Floating Armoury, a revolutionary topic in Sri Lanka, has resurfaced with much controversy. The reports by the media and documentation provided henceforth are devoid of clarity and can be quite confusing to the everyday person. So, it is important to start at the very beginning.
In an effort to counter piracy and the brutal attacks conducted by the Somali Pirates the demand for privately contracted armed security personnel (PCASP) began rising. This in turn led to the pirates weaponizing themselves with stronger and better weapons, and increasing their scope by targeting merchant ships that cross the Red Sea, and the Arabian Sea. The general consensus is that there will be no harm upon the crew but deaths have been reported on and off.
Thus, the international bodies convened together and decided to provide OBST – Onboard Security Team Operations to these merchant ships. The main reason is that with the increase in ransom, a need rose, the insurance increased and the price of objects increased because shippers faced a massive problem.
Similarly, a High-Risk Area was named and that is where our little island comes in. Sri Lanka was eerily close to this HRA. That is how Sri Lanka became a very important place for embarkation and disembarkation for the OBST. The Galle harbour was the closest and most helpful. This is where the geographical location of Sri Lanka showed a great deal of importance.
During this time, our Navy began to share weapons with the OBST crew in 2009. The next one was during the year 2010. By 2011/2012, the Navy was able to create a niche market of weapons handling.
According to various media reports, the Sri Lanka Navy was able to earn Rs. 2.26 billion for the Government of Sri Lanka, from its operations in 2016, where they had carried out a total of 6,371 ship movements. Out of the total of 6,371 ship movements, 5,928 and 443 movements were derived from the centres in Galle and Colombo. Meanwhile, since the inception of OBST operations from 13th November 2015 until 2nd January 2017, the Navy had earned an income of Rs. 2.63 Billion for a total of 7,457 ship movements. Galle and Colombo operation centres have carried out 6,922 and 535 movements averaging approximately 573 moves per month.
It is not fair to compare the income received during the beginning of these transactions with any other period because that was just when the trade was starting to pick up.
Further, it must be mentioned that the Navy did not do this as a trade but as a service. The Navy did not do anything unlawful or illegal. For instance, the Navy is allowed to make a transaction by providing a service for money. Several of the well-known examples are diving services, restaurants, holiday homes etc… Similar, the other two parties of the tri-forces do this too, such as Heli-Tours by the Air Force and Hotels by the Army. This was one of the main concerns by what was put forward by the government stating that the Navy is not allowed to conduct business which is a very incorrect statement as it was a service and not a business .
Further, when a floating armoury, was seized by the Navy in 2015, they had no documentation to prove their legitimacy. A letter signed by a senior official of the MOD had been issued day after the arrest ,to the Commander of the Navy stating that approval has been given for the transportation of these naval weapons. Later he was arrested in connection with the issuance of the letter. However, he was later acquitted and placed in the same ministry and appointed to a committee to probe about the same floating armoury.
The term conflict of interest comes up every now and again together with terms such as misuse of power.
It was rumoured out that some weapons were misplaced. We must understand that this is completely out of the jurisdiction of the Navy. Moreover, it was pointed out that the company in question has found the weapons for the UN. However, if this was said to have happened in 2011, why did they not start the search then? Why wait a decade? The best thing to do this to bring them in and question them at the COPE instead of making a scapegoat of the Navy.
There are so many discrepancies that can be seen through any person you can put two and two together. The “High-Risk Area” section was changed more than three or four times to date. It keeps reducing and in layman’s terms, that means it goes further and further away from Galle. As the numbers reduce, the aforementioned insurance instalments also reduce and is better for shippers.
However, in a Summit held in New York in 2015, it was Sri Lanka who mentioned not to reduce this. We can understand the pressure the Navy faced to be in this stand which was highly unnecessary at that time when the whole region wanted it to be reduced on the results of their security audits.
India strenuously held their position requesting this to be reduced together with nearly all other countries and only Sri Lanka and one or two other countries attempted to prevent the reduction. However, since it reduced this OBST trade faced a few difficulties too. But in overall country benefits as lower shipping charges will lower the commodities too.
Following this, the Ceylon Association of Shipping Agents (CASA) requested this to be reduced and then it was reduced to 2050$ for local sea marshals, in order to provide more job opportunities to Sri Lankans and charged 200 $ more for the foreign sea marshals. Over 800 new jobs created due to this 200 $ difference which proposed by CASA.Many Ex Servicemen got jobs and their living conditions improved.
Additionally, it was also rumoured that this operation was forcibly taken by the SLN. This is false too. When the said company went to Singapore for arbitration and received a favourable judgment for them, the Sri Lankan Government appealed this. The company lost the case and has not paid as per the ruling the media reports . It is while they are at default that they once again handed this back to them. This is completely incorrect in all aspects. Tenders were not called, government procurement guidelines were not followed and giving this out to just one person is not allowed overall.
CASA has said that they agree with the Government decision to change the management of weapon handling. However, their acceptance cannot be counted on because they are simply thinking about their own business. They cannot understand that this will undoubtedly be negative for them too. But it was CASA which originated with the SLN n it is them who should develop this trade with the MOD.
Further, as a Civilian and a legitimate taxpayer, I have a right to see the letter sent by the Navy (mentioning their unwillingness to proceed further with weapon handling for sea marshals) and I ask that this be made public only if it doesn’t affect the National Security.
Another con of this decision is, the moment they receive a monopoly on this, they will start to package these weapons. And these weapons will be at a rate in which competitors cannot match, which will include embarkation, disembarkation and quarantine packages etc.
This is done by the Navy, so if this service is provided by the Navy, how can one person get the profit of this? This should be made into a level playing field instead of creating more and more methods to curb the foreign revenue that is received by the country. When the floating armoury was taken from the Navy when the Navy was making the government stronger, and handed it over to one private company, it surprised and disappointed quite a lot of people.
The situation has now changed drastically. Due to the reduction in the High Risk Area, this operation if further away from our Galle harbor and the deployment of these sea martials has also significantly reduced. However, if the mission is returned to this company, we do not know if they will create a $ 3,500 package as before and pledge $ 1,000 to the Navy. But at the same time, we do not know whether this will develop as well. According to report, the Navy has set up a modern arsenal at the Galle Harbor for this purpose. If so, I think it would be more appropriate to outsource this operation to the Navy itself rather than to a private company. If more floating arsenals are maintained, the Navy will have to provide security for them as well. It would also be safer to hand over the task of managing the Marines to the Navy under the current COVID environment. Eventually the financial value of this operation will be available to the public.
When power over money and power over weapons come to one place, that is where it starts. The journey will not stop there. They will then have power over media and freedom and eventually our democracy. The best example of that is the drug cartels borne in Mexico.