Looking Down a Ship’s Cannon: Vice Admiral Travis Sinniah in Q and A

Manjula Fernando, in Sunday Observer, 27 August 2017, where the title is “”I was always the target of the LTTE” …. Note: the highlighting is my imposition and see additional references at the end — Editor, Thuppahi

Speaking about his ascension to become the topmost Naval officer in the country, the son of a Tamil Naval doctor who developed a love for the service as a little boy, he says, “I was destined to be a front line executive officer to go out to sea, and carry out certain missions which would have changed the tide of the war with the LTTE.”

 

MANJULA FERNANDO’s QUESTIONS

Q: There is a popular perception that war heroes are born in a particular genre of schools. Are you the first Trinitian to be appointed to this prestigious post?

As the Navy Commander yes, I am the first. But, it doesn’t mean Trinitians haven’t gone to war. Trititians have fought in World War 1 as well as WW 11. Many Trinitians have served in the security forces but unfortunately, none have lived long enough to rise to the top. There were Trinitians, like Commander Shanti Bahar, Gen. Densil Kobbekaduwa and Lieutenant General Parami Kulatunga who made the ultimate sacrifice for the people of this country. I represent all of them.

Q: Your service was interrupted for several years over an unfortunate incident, do you regret leaving the Navy at that time?

I have regrets over the way I left the Navy, but I have no regrets in what I did, in that interim period. The experience I got during that time is simply invaluable. I worked with the American Defence Forces. That opened up my eyes and broadened my horizons. I have the ability to relate to a system that is outside Sri Lanka and thus it would be a positive thing for the role I am expected to perform today.

Q: You would not be carrying any skeletons in your closet of those unpleasant events that led to your brief departure from the Navy?

I have no reason to carry skeletons in my closet. I believe everything happens with a reason. The war is over, in the post war period we had some issues. But those are bygones, we are now looking to the future.

Q: I heard that your father was a medical practitioner with the Navy and even as a child you were not a stranger to seas off the Trincomalee Naval base. He must have played a role in you starting a naval career?

My father was a doctor. He wanted me to be a doctor. It wasn’t that I wanted to defy him, but I thought I would make a better Naval officer. He had achieved something that I could never do. But, I was destined to be a front line executive officer to go out to sea and carry out certain missions which would have changed the tide of the war with the LTTE.

My father died about two years ago. I hope he could have been here to witness my achievement. I hope he is proud of his son.

Q: Looking back at your career what would you call your single most proudest achievement apart from your appointment as the Chief of Sri Lanka’s Navy?

My most elated moment I would say, was when I completed the mission to destroy the LTTE floating warehouses. Because, I knew that was the end of the LTTE.

That was probably my proudest moment. I knew deep within, it was not an easy task. The chances of our survival, if something went wrong, was practically zero. No one would have claimed that we were out there. Only a very few officers knew of our mission because secrecy was the key to success. There was no one we could have called. We were all by ourselves, thousands of miles away, in the international waters.

HMS Sagara

Q: Yes, you were the commander of the Task Force which went to destroy the LTTE floating armouries. How many men were there with you?

This particular mission, ‘Sāgara Balaya,’ ran over a period of two and a half years. Everyone talks about the 48 hours of the sea battle that destroyed the last three ships of the LTTE. But for two and a half years we were preparing for this mission.

I happened to be the only officer associated with the mission right throughout. The other officers left the mission on routine transfer. Likewise, the commanding officers changed and ships changed. Even the staff at Headquarters who were associated with it changed.

The ‘Sāgara Balaya’ started off as a mission impossible. Leaving the shores of Sri Lanka and fighting thousands of miles away was not an option, at least that was what the commanders at the time thought.

It took us a lot of effort to convince the then Commander and for him to convince the government to approve this mission. I have come to this very same table with one of my friends who is now the Chief of Staff, to explain our plan of operation, but it was thrown away.

When we finally went out to sea and proved it otherwise, that is when everyone got on board and started supporting us. Had we failed, they would have crucified us. The first LTTE ship was destroyed totally on my own. We had no support forces. SLN Sagara was sailing to Trincomalee on a routine mission. Director Navy Operations at that time, who is the present Chief of Staff, rang me on my mobile and said, he had a little information about something that we were discussing, referring to the LTTE ship. He asked me “what shall we do?”.

