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Effects of privatisation of SLT on national security: A citizen’s perspective

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by Nimal Gunatilleke
nimsavg@gmail.com

The report of the Parliamentary Sectoral Oversight Committee (PSOC) on National Security, titled, ‘The Effects of Privatisation of Sri Lanka Telecom on National Security’ was presented to the Parliament on 09 June by its Chairman Sarath Weerasekera, MP. It was almost immediately countered by the government by issuing a statement by the Presidential Media Division that the policy decision taken pertaining to the privatisation of Sri Lanka Telecom (SLT) will not compromise national security.

However, the PSOC report has opposed the privatisation of Sri Lanka Telecom PLC as matters sensitive to national security could be compromised if SLT is further privatised. Sri Lanka Telecom – the national information and communications technology solution provider and the leading broadband and backbone infrastructure services provider in the country – is already partially privatised with international companies holding 44.98% of the stake and the government holding 49.5%. The PSOC opined that further privatisation would expose the country’s critical communication infrastructure/sensitive information to private entities whose profit-oriented interests could compromise national security.

The PSOC report warns inter alia that the government must ensure that non-state actors do not have easy access to vital information that can be detrimental to national security. National security, it reports that is not merely the protection against military attacks, but it involves non-military dimensions such as economic security, energy security, food security, etc., and most importantly cyber security, which in turn, could affect our sovereignty. It further states that cybersecurity has become an indispensable component of national security crucial to prevent unauthorized access, data breaches, and disruptions in communications. As an example, the PSOC report quotes the LTTE international network under its “Tamil Eelam Cyber Force” which has already launched multiple attacks on Sri Lankan cyberspace. Several Sri Lankan government websites including its Ministry of Health website, foreign employment and Public Administration websites, and the Sri Lanka Embassy website in China have been hacked in the recent past by the ‘Tamil Eelam Cyber Force’ with their own admission to it while displaying on their website the much-publicized motto – We Never Forget! We Never Forgive! (Tamil Eelam Cyber Force@CyberEelam; https://twitter.com/CyberEelam ).

The PSOC report recommends, as a compromise, that while retaining or buying back segments of the SLT affecting national security, the remainder can be divested through Private Public Partnership ensuring critical infrastructure is protected and all government regulations are strictly adhered to. This would enable the government to ensure national security and exit if necessary. It further says that anyone/organisation with any involvement with extremists in any form should not be allowed to buy any share or have any control over our national assets.

The response of the President’s Media Division to this PSOC report was that it lacks a logical or scientific data analysis pertaining to the subject of national security. The PMD further states that in order to address the deficiencies, it is necessary to examine the operation and regulation of information and communication technology service providers in Sri Lanka, analyse financial data related to the sector, understand Sri Lanka’s national ambitions in this field, assess the available capital capacity, and conduct a comprehensive study of global trends.

The former Director General of the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Sri Lanka (TRASL) Professor Rohan Samarajeewa too, opined that the privatisation of SLT does not pose a threat to national security. He has suggested that privatisation with appropriate controls allows for investment and urged authorities to consider their recommendations seriously. He claimed that government communications are mostly done on popular global search engines (like Google-Gmail). Prof. Samarajeeva argued that privatisation does not mean government data is being compromised since data centres in Sri Lanka, including those of the telecom company and Dialog, are rented to store government data. According to Prof Samarajiva, one way to address national security concerns is to ensure the stringent functioning of SLT’s management. As an example, he suggests that with regard to data records, special safeguards can be put in place in addition to safeguards provided by the new Data Protection Act. This has also been referred to in the PMD response.

With respect to global trends in communication technology vis a-vis cybersecurity referred to in the PMD response, there is a wide range of opinions and news reports appearing on the web, which need to be carefully analyzed in order to benefit from them to safeguard our national interests.

Global Trends in the communication technology trade war:

In recent years, more advanced digital communication technologies have taken over the use of popular search engines like Google-Gmail. Some examples are instant messaging (IM), voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) services like Whatsapp, social networking services like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, and Video conferencing apps like Zoom, etc. with Artificial Intelligence technology inputs. These have revolutionised the marketplace requiring frequent cyber security upgrades to be in place, especially with the emergence of the next-generation mobile communications technology – the fifth-generation (or 5G).

