Sri Lanka’s Army Commander Lt Gen Shavendra Silva’s appointment to the top post in August 2019 created a bit of a controversy after some of the Western countries raised objections to him taking over for alleged excess committed by him during Eelam War IV during the period 2006 to 2009. However, neither the General nor the Sri Lankan government has paid heed to these objections. In this exclusive interview to BhartaShakti.in Editor-in-Chief Nitin A. Gokhale in Colombo, Lt Gen Silva speaks on a range of issues.
Nitin Gokhale (NG): Hello and welcome, I’m Nitin Gokhale and today we are privileged to have with us the Commander of the Sri Lankan Army, Lt Gen Shavendra Silva, who is going to speak about his priorities and the Army’s plans for the nation’s security. Thank you very much for your time and it’s an honour to sit with you and try and discuss where the Sri Lankan Army is headed and where is it at this moment.
So let me ask you by saying that the Sri Lankan Army has met so many challenges in the past but now, 10 years after the Eelam War IV, there must be new challenges. When we last met during the Defence Seminar you had mentioned unconventional threats, non-traditional threats, are the threats that are there. Can you just tell us where is the Sri Lankan Army today and what are its plans?
Gen Silva: Thank you, Nitin. Thank you for inviting me for this interview and I appreciate it. Of course, we have to know exactly. First of all, where are we – Sri Lanka. As far as Sri Lanka is concerned, we have to identify as to what are the threats and the challenges that Sri Lanka has got. And for that we have to have a clear and coherent mission by the Sri Lankan Army.
So and thereby we should know where we are heading. That is the requirement. So I believe that we have to be ready and prepared for potential adversaries in coming years. That is very important. And the Sri Lankan Army should be capable of facing the vision that Sri Lanka Army would like to have. So I believe that Sri Lanka Army should be a forward looking army.
And as you know, heart of our nation is defence, security and peace. So therefore, the Army had the vision but with my tenure I have kept the army to be ready, decisive and respected.
NG: True. We also spoke about, in the future there are likely to be asymmetric threats to any military in the world and Sri Lankan Army has actually taken on insurgency very successfully. Have some of those lessons been useful and do you get a lot of demands from different armies in the world to transfer the knowledge base that the Sri Lankan Army has in counterinsurgency, counterterrorism operations?
Gen Silva: Yes, of course. As you know that you also have been there, we have just finished in August, the Defence Seminar. And we also have different exercises and we have joint training with different armies and a lot of response to that as far as the Sri Lankan Army’s experience is concerned. But what you are talking about the Defence Seminar or the outcome of that, we have to understand us as a country. We are a small country and economy. So, we have to think of that also.
What I believe is having identified all these threats and the challenges ahead of us, we prepare our army in such a way where we should be able to face all these challenges. In the meantime, we have given enough exposure to various countries, to the things that we have learned during the war time.
And as you know, this is a peacetime but our experience is being called by most of the countries, most of the armies would like to have. So we have a lot of; last 10 years we have been giving our knowledge to these countries and our officers going on overseas courses. They are given time to talk about our country and whatever the experience that we have. So, we have been doing that over the years now.
NG: So moving on to some of your key result areas and I remember I saw on your website some of the vision statements that you have made. One of the key areas is to look after the veterans and some of the war wounded that you have talked about. Speak a little bit about that.
Gen Silva: Yeah of course, I have given certain priorities in the army as soon as I took over, that is about the security of the nation. I have spoken about the security of its people then also about the development of the army and the final point what you just mentioned about the well-being of the members of the army. When it comes to well-being of the members of the army what you are talking of welfare, the army has got the people who are serving right now in the army, those who have retired from the army then also we have those families those who have sacrificed their husbands or the son or somebody killed in action actually and we also have a fair amount of wounded in action. Now, as far as all these four, the army community considers them as members.
So we have lots of welfare missions that we are doing. We have actually welfare hotels in the country. We have in many places, any member of all these four communities that I mentioned, they can go to any of these hotels at a massive discount rate. So which is like four star hotels. Where they can’t afford to go to other civilian hotels, they have been given this exposure by the army. So that is one. Then also we have a system in the army. We have a lot of houses actually bungalows, holiday homes. Most of the regiments, we have 24 regiments, all of them have got around the country, holiday homes. Those are much lesser than this hotel system also.
