Special Report – Part 3
Illicit Firearms Chipping Away At The State
EVOLUTION OF THE PROBLEM
The proliferation of illicit arms in Sri Lanka worsened due to the over-militarisation of the state following three armed conflicts, two in the South and a protracted one in the North and the East. The country witnessed the first post-Independence bloodbath in 1971, when the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) took up arms against the state in what turned out to be an abortive revolt. It had a ceremonial army at that time. Needless to say the police were not prepared for a rebellion. The insurgents themselves were poorly armed.
The JVP were dependent mainly on shotguns, locally produced firearms, crude bombs including Molotov Cocktails. What made their initial success possible was their ability to launch a series of surprise raids, which wrong-footed the police well and truly. The state struck back before long, with might and main, unleashing as it did violence disproportionate to the threat and crushed the rebellion. The culture of violence took roots in an otherwise peaceful polity, but did not give a boost to the proliferation of weapons, as such. The police and the security forces received better weapons and training and became combat ready for the first time in the post-Independence era.
The LTTE’s armed struggle began with an incident where its leader Velupillai Prabhakaran used a pistol to assassinate Jaffna Mayor Alfred Duraiappah, in 1975. Within eight years of that incident, the LTTE had acquired sophisticated weapons and explosives to take on the armed forces. In 1983, it ambushed an army patrol and killed 13 soldiers, triggering anti-Tamil riots in Colombo and other parts of the country. These incidents gave the LTTE’s violence campaign a tremendous boost and plunged the country into a long-drawn-out bloody war. Initially, all the weapons and explosive for the LTTE came in fishing craft from India, which created, trained and armed Tamil militant groups.
A New Delhi-based think tank, The Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), has pointed out that that war between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan armed forces aggravated the small arms predicament of Sri Lanka as never before. “The proliferation began in 1987 and soon, the LTTE managed to weave an international network to procure SALW [Small Arms and Light Weapons] through its sympathisers in the Diaspora. The LTTE also added to its arsenal by seizing stockpiles from the Sri Lankan Army. It has been estimated that as much as 80 percent of the LTTE’s arsenal was captured from the Sri Lankan forces.
“The LTTE initially used to smuggle SALW from the Thai-Cambodian border and other sources in Southeast Asia. By the mid-1980s, it had diversified its arms acquisition so as to exploit all possible sources and routes. Its agents began networking with arms dealers in Southeast Asia. They used many small ports and jetties in Myanmar for the trans-shipment of weapons. Chinese Type-56s, US M-16s, Light Machine Guns (LMGs), Medium Machine Guns (MMGs), Singapore-made assault rifles and 2.5-inch mortars dominated the LTTE’s munitions stores. It soon established linkages with groups inimical to Indian security and became a leading contributor to small arms proliferation in India.
“[The] LTTE operations in Myanmar received increased attention, once their support network in Tamil Nadu dried up. The LTTE was reported to have established a permanent naval base in Twante, an island off Myanmar, while Phuket in Thailand became a crucial exit point and a source for Chinese small arms.”
The LTTE also received huge stocks of weapons and ammunition from the Ranasinghe Premadasa government while it was fighting against the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in the North and the East in the late 1980s. It also received large stocks of cement, steel and other such building materials and money from the Premadasa government. Besides, the LTTE used to take delivery of shiploads of weapons on its own.
SOURCES OF ILLICIT ARMS
There are various ways in which firearms find their way into the wrong hands in a country like Sri Lanka. Among them are the following:
- Arms sales by rebel groups and ex-combatants:
The National Commission against Proliferation of Illicit Small Arms (NCAPISA) survey report informs us that an underworld leader, interviewed in the Welikada Prison, revealed that his gang had links to the LTTE. The report also reveals that in mid-2006, a person with LTTE contacts was arrested with eight or nine assault rifles intended for sale to organised criminals. There are many such instances which prove that criminals acquired their sophisticated weapons from elements with links to the Tigers.