At the global scale, as any layman of the subject like myself would understand it, there is currently intense warfare going on in cyberspace, with the potential of the 5G technology being exploited for spying and also to sabotage communication on critical public utility infrastructure – everything from electric power, and water supply to sewage disposal, communication networks, and key financial centers thus compromising national security. This configuration of 5G networks means that there are many more points of entry for a hostile power or group to conduct cyber warfare against the critical infrastructure of a target nation or community. It is claimed that in the future, cyber espionage could replace ‘bullets and bombs’ through ‘bits and bytes’ bolstering cyber-attack capabilities on national security priorities. Spy agencies can readily tap into the undersea communication cables landing on one’s territory. Intelligence agencies the world over consider these submarine cables as ‘a surveillance gold mine’ with the attendant potential risk of eavesdropping and/or cyberattacks.

The undersea cables appear to be central to the US-China technology competition with spilling-over effects on other nations, as well. According to TeleGeography, a Washington-based telecommunications research firm, there are more than 400 active cables running along the seafloor across the globe, carrying over 95% of all international internet traffic. More than US$ 10 trillion worth of financial transactions is claimed to be transmitted via these cables every day, according to teleGeography estimates. These data conduits, which transmit everything from emails and banking transactions to military secrets, are vulnerable to sabotage attacks and espionage.

As a result, a cyber-technology-related proxy war between major superpower camps is emerging at a rapid pace. It could eventually determine who achieves economic and military dominance for decades to come, making references to their respective national security, at a time of war. According to a Reuters report (by Joe Brock) dated March 24, 2023, a successful US government campaign has helped the American subsea cable company Subcom LLC beat China’s HMN Tech to win a US$ 600 million contract to build the underwater cable system known as Southeast Asia-Middle East-Western Europe 6 (SeaMeWe6) connecting Singapore to France via India and Sri Lanka, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean countries.

Reuters reports that the US has also apparently worked to pressurise third parties, forcing the World Bank to scrap plans to connect up Pacific island nations to prevent a Chinese company from getting the contract in 2021, and then working to stop a vast, 19,000 km-long connection running from East Asia to India (and Sri Lanka), the Middle East, and Mediterranean countries from being built using HMN Tech cable. It goes on further to say that the US ambassadors in at least six of these en route countries including Singapore, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka have written to local telecom carriers suggesting that picking SubCom is “an important opportunity to enhance commercial and security cooperation with the United States” or face US sanctions, otherwise. In addition, they have apparently offered the usual carrot as a reward (complementing the above-reported sticks of coercion) such as training grants to several countries en route to the cable network. Sri Lanka Telecom has apparently received US$ 600,000 for this purpose, according to the same Reuters report.

The PSOC report has correctly recognized that the SLT must ensure adequate countermeasures for above mentioned cyber-attacks such as firewalls, electronic surveillance, access control devices, etc. It further recounts the following: The private companies may not commit sufficient funds to ensure the above as national security is not their priority. Hence privatization would increase vulnerability to cyber threats. Private companies have a legal obligation to maximize profits for their shareholders and as such, will not always operate in the public interest. The public may have limited or no oversight over the operations of a private company and consequently making it difficult to hold them accountable for any wrongdoing.

Although the immediate response of the President’s Media Division to this PSOC report was that it lacks a logical or scientific data analysis pertaining to the subject of national security, our reading of the report is somewhat different from that of the PMD, especially considering the sensitivities and vulnerabilities associated with rapidly evolving global communication technology.

According to local media reports, one of several purposes of the controversial visit early this year by the 20-member US defence delegation includes access to submarine telecommunications cables and data, for which the US is apparently willing to provide prior intelligence on terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is evidently caught between the devil and the deep blue sea for being located in a geostrategic position abundantly endowed with strategically important natural resources. While being at the center of the Indian Ocean Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC) with extensive ocean and land-based mineral resources, including premium grade graphite and rare earth elements, some political analysts are of the view that Sri Lanka suffers from a ‘Paradox of Plenty’ or perhaps, a geostrategic ‘Resource Curse’. This phenomenon often afflicts countries blessed with abundant natural resources, like Sri Lanka.

