We cannot afford another war, says Sri Lanka's top army official

illustration: Binay Sinha
Major General Dharshana Hettiarrachchi heads the newly formed team for Counter-Radicalisation, set up by the government of Sri Lanka. In an interview, he tells Aditi Phadnis about the new challenges Sri Lanka faces after the April attacks by Islamic radicals and how the country is proposing to meet them. Edited Excerpts:

The Sri Lankan Army (SLA) is in the unique and enviable global position of possibly being the only conventional Army to militarily vanquish one of the most feared guerilla groups in the world. But you’ve had many setbacks as well. What is your learning from the military campaign and what followed?


The fight with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) went on for almost three decades. By 2008-09, LTTE was almost like a professional Army. They had a naval wing, an air wing and their land force. They also had suicide cadres. In 1996, the US State Department declared the LTTE the most ruthless terrorist organisation in the world.


Successive governments used various means to eradicate this problem from Sri Lankan soil but the previous regime (led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa) made eradication of terrorism a promise in their election manifesto. So it (the military campaign) was a very coordinated effort. The President gave the political leadership and luckily, the President’s own brother was the Secretary (Defence). All the three arms of the defence forces were led by officers who were experienced and had been in the field throughout. The whole country got together — the people in the South as well as even the Tamils in the north and east. The government gave the armed forces the liberty to go ahead with their plans without interfering. The Secretary (defence) coordinated all efforts: Whether it was acquiring weapons or other logistics support. The President stood firm against the political pressures especially from western countries.


After 2009 and upto April 21, 2019 — Easter Sunday — we did not have a single terrorist incident in Sri Lanka.


With all your experience and understanding of how terrorist networks work, how did Easter Sunday happen?


This organisation, National Thowheeth Jama’ath, has been operating in Sri Lanka for a considerable period. Our intelligence agencies had most of the information related to their activities. The only thing is, on the day of the attack, there had been some information and intelligence as well. But due to some lapses at various levels, the information did not disseminate to the correct people at the correct time. The unfortunate incident happened as a result.


But Sri Lankan people never expected such a thing, because everyone thought that having vanquished the LTTE, people would live in peace, irrespective of their religion. With this, the country suddenly found itself in a different direction, like the 9/11 incident in the US. This has served as a good warning to us to be vigilant and to do whatever is possible to control and eradicate this problem in a proper, systematic way.


As a result, the government announced a National Plan on Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism in Sri Lanka. So we are working on that. We are going to study other concepts and experiences of other countries in this area and adopt best practices to control and eradicate violent extremism without creating any problems for the Muslim community in Sri Lanka.


The Muslim community is saying earlier they were sandwiched between the Tamil extremists and the Sri Lankan Army. Now, it is feeling pressure from those forces which want Sri Lanka to be an assertive Buddhist majority  state; and on the other side, forces of Wahhabi Islam…


Muslims have been living in Sri Lanka for a long time without any problems. But this Wahhabism and new concepts have been brought into Sri Lanka in the last three or four years. Among Muslims there are some groups which are extremist groups. So we are working with the moderate traditional groups that are against this extremism and taking their help to educate people that we cannot have another war in Sri Lanka. Our development has already suffered because of the events in the North and East. Before the Easter Sunday attacks, Sri Lanka was the number one destination for tourists. Now we are working on a plan so that Sri Lanka is a peaceful country for all Sri Lankan, irrespective of religion or race.


This extremism is the belief of only a small group of Muslims. 90 per cent of Sri Lankan Muslims are moderate and want to get on with their life and business.


The blasts occurred on April 21. Within one month, our armed forces, police and other agencies had the situation under control. 90 per cent of the people who planned the incidents were apprehended.


What about the other side of it: the pressure from the Sinhala Buddhist community that Sri Lanka must become more Buddhist and less ‘secular’?


Actually, like the extremist elements in the Muslim groups, there are also extremists among Buddhist groups. But it is a very small percentage. 99 per cent of Sri Lankans are for peaceful living and co-existence with other communities.


We are working on that also: To make them understand and to implement strict law and order with exemplary punishment for people who make hate speeches and those who try to provoke other communities and religions.


74 per cent of Sri Lankans are Buddhist. And Lord Buddha taught us non-violence.


In the neighbourhood in south Asia, when the political leadership has been weak, the Army has felt tempted to intervene and to set things right. We’re seeing evidence of weak political leadership in Sri Lanka, most visible in the handling of events leading up to Easter Sunday. So, are you seeing a danger of any kind of an army intervention?


Sri Lanka Army has been a very disciplined army throughout its history. So I don’t foresee any such move by the Army because although we are a victorious Army, we are, at the same time, highly disciplined and professional. We expect that the political leaders will respect democracy. Except for one or two occasions a long time back, the Army has never intervened in politics.


There was a time, soon after the war, when the army had the highest support from the general public. But even then, our military leaders did not try to resort to any adventurism. So I don’t foresee anything like this.


The one thing that is worrying about Easter Sunday is that the people who carried out this attack were not poor, uneducated people who were ready to become cannon fodder because they had nothing to lose. They were people who were educated, wealthy and respected in the community….


If you take the LTTE, most of them were poor and uneducated. Many of their cadres were also the lowest castes in the Tamil social order. Those who conspired to mount the Easter Sunday attacks were educated people from wealthy families who have studied in both Sri Lanka and overseas.


I had the opportunity to speak to one of them who had a serious involvement in the conspiracy. This young man — around 22 or 23 — had studied in one of the leading schools in Sri Lanka, is from a very wealthy family and was sent to Australia for further education. There, he used to go to a mosque where he met a middle-aged Muslim — not a Moulvi, but a strong committed Muslim. He got friendly with this man and told him about his family, his background, etc. This middle aged man told him: ‘God has given you everything in your life. Your parents are very wealthy, you’ve had the opportunity to study in the best institutions, you live a luxurious life. Back in history, Muslims controlled the whole world. But gradually, Christians, Hindus and Buddhist supplanted the Muslims. Why not do something that will bring Islamic glory back in the world? Why not be grateful to God and do something for your religion?’ Thereafter, this young man was shown certain videos, showing Muslim youth fighting. Now, this is a young man. After seeing the videos he got really motivated. That’s one way of indoctrination.


We say social media plays a big role in radicalisation. But that’s not the only way. Glorifying killing through psychological indoctrination is another way. And we are pledged to counter all forms and methods of radicalisation.


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