- Military deserters:
Most of the underworld kingpins or hit men working for them are military deserters, many of whom pose a threat to society. NCAPISA survey report quotes a serving DIG at that, as having said that ‘faced with the deteriorating security situation in the late 1990s, the government increased the number of its military and police personnel. Some of the recruits deserted with their weapons, which were passed on to civilians and criminals for profit’.
The LTTE was the main smuggler of weapons. It took delivery of dozens of arms shipments, as was said previously. But even after the defeat of the LTTE, there have been instances of arms smuggling albeit on a small scale. Some small arms such as micro pistols have been detected in containers. Given the sheer number of weapons available in the country, especially in the North and the East, perhaps, there is no need for arms smuggling unless, of course, criminals need latest weapons like the sniper guns underworld figure Madush was trying to acquire. The country is already awash with weapons of all kinds and tens of thousands more are believed to be buried in the former conflict zone.
- Rogue elements in the police and the armed forces:
An underworld figure serving a prison term, interviewed by NCAPISA, revealed that some military personnel returning home on holiday were the main source of weapons for his gang. (See the section on the Kuliyapitiya Police Station below.)
- Local arms manufacturers
Local gun producers who are mainly black smiths are still in business in rural areas, where trap guns, T-katas and galkatas are in demand. But they account for only a fraction of the illicit weapons in circulation. Low prices of the improvised guns have also contributed to the drop in the local production of firearms which get into the hands of criminals, who have access to sophisticated arms.
- Buried LTTE arms stockpiles
A senior police officer, who spoke to Counterpoint, on condition of anonymity, said that some of the weapons, which the LTTE had buried while retreating, in the Eastern Province, had been transported to Colombo. The modus operandi of the arms traders had been to conceal the weapons inside the bellies of big fish transported to Colombo. Another police sources said an underworld group, operating in the Maligawatte area, was believed to possess as many as 200 T-56 assault rifles.
On March 22, 2019, the Colombo Crime Division (CCD) produced, before the Colombo Chief Magistrate Lanka Jayaratne, 12 suspects arrested for supplying weapons retrieved from buried LTTE arms caches in Kilinochchi to criminal gangs elsewhere. The judge allowed the CCD to detain and interrogate the suspects including a resident of Kilinochchi. They are to be produced before the Magistrate again on April 26. It was revealed that a claymore mine and a stock of micro pistols used by the LTTE had been sold to criminals. The arrests were made following a complaint that there was a threat to the life of a prominent Tamil politician.
- Politicians and vigilantes
That the Sri Lankans government helped and created armed groups or vigilantes to combat the LTTE and the JVP is only too well known. Besides, weapons and grenades were issued to political parties to defend themselves against the JVP hit squads, in the late 1980s.
Chris Smith (in his report on Small Arms Survey in 2003) has estimated the number of weapons, so distributed, to be 11,000. Police officers, interviewed by Counterpoint, said they believed the number could be much higher and there were no proper records of the weapons so issued. Many of those arms were not returned.
The National Commission against the Proliferation of Illicit Small Arms (NCAPISA) quotes a senior police officer, attached to the Police Central Armoury, Colombo, as having said in 2006 that about 80% of those weapons were returned. Even if this claim is true, the fact remains that more than 2,200 lethal weapons have not been returned if one goes by Smith’s figure of 11,000.
Among the arms issued to those threatened by the JVP were automatic and semi-automatic rifles. Years after the defeat of the JVP, a cache of weapons was found behind a false wall in a political party office in Punchi Borella, Colombo.
The sergeant who sold a stock of captured guns
Kuliyapitiya was one of the hotbeds of JVP violence. The police, the armed forces and vigilantes carried out a spate of anti-terror operations which left streets strewn with corpses in the area. These bloody crackdowns also yielded stocks of weapons the JVP had acquired and among them were assault rifles, repeater guns, shotguns, pistols and revolvers.
