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How Indonesia’s geostrategic location can make it a leader for improving regional maritime security

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An engaging presence

By CAPT. ROHAN JOSEPH
/SRI LANKA NAVY (Carried in the latest issue of US military journal Indo-Pacific Defence FORUM)

During the past decade, world attention turned toward the Indo-Pacific region as never before. The safety of sea lines of communication (SLOCs) that span this region is of paramount importance to the U.S. to ensure a free and open maritime domain in the Indo-Pacific. Maritime complexities require a comprehensive approach to security concerns. U.S. presence in the region is critical for preserving strategic U.S. maritime interests globally.

The U.S. faces many challenges in ensuring free and open seas in the Indo-Pacific. Considering the vast area as well as competition in the region, the U.S. needs the cooperation of other nations to achieve its objective. A partnership with Indonesia provides a great connecting node for the U.S. to link with the rest of the region because of Indonesia’s strategic strengths. To realize the U.S. Indo- Pacific strategy’s objectives, active presence and engagement through forging partnerships remain vital. In this endeavor, strategic strengths displayed by Indonesia offer the much- needed access required by the U.S. to address maritime security concerns in the Indo-Pacific.

As the Indo-Pacific’s relevance evolves, maritime security issues need to be addressed to ensure the free flow of commerce and freedom of navigation. Today, the Indo-Pacific has become a place for power competition. Apart from nontraditional threats, competition and rivalry need to be carefully handled to ensure that the region does not succumb to security issues that could negatively impact maritime trade.

At the 2017 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam, U.S. President Donald Trump drew a connection between the U.S. economy and national security when he announced, “The U.S. has been reminded time and time again in recent years that economic security is not merely related to national security. Economic security is national security. It is vital to our national strength.”

At the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue, then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis highlighted the requirement for Indo-Pacific countries to come together in shaping the future of the region and highlighted the maritime space, among other aspects. “The maritime commons are a global good, and the sea lanes of communication are the arteries of economic vitality for all. … Through our security cooperation, we are building closer relationships between our militaries and our economies,” Mattis said.

Based on these stated U.S. interests, maritime security in the Indo-Pacific becomes a strategic concern for the U.S. This analysis examines how the U.S. can increase presence and engagement in the Indo-Pacific by expanding the already established U.S.-Indonesian partnership that relies on the geographical centrality of Indonesia in connecting the Indo-Pacific. It also addresses the U.S.’s maritime focus on Indonesia and the acceptance of Indonesia by regional players as a strategic partner.

With this backdrop, it’s also important to highlight Indonesia’s challenges in countering maritime security issues and achieving its own maritime vision, as well as how Indonesia and regional partners respond to external influences with U.S. participation.

 

DIPLOMATIC RELATIONS

U.S.-Indonesia relations have progressed since their establishment of diplomatic ties in 1949. In the intervening seven decades, bilateral relations have fluctuated, but a series of reforms implemented since 1998made Indonesia politically stable and paved the way for increased U.S. interaction. During a visit to Indonesia in March 2006, then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice highlighted the term “strategic partnership,” indicating the willingness of the U.S. to partner with Indonesia to promote Indo-Pacific stability. In November 2009, then-U.S. President Barack Obama and then- Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono inaugurated the comprehensive partnership between the two countries. This partnership focused on improving cooperation and the advancement of strategic discussions on bilateral, regional and global issues, including security.

Based on strengthening ties, the U.S. government expanded the 2010 comprehensive partnership to a broader strategic partnership in 2015. The U.S. declaration of Indonesia as a strategic partner speaks to the importance placed on Indonesia and on the region. “The U.S.-Indonesia strategic partnership is critical to the national interests of both nations and will grow more so in the years to come,” then-U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) Commander Adm. Harry B. Harris said at the U.S.-Indonesia Society and American Chamber of Commerce in August 2017.

His statement also highlighted USINDOPACOM’s broader expectations in engaging the region through expanded strategic cooperation. The U.S.-Indonesia military relations progressed despite certain setbacks at various stages. The 9/11 attacks added a new episode to the Washington-Jakarta relations. The global war on terrorism, led by the U.S., adjusted policy priorities toward Southeast Asian nations. As a direct result, Washington-Jakarta defense relations have grown since 9/11. Perhaps most importantly, the position Indonesia holds in the Muslim world and its experience in dealing with terrorism made Indonesia a significant partner in the war.