So we encourage them to take their families into these places so that their families get exposure. Then other than that we have a massive way of looking after the children of our community; army community. That is, they are being given, when they enter a school they are given a priority by the government on some percentage in all leading schools or leading schools in any township. We have been given a priority.
All soldiers get the best of the best schools. Then also, all regiments including the army and you know in Sri Lanka Army we have a Seva Vanitha Unit where the ladies are involved. So they also have a scheme where we give them scholarships. So children who are beyond the age of grade five and the children who are beyond the grade 10 and those who are going into universities we give scholarship and also we have welfare shops where we give all ranks whatever they want to buy the food items and household equipment at a much discounted rate. These people of this country they have been very good to us. Even these companies they have been very nice to Sri Lankan military, for that matter tri-services. So they have been given at a much discounted rate which you can’t buy in the normal market. Like in Indian Army like the CSD system. So we have such a thing.
So I think as far as we are, we also have given a lot of credit facility to military people and their families. And also we have a nice hospital and the families are being treated. And we also have welfare schemes. Even after their retirement, how to look out. So as far as you mentioned, my first priority is about the well-being, the happiness. As I mentioned that I wanted the army that all members are happy.
NG: So happy team is always very effective team you know that’s the motto I suppose that was your following. But let me move on to one more important issue, and that is about there are you know, articles I’m sure you’ve come across where people say while during the war such a big army was justified, today it may not be justified.
And I’ve asked this question earlier to other experts. Does Sri Lanka need such a big army is the question a lot of critics put. What is your answer to that?
Gen Silva: Yeah, I mean one could criticize whether we should need a big army as such. We want the right sizing. We are doing the right sizing to the army as of now. Because as I mentioned at the first question, we know what are the challenges that we have. One must understand that it is not only just war fighting. Army is not only for that. We are supporting the nation, nation building and you know that being a country, a South Asian country, and you have certain calamities here and there, so the army should be prepared.
We must not forget the fact that we are just one decade after having three decades war in the country. The most ruthless terrorist organization in the world. We fought against them and we have eradicated terrorism. So we are doing the right sizing right now. I’m sure that that right sizing is good enough for a country like this.
NG: That’s right and it is affordable, it should be affordable to any country like Sri Lanka actually. General Silva, I wanted to ask you on one of the key issues of human rights violation charges that are being made against the Sri Lankan Army and sometimes particularly against you. You were there in the, you were spearheading the final assault in 2009. What do you have to say to those charges that are there?
Gen Silva: Yeah, first of all one must understand as you also have been in the Sri Lankan last days of the war, you will understand how humanely that Sri Lanka Army was treating the innocent civilians. As far as we are concerned, we went as a humanitarian operation just to rescue them from the LTTE, the most ruthless terrorist group in the world. So when we did this operation we were so careful about the civilians and these people who are bringing all these allegations, they have forgotten that we had over 12,000 LTTE cadres rehabilitated and reintegrated with the society.
And also the issue here, what I find here is that these people who are doing all these allegations live abroad, not here. None of these people in the north, they have come out and told that all that I have done many of these things. They, those living abroad now who are these people, what are they doing? They have gone. They are just living there and they got money from these people or not just these people, even the people who are living abroad, their relation.
They had to give money. You must be knowing certain countries, I don’t have to tell. Every morning once a month they come and collect their quota but they are supposed to pay for this organization. Now they are dried up with money. They have no money and they are like wounded abroad without money. OK. They are actually wounded people. So these wounded guys who are the sympathizers or supporters of LTTE, since they are not getting any generation of money there, they are trying to talk about these things and keep this alive.
What LTTE could not do for three decades, they want to get that. So we have a diplomacy war right now at the moment. So what I believe is that these are the people who are giving and one must understand that I have appeared in front of three inquiries.
