The curious case of Sri Lanka’s encounter with pirates: the knowns and the unknowns

East Indiaman Kent battling Confiance, a privateer vessel commanded by French corsair Robert Surcouf in October 1800, as depicted in a painting by Ambroise Louis Garneray.

He would not fly the Rovers’ flag — the bloody or the black,
But now he floated the Gridiron and now he flaunted the Jack.
He spoke of the Law as he crimped my crew — he swore it was only a loan;
But when I would ask for my own again, he swore it was none of my own.
– Rudyard Kipling

Sri Lanka’s encounter with pirates was an interesting incident when the Aris 13 Oil Tanker was hijacked in March 2017 that had 8 Sri Lankan crew members onboard. Interestingly, the Sri Lankans were released without ransom. There is more myth and imagination than facts on the case riddled with controversy. This topic is a pressing issue in national security with high profile defense personnel being implicated in alleged crimes in pending court cases.

In Sri Lanka, the [i]Rakna Arakshaka Lanka (RALL) and the Avant Guard Maritime Security Services (AGMSS) through a joint venture supported by Ministry of Defense and Urban Development provided guards for security duties onboard sea vessels from mid-2012. The services controversially came to a halt during the regime change in 2015 after media exposure of an allegedly illegal floating armory. The alleged offence was entering Sri Lanka’s territorial waters without permission from the Secretary of Defense. Sri Lankan laws prohibit arms from entering the territorial waters.

The Avant Garde Maritime Security Services and Rakna Arakshaka Lanka Ltd through a joint venture had provided international maritime security services. The Ministry of Defense and Urban Development had issued a circular by mid-2013 that RALL is to be “the only organization authorized to deploy or hire Sea Marshals for the requirements of all Private Military and Security Companies” This created a business monopoly and also a niche industry which is arguably easier to regulate; except there is no strong regulatory mechanisms for regulating private maritime security services in the country.

The weapons owned by the Sri Lankan government were also available for [ii]hire through the Avant guard Services which led to tensions in the Sri Lankan security sector. The controversy sparked when unregistered weapons were found on the floating armory ‘MV Mahanuwara’. It was reported the floating armory carried illegal arms. [iii]“Police found 3,154 automatic and semi-automatic weapons along with 747,859 rounds of ammunition on board.”

A similar floating armory incident created much debate and controversy in India. In October 2013 the ‘seaman guard Ohio’ a Sierra Leone flagged ship chartered by [iv]Advanfort 5 private security company from Washington was intercepted off the coast of Indian territorial waters with illegal weapons. The High Risk Areas located off the coast of Somalia (after 2011 pirate attacks) has no exact delimitations, and India is particularly vigilant of its coast since 2008 terror attacks on Mumbai. (Perpetrators had used the sea as their point of entry to the country)

The main problem with floating armories is that no official register exists which makes monitoring, counting and regulating such vessels difficult. Violence at sea increased the demand for private security firms. This controversially results in illegal weapons entering the black-market. The lack of a proper legal mechanism to regulate the private maritime security industry and use of floating armories have raised delicate legal issues in the maritime security domain.

Most of the employees in the joint venture were ex-servicemen and women while the company had also engaged in providing substantial contributions to social development with the proceeds channeled towards the [v]Api Wenuwen Api’ fund. This in the eyes of an ordinary lay person is a generous gesture for the military for their services to the country. This venture also addressed several issues on ‘right-sizing’ the Sri Lanka’s military forces. A substantial portion of ex-servicemen were employed. After the liquidation of RALL, a serious issue of unemployment was not effectively addressed by the present government. This is a sad and also dangerous predicament in the event disgruntled, and also militarily trained men and women could turn [vi]hostile towards the present regime.

After the controversy of the floating armory, RALL was taken over by the government, to run as a public private partnership under the ministry of defense. This is the only company which can employ retired sea marshals who have received maritime combat training and engage in anti-piracy operations operating for profit. Military owned businesses in Sri Lanka have created delicate legal issues and remain a contentious area of national security. There is little available public information on the operation of these businesses; which is ill-advisable as the public has a vested right to information on profits, losses, operations and the current status of the Api Wenuwen Api fund etc.

