Daily Mirror spoke to Navy Commander Vice Admiral Jayanath Colombage on a wide range of issues including those pertaining to Indian fishermen and illegal immigrants. He also spoke of the plans he had for the Navy, and his intentions to upgrade firepower and acquire vessels to meet future threats and tasks.
Q:What is the role of the Navy in post conflict Sri Lanka?
Sri Lanka is an island and we has a coastal line of 1340 km, I consider that as our border. Any external threat could come. So in order to prevent any other country or any other interested group creating problems for Sri Lanka, we have to be very strong at sea.
We have to guard the ocean, maintain surveillance round the clock. We did not do this well during the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s.
I believe we paid dearly by not investing in the Navy and not being dominant at sea. Therefore, the Sri Lanka Navy has the biggest responsibility to defend our country from any possible aggression coming from the sea.
Our landmass is limited. But we have about seven times our land area when it comes to the sea, which is called the exclusive economic sea area. We are an island nation. We don’t have any other country in the south, east and west as we have the possibility to even claim further. So our future lies in the ocean whether it is for trade, energy, livelihood, nutrition or tourism. We also have an international obligation to keep the ocean free of maritime crime.
Q: Why has the Navy decided to purchase new weaponry especially surface combatant ships?
The Sri Lanka Navy is going to be 64 years old. During the war, we experimented with many things as we even had a sea wing.
The golden year of the navy was 2007, when we went thousands of miles to destroy LTTE weapons platforms and warehouses in deep the seas. We have sufficient force structure and technology to guard our territorial waters. Now we have to be outward-looking beyond 200 nautical miles. So we need platforms to meet these requirements as we look into the future.
Currently we have about six platforms but that is not enough. In order to have 2-3 ships at sea for weeks and months. We need twice that size to be in our sea and coastal areas for operational deployments. So we are planning to acquire limited blue water capability. We are not looking for aircraft carriers or destroyers but advanced offshore patrol vessels. They are about 100-105 metres long and able to carry a helicopter with around 70-80 men.
So we are on the lookout at the moment for such proposals. It would be small but it would have more punch and efficiency with high firepower along with surveillance.
We are also planning to have radars, cameras and automatic identification systems to monitor what is happening in the territorial waters and beyond.
" I believe we paid dearly by not investing in the Navy and not being dominant at sea. Therefore, the Sri Lanka Navy has the biggest responsibility to defend our country from any possible aggression coming from the sea "
Q: Since the government wants to make Sri Lanka a transshipment and maritime hub, how is the Navy planning to adapt to these new changes?
The President wants Sri Lanka to be the maritime hub in Asia and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the coordinator of the maritime hub. I am the operational hub-master.
I have to advise the President on how we are going to implement it. There are 18 factors which would contribute to us becoming a maritime hub. One factor is our ports - our ports are the best. But there are sectors in which we are not doing well.
So I have to advise on what we lack and how we are going to rectify them. We need merchant ships and we have to train our future seafarers.
So we have an operational obligation to look after our ports and sea routes. In the future we are very likely to explore what is in the ocean bed, so we have to protect the people who will engage in these activities.
Q: How are you dealing with the problem of illegal immigration, with people scrambling to head for Australia by sea?
We have rescued about 500 lives - Indonesians, Rohingyas, Bangladeshis and some times Indians. These are additional tasks the Navy got after the war.
It has decreased in the recent past due to multiple reasons and factors. Sri Lanka was considered as a source country, which was not a very good thing. No country wants its people to migrate illegally to other countries.
We have been able to arrest 74 boats and 4300 people and have investigated the reasons why they wanted to leave, and who are behind them. We were able to convince the Australian authorities that they were largely economic migrants and not because of human rights violations. If they reach Australia they are sent back. These people load a boat with about 120 people. There is no privacy for women so this is a very inhuman journey for about 14 days in the high seas.
LTTE front organisaions are the ones really behind these journeys and their funding. Otherwise, if they can spend a million rupees, they can start a business in Sri Lanka. The LTTE wants to keep the issue alive and project that the situation in Sri Lanka is still not good.
Q: There are allegations that Navy personnel assisted asylum seekers, and were also taken into custody by the police?
I have a 55,000 strong navy but there may be one or two individuals who do not think about their organization, but go after personal requirements and monetary gains.