I said, give me the intelligence, he passed it on to me on his cell phone. I said switch off your cell phone, I am going to the target. When I left even the Commander of the Navy did not know I was going on this mission. The Commander came very late that night after the Security Council meeting, upon his return he was briefed that I left on this mission.

By the next morning I hit the first LTTE floating warehouse. At the time the LTTE was getting ready for the ‘mother of all battles’. Everything, all the arsenal, for the ‘mother of all battles’ was on that ship. The ship was called NVQOE, and with that attack the mother of all battles sank.

The ship was off the Strait of Malacca, and we received intelligence that it was on a particular latitude. The sea is a vast area; it would be like finding a needle in a hay stack, if we had not done our homework.

We had studied these locations previously, making plans for such eventuality. We were studying trade routes, etc. All the hard work finally paid off. When we received the intelligence we were able to narrow down their exact position.

The destruction of the NVQOE was the first of a series of similar attacks that destroyed all LTTE floating warehouses, but one.

Q: Couldn’t you have made a mistake with the ship?

It is always a possibility. But you will notice that SLN operations have never been questioned by anyone in the world to date. Every single operation we did was filmed and we maintained records of evidence as well as the orders that were promulgated, and we always worked within the law.

Later, we did explain to the world how we did it. Straight after I finished these operations I was sent to the United States where all the judge advocates of many of the Navies wanted me to explain the conditions and the legal framework within which we went to international waters and completed that mission. We explained how we did it according to the law of the sea and the laws of war.

Lots of navies learned from us on how to deal with fourth generation warfare fighters in international waters. That is why our operation is considered to be one of the greatest operations since the Second World War.

Q: Were they totally unprepared for the attack?

The surprise was there but they were prepared and we were prepared to fight also. I had about 125 men on board SLN Sagara. And for the other operations to destroy the floating warehouses I worked with the Task Forces, so we had about two to four ships with me, that was about 350 to 400 sailors under my command.

After a few months of the first mission we destroyed three more ships and on September 11 came another three ships carrying more weapons for the LTTE, which had been dubbed the Great Hit. This mission was carried out 2,000 miles away from our shores and within 48 hours all three ships were destroyed. The only regret is that I missed the last ship, it escaped.

I left Sagara after my first mission on LTTE ship NVQOE. I took over as the Commandant of Naval and Maritime Academy at Trincomalee. I was called to go out to sea again as officer in Tactical Command by the Navy Commander at that time. With my previous experience with NVQOE, he knew I was best suited to the job.

I was called for the same job a third time also. By that time I was a flag officer commanding a naval fleet. In addition, I was serving as Deputy Area Commander East and the Commandant of the Trinco Naval Academy. Hence, I was the senior most naval officer who went into active combat operations. I had three jobs during the end of the war, all three caps quite heavy, but I enjoyed every bit of it.

 Seishin burning & sinking –10 September 2007

Q: Was it for this great achievement, that the highest combat medal (granted to a living officer) for exceptional valour and gallantry, awarded to you?

Yes, it was for the successful completion of ‘Sagara Balaya’.

Q: Your appointment as the 21st Navy Commander may not go down well with the extremists, given your ethnic background. However, I heard that your Tamil speaking skills are as good as mine. As a person representing a minority, how do you feel?

There is no representation of the minority here. We all look at ourselves as Sri Lankans. We have a Sri Lankan identity. My father was Tamil and my mother was Sinhalese. My father came from a conservative family, I never realized my mixed ethnicity until I was pretty old.

My mother was a Sinhalese and a Kandyan. We were shuttling up and down from Trinco where my father worked, to Kandy where my mother lived. It was not until I went to boarding school at Trinity, that I realized this ethnic divide. That was somewhere when I was in Grade six. But it did not bother me at all, I was studying in the English medium, only Muslims, Burghers and children of mixed ethnicity were allowed in the English medium at the time. Those were state rules.

All of us were the same in the battlefront, we all bled together. I was not treated differently in any manner in the battlefront. We took the same risks if not more, and I did not look at anything from an ethnic perspective. There were no sides, what is ‘just’ came first. I think my parents and my school was the cornerstone of that upbringing.

Q: You did not become a specific target of the LTTE due to your ethnicity?

