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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2732

Hambantota Harbour Hype -Don’t blame only the Navy Commander

By A. Patabendige

Everyone saw or knows what happened at the Hambantota harbour last week. The Tri Forces in 2009 had been proclaimed the greatest heroes of the country since Independence. The world applauded their brilliance in defeating the LTTE terrorists after 30 years of war and 100,000 deaths. They were probably the only SL organizations that were world class. Sadly however they have recently been under threat not only by white eyes but also by their own (new) government that has co sponsored an international resolution to try some of the Army for war crimes.

Is there a conspiracy to demean them to achieve goals that are diametrically opposed to what they gave their lives for?

It must be asked among other things why the Navy Commander, whose retirement is due soon, himself took over point man duties with his sailors in confrontations with protesting workers at Hambantota harbor?

‘The first duty of a serviceman is to his country, then to his countrymen, and last to himself’

Would any other Service Commander have done that especially during an industrial action? Was he expected to or had he been ordered? Did he decide to be on the spot to inspire the sailors and ensure the ‘operation’ went off well by his presence?

(If that was the case, it was a dismal failure). Where was the immediate commander of the deployed troops? Was the Southern Commander present?

What was his role in the presence of the Navy Commander at point man? Was there an overlap of command?

Were there orders, counter orders and finally disorder?

Was the Navy Commander ordered to be physically present?

If so by whom and why? Did the existence of the International Ship and Port Security Facility Code, a post 9/11 development, that has been freely quoted, require it?

The SLN is the competent authority to act in terms of that Code. In India and the USA it is the Coast Guard. In others it could be the Harbour Police. On board a ship it could be one of many in charge, like a Chief Security Officer.

Could the SLN been confused by the PM who last year out of the blue (he has a penchant for so doing) and with a rush of blood, quoted inappropriate law and justified the shooting of Indian fishermen who cross the maritime border? Was the Navy overwhelmed when it was said the SLN would take its place with the USN (that has a distasteful long history to make ‘America great’ by meddling with non white countries) to secure sea routes even while China and Pakistan, SL’s staunchest friends, were being side lined? The follow up high profile visits by USN ships including an Aircraft carrier and even a USN Maritime Reconnaissance plane and the elite US Marines may have rocked their minds. The Indian Navy collaborated. SL remembers that not so longer ago the latter dropped anchor opposite the Presidential Secretariat Office in Colombo (1987) in a ‘show the flag ‘ support of the criminal invasion of the IPKF and to give warning to any SL citizen who opposed the ‘Agreement’. This did not prevent a SL sailor from attempting to hit the unlucky Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi’s head for six when the latter was inspecting a guard of honor.

The SLN has suddenly been portrayed as a national bully. Who is to blame?

Most of the country wants the Navy commander taken to task. He was however been loyally defended by the popular State Minister of Defence. The latter went over board and declared that what was happening was piracy. He elaborated that the strikers were no longer civilians but pirates. He added that the Navy was entitled to shoot at them. He over looked a vital fact that piracy is defined as an act of robbery committed by pirates on the high seas. By some quirk of imagination he may have believed the harbour was in the high seas and unarmed strikers and journalists had become pirates. The PM as usual did not commit himself openly. Justifying the shooting of unarmed people appears to have suddenly become an obsession with and fascination of the SL Government. At other times and places when the ‘West’ is watching, it becomes devoutly passionate about human rights and the value of life.

Media Secretary Kalanasuriya not to be outdone stepped in. Becoming progressively hysterical, he waxed eloquent that ‘journalists should maintain ethics’ for the sake of mutual ‘security’. He warned that journalists otherwise risked being ’assaulted or killed’. It would appear that he then unintentionally contradicted himself when he condemned the action of the Navy Commander saying ‘no one has an authority to ‘assault’ others…’. ‘Killing ‘however seems to have been forgotten. Nonplussed he had apparently and merrily conducted an inquiry into the affair by questioning 4 other ‘journalists’. They had all unsurprisingly said that the journalist who was assaulted had breached a naval perimeter defence line. It boggles ones imagination to believe that a single rural journalist can breach perimeter defence lines manned by battle hardened SLN sailors who not so longer ago demolished the feared Sea Tigers. His faulting the Navy Commander however was bereft of any inquiry and contradicted his own endorsement of maximum violence. It now appears that the Prime Minister has also ordered an inquiry.

Did all these interpretations confuse the Navy Commander as to the role of the Navy and himself that day? It certainly could have influenced him. Politicians are also fond of getting the Forces to pull their chest nuts out of the fire. Some made it an art for 26 years of the 30 year conflict. It cost 23,000 servicemen’s lives. When it all goes wrong it is the serviceman who is left holding the baby with no known parents.

The Commander of the Navy should never have appeared at the head of his sailors in an industrial dispute, even if it was conspicuously so in sea rig wearing shorts and T shirt. This has been hilariously defended as the dress of a harbour pilot! He should not have at any point taken on a journalist (half his size) physically and open himself to charge of causing simple hurt and also acting like a bully. Was he, having won the second highest gallantry medal in a long service career of devoted and mustard keen 24 hours a day duty, exposed by some congenital weakness of character that made him go berserk? Did his actions find favour with his subordinates and his countrymen even if it was politically favorable?

It is hoped that this incident will discourage others who may be swayed from the straight and narrow when serving the nation and its people. Will the politicians, true to form, let the Navy Commander sink or will they offer him an almost expired life jacket to play for time?

Was this an act of Royally misguided loyalty to ‘Hearts of Oak’ traditions? Oak trees do not grow in SL even if the SL Navy marches to that tune and old boys of a certain school sing in praise about it? Hambantota should not have been the Navy Commander’s Peterloo. Will it be the opening salvo in solving public protests in 2017?

- Asian Tribune -
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Hambantota Harbour Hype -Don’t blame only the Navy Commander
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