Last Monday`s LTTE air strike on the Katunayake airbase is already a fading memory in the public mind. As Sunil Perera of the Gypsies famously sings, Lankawa ehema thamai, I don`t know why! Hopefully, this is not the case where it matters most in the defence establishment. Predictably, the LTTE sought to get the maximum publicity mileage for their first airborne attack on a military facility and, judging by a Thamilchelvan interview posted on TamilNet on Friday, that is a continuing effort. Obviously the Tigers are feeling the heat of the air attacks supporting the thrust of ground troops in the eastern theatre where they have been taking a beating for the past several weeks. In this context, they are doing their best to tell the world that if Tamil civilians are targeted ? they are not but in this as in any other war, civilians are a most vulnerable segment ? they will return the compliment and they now have the wherewithal to do so.
As Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama pointed out at a meeting with the Foreign Correspondents Association soon after what was admittedly an LTTE success, the fact that the Tigers had an air capability was very well known. The late Mr. Lakshman Kadirgamar had brought this to the notice of the world in a letter he wrote in March 2005 to the US, UK, the Co-Chairs, India, Pakistan and other players in the now defunct peace process about the inherent dangers of this development. Long before that letter was written, even the man in the street knew that the Tigers had developed an airstrip in Iranamadu and this had been repeatedly bombed. A previous head of the SLMM went on public record saying he had observed this facility from the air and repeated requests that monitors be permitted to inspect the area had been rebuffed.
Sri Lanka is naturally focussing on the regional and wider implications of Tiger `air power,` such as it is. As Bogollagama put it, while the country awaits a response from the wider world, `we will not stop doing what is necessary.` That could be interpreted to mean among other things that air defences will be beefed up and that will obviously come at a cost. There have been reports that the existing radar system was foisted on us by India as New Delhi was not keen on Sri Lanka acquiring a state-of-the-art Chinese system the authorities here were then looking at. This, ostensibly, was out of a perception of security implications for airfields in South India. While India bears a heavy responsibility for its role in making the LTTE monster what it is today, Indian assistance in recent years in many areas where it matters cannot be forgotten. We say this in the context of India bashing being fashionable not only in the lunatic fringe but also elsewhere, with the consciousness that such assistance has been forthcoming regardless of what diplomats call `sub-regional sentiment` in Tamil Nadu which is a factor deeply influencing coalition politics in India. There is good reason to believe that this will continue to be so in the future too.
The fallout of what the LTTE did last Monday is manifold. There are obvious implications for tourism given that the Katunayake airbase is adjacent to the Colombo International Airport. Our spin doctors have tried to make out that the air force base and the international airport are two completely different entities and great play has been made of the undoubted fact that nothing happened at the airport and nobody was hurt there. But the fact remains that foreign embassies accredited to Colombo, airlines flying here and all others concerned will make their own risk assessments and will not accept papering-over statements made by vested interests as gospel. While parallel investigations by the air force and the CID continue, there has been a tendency for uncomfortable revelations unearthed thus far to be kept under wraps. We don`t fault the authorities for that. They cannot be expected to offer damaging information on weaknesses that have surfaced to the enemy on a platter; but there is the reality that investigations outside the glare of publicity affords the opportunity for those who may have been found culpable to wriggle out of uncomfortable situations.
Let us not forget that the Katunayake air force base has been previously targeted not only by the LTTE but also by the JVP. The LTTE hit not only the airbase but the airport as well some years ago causing considerable damage. As far back as 1971 when the first JVP insurgency hit this country, fears of disloyal elements within the SLAF saw arrangements to get Indian troops to secure the base in the guise of protecting their helicopters etc. provided to combat the threat. The then air force commander testified to this effect at the Criminal Justice Commission that investigated those events. We do not suggest in any way that here is reason to suspect the loyalty of the SLAF or any of the security forces although there are bad eggs everywhere and most so in the police. The recent discovery that an army major allegedly sold information to the Tigers triggered shock waves. If in fact the radar defence of the airbase was, as reported by some media, under repair on Monday and the LTTE with that information under its belt picked that particular day for its maiden air strike, there is ground for serious concern. Our defence correspondent has elsewhere in this issue raised some matters deserving urgent attention. We trust that the necessary corrective action will be taken sooner than later.
The question whether the international airport and the airbase should co-exist cheek-by-jowl has been raised many times previously. It has been urged that The Katunayake facility be phased out. Ratmalana is already available to the SLAF and there is good reason to consider upgrading Anuradhapura which is closer to the operational areas. Many considerations, including logistics and cost, must be carefully weighed before a final decision is taken. Keeping this matters forever on the backburner will not serve the national interest.