I was always a target, from the day I joined the Navy. I believe as a Tamil I must have been considered a traitor, they knew me all along. But as I went along and built up my career, and became a warrior at sea, the threat intensified. There were times in 1990-1991, when we entered the northern waters, as a Lieutenant in charge of a fast attack craft, they would identify my voice on the set, shout out the name of my boat and retort ‘our welcome party’ is waiting for you. But towards the end of the war I went right up their hit-list. Our operations were so coveted at the time, our names were never mentioned anywhere. We never spoke about our achievements.

The enemy, the LTTE or anyone who supported them will never say we didn’t kill innocent people. We did not kill the innocent. We were at war, there was a task to be accomplished and we did it. We emerged victorious and that is what happens in conflict.

Q: I was told, Admiral Kadirgamar, the elder brother of the late Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar is the longest serving commander in the Navy. He was a Tamil. It is after 45 years that another Tamil commander is appointed?

Of course, I am proud to be compared in the same league as Admiral Kadirgamar.

Q: The Navy is currently embroiled in a past abduction case where several high rankers have been arrested and remanded. There are allegations that this was politically instigated. What would be your role in this situation?

It is indeed a complex situation. The case has already been investigated. Certain people have already been arrested. The CID has completed 80 % of this case. Some senior officers have been accused, this did not happen during the war, it happened after the war.

I think it is wrong for me to comment at this stage. I could say what I knew at the time. Let the CID complete their investigation. If these officers are found guilty, then I think despite their ranks they must be punished. No one can hide behind the war-hero placard and commit crimes. They are bound by the Penal Code and the Navy Act, in the case of a navy officer. No one is allowed to desecrate the uniform.

At the same time, they should be found guilty in a due process of the law. They are innocent until the day they are proved guilty.

Q: People have this impression about the Avant Garde, that the Navy had taken over all the operations of this private company since the new government took office. What is the actual position with Avant Garde operations? (the Former Justice Minister also alleged that the Avant Garde ships are still being used to store Navy weapons)

The more we talk about this security company, the more it gets free publicity. We have to discontinue this discussion.

After the war it was the Sri Lanka Navy which offered a proposal to the UN, during many seminars and fora that we participated, on how to deal with Somali piracy. We had just come out of an unconventional war, we were good at fighting similar threats. The LTTE was far more advanced than the Somali pirates. But many larger Navies were not geared to fight such an asymmetric threat.

We were approached to advise certain people. The Sri Lanka Navy at that time was under Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe, I was his Director Naval Projects. He wanted me to prepare a document on what the Navy could do after the war. This was one of our projects -to provide security for Merchant ships in the Arabian Sea.

It was called the OBST operations – the concept of ‘On Board Security Teams’ is something the Navy did for over 25 years, before the Somali piracy even started. There was no land supply route to the North during the height of the war. The Navy supplied food and medicine to the people living in the North. Until the end of the war, this fact was not given publicity. The Sri Lanka Navy shipped everything from clothing to food, medicine and fuel to the North. We did this humanitarian mission for 25 years and many Navy personnel sacrificed their lives during these humanitarian missions.

Even when we were the losing party, we continued our humanitarian mission. No one asked how the people in the North survived for 25 years of conflict. The LTTE did not feed them.

Q: Going back to Avant Garde operations?

Our international counterparts accepted that OBST was a good solution. But the weapons are not allowed to be carried into territorial waters of another country. The On Board Security Teams have to be transferred as they enter the maritime boundaries of a country. Therefore, they decided to transfer the OBST from that ship to a ship moving in the other direction coming towards Sri Lanka. Then we would take charge of the weapons and store them for safe keeping.

All what the Sri Lanka Navy did was storage and safe keeping of those weapons, within the Arabian Seas or for ships coming down from the East and entering the Arabian Sea.

We said this safekeeping can be done in a floating armory or within Sri Lanka. The ships can come close to our territorial waters, we could pick up their weapons. When they return they can reclaim same.

This was carried out for two years from 2010 under Commander Samarasinghe. Then a new Commander assumed duty in January 2011 and he retired in September 2012. Within a week of his retirement he took away this task, which earned millions of funds to the government coffers, from the Navy.

The same Commander who convinced the government to hand over operations to Avant Garde became a stakeholder in that private company. That is how OBST operations were handed over to this private company. At the time it was a small time security company, within one month it shot up to become a huge enterprise.