“We probably engage with the Indonesian military more than any other nation anywhere in terms of mil-to-mil engagements,” Mattis said during his visit to Indonesia in January 2018. Mattis also emphasized the need for maritime cooperation in the unique maritime environment that Indonesia holds by connecting the Indian and Pacific oceans. The Indonesian military continues to engage in various training missions with other regional partners and the U.S., such as USINDOPACOM’s Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training. Close to 170 bilateral military-to-military exercises are held annually between the two countries.

GATEWAY TO THE INDO-PACIFIC

Indonesia is strategically located at the center of the global maritime domain and is a pivotal state in Southeast Asia. Its geographical centrality and proximity to one of the most important maritime trade highways connecting the Indian and Pacific oceans makes Indonesia the undisputed gateway to the Indo-Pacific. Growing maritime trade through the Malacca Strait has made this waterway one of the most strategically important chokepoints with access to the South China Sea. About U.S. $5.3 trillion worth of trade passes annually through the sea, which includes U.S. $1.2 trillion in trade with the U.S. An estimated 50,000 to 60,000 ships transit the Malacca Strait annually. Because regional and global economies heavily depend on the Malacca Strait, its safety and security, as well as the continuity of SLOCs, have become an important strategic consideration. Therefore, the responsibility for ensuring access to the strait falls largely on Indonesia.

Piracy in the strait has decreased due to greater regional efforts. A minor attack in 2018 became the first recorded piracy attack since December 2015. Capitalizing on its location, Indonesia has been instrumental in leading cooperative anti-piracy efforts in the strait.

Indonesia’s geographical position offers many advantages in addressing maritime security concerns in the region. Indonesia’s active role in the formative stages and the successive progression of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) since its founding in 1967, has been closely tied with the country’s foreign policy. In 2018, Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry declared the Indo-Pacific Cooperative Mechanism of the Southeast Asian countries highlighting three key aspects: respect for international norms and finding solutions through dialogue; addressing key security challenges; and creating economic hubs in the Indian and South Pacific oceans.

 

STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIP

Indonesian foreign policy is centered on ASEAN, where its de facto leadership status provides a strong position to cooperate with members and other regional players, including the U.S. The success of the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy will depend on ASEAN’s centrality. Furthermore, partners in the region and beyond will be essential in achieving Indonesia’s global maritime objectives.

Indonesia’s foreign policy enables active engagement with partners and explains why Indonesia is one of the front members of the nonaligned movement. This foreign policy stance has been a strength in establishing strong ties with countries such as Australia, India and Japan while maintaining close cooperation with global partners. The Australian government’s Foreign Policy White Paper of 2017, for example, emphasized the importance of strengthening relations with Indonesia in areas such as economy and defense. Strategic developments in the Indo-Pacific, including the rise of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), make it imperative for Australia to strengthen bilateral relations with Indonesia.

The “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific,” released in 2019, demonstrates ASEAN’s strong commitment to preserve the international rules-based order. The Australian policy documents also indicate the importance of adhering to international norms, transparency and inclusiveness. In South Asia, Indonesia’s ties with India have progressed over the years, and Jakarta has identified that the regional dynamics require both countries to coordinate closely to become maritime powers and to address external influences. Economic dynamics and maritime potential are two main areas, among others, that India expects to improve by engaging with Indonesia. During a 2019 meeting, the countries’ foreign ministers pledged to triple bilateral trade by 2025 to U.S. $50 billion. Engineering, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, auto industry, information technology services, palm oil, coal and natural resources are some of the leading fields offering cooperation opportunities that could benefit both countries.

Policy experts consider strategic initiatives such as Act East; Asia-Africa Growth Corridor; Free, Open Inclusive Indo-Pacific; and Security and Growth for All in the Region to be pillars that support India’s wider Indo-Pacific strategic objectives. The shared vision of the India-Indonesia maritime cooperation that launched in 2018 highlights the importance of ensuring maritime security in the Indo- Pacific to achieve strategy and policy goals of both countries. India needs a neutral partner in the Indo-Pacific that could offer a sound base to launch such strategic initiatives. Partnering with Indonesia would be a major step in that direction and also offers India a strategic edge for its economic potential and ambitions to become a global maritime power.

 

LINKING TO NORTH ASIA

Indonesia-Japan ties have grown over the years since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1958. The 1977 Fukuda Doctrine brought several changes to economic relations. Japan has also recognized the importance of engaging with ASEAN, where Indonesia is a key player.

The two countries pledged to accelerate discussions over the General Review Indonesia-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement (GRIJEPA) in 2019. As an emerging Southeast Asian economic entity, Indonesia shares strong economic relations with Japan.

 

Although India pulled out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), 14 countries, including Japan and China, agreed to it in 2019.

