“We need to find a way to empower citizens to make governments take notice.” ~ Ian Goldin
People reacted to sudden decisions. It was not the fault of our public. It was sad to see images on social media of crowded public spaces, panic purchasing of groceries and rushing to catch the public transportation to go for safety to their loved ones despite the warning of social distancing, that too after a curfew declaration. Where did we go wrong and why are we never proactive as a nation?? There were inquiries as to what the National Security Think Tank (INSSSL) is doing. Here is my response.
I have stepped down from my position on 1st February 2020 due to a rushed Cabinet paper on January 15th 2020 (Cabinet Decision: 19/3497/203/007). The Cabinet decision appointed Presidents Additional Secretary on International Relations and one-time former Navy Commander as the Institute Director General and suggested my name for a diplomatic posting as Deputy Ambassador to Berlin. This cabinet paper prepared by the Ministry of Defence and not copied to the Foreign Ministry. Subsequently, when I inquired from the Minister of Foreign Affairs Dinesh Gunawardena on this decision, he blamed the foreign secretary and the bureaucracy as he was not aware of such cabinet paper. Here is a clear systemic deficiency within the Government.
The last report prepared for the government by the Institute for National Security Studies over my term was on the ‘Coronavirus outbreak‘. It is dated Jan 29th 2020, two days before I was told to step down from the security think tank on 1st February. The report (see below) had some important recommendations to the Government, the line Ministries and the public to prepare for the outbreak from an early stage. The report was prepared by four of our brilliant young researchers (Ben Barron, Isaac Ellis, Sanoj Samuel Jayakody and Udeshika Jayasekera). How did such information go unheard?
When Governments suddenly reset think tanks, it loses direction and focus on the important work the institute conducts. Every time Sri Lanka has a new regime, they usually reset think tanks. Why? Only for political reasons. This was the second time I have faced such removal from office due to Government change, the first was in 2015 from the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute from the January 8th Government of Good Governance. It reset the entire think tank requesting all staff to leave except the gardener and the driver. In the same manner, it happened again in 2020 January by the present Government. Apparently, this time the security think tank was reset due to advice from a Sri Lankan Professor in Singapore who visits Sri Lanka for few days to advice on National Security and a former Minister heading a local think tank promising to show the path ahead.
The role of a think tank is for critical thinking and analysis. It is to assist the Government to make sound policy decisions based on expert advice and public discourse. Unfortunately, critical analysis is seen most of the time as bad news. In a sense acting like ancient kings who punished messengers who brought them the bad news. This did not change the news, it simply slowed up its delivery. On most occasions, it meant that the kings were ill-informed and, lacking truth, made serious errors in judgment and strategy. Think Tanks are there to bring the naked truth from evidence-based research to the policymaker. If the Government wishes to have a think tank to say everything that they do is correct, then the Government should transform the think tank into a political propaganda office.
Local expertise is not valued nor appreciated in many instances. This was clear in January 2019 when the Monthly Threat Forecast (MTF) addressed to the President through Secretary Defence highlighting the significant national security threat from the extremist group and my request to find the external links of this group. My family and I witnessed the Easter Bombings of 2019 with our lives spared by a matter of minutes. After the attacks, when I was called on by the former President on 20th May 2019 at his office he said ‘all these reports were not presented to him and one Secretary came drunk and another came like a mad man, do they get this job for retirement?’.
So, where did we go wrong? We would have prevented the attacks if we acted timely on the reports. I have submitted a 13-page statement on 17th February 2020 with the all relevant reports to the newly appointed Presidential Commission on Easter Sunday bombing. Hopefully, I will be called to this commission. At the previous PSC probing the Easter Sunday attacks despite my name was mentioned by CNI Sisira Mendis I was not called. Why? One day the public will see my 13-page statement and I have told the police officer who recorded my statement to make it available to the public to understand the systemic deficiencies and the bureaucratic inertia within our system blaming each other. We need to correct these systemic deficiencies to ensure such errors will not occur in the future.
To act intelligently we must learn as much as we can about the risks we could face from local and global threats to our society. In this manner, we may thereby be able better to avoid, minimize and neutralize the harm to our society. Despite our hard work and efforts, we may someday come face to face with blunt choices on national security and we must appreciate different possibilities. We cannot ignore or wish them away.