Multifaceted security threats faced by Sri Lanka in the new millennium | Daily News

Multifaceted security threats faced by Sri Lanka in the new millennium

A copy of the ‘National Security Strategy 2020 for Sri Lanka’ was handed over to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (then Presidential candidate of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna) on November 3 by Dr. Sisira Pinnawala, senior resource fellow of Pathfinder Foundation.

A copy of the ‘National Security Strategy 2020 for Sri Lanka’ was handed over to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (then Presidential candidate of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna) on November 3 by Dr. Sisira Pinnawala, senior resource fellow of Pathfinder Foundation.

National security was not a priority for Sri Lanka for more than a decade after independence. The first threat to country’s security came in 1962 when a group of security personnel tried to topple the then government in a failed coup attempt. Since then Sri Lanka has gone through two youth rebellions in the south and an ethnonationalist forces driven separatist conflict in the north. Despite these serious security threats to the state, successive administrations have failed to recognize the need to develop a national security strategy. The Easter Sunday terrorist attack was a wakeup call for country’s security establishment.

Considering the above, the Pathfinder Foundation commissioned a study early this year, which has now been completed. The study, ‘National Security Strategy 2020 for Sri Lanka’, which was completed recently, was handed over to the former President Maithripala Sirisena, Speaker of the Parliament Karu Jayasuriya M.P, State Minister of Defence and Mass Media, Ruwan Wijewardene M.P., and then SLPP presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

National security defined

National security is a phenomenon that emerged in the context of the Cold War. Traditionally it meant protection of the state against its enemies. However, in today’s context, national security has a wider meaning and protection and well-being of citizens also is part of national security. Conceptual expansion of the phenomenon i.e., moving away from state centred approach to a more people centred approach has resulted in the changes of strategies and operations of national security today.

This makes national security closely associated with rights of citizens and responsibility of state towards them. It can be argued that these developments have resulted in diluting national security to the extent that there is a very thin line separating national security from safety and well-being of citizens. The problem that we face today is how to balance between these two aspects, namely, military defense of the state and its citizens (Hard Security) and guaranteeing more general form of security of safety and well-being of citizens, even at the expense of threats to state security and sovereignty (Soft Security).

These developments have not only expanded the boundaries of national security, but also resulted in blurring the very important distinction between national security and human security. While it must be recognized that the two phenomena are related, it is necessary not to consider two as the same when making policy and strategy.

The crucial question therefore is to operationalize this important conceptual distinction so that national security policies and strategies are kept in focus on the real issues concerning security of a country. This can be done by focusing on three defining characteristics of the two phenomena, namely, the nature of impact of the threats involved, the domain of impact and the type of response that is required to either eliminate such threats (See Table 1) or prevent such threats from happening.

While market driven economic policies have resulted in growth in the economy of the country and reduced poverty overall, it also has resulted in the increase of the income gap. There are also high levels of unemployment among educated youth. The country is going through a period of uncertainty with forces of disunity and destruction based on ethnoreligious divisions driven by a system of patronage politics pervading the entire system. While the former has long-term repercussions on the security of people, the immediate impact is from the latter, i.e., divided polity. Sri Lanka’s national security issues and capacity of the country to face up to the challenges need to be seen in this overall context of internal political and economic dynamics.

Sri Lanka’s long standing economic, political cultural and strategic links with India are central to country’s internal affairs. The consequences of these on the country’s security was amply demonstrated during the separatist conflict. In addition, the rise of China as a major economic and military power and its recent interest in expanding into South Asian region have renewed the traditional rivalry between China and India.

This evolving geo-political and geo-strategic competition, further complicated by the long-standing US interest in the Indian Ocean and Washington’s desire to contain Beijing’s ascendency, are likely to result in ramifications to the national security of Sri Lanka.

