25 September, 2023


Defence Review By INSSL: A Timely Contribution To The Current Knowledge

By W A Wijewardena –

Dr. W.A Wijewardena

Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka, abbreviated as INSSSL, national security think-tank functioning under the Ministry of Defence, has released Volume III of its Review of Defence. It contains six papers authored by authorities on security studies in Sri Lanka and abroad.

Like its previous issues, the present issue has covered critical issues faced by defence authorities in the region. In his message to the issue, the Chairman of the Board of Governors of INSSSL, Retired General Kamal Gunaratne, Secretary, Ministry of Defence, has drawn attention to the man-made threats in the form of terrorist activities and natural threats that come totally unexpected; disasters like the most recent COVID-19 pandemic.

It is the job of the security services to protect mankind, nature, and environment from these threats. Gunaratne says that they demand ‘a continuously updated, meticulously evolved, integrated and synergetic approach incorporating all elements of national power along with the people of the country’ to ensure national security. It calls for the establishment of a hybrid apparatus to tackle the problem, says Gunaratne, that should perforce recognise different views and perceptions. The job of INSSSL is to provide a suitable forum for this.

Sustainable development a must

The Director General of INSSSL, Admiral (Professor) Jayanath Colombage, presently Secretary to the Ministry of External Affairs, has gone even beyond in his Preface what Gunaratne has said. Drawing attention to the high risks of global warming and environmental degradation, he has said that the impact of any policy would be wholesome if and only if environmental impact is studied before undertaking it. They should necessarily be linked to issues relating to ‘pollution, emission of pollutants, damage to ecosystem and its vitality, conducting sustainable agricultural and fisheries activities, and conserving water’. In this background, the disruption to local and global economies has made any poverty alleviation a challenging task. It has been complicated by the proliferation of sinful activities like the narcotic trade. Colombage therefore opines that the single solution to all these issues is seeking to attain sustainable development by societies. This is the preservation of security of a nation from military, paramilitary, economic and political threats.

Tap green waters

The Washington DC based Jeffrey Payne in his article titled ‘Green Waters: Strategic Opportunities in the Indian Ocean Region’ has called for greater interregional economic relations among nations in the Indian Ocean Region and the Pacific in view of its geostrategic and geoeconomics importance. Economic relations can be broken into two types, those that rely on blue waters and those that rely on green waters. A blue water relation refers to the tapping of the global common waters for economic benefits. The green waters, in contrast, require nations in the region to cooperate with each other. But how to ensure cooperation among the littoral states in the Indian Ocean Region is the immediate challenge faced by these countries.

According to Payne, this has been exacerbated by ‘sea-blindness’, a condition in which people of these countries fail to recognise the importance of the oceans in the neighbouring surroundings to generate wealth and security for them. In the case of the blue waters, this is not an issue because knowing the importance of global maritime waters, nations would automatically revert to tapping those vast resources. Given this shortcoming relating to green waters, Payne concludes his paper with a warning; any cooperation among the littoral states in the Indian Ocean Region should not be confined to mere word but should be carried forward through deed as well.

Public policy for handling pandemics

The paper by Jayanath Colombage, Ruwanthi Jayasekera and K. Don Vimanga has dealt with Sri Lanka’s success in managing the COVID-19 pandemic in its first wave from March 2020 to June 2020. There has been a change in the policy paradigm in handling this disastrous issue, according to the three authors. The pandemic has been totally unexpected, and the world had been completely unprepared to face such a widespread disaster that had brought enormous costs to economies, human relations, and social order across the globe.

Since the existing systems were not capable to handle it, there had been a necessity for quick response through a set of new strategies. In this background, it is the public sector, the authors have identified, which had been called to deliver the needed results. Hence, it had been a major paradigm shift in the public policy regime in Sri Lanka. Instead of following conventional methods, a set of totally unconventional methods had been adopted. The paper is a documentation of key challenges faced and accomplishments made for the benefit of readers.

It is a Gray Rhino event

Though the entire world had been hit by this enemy, the authors had concluded that the total weight of the enemy throughout the globe had been less than one gram. Yet, the enemy had been unseen and unidentified at the initial stage. Many authors had coined different terms to call the enemy. If one goes by Michele Wucker, author of the 2016 book Gray Rhino: How to Recognise and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore, it is a ‘Gray Rhino’ event. Wucker had said earlier that Gray Rhinos were big, scary, dangerous and had a horn. When this two-ton horny thing charges at you, a quick decision has to be made to save yourself. If you fail, it would be a total disaster.

Such mega problems are commonly called Black Swan events, if one goes by the Lebanese American essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb who conceptualised black swans in a book by the same title in 2010. Given the enormity of the COVID-19 pandemic and the speed at which it charged the whole world, the three authors have correctly concluded that it was a Gray Rhino event rather than a Black Swan event. Hence, instead of running away from the problem, one has to face the problem head-on, come what it may mean, and that was exactly what Sri Lankans authorities did to contain the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Graduation from non-violent ideology to extremism in action

The paper by Ranga Jayasuriya on the Easter Sunday attack in Sri Lanka in April 2019 has analysed how a non-violent radicalisation of Islamic extremism got itself converted to an extremely violent movement over time. This culminated in a brutal attack on places of Christian worship and five-star hotels in Colombo destroying human life, property, and social cohesion. Jayasuriya has drawn a pyramid of extremism in which grassroot changes may occur at a very innocent level at the bottom.