The RCEP has the potential to become the world’s largest trade agreement. Both the GRIJEPA and RCEP provide excellent opportunities for Japan to work closely with Indonesia. Japan, an ally of the U.S., needs to have a strategic maritime partner with the potential to provide a sound footing that is essential when solving complicated issues in the Indo-Pacific. Like Australia, Japan will find the Indonesian partnership important when addressing issues that require cooperation and coordination among neutral yet like-minded partners.

Even though Japan’s Indo-Pacific strategy has a broader view spanning from the East African coast to the West Coast of the U.S., Japan needs a strategic node that could offer options to gain access to the Indian Ocean.

Elsewhere in North Asia, Indonesia has strengthened ties with South Korea through the Indonesia-Korea Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IKCEPA). Through IKCEPA — which was finalized in

November 2019 — the countries plan to boost two-way trade to more than U.S. $30 billion by 2022 with the removal of tariff barriers, according to Reuters.

“The global economy has been facing rising uncertainty from the rising tide of protectionism in the

last few years,” said Yoo Myung-Hee, South Korea’s trade minister, according to Reuters. “Korea, as one of the largest beneficiaries of free trade, and Indonesia, as leader of ASEAN, are signaling to the world our true support for free, open and rules-based trade in this very challenging time.”

SOUTHEAST ASIA’S IMPORTANCE

Even a small maritime nation like Sri Lanka could benefit from enhancing the already established relations with Indonesia. Sri Lanka-Indonesia relations date to the fifth century marked by the arrival of Hinduism and Buddhism. Since the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1952, Sri Lanka and Indonesia have gradually expanded relations. During Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s visit to Sri Lanka in 2018, leaders of the two countries agreed to expand cooperation on trade, economy and capacity building.

South Asia lacks a strong regional organization that has the potential to drive the entire region toward reaping Indian Ocean benefits. Sri Lanka and Indonesia are members of the Indian Ocean Rim Association, which could benefit Sri Lanka by working closely with Indonesia.

Enhancing maritime cooperation with Indonesia will bring unprecedented results for a small island nation like Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s geostrategic location in the Indian Ocean and the interest shown by some of the leading players in establishing strategic partnerships centered on the maritime domain makes Sri Lanka an ideal partner for Indonesia and vice versa.

Likewise, partnering with Indonesia remains important for the U.S. Establishing a stronger strategic partnership with Indonesia will demonstrate the strength of the U.S. commitment to any doubters in the region. Indonesian neutrality is a key strength that could benefit the U.S. Indonesia’s access to the Indian and Pacific oceans offers the U.S. an Indian Ocean link through ASEAN. Ensuring freedom of navigation, adherence to a rules-based international order, and the security of the maritime trade and energy SLOCs should top the list of Washington policymakers. As the U.S. and China vie for influence in the Indo-Pacific, the U.S. will work harder to find a strong launching pad that supports U.S. strategic initiatives in the region. The Indonesian neutrality offers a greater opportunity for the U.S. to do just that.

RECOMMENDATIONS

The U.S. should consider areas, such as extra regional pressure and Indonesia’s maritime challenges, as it continues to engage on maritime concerns in the Indo- Pacific. Many countries in the region believe that the U.S. is attempting to dominate the region through its strategy. Its unique geographical centrality in the Indo- Pacific, access to major SLOCs, economic potential, existing strong U.S. relations, prominent position in ASEAN, acceptance by regional partners and ties with the PRC make Indonesia a decisive strategic partner for the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific when addressing maritime security concerns and in implementing the U.S. Indo- Pacific strategy. In this regard, consider the following recommendations: Strategic Partnerships: Complex maritime affairs influence regional/global players to form strong partnerships. A strong position held by Indonesia in the ASEAN provides a unique platform to forge strategic partnerships with a number of countries. The establishment of multilateral strategic alliances centering on Indonesia will allow the U.S. to diplomatically counter the PRC.

Strategic Presence: To address maritime security concerns, strategic presence in the Indo-Pacific is a prerequisite. Failure to do so will grant an opportunity for others to fill the vacuum. Expansion of the

USINDOPACOM area of responsibility demarcation toward the East African coast could enhance the U.S. presence in the entire Indian Ocean.

Strategic Engagement: Strategic partnership and presence building centering on Indonesia will assist the U.S. to better engage with regional partners. Engagement should focus on diplomatic, informational, military and economic aspects. USINDOPACOM should play a leading role in all four elements using a collaborative approach through its partnership with Indonesia.

