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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

More Disclosures On Previous Govt’s Private Army & Its Role In The Election

By Sunday Times Political Editor-
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Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on Monday directed the Minister of State for Defence, Ruwan Wijewardene, to conduct a full investigation into the operation of a veritable private army run by the state-backed Rakna Arakshaka Lanka Limited (RALL) and Avant Garde Maritime Security Services Limited (AGMSL) after disclosures made in the Sunday Times (Political Commentary) last week.

“Did you leak the story to the Sunday Times?” asked a journalist from Wijewardene when a few of them, mostly representing outlets in New Delhi, surrounded him at India House, the official residence of the High Commissioner at Thurstan Road. The occasion was the celebration of India’s Republic Day. “No, no. I also read it from the Sunday Times. I treat all the media fairly and equally,” he replied.

In what took the air of an impromptu news conference, Wijewardene had to answer a volley of questions. He revealed that he had met the directors of the RALL. “They were contradicting each other,” he said. In response to a question, one of the directors had said that their partner AGMSL was running a floating armoury in ‘international waters’ and added that they were docking in the Galle Harbour only for re-fuelling purposes. A director had at first explained that they were unable to have on board Navy personnel to protect the weapons since that would, in the international context, become a vessel of war. When he later questioned the directors what would have happened if the armoury was seized by someone, Wijewardene said “he replied that the Navy was on board.”

The Minister of State for Defence said that an internal audit was now being conducted in his Ministry. The idea to determine the volume of funds received by the Ministry of Defence from the RALL-AGMSL tie up. They were also going through records to determine how RALL came to be established. He said he had been asked by the Prime Minister not to change any directors of RALL and allow the present members to continue until the investigations were over. This is on the basis that if RALL is found to be an illegally constituted body, appointing new directors would create more legal issues. He said action against those concerned would be taken only after the investigations were concluded. A high ranking Government source said that would naturally involve dealing with those responsible irrespective of the positions they held. “We now know that the entire operation is illegal,” he said speaking on grounds of anonymity.

The internal audit inquiry at the Ministry of Defence came as detailed investigations into the RALL-AGMSL were taken over by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). Three Assistant Superintendents of Police (ASPs) — Shani Abeysekera, P. Ampavila and B.S. Tissera — are now recording statements from those concerned. Detectives are checking on all the weapons on board as well as the land-based armoury. They want to determine to which armed force they belong and whether all of them were issued with End User Certificates (EUCs). When the arms were imported into Sri Lanka, the Government to whom the weapons belong had to declare that it was the end user. How it transferred such certification to a third party, that too, to a private security firm like the AGMSL is now being probed. Another aspect is to ascertain allegations that some weapons seized from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) during the final stages of the separatist war in May 2009 had also been issued. As the CID proceeds with the inquiry, detectives are consulting the Attorney General for advice.

CID detectives have still not been able to question retired Major General Palitha Fernando, who is Chairman of RALL. They found that he has flown to Sydney, Australia to visit his children who are studying there. Among those from whom detectives have recorded statements so far are Damayanthi Jayaratne, Additional Secretary in the Civil Security Division of the Ministry of Defence, and retired Major General K.B. Egodawela, Chief Executive Officer of RALL.

RALL-AGMSL campaigned for Rajapaksa
The RALL which together with AGMSL ran the floating armoury on board Mahanuwara and an unauthorised land-based one inside the Navy’s SLNS Dhakshina base in Galle, had been cause for concern for leaders of the National Unity Government. This was weeks ahead of the January 8 presidential election. It came after reports that this private security firm was at the forefront of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s re-election campaign. RALL and AGMSL have been deployed countrywide to campaign for Mahinda Rajapaksa at the presidential election. The AGMSL had made available a fleet of Defender Jeeps, too. Some of these vehicles and personnel had been used during the campaign for the Uva Provincial Council elections too. The campaigners were reporting regularly to a team of retired military officers — mostly from the Sri Lanka Army — who ran an ‘Operations Room’ near Kirimandala Mawatha in Colombo’s Narahenpita area.

These officers, grouped into different ‘segments’ by former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, operated largely from offices located in rented houses and other buildings. They were given specific sectors in the Greater Colombo area to carry out campaigning and the Operations Room functioned under retired Major General Gamini Hettiaratchchi. He was backed by five different persons who had retired from the Army as Captains. The vast majority of those who were deployed were retired military and police personnel from RALL followed by those from AGMSL.