Usually, societies welcome such changes because they contribute to social dynamism and change. But they become fertile ground for the development of ideological beliefs that permeate the whole society. In the case of Islamic extremism, Jayasuriya has identified such ideological changes as the culmination of Salafism or Wahhabism. Then it leads to holding of extreme ideas that are still non-violent by nature. As long as they are non-violent, they do not cause any harm to society’s peaceful co-existence. In a world of dynamism, they are considered necessary factors for society to move forward. But danger arrives when a few picks up these non-violent extreme ideas and convert them into violent movements. Thus, at the top of the pyramid sits the violent extremism.

But then, it becomes too late to tackle it at that level because it has sown seeds for both internal implosions and external explosions. To illustrate how Islamic extremism managed to capture both social institutions and state bodies, Jayasuriya has designed a Causal Loop Diagram that visualises the causal relationships among different elements in society and their feedback effect. Fortunately, there are balancing loops that would mitigate the harmful effects eventually.

However, they are limited in number and therefore do not serve to cool off these radical social movements. Instead, there are reinforcing loops which are greater in number and the final social explosion takes place because of their dominance in causal social relations.

Bay of Bengal is a vast resource base

Shahab Enam Khan in his paper has identified a new geopolitical reality in the Bay of Bengal. Both Bangladesh and Sri Lanka share the same waters of the Bay of Bengal. Hence, both countries can now benefit from economic cooperation between them. In the recent past, Sri Lankan private capital has moved into Bangladesh in large volumes. In addition, Sri Lankan professionals have been serving Bangladeshi business establishments in large numbers. This is a salutary development and Khan says that the stability of the two nation states and the sharing of a common belief by two peoples in ‘harmony-pluralism-secularism’ would further strengthen these ties.

However, an important requirement for establishing this nexus on a sustained basis is the need for cooperation to take root in bilateral relations defeating the desire for competition. Since the Bay of Bengal is rich with a variety of natural resources, naturally, there can be competition for harvesting seabed resources by these two nations. According to Khan, it is not only an issue in economics but a factor that may contribute to intensified geostrategic tensions. In this background, the challenge for both Bangladesh and Sri Lanka lies in finding balanced options to deal with these issues devoid of military confrontations.

Narcotic smuggling from Afghanistan to Sri Lanka

Udeshika Madhubhashini and Parvin Hejran have in their paper analysed one of the burning issues faced by Sri Lanka today. That is the smuggling of narcotics from Afghanistan to Sri Lanka. The most smuggled narcotic drugs in this illegal trade have been opium and heroin. Afghanistan is the largest opium producer in the world. Hence, any increase in the demand for the narcotic outside the country entails a favourable linkage for land utilisation and farmer occupation in the country. Therefore, it has become a difficult task to eradicate the supply source there.

As long as there is supply in Afghanistan and demand for them in Sri Lanka, the illegal trade cannot be halted. Despite numerous eradications moves, the opium production in Afghanistan has increased during 2008 to 2018 from 2,000 tons in 2008 to nearly 8,000 tons in 2018. At the same time, the drug seizure cases in Sri Lanka have increased by threefold from 30,000 in 2008 to 90,000 in 2019. This shows the gravity of the problem. According to the authors, a mixture of cooperation and effective law enforcement is the way out for eradicating this social menace.

The culture-commerce-connectivity

W. Lawrence S. Prabhakar in his paper has looked at culture-commerce-connectivity in the competing pivots in the Asia Pacific Region. All powers – both Western and Eastern – have eyed this region as an enormous economic source. Hence, the island nations in the region must learn how to remain neutral in their dealings with those powers. Any leaning toward either side would be both economically and politically disastrous. “The great power dynamic in terms of strategic access in the Indo-Pacific is ramping up the interplay of the dynamics of culture-commerce, and connectivity. This equation provides to the competing powers the ability to build great power pivots in the region. Each great power – be in the region or the extra-regional power – flaunts its cultural icon as a strategic symbol that embellishes its presence and augments the build-up of presence, posture and the pivoting,” says Prabhakar.

He has concluded that these powers have used culture as a soft power instrument to penetrate the region. While the declared motivation for cultural intervention has been to develop connectivity, the real motive has been to enhance their influence in the region. The island nations in the Indo-Pacific Region should be mindful of this motive and decide on their strategies accordingly.

In summary, Defence Review 2020 has enriched the readers’ knowledge on current issues faced by nations in the Indo-Pacific Region. It is a good read for students as well as practising professionals.

*The writer, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at waw1949@gmail.com

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  • 4

    “Gunaratne says that they demand ‘a continuously updated, meticulously evolved, integrated and synergetic approach incorporating all elements of national power along with the people of the country’ to ensure national security. It calls for the establishment of a hybrid apparatus to tackle the problem, “
    Is Gunaratne actually capable of writing such intellectual stuff? Which 3rd year undergrad’s work did he co-opt? It sounds suspiciously like his good friend Chandraprema’s writing.
    Totally meaningless in any case. What is a “hybrid apparatus” ? Something that has Lithium batteries in it? Like the much-touted Tsunami warning system , which now apparently consists of a fisherman sitting on stall pole with a whistle?
    Dr. WAW, surely you have better things to do with your time?

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