The weapons captured from the JVP were stored at the Kuliyapitiya Police Station. Given the situation in the country, nobody cared to go to the trouble of inventorizing the arms taken into custody.
Close on the heels of the bloody end of the JVP’s second insurrection, a sergeant named Miskin served at the Kuliyapitiya Police Station. While on duty in the town, he happened to nab a criminal known as Kaluwa over a traffic offence. The latter managed to escape by making various promises to the former, who was in dire financial straits. They became friends before long. On hearing that there was a stock of captured weapons, Kaluwa persuaded the Sergeant to part with one of them for Rs. 15,000. Thus, began the sale of weapons in police custody.
Within the first few months, Miskin sold about 15 weapons to the underworld and those who received them through Kaluwa were notorious criminal bosses such as Kalu Ajith, Chinthana Amarasinghe and Dammika Amarsinghe.
Miskin had no qualms about disposing of weapons in that manner because several of his superiors had also obtained some guns from him for the use of their friends and relatives, as he later divulged to the investigators who took him into custody.
Deputy Inspector General of Police Priyantha Jayakody, in charge of the Crimes Division at the Peliyagoda Police, as an IP, at that time, got wind of the illegal arms sales.
IP Jayakody received information that a businessman in Ratamalana was dealing in weapons and most of the criminal gangs obtained their arms from him. The police did not know that Kaluwa was his main supplier and the weapons came from the Kuliyapitiya police station.
The arms dealer was arrested in Ratmalana, but much to the disappointment of the investigators, they came under pressure from their superiors to release him.
IP Jayakody would not give up. He planned another raid in secret. The arms dealer was arrested in a pre-dawn raid and interrogated. He could not contact his friends in the police and had to divulge information.
Acting on information elicited from him, the police arrested Kaluwa and Miskin. They then made a public announcement, requesting those who had obtained arms from Miskin and Kaluwa to hand them over. They offered an amnesty. A large number of weapons were returned by civilians in Kuliyapitya. Criminals did not respond to the call.
How many weapons Miskin supplied to the underworld is not known because there are no records.
How to tackle the problem
The proliferation of illicit firearms is seemingly intractable in that it has apparently reached the saturation point with criminals having easy access to sophisticated weapons, some of which are retrieved from the LTTE’s underground arms caches. Police investigators who spoke to Counterpoint are of the opinion that better intelligence gathering and more raids are necessary to seize the weapons which are already in the wrong hands.
The NCAPSIA made a host of recommendations which if carried out will help tackle the problem to a considerable extent.
On the basis of the survey the following recommendations have been developed for the various stakeholders engaged in control of small arms and reduction of armed violence in Sri Lanka. These recommendations should be addressed as part of a co-ordinated approach to tackling the effects of small arms on human security. This will entail ensuring that work to implement them is linked into and consistent with a range of other relevant activities, including ongoing police service and wider security sector development. This co-ordinated approach is important at all levels and with all actors – from national policy making through to operational planning.
- Lead on the development of a National Small Arms Policy and National Small Arms Action Plan
- Draft a document to establish NCAPISA under an Act of Parliament, and invest in NCAPISA the function of co-ordinating the National Small Arms Policy and National Small Arms Action Plan
- Examine the feasibility and composition of an independent investigations authority to review all firearms-related incidents and make recommendations to prevent such incidents in the future
- Investigate the role of NCAPISA in co-ordinating the system of control, the chain of evidence and exchange of information between different stakeholders and actors under the National Small Arms Action Plan
- Develop a media strategy and profile to promote the national small arms policy and conduct training for media on national small arms policy, international small arms instruments, and the use and abuse of small arms in Sri Lanka. The media strategy should also seek to ensure the dissemination of reliable official information on small arms and light weapons.
