ratings were asymptomatic. They were just the virus carriers with no symptom. More than two-third of infected naval ratings had recovered. Other infected people are the ones who came from abroad. We have taken bold actions. We take them to quarantine centres from the airport itself.
Some people predicted that there would be a second wave. As a person involved in this process from the beginning till now, I don’t think there would be a second wave. We have already done the needful and established the right mechanism. We are very confident. The success is the employment of troops. If you look at the powerful, rich countries such as the United States or the United Kingdom, they are kneeling in front of the virus . But, we, as a developing country, stand on our feet. The difference is the vision of the leader and the proper implementation of it. It started in China. It slowly started spreading to the outside world. The President summoned a meeting on January 27 and established the COVID -19 Prevention Committee. At that time, not a single patient had been reported in Sri Lanka. Exactly after 24 hours, the first case was reported. It was a Chinese girl. She was hospitalised and cured. The first local case was reported on March 8 and the second on March 11. Then, it increased gradually, but we were in control. We set up quarantine centres and managed to employ troops.
The virus is running a race. We should be able to identify where it is running. That is why we wanted the intelligence agencies to get into action. They also joined in the race. The first one reaching the target will be the winner.
Q There is criticism regarding the use of the intelligence agencies and the troops in the fight against COVID-19. How do you respond to them?
Some opponents do so. But, you see as a layman how we have done our work and achieved. If there is a second wave, the mission is there to deliver. We aren’t scared. We have to tell the people to conduct themselves properly and follow the instructions of the health authorities and the forces. We don’t think there would be a second spread. More than 30,000 Sri Lankan expatriates are ready to return. We won’t bring them in one go. We bring them in batches. Whoever who comes, we would be referring him to quarantine centres. There were two plane loads of expatriates who arrived from Kuwait. More than 400 were found to be infected with the virus. We have to be careful. We will bring them down in batches
Q According to your experience, how long would it take for the country to become fully normal with no curfew at all even during night times?
Actually, we can lift the curfew even now. Still we need some control. We want people to avoid nighttime parties and social gatherings. Of course, there are social gatherings like wedding ceremonies. But, the health authorities have issued some rules and regulations for them. Even for a funeral procession, they have specified the number of attendees. Even though we have controlled the outbreak, there are many other countries that have not controlled it totally. I have the figures with me. If these are the figures,we have to think and act wise. The fact that we have not received any case from the community for the past 40 days or more does not mean that the environment is 100 percent alright for us to go for a total opening. We have to see how the numbers are reducing. If you take the United States, there were 901 cases yesterday (Tuesday) only. There were many days on which that country lost 2400-2500 lives each day. We can have hopes. But, we should not hurry things up.
Q The Navy cluster still remains active whereas all the other clusters are inactive. What is the reason for it?
The strength. A military installation is already crowded. One-third or one- fourth of the strength is always on leave. But, for the past couple of weeks, everybody was inside. We went to the extent of talking to the Education Ministry and some school principles to get the school premises to house these people honouring the guidelines on social distancing. We were confident, though. Ok,even though they are infected with this virus, we can save them. Not a single Naval guy died due to the virus. They are strong. When the entire crowd was brought to the cantonments, they had to share accommodation. In a billet, there are so many double beds. There is one on the upper bed and the other on the lower bed. The distance between beds is two and half feet. If you reduce the number of beds, there is no space for them to sleep and dress. There are common toilets. Wash basins are common. That is the reason.
Q There is an allegation that the Navy failed to isolate the sailors who came in contact with the infected drug addicts in the Suduwella area. Also, there is an allegation that these sailors indulged in some anti- social activities with these drug addicts. What is your response?
That is the sad part of it. This is Sri Lanka. We know about some people. You find some ungrateful people in our society. I should tell you that it exposed the highest level of ungratefulness. They got infected from the Suduwella area. The Army Commander and the army were fully engaged in the quarantine centres. It was reported that a drug addict was infected. He was interrogated by the intelligence. He told that he associated with more than 30 people. All are drug addicts from the same area. I told the Navy Commander that you have to employ your people and tackle these people to be sent to quarantine centres. The navy did it. If not for that, Ja-Ela, Mabola and Seeduwa areas would have been infected by the virus. I told him to do it as soon as possible. He never gave excuses. In the process, they had to manhandle some people. They contracted the virus. The virus entered the Naval Base in Welisara. Nobody was showing symptom. We took steps to prevent the spread of the disease among prison inmates. We constantly instructed the prison authorities.
Q There are allegations about the militarisation of Sri Lanka . These allegations are made in political circles due to the inclusion of military personnel in various task forces which would otherwise be handheld by civilian officials. How do you respond to them?
I can respond to these allegations with a broad smile. I know what militarisation is. This is not militarisation. This is the correct employment of people to the real task after analysing their capacities and capabilities. For the people pointing their fingers at the President regarding militarisation, I will give you a few examples. When the President got elected, he appointed more than 30 secretaries to the ministries. Out of them, I was the only ex- military officer. What militarisation are people talking about?
In the appointment of the High Commissioners and the Ambassadors, there was only one ex-serviceman out of 20. It was Admiral Mohan Wijewickrama who was appointed to Pakistan. Normally, Pakistan requests for an ex-military officer. Even the Pakistani High Commissioner here is an ex-military officer. That is the kind of relationship we have with Pakistan. Other than Admiral Wijewickrama, not a single person from the military has been appointed. If you look at the Yahapalana Government there were six such high commissioners. When it came to COVID-19, the health system was managed well. For the last one decade, the health system was managed by the Army by Gen. Sanjeewa Munasinghe. He is considered to be the best radiologist of Sri Lanka. When the President was pushed to appoint an efficient person as the Heath Secretary, he took steps to appoint General Munasinghe. The last person who was appointed was Gen.Sumedha Perera. The President and the Prime Minister are advocating people for the cultivation of their lands. If we import food, it would drain our foreign currency reserves. They wanted to have a change. The President has selected Gen. Sumedha Perera who has a wealth of experience in getting barren lands cultivated. He has a sound knowledge on the new methods, innovation and new developments. He is very fast. Otherwise, there is no single secretary with a military background.