Despite being endowed with this politico-geostrategic wealth, the Sri Lanka Government is still up against tough bargaining with the IMF on its current debt restructuring process. A strong case needs to be presented by the Government in one voice resisting the privatization of profit-making institutions, especially those vitally important for national security, as correctly identified in the PSOC report on ‘The Effects of Privatization of Sri Lanka Telecom on National Security’.

It is heartening to learn that the government has taken a step backward towards delaying its formal endorsement of the plan to further privatize the SLT while seeking expert views in the meantime. In the interim, upgrading the laws such as the Computer Crime Act, Electronic Transaction Act, Right to Information Act, Banking Act, Telecommunication Act, Intellectual Property Act, and Data Protection Act, is also necessary to plug any glaring loopholes in the cybersecurity frontier to safeguard national security against emerging cyber threats referred to above.



Opinion

Transformation of agro-food system:

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A culture-based local solution for Sri Lanka

BY Prof Nimal Gunatilleke

The Thirty-seventh Session of the UN-FAO Regional Conference for Asia and the Pacific (APRC) is being held as a high-level Ministerial in-person event in Colombo, Sri Lanka from 19 – 22 February 2024. This was preceded by the Senior Officers Meeting (SOM) held virtually from 31 January to 2 February 2024.

This year’s conference, themed “Transformation of the Agro-Food System,” will delve into key areas such as promoting nutritious food production, ensuring food security, enhancing food production, safeguarding the environment, curbing greenhouse gas emissions, and mitigating climate change risks.

This regionally significant meeting of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations is being held in Colombo at a time when Sri Lanka is struggling to keep its head above water in the post-COVID era knocked down for the second time in quick succession by her economic crisis.

A government report and data from the health ministry quoted by Reuters indicates that the people in Sri Lanka are currently burdened with soaring prices, including food, largely caused by its worst economic crisis since it gained independence in 1948.

According to the Central Bank Report ‘rising malnutrition among children has become a forefront policy concern in Sri Lanka amidst heightened food insecurity of households caused by the host of economic and social issues that exacerbated during the economic crisis in 2022’.

The following human health statistics extracted almost verbatim from the Reuters report on Jan 18, 2023, are equally disturbing, to say the least.

The number of children grappling with various forms of undernutrition in Sri Lanka has increased for the first time in at least six years in 2022.

More than 43.4% of the country’s children under 5 years of age are suffering from nutrition problems, according to the report released in October, with 42.9% suffering from some form of undernutrition.

Data available on the website of the health ministry’s Family Health Bureau indicate that the percentage of children under five who are underweight, stunted (low height for age), or wasting (low-height for age) increased in 2022 after dropping steadily since at least 2016.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), malnutrition refers to deficiencies or excesses in nutrient intake, imbalance of essential nutrients, or impaired nutrient utilis ation.

ASIA AND THE PACIFIC REGIONAL OVERVIEW OF FOOD SECURITY AND NUTRITION STATISTICS AND TRENDS

According to the World Bank statistics, Sri Lanka ranked the second worst affected country in the South Asian region in terms of wasting among children under five years. Further, underweight among the same group of children remained around 20.0 percent since 2000, while no significant advancement was reported in terms of children with stunted growth.

Meanwhile, the persistent disparities in malnutrition prevalence across regions and economic sectors in the country suggest that nutrition anomalies remain unresolved for a prolonged period. Across residential sectors, the estate sector has become the most vulnerable sector with the highest prevalence of stunting and underweight children under five years. According to the DHS-2016, around 31.7 percent of children in the estate sector are stunted, compared to 14.7 percent in urban areas and 17.0 percent in the rural sector. Particularly child malnutrition represents a deep concern that carries a generational burden.

UNDERNOURISHMENT AND FOOD INSECURITY: SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOAL 2.1

A yet another alarming set of nutrition statistics has been published in the Asia and the Pacific Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition, in December 2023 in addressing the Sustainable Development Goal 2.1: UNDERNOURISHMENT AND FOOD INSECURITY.

The percentage of people unable to afford a healthy diet in Sri Lanka was 54% in 2020 and the figure has been increasing ever since.