Executive and Parliament
- Create a parliamentary caucus on small arms control and the national small arms policy, overseeing the implementation work and activities of the National Commission
- Raise awareness amongst MPs on the impact and effect of small arms through promoting the national survey within parliament
- Develop a leaders’ code of conduct on the use of small arms
- Establish the National Commission under an act of parliament
- Approve the National Small Arms Policy and National Small Arms Action Plan in Parliament and provide oversight over the implementation of the policy
- Debate and enact the reviewed firearms legislation in parliament
- Review the policy of issuing firearms to politicians and VIPs and place the issue of such firearms under the licensing system
Ministry of Defence, Public Security, Law and Order (MODPSLO)
- Review and strengthen the licensing system and develop a computerised central database for keeping records of civilian and state stocks
- Prepare an instruction manual and checklist for licensing officials, police and legal practitioners
- Conduct training and capacity-building of licensing officers
- Conduct awareness raising for public and government officials on the licensing system
- Prepare a handbook for firearms users on the Firearms Ordinance and licensing procedures
- Train licence holders/users, including with user-competency training and testing
- Develop a monitoring system for licence holders and permit holders
- Review and strengthen the system for issuing firearms to politicians and VIPs and ensure both that all such weapons issued are licensed and that there is full record-keeping on all such weapons issued
- Investigate and strengthen controls over weapons movements from the North and East
- Lead on the annual verification and inspection of state and commercial stocks and ammunitions
- Collect illegal, obsolete and surplus weapons and ammunition for destruction
- Assess the feasibility of establishing an assistance fund for firearms victims
- Examine the feasibility of establishing a coast guard to better control the smuggling of weapons and ammunition and enhance the capacity of the Customs Department
- Review the issuing of ammunition by CEFAP to commercial dealers for sale to licence holders
- Subject current practices adopted to manage the movement of personnel, weapons, ammunition and equipment from operational areas to constant review and strengthening (including the scrutiny of personnel going on leave)
- Improve checks on deserters, especially as to whether they have deserted with service or other weapons and ammunition
- Review and strengthen the mechanism for collecting, recording and bringing under control weapons, ammunition and ordnance captured on the battlefield in line with international best practice, norms and standards (applicable to police and homeguards in addition to security forces)
- Raise awareness and conduct training for security forces on the consequences of the proliferation of illicit firearms
- Review stockpile management and accountability mechanisms for all security force stocks, in line with international best practice, norms and standards
- Review existing procedures for the issuing and accountability of ammunition and strengthen them where necessary
- Review the marking of state stocks in line with the International Instrument on Marking and Tracing
- Ensure that all seized, surplus, obsolete and unserviceable weapons, components and ammunition are documented and regularly destroyed in line with international best practice
- Increase the availability of manpower, equipment and technology for police investigations and retain expertise for crime fighting and investigation once it is developed
- Review and strengthen the methods and mechanisms for investigating firearms incidents involving police officers
- Institute refresher training for police officers in investigating firearms related incidents and post-incident investigation processes. This should include training on firearms identification, sources of firearms, methods of concealing firearms, illegal manufacturing and so forth
- Review and strengthen police record-keeping on crimes involving small arms, in terms of information on perpetrators, victims, firearms and ammunition involved and introduce an information management system that enables the generation of statistics and other information on firearms-related crime (including by classifying all firearms-related crimes as a distinct category within grave crimes). Records of firearms used in crime should in future make clear whether the weapon used was licensed or unlicensed.