Avant Garde had claimed that the SL Navy was incompetent to undertake that operation. In that case, this small time security firm should have been far more incompetent. The company later recruited a number of past admirals, but none of them were accomplished officers. They were recruited to earn credibility.

After the Navy took over the weapons operations from Avant Garde, it claimed that the Navy is not making the same profits they made. We are only handling the safekeeping of the weapons, the Navy is not allowed to provide the other services, like shuttle services to OBST teams to come to shore, insurance, entertainment, airline ticketing, etc. This is where the Avant Garde made profits. But we have broken the monopoly of this one company and opened this area of business for other shipping agents in Sri Lanka.

What the Navy is doing and what Avant Garde did were two separate tasks.

Today Avant Garde cannot deal with weapons. It is solely the responsibility of the Navy. It has been allowed to operate within these parameters like any other shipping agent in Sri Lanka.

Q: Do you expect to intensify Navy operations against poachers in the Northern and Eastern seas?

I can assure you it will happen. We are going to change our mode of operation. We are going to re-think and adjust our deployment of forces in the North. SL Navy is the only force that protects an active boundary between India and Sri Lanka.

Poaching in Sri Lankan waters had happened for over 100 years, and it is not something that can be stopped overnight. The only thing you can do is to be visible and try and help the Indian trawlers not to cross the line.

So we are looking at an operation to actually aid the Indian fishermen, to see that they don’t get into trouble by crossing the line. Therefore, our increased presence will help them not to become prisoners and get their boats seized.

We work closely with the Indian government to ensure that there is no misunderstanding between the two countries. At the end of the day our fishermen must be allowed to reap the benefits of peace, they never got a chance to fish in the northern waters for over two decades.

Q: What are your hopes and dreams as the new Chief of Navy?

The Navy is redefining its mission on how they should operate during peace time. Sri Lanka is an island. We are the first line of defence of the country.

In addition, we are increasing our maritime infrastructure. We are at a crossroad of world commercial traffic. The SL Navy will have a wider role to play protecting the maritime trade routes connecting the East and the West, with the country’s strategic positioning. Our role will not be limited only to the territorial waters of Sri Lanka. We must gear the SL Navy to meet those new challenges, and I will give leadership to that new role.

*** ***

A MEMO from Michael Roberts, 4 April 2018

Travis Sinniah is a family friend via his marriage to Thiruni Ramanaden and thus his links to Thiruni’s mother, Lilani Tambimuttu, who was at Peradeniya University in my time as an undergrad. I have tapped his experiences and knowledge at different moments when visiting the island in the 2010s, but kept some of the information to myself because he was still in service.

Speaking from memory (a fallible ‘source’), I recall these central points from our chats

  1. Contrary to speculative claims by some writers, the Indian Naval HQ did not provide assistance that helped the SL Navy to sink several LTTE warehouse ships in 2007; but the SLN were savvy enough to let the Indians think that their information was of importance.
  2. Nor did US satellite data play a major part till the later in the day after the US Pacific Command discovered that the SL Navy was on the ball and had displayed the capacity to locate the LTTE warehouse ships and effect long-distance strikes.

Information on the US aid on this front is provided by CA Chandraprema in an invaluable chapter “The Year of the Navy” within his book Gota’s War (pp. 368-69). Alas, specific dates are not spelt out, but PK Balachandran’s article on the topic (2017) indicates that this material help was in the form of satellite information and  assisted the fourth SLN strikes on LTTE floating armouries in September/October 2007.

The crucial strikes, however, were the first ones on 28th February and 18th March 2007. These were the crucial moments in what Admiral Sinniah refers to as “Operation Sāgara Balaya.” The sinking of these warehouse ship would have opened the door to vital data from captured Tiger sailors (and perhaps even the log books of the ships if they were accessed before the ships sank).

The information conveyed by Travis Sinniah at our informal and friendly conversations, now made public via Manjula Fernando, were subsequently supported by Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda when I was able to interview him at my school friend Sarath De Zoysa’s place at Dehiwela in 2016. Karannagoda was categorical: the SL Navy’s first long distance strike mission involved a giant leap of faith. They were entrusting an old ‘frigate’ to a long-sea journey with no wherewithal to rescue its sailors if disaster struck. When they made the decision to take that step, it was with some trepidation.  Knowledge of the venture was confined to a few officers.