Prevalence of undernourishment in Sri Lanka is 5.3% (cf. India 16.6%)

The prevalence of moderate or severe food insecurity during the period 2020–2022 in Sri Lanka has been 10.9% (cf. Bangladesh 31.1%)

Undernourishment is defined as the condition of an individual whose habitual food consumption is insufficient to provide, on average, the amount of dietary energy required to maintain a normal, active, and healthy life. The indicator is reported as a prevalence and is denominated as “prevalence of undernourishment”, which is an estimate of the percentage of individuals in the total population who are in a condition of undernourishment.

People affected by moderate food insecurity face uncertainties about their ability to obtain food and have been forced to reduce, at times during the year, the quality and/or quantity of food they consume due to a lack of money or other resources.

MALNUTRITION: SUSTAINABLE

DEVELOPMENT GOAL 2.2:

This section reports on four global nutrition indicators: stunting , wasting in children under 5 years of age, and anaemia in women aged 15 to 49 years.

The prevalence of stunting among children under 5 years of age in Sri Lanka in 2022 has been 15.9% (cf. India 31.7%).

The Prevalence of wasting among children under 5 years of age from 2015 to 2022 in Sri Lanka has been 15.1% (cf. India 18.7%)

The Prevalence of overweight among children under 5 years of age in Sri Lanka is 1.3% in 2022 (cf. 2.8% in India).

ANAEMIA AMONG WOMEN AGED 15 TO

49 YEARS

Prevalence of anaemia among women aged 15 to 49 years in Sri Lanka in 2019 has been 34.6 % (cf. India 53%).

HEALTHY DIET AT NATIONAL SCALE

In this regard, notable transformations in the country’s food system are essential to deliver a healthy diet for people at an affordable price. These include improving productivity in the agriculture sector along with more innovations and research and development, reducing post-harvest losses, more value addition in the agriculture sector, reducing import dependency on food systems, introducing climate-resilient food crops, promoting a wide range of nutrient-rich foods, particularly through the popularising integrated farming, rebalancing agriculture sector subsidies, and tax policies and improving agronomic practices as well as maintaining adequate food buffers to face food emergencies.

Among the solutions provided at the national level include the provisioning of school meals, provisioning of food/cash allowances for pregnant and lactating mothers, the Thriposha program, school water sanitation, and hygiene programs, and the salt iodization programme, among others. Reflecting the impact of these efforts and commitments spanning over several decades, malnutrition among children declined remarkably during the period from 1975 to 1995, with stunting among children below five years of age almost halved to 26.1 percent in 1995, compared to 49.9 percent in 1975, while the underweight child population declined to 29.3 percent in 1995 from 57.3 percent in 1975. However, these trends have reversed since the double whammy started in 2021 with COVID-19.

In addition, some of the small-scale community-level initiatives established under the supervision of the Department of Agriculture such as Hela Bojun Hal (Native Food Courts) are gaining popularity in several provinces in Sri Lanka. These food courts serve a variety of nutrient-rich native food preparations using rice flour, finger millet, local vegetables (leafy porridge), and many other sweetmeats prepared by local womenfolk and sold at an affordable price. Also, there are many beverages and local fruit drinks that are equally popular among the customers.

These food courts providing healthy and nutritious meals are making steady inroads into the food and beverage trade among the health-conscious public from all walks of life including schoolchildren, university students, and blue- and white-collar workers, alike which is indeed an encouraging trend.

If these types of Hela Bojun food courts could be promoted in rural as well as urban schools with the participation of the parents of the schoolchildren under the direction of the school administration and local health and agricultural authorities, it may help to address some of the issues under discussion at the on-going UNFAO-Asia Pacific Regional Conference such as undernourishment, food insecurity, and malnutrition. At the same time, it may give a shot in the arm for promoting nutritious food production while ensuring food security befitting the theme of this year’s UNFAO-Asia Pacific Regional Conference, which is “Transformation of the Agro-Food System”.

Sri Lanka as the host country’s special ministerial event for this conference has put forward her theme as ‘Agro-tourism in Asia and Pacific – accelerating rural development and enhancing livelihoods’ showcasing agrotourism most likely in the world-renown Kandyan Spice/Home Gardens and as a spin-off of this, the local food courts utilizing these home garden produce too, can be highlighted at the same time.

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Opinion

Harin batting for India

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The Minister of Tourism, Harin Fernando, has stated that the Sri Lankan Government will be handing over the operation of Mattala International, Ratmalana International and Colombo International Airports to India. He has added that Sri Lanka is a part of India! Has he lost his senses?