- Institute refresher training for police officers on the Firearms Ordinance, regulations, and weapons handling, identification and record-keeping
- Upgrade storage facilities and weapons management systems at police station level
- Strengthen relations between the police and the public and conduct public awareness programmes in this regard
- Develop a co-ordination mechanism between the MODPSLO, police and District Secretariats, including on licensing and firearms misuse
- Review and refresh police training on the use of firearms, rules of engagement and proportionate use of force
- Develop an awareness programme for citizens on how to react if exposed to gunfire
- Create intra-department mechanisms to investigate complaints of excessive use of force
- Develop an island-wide programme to tackle illicit manufacturing and possession of small arms with the assistance of NCAPISA. In line with public perceptions, this should tackle illicit possession and misuse among underworld criminals, politicians and their supporters, businessmen, army deserters, PSCs, farmers, homeguards and hunters, as well as focusing on youth
- Examine the proliferation of military-type weapons and trace their origins (local and international) in co-operation with the security forces, the Government Analyst and other relevant agencies
- Explore the development of a system for dealing with informants which ensures the protection of informants
- Investigate the allegation that a large number of private security companies are operating illegally, and ensure that all such companies are licensed and operating within the law
Civil Security Department
- Centralise the storage, control and accountability of all weapons held by the Civil Security Department and issued to the homeguards
- Review and strengthen controls over the issuing of firearms and ammunition to the homeguards for duties on a daily basis, and particularly reinforce accounting in relation to spent ammunition
- Review and strengthen the curriculum and training that homeguards receive in weapons management, rules of engagement and the proportionate use of force, in line with international norms and standards
- Re-examine the issuing of shotguns to homeguards during the 1980s and bring the remaining weapons back under the control regime
- Develop a handbook for homeguards with a code of conduct, rules of engagement, guidelines governing their duties, and penalties for misuse
- Review and strengthen the supervision of homeguards’ employment and deployment
Ministry of Justice/Attorney General’s Department
- Identify bottlenecks and obstacles to improve efficiency in the disposal of firearms-related cases and prioritise these cases within the system as necessary
- Make the effort to collect financial compensation for victims from the perpetrators of firearms crimes, via the court system
- Move for the cancellation of firearms licences in cases where a licensed firearm has been misused
- Finalise the review of firearms legislation, ensuring that penalties for firearms offences offer sufficient deterrent (for example by increasing the lenient penalties for visitors illegally importing weapons)
- Raise awareness of the new firearms legislation among law enforcement officials, licensing officials, firearms owners and the public
- Improve co-ordination between the courts and the licensing authority
- Improve record-keeping within the court record system of the details of the specific weapon in line with the Instrument to Enable States to Identify and Trace, in a Timely and Reliable Manner, Illicit Small Arms and Light Weapons (A/60/88), adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 8 December 2005.
- Ensure the collection and destruction of all surplus and obsolete weapons within the prison system
- Review the storage facilities for weapons held by prisons and strengthen these in line with international best practices, norms and standards
- Review and strengthen controls on the movement of goods into prisons, to ensure that illicit firearms do not enter prison premises
- Review the capacity of the prisons department to transport and protect the transportation of high-risk prisoners
- Examine overcrowding and the capacity within the prisons department to separate those convicted of grave crimes and those convicted of minor crimes, in order to minimise the transfer of knowledge relating to the mechanics of small arms crimes and foster effective rehabilitation of offenders
- Pursue programmes for rehabilitation of offenders through training and education, in preparation for their re-entry as productive citizens in society
- Review and strengthen the training of Government Analyst personnel to ensure their effective and efficient processing of new firearms cases and to clear the backlog of cases
- Strengthen the short-term capacity of the Government Analyst through the provision of temporary human resources
- Examine the possibility of decentralising the Government Analyst to district-level
- Review and strengthen the technical capacity and resources available to the Government Analyst
- Enhance the safe storage of firearms deposited with the Government Analyst and awaiting examination and report
- Reduce stockpiles within the Government Analyst to a minimum to ensure that these are not a security risk, and that they do not deteriorate during storage
- Review and improve the transportation of evidence from Police stations to the Government Analyst
Ministry of Foreign Affairs
- Continue to play a strong and active role on behalf of the Sri Lankan Government in strengthening international and regional instruments to control small arms, including the United Nations Programme of Action and the Arms Trade Treaty