Minister of State for Defence, Ruwan Wijewardene being welcomed by the Indian Deputy High Commissioner Arindan Bagchi on his arrival at India House for India’s Republic Day ceremony. He told journalists there that, as directed by the Prime Minister, his ministry was conducting a full probe on the floating armoury. Pic by Ranjith Perera

Of significance among these is what is described as the ‘segment’ comprising – Kolonnawa, Kotte and Maharagama. They came under the overall charge of retired Major General K.B. Egodawala, Chief Executive Officer of RALL. Under him, placed in charge of Maharagama was retired Major General Palitha Fernando who is Chairman of Rakna Arakshaka Lanka Limited or RALL. Fernando retired from the Sri Lanka Army as a Brigadier. It was only after he joined the Ministry of Defence as Military Liaison Officer (MLO) that he was ‘promoted’ (whilst in retirement) to the rank of a Major General enabling him to obtain a higher pension and perks. Similar promotions extended to a few others earned them the sobriquet “Taiwanese Generals.” Taiwan’s name was used since there was a time when products from that country were described as inferior quality. As revealed last week, it was this Maj. Gen. Fernando who sent out written instructions to the Southern Naval Area Commander, Rear Admiral D.E.C. Jayakody to allow RALL-AGMSL to maintain an armoury inside the base. He signed that ‘order’ as Army Coordinating Officer raising a string of questions. Firstly, he had no power legally to make such an order. Secondly, though he had been at the MoD, he had violated procedure by not making his request, (though illegal) to the Commander of the Navy, that too in his capacity as Army Coordinator.

A large number of RALL personnel in the ranks of Majors, Lt. Colonels, Colonels and Majors General were formally assigned for presidential election duty in the Western Province. The areas where groups were tasked: Group 1 Kolonnawa, Group 2 – Kotte, and Group 3 – Maharagama (this is in addition to this sector coming under another parallel group of top men from RALL). Similar groups from RALL were also assigned to other parts of the country. The names and assignments of these groups listed in what looked like a ‘deployment order’ were checked for their authenticity by a state intelligence arm recently and confirmed.

As revealed last week, RALL tied up with AGMSL, a private company, to provide “Sri Lanka Government owned weapons and associated equipment to private maritime security companies.” Such weapons included T-56, AK 47 assault rifles, 7.62 ammunition for these weapons, Light Machine Guns, Ballistic Helmets, Body Armour, Night Vision Goggles, Radio sets (for communications) and flashlights. It was RALL, listed with the Registrar of Companies that received weapons from the Sri Lanka Government. These were in turn handed over to AGMSL, a private company, with End User Certificates (EUCs) from the Government of Sri Lanka.

The fact that RALL has been involved in the polls campaign makes clear its allegiance to one political entity. Allowing such an entity to develop a heightening private military capability together with a private security firm, also showing allegiance to the same political entity, leads to the creation of a powerful private army cum monolithic political apparatus. That such a monolithic outfit with strong political leanings could pose a serious threat to the legitimate armed forces or the Police force in the country cannot be treated lightly.

Already high pressure moves are afoot to stall investigations on the basis that the entire exercise was legitimate. It is in this backdrop that the revelations in last week’s the Sunday Times (Political Commentary) came up for discussion when the National Executive Council of the National Unity Government met at the Presidential Secretariat last Tuesday. The ten members in the Council are Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, JVP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, TNA parliamentary group leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan, SLMC Leader Rauff Hakeem, JHU leader Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka, Democratic Party leader Sarath Fonseka, All Ceylon Peoples Party Leader Rishad Bathiudeen, Democratic People’s Front Leader Mano Ganeshan and Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera (Convenor).

H.M.U.D. Basnayake, Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, was summoned before the Council to explain his public remarks that the RALL-AGMSL was a “legitimate” project and had been “approved by the Cabinet.” He was rebuffed by members of the Council for re-iterating those remarks and directed to submit a written report. In what seemed another campaign of disinformation over the discovery of the secret armoury at the BMICH, a Chief Inspector attached to the Crimes Division of the Cinnamon Gardens Police was quoted as saying that the RALL-AGMSL was a deal done legally. He said Saman Dissanayake, a Senior Assistant Secretary in the Civil Affairs Division of the Ministry of Defence, was present when the raid was conducted. Police spokesperson Ajith Rohana hurriedly summoned a news conference to declare that the Chief Inspector’s assertions were altogether wrong. “This officer’s claims are not correct since they did not conduct investigations. They are being carried out by the CID,” SSP Rohana said.

Besides the political and military aspects, the investigations are also centring on other areas. They include allegations that a lady official was paid handsomely every month for the services she rendered. In addition, her regular travel to a country where her children were being educated has also come under scrutiny after allegations that the private company paid for them. Also under scrutiny is another official, who, it is alleged, received a brand new car for helping in routinely clearing official matters. This official in question, it is alleged, was using his office for private business too.

“We will strongly resist any move to sweep these investigations under the carpet,” Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka, General Secretary of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) told the Sunday Times. He said the JHU “will make sure the Government will take stern and deterrent action against those involved. We will not allow anyone to soft pedal it.” Ranawaka noted that there were serious implications to national security from facts that were emerging in the ongoing investigations. “We cannot allow anyone to create private armies and endanger national security,” he added.

– Taken from the political column of the Sunday Times


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