Sri Lanka’s navy and coastguard has limited interdiction capacity and it’s costly for state forces to provide security for vessels. The time has come for transparency on the RALL-Avant Guard issue and for exploring policy alternatives. Could Sri Lanka pioneer a government owned model of anti-piracy operations, composed of ex-servicemen, and reserve forces for profit? This is in a transparent manner, whereby the operation runs at breakeven cost or channeling excess income to charitable funds. The Private Maritime Security Service is a lucrative industry and can RALL re-emerge as a functioning business after being [vii]globally shamed?

Irrespective of these contentious and scandalous issues, Sri Lanka as an island nation has immense potential to revive its glory as a ‘protector of the seas’. Global Risk Insights reports [viii]“Sri Lanka is set to become a destination of choice among businesses looking to tap opportunities in pan-Indian Ocean trade due to its strategic location”. Sri Lanka is strategically located in the Indian Ocean and is also a member of the Indian Ocean Rim Association. Thereby, the nation could help steer a rules based regime for maritime security via multilateral institutions.

Sri Lanka’s navy is the first line of defense pivotal to prevent illicit activities in the exclusive economic zone and the high seas. The Sri Lanka coastguard and Sri Lanka’s Port’s Authority are also vital actors. Sri Lanka has experience engaging in multiple [ix]naval exercises, and was also appointed as IORA’s [x]Lead Coordinator for working group on Maritime Safety and Security. What is needed is a strong body of domestic laws for the regulation of Private Security Industry and governmental partnerships retaining state control on proliferation of arms into Private Military Companies. Sri Lanka may also continue its multilateral engagements for increased cooperation and promote a rules based security regime for the Indian Ocean Region.

End Notes

[i] “Rakna Arakshaka Lanka Ltd V Avant Garde Maritime Services”. 2019. Ashurst.Com. Accessed February 9.

Handunetti, Dilrukshi. 2015. “Sri Lanka: Avant Garde Sordid Saga & The National Security – Sri Lanka Guardian”. Slguardian.Org.

[ii] “Weapon Hiring | Avant Garde Maritime Services”. 2019. Avantmaritime.Com.

[iii] Thomas, Kris. 2015. “The Avant Garde Fiasco: A Timeline Of Events”. Roar.Media.

[iv] “Cruisin‟ With Guns”. 2016. The Economist.

[v] The Api Wenuwen Api Fund is a collaboration between the The Ministry of Defense and the Central Bank of Sri Lanka to build 50,000 houses for the serving Tri-Service personnel. This is in gratitude to the service provided by war heroes of the country which military defeated the LTTE terrorist organization.

[vi] It was reported a large number of ex-servicemen were present outside the court on the day of the hearing in support of former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa who is also aspiring for presidential candidacy in 2020 elections.

[vii] Former Secretary Defence and Chairman of Avant Guard along with other notable names are featured in the Panama Papers.

[viii] Scherpf, Alexander. 2015. “Sri Lanka: The Next Hub For Indian Ocean Trade? – GRI Insight”. Global Risk Insights.

[ix] Annual Indo – Sri Lanka Defence Dialogue reviews a range of Defence Cooperation between the two neighbouring countries (Ministry of Defence, 2018), Mitra Shakthi joint military exercise (Sri Lanka Army 2017), SLINEX naval exercise focuses on fleet work, seamanship, communication, replenishment at sea, Visit Board Search and Seize (VBSS) operations and helicopter operations. Joint naval operations enable both Indian and Sri Lankan Navies to rehearse and improve own capabilities and enhance operational effectiveness required to maintain maritime security in the region. (Ministry of Defence, 2017)

[x] Waidyatilleke, Barana. 2017. “Maintaining Momentum: Sri Lanka‟s Strategy In The Indian Ocean Rim Association”. Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations And Strategic Studies.