- Promote and strengthen the co-operation between the National Commission and similar bodies elsewhere
- Promote co-operation and information sharing between law enforcement and customs bodies internationally and regionally
- Promote Sri Lanka’s good practice internationally and regionally
- Promote good relations between the National Commission and international organisations, including the UN
- Improve and centralise record-keeping on victims of firearms-related incidents
- Record the costs involved in treating firearms injuries and victims to determine the cost of these injuries to the health system
- Review and strengthen the rehabilitation and counselling procedures for victims of firearms cases
- Consider expanding the WHO-compliant system for classification of diseases to document firearms cases, by adopting the international classification of external causes of injury through the Statistics Division within the Ministry of Health
- Examine the establishment of a system for collating information on firearms injuries from forensic doctors or JMOs
- Improve the investigative capacity of JMOs through the provision of equipment and resources
- Conduct training and capacity building of customs officials to increase efficiency in detecting small arms smuggling
- Review the resources and equipment available to the customs department to detect smuggling of arms
- Improve intelligence gathering for customs purposes
- Improve co-operation and information exchange between customs and other law enforcement agencies
- Together with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, agree a customs co-operation agreement to tackle arms smuggling with key source/transit countries
- Improve customs capacity to patrol the coastline, in co-operation with the Navy and coastguard
Departments of Forestry, Agriculture and Wildlife
- Co-operate to improve stockpile management under the auspices of the MODPSLO
- Train officers holding small arms in their management, use and responsibilities under the law
- Explore alternatives to the use of trap guns, raise awareness of the negative impact of trap guns and help police to detect and prosecute trap gun misuse
- Co-operate with further research on the impact and cost of trap guns
- Co-operate with police to detect and prosecute poaching with small arms
- Train officers in detecting and avoiding trap guns, and responding to cases of trap gun injury
Ministry of Education
- Explore the introduction of non-violence education and awareness-raising on the negative impacts of small arms into curricula and educational activities within schools, universities and among the general public, drawing on best practice and lessons learned elsewhere
- Communicate National Small Arms Policy to the public
- Raise awareness about the adverse impact and the risks of small arms
- Improve the quality of media reporting on small arms, including by participating in training on small arms policies and issues in Sri Lanka
- Develop a media code of conduct which includes measures to prevent the glamorisation of violence and the promotion of gun culture
- Publicise the negative effects of trap guns
- Explore ways in which the media can enhance community relations with the police and promote positive examples of community-based policing
- Produce public service announcements on small arms through the electronic media
- Further promote violence-free elections and emphasise that there is no place for arms in the democratic process
- Publicise initiatives to reduce and prevent arms proliferation, such as weapons collection and destruction
- Promote widespread grassroots awareness-raising on the negative impact of illicit small arms and constructive approaches to tackling the problem
- Increase co-operation and co-ordination between civil society, NCAPISA and the government to work together to address the problem
- Raise issues of public concern in government policy-making processes, and communicate the concerns of the general public to the National Commission, the media, the Government and other relevant actors
- Together with Parliament, ensure sufficient oversight for the National Small Arms Policy
- Participate in training for civil society to monitor weapons destructions
- Research and promote community-based approaches to reduce the impact of small arms
- Develop good lines of communication between the commission, civil society and communities to increase the exchange of information on small arms issues (including the establishment of a hotline for the public to report small arms related problems)
- Increase public co-operation with law enforcement authorities in the detection of illicit firearms possession and use
- Research the problem of trap guns and explore alternatives to trap gun use in crop protection
- Conduct a public awareness campaign on the dangers and negative effects of trap gun use
- Further research the psychological impact of small arms on society
Unfortunately, the recommendations made by the NCAPISA have not been implemented. Another national survey on illicit arms should have been conducted after the conclusion of the war, in all parts of the country, including the former war zone, which has since been opened up.
The NCAPISA survey report is a treasure trove of information about the scourge of illegal weapons, but the data need to be updated for effective action to be taken to tackle the menace, at present. It is incumbent upon political leaders and Defence authorities to stop groping in the dark and swing into action. They ought to study the NCAPISA report afresh, commission another survey and formulate a national plan to rid the country of the illegal firearms which are mostly in the hands of criminals. Ad hoc measures are doomed to fail vis-à-vis the well organized criminal gangs.