The international system today is not just a state centred system as in the past, but a system where both state actors and transnational actors/forces, such as NGOs are operating together. In addition, forces of globalization are operating across national boundaries. These, together with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, have resulted in fundamental changes in both the global threat scenario and the way national security threats are addressed by the state system. Today national security threat includes threats coming from non-military actors as well. These developments have made significant impact on state sovereignty. Understanding the combined effect of all these developments on national security is crucial to making policy and developing strategy on national security of any country today. Sri Lanka’s experience in responding to the separatist conflict in general and allegations of human rights violations in particular, in Geneva and New York, is a clear example of this situation.

Geo-politics of the Indian Ocean Region and Sri Lanka

Indian Ocean, together with Western Pacific Ocean, has emerged as a major centre of global trade and geo-strategic competition today that includes China, India and the US. China is moving ahead with its signature maritime infrastructure development project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and there are attempts to counter it by the US and its allies by bringing in alternatives in the form of both economic alliances and strategic initiatives. But compared with BRI, their impact on both economic development and strategic relations in the region will be hardly sufficient to face increasing influence of China.

Above traditional dangers and threat scenarios apart, there is a high incidence of threats coming from increasingly active non-state actors too. In addition to liberation/separatist rebel movements of ethno-religious minorities, these include pirates, traffickers of arms, drugs and human, and Illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing. Global warming caused sea-level rises and weather anomalies and their impacts are also creating problems in the Indian Ocean that in turn impact on security in the Indian Ocean.

Assessment of threats and prioritizing responses

The national security related threat environment of Sri Lanka has undergone some important changes in the past decades. Indian Ocean has a new player today, China, who is the second largest economy in the world and arguably the emerging superpower challenging the US. The Soviet Union, the erstwhile ally of India is no more, and Russia, the successor is not the power the predecessor was in the international arena. Pakistan, which was the foremost ally of the United States in the Indian Ocean region during the Cold War days has distanced itself from the US and become a close ally of China. The US, which was not in good terms with India due to latter’s close relations with the Soviet Union, has teamed up with India against increasing influence of China in the Indian Ocean region. These realignments and reconfigurations of relationships have resulted in fundamental changes to power equation in the Indian Ocean region.

During the Cold War period, there was no serious threat to Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, except for the occasional diplomatic pressure from India and US.

The country has experienced similar pressure regularly during and after the separatist conflict too. Involvement of non-governmental actors (NGOs) of the mainstream too became an issue during the period. Even today, this potential threat to Sri Lanka’s national security from these sources remain. However, threats from non-state actors from non-traditional sources, lone wolf terrorism and international terrorism for example, cannot be discounted as the Easter Sunday bomb attacks demonstrated.

Ethno-religious divisions and socio-economic divisions, either separately or in combination, as in the case of militancy among the Tamil community, have also been major threats to national security. Sri Lanka experienced two youth led insurgencies that were mainly confined to the south in 1971 and 1988 to 1989. Both attempts were militarily defeated, but not without large scale loss of life and destruction of property.

The second youth insurgency posed a major threat to the state and during the height of that episode, the state was on the verge of collapse. The ethnoreligious conflict fought on a separatist agenda by the minority Tamils lasted nearly 30 years until the separatists were militarily put down in 2009. Recurrence of similar challenges to state in the near future is remote, though such challenges cannot be altogether discounted, and the government needs to be ready to meet such challenges. The Easter Sunday attacks demonstrated that rebellion and insurgency, whether they are caused by socio-economic grievances or ethnoreligious grievances, are not the only threat factors the country is facing. It proved that well organised groups of fanatics driven by such ideologies, in this case Islamic fundamentalism, can be a serious threat. In other countries, similar attacks have been carried out by individuals, driven by extremist ideologies or views.

These attacks known as lone-wolf terrorism, though not experienced by Sri Lanka, are a possibility, considering the past experiences of LTTE suicide bomb attacks. Though there are no solid proof of international funding for the perpetrators of the Easter Sunday attacks, they also demonstrated the level of influence international terrorism links wield and ideological connections can have on local terror outfits, an area, security planners need to be aware of.

(The writer is a Retired Senior Professor of the University of Peradeniya and former Fulbright Senior Fellow in the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies at Cornel University and Senior Research Fellow, Pathfinder Foundation.)

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