Sri Lanka’s Defence Secretary, and accused war criminal, Kamal Gunaratne, has delivered a speech in which he vowed that he would not permit room for separatism or extremism in the North-East as well as tackling “separatist” voices abroad.
These statements were made during a conference entitled “Post COVID-19 Renaissance – Present and future development of Sri Lanka”, organized by the “Harimaga organization” at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute on Friday. During this session, he emphasised the importance of national security in attracting investment in the country.
Attacking the Diaspora and NGOs
During his speech, the Defence Secretary claimed that despite defeating separatism militarily in May 2009, there was a “need to eliminate the separatist ideology which a few individuals of the Tamil diaspora are constantly sponsoring”.
This statement follows an announcement from Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, that he would establish a special inquiry into Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) who he claims are “spreading slander against the government”.
This call for a special inquiry comes as multiple international human rights organisations warn against the deteriorating human rights situation in Sri Lanka. They also called on the Sri Lankan government to end the targeted detention and the intimidations of lawyers, activists, human rights defenders, and journalists in Sri Lanka.
Gunaratne also claimed that certain remnants of the LTTE were attempting to indoctrinate and recruit individuals for a separatist cause which furthered their financial gains. J.S. Tissainayagam has reported in the past the long history of how the spectre of the LTTE has been used to “justify continued coercion of the Tamils” and to explain “lapses in good governance”.
Cracking down on the North-East
Gunaratne further claimed that the military arrested “over 1.5kgs of high explosives and some 90 odd detonators from Mannar” as well as a few remote-control devices.
He claimed that without the military these would not be recovered and insisted that his administration would “never leave room for separatism from the North to rise nor extremism from the East to spread fear and destruction in this country ever”.
“I assure you that there will be no room for separatism in this country now and ever”, he added.
This statement comes as Sri Lanka has increased military encroachment in the North and East.
According to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report in 2018, the Sri Lankan military ‘occupy private land that is owned and was used by civilians, and state land intended for non-military purposes’. In the report, HRW state that military occupation of land is among the primary contributors to continuing displacement: according to the government, as of 2017, nearly 40,000 people remained internally displaced in the country, a majority from Jaffna’.
The Defense Secretary also highlighted the plans to curb illegal sand mining and action he would take against "illegal encroachments especially in the Western Province". He failed to mention issues of police brutality when handling illegal sand mining, which resulted in the murder of a Tamil civilian in Jaffna, and threats to residents of a Mannar village including the local priest when they protested against Sinhalese people illegally extracting sand from the village.
Easter Sunday Bombings
During this speech, he also discussed the 2019 Easter Sunday bombing, which claimed the lives of over 290 people. He notes that country’s security agencies received 97 early warnings of the impending attack but failed to act. He claims that this inability to act was due to the supposed persecution of military officials during the previous administration.
“Our military intelligence operatives were imprisoned and harassed leaving a huge dearth in our intelligence apparatus which also paved the path for the extremists to operate scout free and under the radar,” he said.
This statement comes despite consistent statements from the Sirisena administration that they would not prosecute the country’s “war heroes”, despite credible accusations of war crimes. Sri Lanka’s own parliamentary select committee has reported that security forces may have allowed it to proceed in order to “create chaos and instil fear” ahead of presidential elections.
Tackling the “drug menace”
The Defence Secretary further outlined the measures he would adopt to tackle Sri Lanka’s drug problem.
“To put plans to the right direction in fighting the drug menace and organized crimes operated from the prisons, first we appointed capable officers in charge of the Prisons Department and the Police Special Task Force,” he said.
This statement follows the establishment of a Presidential Task Force to tackle the drug menace in Sri Lanka which has garnered international criticism.
Commenting on the nature of the PTF, Jaffna-based Attorney, academic and civil society activist, Kumaravadivel Guruparan warns that it enables for a further empowering of the militarised state.
Gurupan notes that at three separate points in the Gazette notification there is a call to “curb unlawful activities but it then doesn’t say what the specific type of work the taskforce is empowered to do”.
The lack of clarity is further problematised by the fact that the role of the PTF overlaps existing law and order agencies set up to handle these matters. The PTF appears to be superseding these agencies, raising concerns over accountability as if public officials fail to comply with orders from the task force they will be reported to the President.
Read more from the Ministry of Defence here.