Corona-afflicted Welisara navy base deprived of basic accommodations over a decade after war

Post-conflict deployment plans not properly implemented yet


by Shamindra Ferdinando

Inquiries into the explosive spread of Covid-19 at the Welisara navy base, have revealed that even a decade after the conclusion of the war, sailors have been denied proper accommodation. The failure on the part of Navy Headquarters to ensure basic facilities caused the rapid spread of coronavirus there.

Sri Lanka brought the war to a successful conclusion on May 19, 2009.

The situation at the corona afflicted Welisara base had

been so bad, bunk beds were in three tiers, sources said, alleging that absolutely nothing was done over the years though the higher command knew of the pathetic situation. Ceiling fans had to be removed as the beds on the top were, too, close to the ceiling, sources said, urging those concerned to take tangible remedial measures.

Sources confirmed The Island front-page report, headlined "Men moved out of corona afflicted Welisara base" with strapline "Cramped conditions may have contributed to tragedy" on May 20, 2020 edition.

The Presidential Task Force, appointed in the wake of the simmering crisis at the Welisara base, tasked with ensuring proper facilities at bases as well as health authorities were aware of the situation there.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa told the COVID-19 Task Force meeting recently that in addition to Keselwatte, the Welisara situation was a lapse which shouldn’t be allowed to happen again.

Responding to The Island queries, well informed sources said soon after the end of the war, on the directions of the then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa the armed forces prepared strategic plans for countrywide re-positioning of armed forces. In terms of those plans, the 54,000 strong Navy was to ensure proper accommodation for officers and men wherever they were deployed. Had the proposed plans been properly implemented, the Welisara base would have received fresh accommodation to meet its requirement, sources said.

The change of government, in January 2015, following war-winning President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defeat, caused further deterioration of the situation, sources said, alleging that the truth would never had surfaced if not for corona epidemic there.

Sources explained the Army and the Navy had to find proper permanent accommodation to officers and men. The Army comprised 185, 000 officers and men whereas the Navy and Air Force consisted of 54,000 and 35,000 officers and men, respectively. Five infantry Divisions had been deployed on the Vanni front, two of them were commanded by incumbent Defence Secretary Maj. Gen. Kamal Gunaratne and Army Commander Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva, who is also the Acting Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). Once the government brought the war to an end, permanent bases were urgently required for them, sources said, adding that the government ordered pre-fabricated buildings of Chinese origin to facilitate the re-deployment plan.

The military said that of those pre-fabricated buildings some had been used though a substantial part remained unused as those responsible conveniently forgot the actual requirement. Instead of implementing re-deployment plans, the previous UNP-SLFP administration was bent on sharply reducing the military presence, sources said.

Land allocated for bases had been reduced, in some instances, sharply as the then government succumbed to relentless pressure exerted by northern politicians and a section of the diplomatic community. Sources alleged that the cramped Welisara base ended-up in a humiliating lockdown due to the negligence of the Navy.

Sources emphasized instead of blaming an individual, or a group of persons, it would be important to realize that the system failed. There had been overall failure and absence of supervision, too, was evident, sources said, alleging that peacetime living conditions were far worse than during the war.

Nearly 600 personnel stationed, at the Welisara base, had so far contracted the highly contagious virus and a substantial portion of personnel there, numbering 3,400, has been finally moved to provinces, including the North and North West regions as the Navy struggled to cope up with the unprecedented crisis.

After corona took hold of Welisara base, the Health Ministry conducted over 4,000 RT-PCR tests there as part of measures to stabilize the situation by identifying those afflicted.

During the war, the Navy pursued strategy to provide a bed and locker to each sailor. Seven personnel were to share a toilet/bathroom. However, over the years, the project had been abandoned though the Navy undertook other projects, sources said, adding that when the crisis erupted at Welisara, those off duty personnel were recalled to bases though they lacked sufficient facilities to accommodate them. Thousands of personnel had to be accommodated at places outside bases, sources said, adding they used schools and other facilities.

The Navy deployment is divided into seven commands - North (Kankesanthurai), East (Trincomalee), West (Colombo), South (Galle), North Central (Talaimannar), North West (Mullikulam) and South East (Panama).

After Admiral Wasantha Karanagoda’s retirement, soon after the end of the war, seven served as the Commander of the Navy before the incumbent Vice Admiral Piyal de Silva took over, nearly two years ago. During the war, the government allowed the Navy to take over the Food Department stores at Mahabage to meet the growing requirement for space.

In the wake of the COVID-19 eruption, the Army used some of the pre-fabricated buildings in its hands to expand facilities. Those affected passed it on to Fast Attack Craft (FAC) crews assigned for vessels deployed in Colombo, sources said, adding that the crisis was an eye-opener for all concerned.

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