We follow the same British system justice, the judicial system in Sri Lanka and I appeared before them. None of them, none of the courts have made me any guilty anywhere. So one must understand that presumption of innocence until proven guilty, this is the principle of natural justice should prevail for me. Those people who practice these abroad should do the same thing as far as I’m concerned.
NG: I think your President, the newly elected President is also facing the same charges in a way because he was Defence Secretary at that point in time. If you remember and you were at the U.N. for four years nobody raised those charges that time I think.
Gen Silva: Yeah. Nobody. Because that same U.N. accepted me my credentials to be the Sri Lankan Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative in U.N. there.
Yes I’ve heard about certain allegations abroad at that time also. But I managed to work as Ambassador all four and a half years.
NG: Perhaps the only serving General to work as an Ambassador there actually.
Gen Silva: And thus we’ll find in the history of Sri Lanka one and only serving, one and only person who managed to hold the ambassadorial brand there.
NG: Exactly. So anyway those are allegations which are there you will have to face them. But face them or sort of ignore them, well the choice is yours but the fact is during that Operation in 2009 like you mentioned, you brought out almost hundred and twenty thousand civilians.
And I was witness to it when I was reporting from there. Now in the North, the Army is doing a lot of work on rehabilitation and also the kind of reintegration that you mentioned, also rebuilding if I’m not mistaken. What is the progress there?
Gen Silva: Yeah. We as you know that we have done over the years, we have done a lot of reintegration was done with the cadres then we are helping the reconciliation process hugely and also rebuilding the area there. We have given lots of support by way of human resource. And also our officers, by our formations units they also have got a lot of aids support sponsorships from various, our interests what we have got and we have built houses. We have supported the water systems and the building of the roads. All sort of thing. Not only that for even education so all that, in all these areas the army is supporting to ensure that these are our own people, own people and the other people who were affected.
So mostly affected, it has not been only the affected, even the southern parts everywhere. It’s not only one area. Sri Lanka had this thing, entire country was affected.
NG: That’s true. So one final question on the Sri Lankan Army’s future because you know you’ve been yourself trained in different countries. Of course, you also trained in India. You were in the National Defence College. What about military cooperation or defence diplomacy that you are involved in, the Sri Lankan Army is involved in? How do you look at that? Does it help everyone and not just the Sri Lankan Army?
Gen Silva: No, everyone will be helped because you know that as far as I say, India. We have been, India has given us a lot of support and all the countries for that matter.
They give a lot of courses to us and we have to, one must understand that Sri Lanka Army as far as the country’s small, we can’t establish all the institutions here. So and also that with the numbers that we have, with the limited vacancy that we have, we have been sending abroad. So all these countries, the friendly foreign nations have been supporting us giving certain courses. We see the exposure to Sri Lankan officers at different levels that have been given. In the meantime whatever the possible way Sri Lanka Army, although we are a small army and a small country, we also have been given as far as you know that right now we find in the Staff College you have a lot of foreign students studying here. Then the other colleges also we find.
And also we conduct a lot of exercises, we get a lot of nations come here to get the experience of our Special Forces and commandos and the armoured brigade and then also we have certain country to country exchange programs. We have like India, Mitra Shakti and two other and other countries as well. So we have a great cooperation among other nations as far as the militaries are concerned.
NG: But you know that one of the fallouts of the allegations of human rights violations has been the stoppage of or trying to put obstacles in your U.N. deployment. How are you handling that? U.N. troops your people working on UN deployment?
Gen Silva: You know we have a very capable Foreign Secretary and Foreign Ministry. They are capable of handling that, they are handling well right now.
And you know army command had nothing to do with those who are going for peacekeeping mission. We have a very clear way of vetting the system, vetting system practicing.
So this vetting system, because of that those who are vetted clearly and sent for foreign missions. So it has been happening not today yesterday, it has been happening over the last many years. We had started in 1956 ending for peacekeeping operations. Then we had been having these. So right now also we are practicing that. We have had no problems as far as the peacekeeping is concerned. I am sure that those who are doing these allegations trying to prevent Sri Lankan military who eradicate terrorism from our soil, I am sure that the nations we look at this in a manner that very you know in a very decent manner and I have the hope that the U.N. will allow us to continue further.