Separately, should it not be the role of the Minister of Ports, Shipping and Aviation Nimal Siripala de Silva to make such a far-reaching decision?

Mattala, Ratmalana and Colombo are the three main airports of entry to Sri Lanka. Giving their management over to Indian organisations is tantamount to putting the proverbial snake inside one’s sarong and complaining that it is stinging.

What then will be the future of Airports and Aviation Sri Lanka (AASL)? They are, in any case, a ‘service provider’.

It is the responsibility of the government of Sri Lanka through its regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority Sri Lanka (CAASL), to adhere to International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) requirements and regulations. Will this be compromised?

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) guidelines for airport governance declare that the State (in this case Sri Lanka) must be accountable irrespective of national, legal or regulatory framework, or airport ownership and operating model. Could that be ensured under this recently announced arrangement?

Such accountability must be guaranteed by enactment of primary legislation in the aviation sector, mindful of the adage that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. I believe that the Legal Draughtsman’s Office will take an inordinate amount of time to deliver this guarantee, amongst other things.

There is also the matter of establishing an effective regulatory framework with CAASL to monitor technical/safety and economic performance of the aviation sector, and compliance with International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) obligations, Standard and Recommended Procedures (SARPs), and policy guidance.

In my opinion CAASL is not yet capable of that. In a combined operation such as this, IATA stipulates “Awareness and mitigation of potential conflicts of interest inherent in the regulatory framework or ownership and operating model through clear separation of powers, for example conflicts between economic oversight and shareholding arrangements, and separation of regulatory and operational functions”.

So, it is not an ‘open-and-shut case’, as Fernando believes. It is complex. His optimism is amazingly unrealistic, to say the least.

Remember, certification of aerodromes by the technical/safety regulator under ICAO requirements will continue to be carried out by CAASL as at present. According to the Organisation of Professional Associations (OPA), report Sri Lankan regulators tend to be more “obstructive” than “facilitative” when it comes to certification. CAASL needs to be revamped for greater efficiency.

Other refinements involve the independence of regulatory authority (CAASL) from government, and striving for separation of economic regulation from technical/safety regulation. CAASL was formed under the ‘Private Companies Ordinance’ but unfortunately it has drifted back to conducting its business as a regular government office, with political interference and all.

Besides, it is vital to establish an Aircraft Accident Investigation Authority, preferably independent of the CAA. Annex 13 to the ICAO convention says: “The State shall establish an accident authority that is independent of the aviation authorities and other entities that could interfere with the conduct or objectivity of an investigation.”

That, I believe, is what ‘checks and balances’ are about.

Meanwhile, the silence of the Aviation Minister is deafening.

The proposed ‘Indian involvement’ is a sad state of affairs when we have aviation experts in this country who have retired from careers in many parts of the world, and are now capable of sharing their knowledge and experience to good effect.

There is already an Indian-managed flying school at Ratmalana catering to Indian students. Maybe the camel has already put its head in the tent, and only money will talk.

GUWAN SEEYA

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Opinion

Pledges to abolish executive presidency

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With the presidential elections around the corner, the abolition of the executive presidency has come up for discussion once again.

This time around, the proposal for abolishing the executive presidency has come from former President Chandrika B. Kumaratunga. She pledged to scrap it first when she ran for Presidency in 1994. But she did not fulfil her promise.

Former Presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena are also now for scrapping the executive presidency.

Almost all the former Presidents came to power promising to scrap it but once in power they swept it under the carpet.

The Opposition parties claim they are for the abolition, but after the next presidential election. which, they say, they are confident of winning.

Mahinda has recently said it is preferable to abolish the executive presidency because he has already held it twice. However, he seems to have forgotten that he was greedy for power and he failed in his third attempt. For him and most other past Presidents, executive presidency is sour grapes.

They are now trying to have the executive presidency abolished in the hope that they will be able secure the premiership.

Ironically, Anura K Dissanayake, NPP leader and presidential candidate is against the abolition of the executive presidency as he is confident of winning the next presidential election.

So, all of them are in the same boat and one thing is clear; whoever becomes President will never have it abolished.

The campaign for scrapping the executive presidency will go in circles, forever.

Dr. P.A. Samaraweera 

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