Keeping the Peace
Sri Lanka emerges as a global peacekeeper, Army Chief Lt. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake tells FORUM
FORUM Staff | photos by AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena appointed Mahesh Senanayake as commander in chief of the Armed Forces in June 2017, at which time he was also elevated to the rank of lieutenant general.
Senanayake participated in almost every Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) operation in which Sri Lanka’s security forces engaged, spending 30 years in combat. He was recognized for his gallantry and bravery in the face of the enemy. For his service, he was awarded the Rana Wickrama Padakkama for individual acts of bravery and heroism in battle performed on a serviceperson’s own initiative; the Rana Soora Padakkame several times for individual acts of distinguished conduct in the face of the enemy during a deployment; and the Uththama Seva Padakkma for dedication to duty with at least 15 years of continuous service with perfect disciplinary and service record.
Senanayake graduated from Ananda College in Colombo and enlisted in the Sri Lanka Army in October 1981. After finishing his training, he joined the Corps of Engineers. He also holds a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Jawaharlal Nehru University, India, and is a graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.
Throughout his decorated military career, he has held many command, staff and instructional appointments. He served as regimental center commandant of the Special Forces Regiment, commander of the 211 Infantry Brigade-Vavuniya, commander of the Special Forces Brigade and the general officer commanding the 52 Division in Varani, Jaffna. In addition, he also performed staff appointment duties, including the Office of the Colonel General Staff at 52 Division and the Brigadier General Staff in the Security Force Headquarters at Jaffna during the most critical period of the war. He also served in a leadership role at the Army Command and Staff College at Sapugaskanda.
In 2016, he was appointed commander of Security Forces-Jaffna and made outstanding contributions toward the resettlement of internally displaced people on the peninsula. The community and the government recognized his unparalleled service to the reconciliation process. In March 2017, he was appointed chief of staff of the Sri Lanka Army. He also serves as the colonel of the Regiment of Special Forces.
What do you consider the greatest success of the Sri Lanka Army?
After successfully ending a civil war of 30 years in 2009, we reduced terrorism in our land and have developed new theories, strategies of how to fight terrorism. We are in the ninth year since the cease-fire and have not had a single explosion of war at home.
Why do you think your approach to sustaining the peace has been so successful?
We employed a very comprehensive plan and have worked very hard to integrate the former insurgents into society. We use a combined “5R” concept, which stands for rehabilitation, reconstruction, reintegration, resettlement and reconciliation. So, the Armed Forces being the largest energy behind the strategy is fully engaged in this concept that brought the country to normalcy.
How would you describe Sri Lanka’s role for the future in maintaining security in the Indo-Pacific region?
It’s important for Sri Lanka to remain peaceful for regional security, and it’s important for the region to be peaceful. Economic development and regional peace are mutually complementary. We have established key partnerships with many countries in the region. For example, India and Pakistan are two major partners. We, as a neutral partner, will be the best actor in the region to link the Pacific through Sri Lanka. It is important to maintain a dialogue with these nations and internally. In Sri Lanka, the Office of the Chief of Defense links the Army, Navy and Air Force Navy and Air Force across the tri-services from the planning state itself and coordinates joint exercises whenever we are involved.
Would you tell us more about Sri Lanka’s role in international peacekeeping operations?
Sri Lanka has contributed troops to many U.N. peacekeeping missions over the years to nations such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, Lebanon, Mali, South Sudan, Timor-Leste and Western Sahara. In recent years, we have looked to increase our commitments to such missions. Currently, we are supporting missions in the Central African Republic, Lebanon and South Sudan. We supply a variety of force capabilities such as engineers, observers and staff officers. For example, in South Sudan we are overseeing a Level II hospital.
What changes are ahead for the Sri Lanka Army, given that the civil war has long ended?
We now have 200,000 Soldiers in the Army. We have announced plans for 2020 and 2025, but that does not mean we will be downsizing, although the numbers may shift. It will lead to right-sizing to maintain the integrity of the country that applies to each branch of the Army, artillery engineers. We are using the Army to help rebuild our country. We will also be increasing our contribution toward U.N. peacekeeping.
Will you please share more about the Army’s role in rebuilding the nation post-conflict?
The Army is very much part of Sri Lanka’s engagement with the public. To influence the public, we assist the public to ensure we do not go to war again. In the broader sense, we have divided the Army into three armies. The first is to maintain a combative force that is training for war. The second force is for nation building. We can give back to the country through construction, agriculture and irrigation projects. We are repairing the system and rebuilding the country to give back in terms that each Soldier becomes an expert not in infantry but in industry. The third division is to administer the Army and the sports and lead the nation-building process. The Army has taken part in athletic games for 22 years. Through these three divisions, we expect the Sri Lanka workforce to be led by the Army because they have the discipline and training to make it happen. We hope to develop the capacity of the country in this way.
What do you see as the biggest security challenges Sri Lanka faces?
We are moving from a threat-based army to a capacity-based army. We will maintain our troop strength, training, and keep equipment ready to face any eventuality, internal or external aggression and natural calamities. We are also preparing for unconventional threats such as drug trafficking, human smuggling, cyber warfare; those are the new threats we are going to face. We are also prepared for spillover situations from other nations, being an island nation, an island for transit. We could be used as a launching pad for unconventional threats. There are mainly Muslim countries in the East, quite a number.
Sri Lanka is open. It’s a tourist destination, so anyone could come in and use it for such activities. That’s one reason we are very much into cyber warfare. Under the minister of defense, cyber units are being formed across all three services for joint operation. There will not only be joint operation across the services, but all government agencies are cooperating to arrange those units.
It’s true that we don’t have a problem right now, but those are threats we’re going to face.
What do you think was the take-home message of the sixth annual Land Forces of the Pacific (LANPAC) symposium and exposition held May 22-24, 2018, in Honolulu, Hawaii?
The meeting stressed the importance of combined operations and multilateral operations. Today’s challenges and situations are so complex that no one country can have a solution for that. So, the solutions must be multilateral to take on regional, global issues.
We believe in joint warfare, but with the multilateral approach, there are challenges to that. War is an extension of politics in many regards. The political agendas of different countries can interfere. Without understanding the real peace that their population should enjoy, they result to their own ideology. They may not cooperate the way that we think, especially in terms of sharing intelligence. If intelligence is not shared in a real sense, that is the real challenge any armed forces are going to face. It’s not only the joint training part that is challenging, but it’s a human intelligence problem. It’s an issue of educating populations to understand we are human beings, people who are divided by caste, religion and so forth. They are aware and educated on the importance of regional cooperation to security.
We understand the importance of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command as Sri Lankans — we do understand as a country. We very much look forward to working with the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.
Is there anything else, you’d like to say to FORUM readers?
We believe our neighbors are our friends. We want to ensure our neighbors are friends and are eager to make sure each nation is a friend and has faith that all our neighbors can cooperate. It’s very important to take the time to make sure all armies in the region are friends and that they truly understand the importance of multilateral approach.