Admiral Karannagoda

Careful research work is called for in charting the temporal stages and central innovations that enabled the SL Navy to achieve these monumental successes. The initiatives taken by Manjula Fernando and Chandraprema on the one hand, and the ‘voices’ of Karannagoda, Sinniah and other central figures in the SL naval command, must now move forward to fill out the story of the SL Navy’s critical contribution towards the success of Eelam War IV.

ADDITIONAL REFERENCES

SLN n. d. “Sri Lanka Navy. Eelam War IV,https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/sri-lanka/navy-eelam-iv.htm

Chandradasa, Malaka n.d. “Learning from our enemies: Sri Lankan naval special warfare against sea Tigers,https://globalecco.org/learning-from-our-enemies-sri-lankan-naval-special-warfare-against-the-sea-tigers

Jaya Rohana n. d. “Navy Welcomes Men of War at Trincomalee,” Asian Tribune, http://www.asiantribune.com/node/7794

Chandraprema, C. A,  2012 “The Year of the Navy,” in Chandraprema,  Gota’s War,  Colombo, Piyasiri Printing Systems, pp. 367-73.

Balachandran P. K. 2017 “Ex-Sri Lankan navy chief Colombage narrates how the US helped destroy LTTE floating armories,” 10 February 2017, http://www.newindianexpress.com/world/2017/feb/10/ex-sri-lankan-navy-chief-colombage-narrates-how-the-us-helped-destroy-ltte-floating-armories-1569153–1.html

Alchetron n. d. “Eelam War IV,https://alchetron.com/Eelam-War-IV

Jane’s Naval Intelligence 2009 “Sri Lanka learns to counter Sea Tigers’ Swarm Tactics,” March 2009, pp. 20-26.

Rajasingham, Narendran 2009 “Rise and Fall of the LTTE — An Overview,” Sri Lanka Guardian, 7 Feb. 2009, http://www.srilankaguardian.org/2009/02/rise-and-fall-of-ltte-overview.html.

Reddy, B. Muralidhar 2009a “An Escape from Hellhole,” http://www.hindu.com/ 2009/04/25/stories/2009042558390100.html.

Roberts, Michael 2009 “Dilemma’s at War’s End: Thoughts on Hard Realities,” http://www.groundviews.org, 10 Feb. 2009…. rep. in Roberts, Fire and Storm, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2010, pp. 267-74.

Roberts, Michael 2009 “Realities of War,” Frontline, 26/10, 9-22 May 2009, http://www.frontline.in/navigation/?type=static&page=archiveSearch&aid=20090522261001600&ais=10&avol=26.

Roberts, Michael 2013 “Wikileak Disclosures of Secret US Despatches on the Last Phase of Eelam War IV in 2009: Appendix III for ‘BBC Blind’,” https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2013/12/08/wikileak-disclosures-of-secret-us-despatches-on-the-last-phase-of-eelam-war-iv-in-2009-appendix-iii-for-bbc-blind/#more-11239

Roberts, Michael 2012b “Velupillai Pirapaharan: Veera Maranam,” 26 November 2012, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2012/11/26/velupillai-pirapaharan-veera-maranam/

Roberts, Michael 2013 “Wikileak Disclosures of Secret US Despatches on the Last Phase of Eelam War IV in 2009: Appendix III for ‘BBC Blind’,” https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2013/12/08/wikileak-disclosures-of-secret-us-despatches-on-the-last-phase-of-eelam-war-iv-in-2009-appendix-iii-for-bbc-blind/#more-11239

Roberts, Michael 2013 “Witnesses to “the War without Witnesses” … Voiceless? Buried Foreign Reporters?” 30 December 2013, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2013/12/30/11504/

Roberts, Michael 2014 “Dedicated Medical Work Amidst the Heat of War, Death and Propaganda: In the Vanni Pocket,  8 January 2014, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2014/01/08/dedicated-medical-work-amidst-the-heat-of-war-death-and-propaganda-in-the-vanni-pocket-2009/#more-11562

Roberts, Michael 2014 Tamil Person and State. Essays, Colombo< Vijitha Yapa Publications.

Roberts, Michael 2014 Tamil Person and State. Pictorial, Colombo< Vijitha Yapa Publications.

 

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One response to “Looking Down a Ship’s Cannon: Vice Admiral Travis Sinniah in Q and A

  1. Pingback: The Gash Files II: LTTE’s Strategic Design | Thuppahi's Blog

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