The other allegation is about the task forces. I am heading both the task forces. The first one is the task force for the preservation of archaeological sites. I consider myself as a solid administrator with lots of resources. I have the Army, the Navy and the Air Force with me. I have the Police, the Civil Defence Force and the Coast Guard. I have the enormous manpower and resources; something which other secretaries don’t enjoy. I have travelled every length and breadth of the eastern province. There is no beach, land or jungle which I have not frequented. This is to preserve the heritage of the Eastern Province. Look at the other members of the task force! They have something to do with archaeology. The chairman of the task force is there for the implementation part. Ideas will come from the people with an archaeological background, the government officials and the top level members of the Buddhists clergy like Ven. Ellawala Medhananda Thera and Ven. Panamure Thera. They will propose. I am there to implement them.
The second task force is to create a peaceful, virtuous society. Today, Sri Lanka has become a hub of drug smuggling. Who conducts anti- narcotics operations?
Q How serious is drug trafficking in the country?
I will tell you. It is very serious. Sri Lanka is a hub. One reason may be the strategic location of Sri Lanka. Those days, the Police seized two kilos or three kilos of narcotics at a time. After President Rajapaksa assumed power, we started seizing huge hauls of narcotics. The Navy which ventures into the sea, like 1200 kilometres away from land, captured 700 odd kilos of narcotics. After two weeks, the Navy ventured out to the sea and captured the largest amount of narcotics; which is 1200 kilos. After that the Police captured more than 200 kilos. We brought everything and produced it before the court.
We seized large quantities of narcotics, but the street value of such stuff remained unaffected. We have to take it into serious consideration. Who is doing this? Everything is coordinated from within the prison system. You take organised crimes. Who is controlling them? Everything is done from within the prisons again. Whatever bad things happening in our country are controlled by underworld kingpins inside prisons. Why and how? The moment someone is arrested and imprisoned it becomes the responsibility of the Prison Department and the Justice Ministry. There are some good officers as well as corrupt officers. This is happening with the connivance of the corrupt officers. The Prison Department has its own intelligence organization. But it received stepmotherly treatment in the past. I have my own two intelligence agencies. If this continues, there will be no point in my police personnel and sailers arresting and apprehending narcotics dealers. We have to start with the correct mechanism within the prison system. We requested the President to appoint incorruptible officers in uniform at the Prisons Department. That is how Mr. Thusara Upuldeniya was appointed as the Commissioner General of Prisons. He assumed duty recently. The very next day, he conducted a search operation. In the Negambo Prison alone, 61 mobile phones , 72 mobile SIMs and 53 telephone chargers were captured. You can see how the system has been operating and how the new man takes action. The Defence Ministry and the Justice Ministry are working very closely with each other to control such underworld activities within the prison system.
Q The imprisoned criminals organise such crimes from within their cells. But, peddling is done by those outside. Then, the law enforcement authorities are responsible for containing them. What is your view?
If you take the prisoners today, two-third are remand prisoners; not the convicted criminals. Out of the remanded prisoners, 60 percent have been arrested in connection with something to do with drug peddling. The police have done their job. There is no point nabbing drug users and peddlers as long as kingpins are at large and carry out smuggling operations .
It needs a mechanism and careful planning to control underworld crimes. I am sure we can do it.
Q How do you assess the current status of our archaeological sites in the east?
It is very sad. These sites are the heritage of our motherland irrespective of ethnicity. Muhundu Maha Viharaya with 72 acres gazetted in1952 by Prof. Senarath Paranavithana can be taken for an example. It was reduced to 30 acres in 1965. Today, it has only 12 acres. What happened to the rest? The artifacts such as Muragal, Korawakgal and the moonstones have been taken merely to be used for washing clothes. Our ancestors created all these things for us to boast about them. If we allow people like vampires to ruin them, our future generations would not be able to boast about our heritage. It is not too late to take necessary action to amend the laws and preserve them.
Q Sri Lanka came under the ISIS threat following the Easter Sunday bomb attacks. How do you view the current status?
It is a different kind of problem. We fought a 30-year war. We defeated the terrorist organization. We ended terrorism. Their motive was separatism. We eliminated terrorism, but not the ideology of separatism. The elements of the international Tamil diaspora, supported by the cheap politicians, are the ones who created it. They pursue a separatist ideology through different platforms such as the UNHRC.
We finished the war by eliminating the LTTE. After that the people started living freely. Everything collapsed 28 days prior to the tenth victory day celebration. Whose fault is that? There were 97 warnings given to the people with authority. But, nobody had taken it into serious consideration. I , being a defence analyst and a specialist, have to say that it is total negligence due to ignorance of the authorities starting from the former President and the Prime Minister, the Defence Minister, the Defence Secretary , the Army Commander, the Inspector General of Police and everybody including the intelligence authorities.
It is not the professionalism of these terrorists. Our unprofessionalism led to their success. Those in power were unprofessional. We don’t want our people to undergo the same again. The moment I took over duty the first instruction I got from the President was to ensure national security. The second was to bring all the intelligence agencies under one umbrella organization to curb separatism, terrorism, fundamentalism and religious extremism. He was a senior officer in the army. I know he is someone with a vision. I know we are doing well now.