Politics

Asoka tipped to be new Defence Secretary
by Our Defence Correspondent

Secretary of Defence Cyril Herath is likely to resign in the next few weeks, and a successor appointed to this crucial post, according to Defence Ministry sources.

Although President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga has not yet officially named a successor to Herath, the frontrunner at the present time is retired Major General Asoka Jayawardena, currently Governor of the Northeastern Province, sources said.

Jayawardena was a career army officer who retired in the late nineteen nineties following a very stable record of service. He had been in the running for the post of Chief of Defence Staff, as the names of several former army officers were thrown into the hat while a controversy raged over whether the President would choose to appoint Navy Commander Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri to the post, as pro-Army supporters were critical of having a Navy or Air Force officer to head the three services. However, in the end, after several months’ delay, the President appointed Vice Admiral Sandagiri to the post.

If Maj. Gen. Jayawardena is given the job, he would be the latest of several of Army officers to hold the post, such as Lt. Gen. Cyril Ranatunge.

Maj. Gen. Jayawardena is known to be a close confidante of the President, and he is believed to be one of her principal military advisors, while he has been holding the largely ceremonial job of Governor of the Northeast.

He had succeeded veteran actor Gamini Fonseka as Governor in 1998, following Jayawardena’s retirement from the Army earlier that year.

Maj. Gen. Jayawardena’s service in the Army was largely non-controversial. He served in several key posts, and his retirement was not marred by the usual bickering over extensions of service.

Maj. Gen. Jayawardena had also served as Security Forces Commander in Jaffna.

Herath, a former Inspector General of Police, who was widely respected when he headed the police force in the mid nineteen eighties, was appointed Defence Secretary a little over a year ago, when the President sacked the then Secretary of Defence, after dismissing three Cabinet Ministers of the United National Front government and seizing control of their ministries, including the Defence Ministry.

Although he took the job reluctantly at the time, and made no secret of the fact that he would merely be filling in until a more permanent Secretary was appointed, Herath has drawn much praise from all quarters for the manner in which he has handled his onerous duties.

Although he is not a military man, he has shown exceptional skill, diplomacy and authority in guiding the heads of the armed forces and police, and maintaining control of the armed forces, through a year in which the country went through the Karuna rebellion a crisis that at the time threatened to plunge the nation back into war as the LTTE poured thousands of cadres into the East to attack the Karuna faction, in direct violation of the Ceasefire Accord. The armed forces came through this period without any serious clash with the LTTE.

Herath managed his role even when the critical post of Chief of Defence Staff fell vacant for several months, as the President inexplicably delayed making the appointment after General Lionel Balagalle retired in July.

Herath is likely to go back full-time to his other job as Chairman of the National Savings Bank.

Interestingly, Herath’s performance immediately prior to his appointment as Defence Secretary, as Director of the Directorate of Internal Intelligence from 1998, had been marred by several debacles. These included the devastating LTTE assault on the Katunayake airport in July 2001, which brought the country to its knees. The DII was roundly criticized for failing to detect such an attack, which took place far from the Northeast frontlines by a Black Tiger suicide squad comprising some 16 cadres.

The appointment of a retired Army officer is not likely to make the LTTE happy. Maj. Gen. Jayawardena is only six years out of service, and would be expected to have a much keener grasp of strategic and battlefield realities than Herath.

However, the post of Defence Secretary does not require leadership in the field, but is one in which juggling the administrative demands of the three armed forces is of paramount importance, and one is never certain how any individual will perform, until he takes on the job.

With his appointment, the armed forces would also have a more stable leadership, unlike in the past year, when the uncertainty and massive changes in the posts of Defence Minister, Defence Secretary, and Chief of Defence Staff, caused much concern. Vice Admiral Sandagiri too has shown no problems in his post of CDS, after his much-contested elevation to that post.

 

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