We are fully cooperating with the police. We have produced the people they want to question and we would severely deal with any sailors and officers if they were found guilty.
Q: Another major issue currently being discussed is the growing number of incidents or rather attempts made by Indian fishermen to enter Lankan territorial waters, which now has become a diplomatic issue as well between the two countries. How is the Navy combatting the problem?
The Navy is at the front of these anti poaching operations. During the war there were restrictions and the Navy had suspicions that Indian trawlers were being used by the LTTE to transport ammunition, fuel, casualty evacuation, supplying of goods and medicine to flee the country. So the Indians also never came this way during the war. After the war we began to relax the restrictions which were in place so our fishermen began to venture therein. Then the Indians also came to our waters because there are tons of untapped fish reserves especially rich in shrimp. It has become a major problem for our fishermen as well.
Large numbers of Indian fishermen enter Lankan waters to catch shrimp in order to protect the multi-billion dollar shrimp industry in Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu is the largest exporter of shrimp to the world. Since they have exploited their fish resources it has become a problem for them so they enter our waters which are rich in prawns. They even export shrimp to the European Union as well.
This is the reason they have a problem with us. And if they genuinely think about the Tamil people in the North, they should totally stop poaching, as this is their livelihood.
These Indian fishermen are paid workers as their boats are owned by big businessmen. It is not an easy task to prevent the Indian fishermen entering our waters because they come in thousands.
We do not harass them. I have given specific orders to our sailors not to harass the Indians but to use minimal force to chase them from our seas but if they come close and enter our waters, we arrest them.
They are using the bottom-trawling method which is destructive to marine resources and forty per cent of what they collect is not useful, so they throw it.
They put in the net with a scraper and drag it, so the speed of the boat allows it to take not only fish or prawn but it also damages corals and other natural reefs as well.
Indian fishermen used to come five times a week earlier, but now they come three times a week, although the number of boats is still the same.
" We have an operational obligation to look after our ports and sea routes. In the future we are very likely to explore what is in the ocean bed, so we have to protect the people who will engage in these activities "
Q:No cooperation with the Indian Navy on this long-standing dispute with Indian fishermen?
We have an excellent working relationship and the bulk of the training comes from the Indian Navy. But I would say that the Indian Navy and the Indian Coastguard are helpless. They advise them not to cross but they do.
From Pambaran to Tuticorin it is a large coastal belt which is even difficult for the Indian Navy to supervise. It is practically difficult to stop them. There is nothing to share intelligence because we can see them coming when we monitor our radars.
Q: Now you were appointed as the new Chairman of the Ceylon Shipping Corporation which is an entity in a dilapidated state. How are you going to review it - any plans to purchase new vessels?
Our immediate focus is to buy bulk carriers and oil tankers. Container ships should be the next step. We may lease, charter or buy them. So we can use these ships under the Sri Lankan flag to transport essential commodities to our country such as coal, fertilizer, cement and oil.
The President and the Defence Secretary told me that the priority was to buy ships. I have to study the economical ways before acquiring new ships. I do not have the luxury of spending unnecessarily.
We are also looking at giving professional training to seafaring. Seafaring is a very lucrative business. The Corporation has enough manpower and expertise with a number of departments.
We are an island nation. To be a maritime hub we have to be a maritime nation. We do not have merchant vessels owned by our Corporation.
In the 1970s the CSC had ten ships which were all conventional ones. During the 80s eight container ships were purchased, replacing the conventional ships. During the 1990s there was a decline. The last remaining Lanka Mahapola was sold and the Lanka Muditha is for sale, to be sold for scrap iron.
Q: How is the navy involved in its economic activities?
We have built gold courses and reception halls. We are engaged in whale-watching cruises. The money we generate is used for the welfare of our sailors and to upgrade their living standards.
We also play a key role in a public-private partnership to provide onboard security teams.
Sri Lanka has become the largest provider of onboard security teams which are handled by the Ministry of Defence.
Accountability and transfer of weapons are handled by the Navy. The business is given to us by Avant-Garde, and Rakna Lanka is providing the man power.
Because of government involvement there is a huge recognition in the world for our onboard security teams.
Retired STF officers and the three armed forces personnel are given special training under international law.
Also, we are sharing our knowledge with any other Navy that is keen to engage with us, and towards that, we have the annual Galle Dialogue in order to discuss maritime issues, which are very important.