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Scholar, Advisor, Innovator and Great Friend

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by AUSTIN FERNANDO

Dr. Wickrema Weerasooria, son of Queen’s Counsel NE Weerasooria, studied at Royal College, and entered the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, and won Harvard Memorial Prize and the Governor General’s Prize. He graduated in Law from Peradeniya, with First-Class Honours, and was later called to the Bar, as an Advocate.

I have known and associated with Dr. Wickrema Weerasooria in different capacities. First, I knew him as a pioneer Law Educator at Vidyodaya University. His students at Vidyodaya, and later even at the Post-Graduate Institute of Management, recall how he lectured, without even a short note in hand, attracting students’ attention, and enthusiasm. Additionally, he focused on teaching Commercial, Administrative, and Constitutional laws, and published texts in Sinhala, one on the Law of Contracts, another on Commercial Law.

His vast knowledge as an author was exhibited, mostly in Banking Law. Some of his publications were on Australian banking systems. Later, he delved into Buddhist Ecclesiastical Law, which produced a monumental work and a Treatise on Sri Lankan Statute Law and Judicial Decisions on Buddhist Temples and Temporalities.

His book ‘The Law Governing Public Administration in Sri Lanka,’ is a text that must be read by all public administrators and politicians. Whilst at Monash University, he wrote ‘Links between Sri Lanka and Australia: A Book about Sri Lankans (Ceylonese) in Australia’, dealing with Sri Lanka- Australia links.

With President JR Jayewardene in Office, Wickrema was appointed as the Secretary to the Ministry of Plan Implementation– a completely different role for him in public service. Working with him was also a novel experience and challenge for officers too, since he pushed them to the deep end to make quick, practical, non-traditional, sometimes unsavoury decisions for the benefit of the public.

He was the innovator of Integrated Rural Development Projects, for which he harnessed foreign assistance, and a performer, evaluator, programmer, and institution builder, proven by the establishment of Secretariats for Women, Children, Fertilizer, Nutrition, Population under his Ministry.

Sri Lanka Planning Service was made a professional service in 1985, for which the initiatives and support given by Wickrema were substantial. Accordingly, planners were made responsible for planning to achieve the goals of the respective institutions, formulate policies, strategies, and evaluate the development projects and programmes.

Wickrema was responsible for enhancing human resources among cadres through foreign exposures, which culminated with some officers obtaining post-graduate degrees, some even PhDs, and reaching apex ranks in public services, i.e. Secretaries of Ministries.

Specifically, his contribution to my work when I served as Government Agent, Nuwara Eliya was substantial. He was the guide, mentor, and sometimes savior. His involvement was on behalf of his brother-in-law Minister Gamini Dissanayake. Wickrema was instrumental in planning Nuwara Eliya through the establishment of Nuwara- Eliya Development Commissioners Committee, where I served as Chairman, with professionals as Commissioners. The initial planning was done by the Urban Development Authority.

He was the key organizer of the Spring Festival in Nuwara-Eliya. I remember how he planned the city and revived the Car Racing event, after a lapse of some years. I remember Upali Wijewardena taking part in the first motor car road race. The new Motor-Cross racing event on the newly constructed track was added to the Mahagastota Hill Climb for motor racers. Motor-Cross racing spread to other areas later. He attended these events and enjoyed the great company.

A little-known fact about Wickrema is that the Sri Lanka Council for the Blind (as President) and Sri Lanka Federation of the Blind (as Advisor) still appreciate his services rendered to the blind community, especially in resource mobilization and housing.

He was a person with subtle wit and humour. While teaching, he used this talent, as a student has reminisced, for “easing the pressure and stress of learning.” His lighter vein utterances and behaviour in groups made him a more sought-after teacher, friend, relative, colleague, and boss. His wit and humour depicted by cartoons in political campaigning, (i.e. The Family Tree), left an indelible mark in canvassing votes at the 1977 Elections. It is recycled even today, making Wickrema’s talent eternal.

I am reminded that even regarding efficiency creation he had humorous comments. I remember his “evaluation of the efficiency” of public officers. He used to quip that when asked to produce relevant documentation within two days to send an officer on a foreign scholarship, knowing it would take weeks, he would swear with utmost certainty that the officer would fulfill the requirement within two days. The best litmus test of the efficiency of an officer is the offer of a foreign scholarship! He lamented that such efficiency is lacking to serve the people.

I have a personal regret. Just before I left for India as High Commissioner, he promised to visit me in Delhi with his dear wife Rohini, which he could not fulfill, bidding adieu in weeks. Hence, I missed his company, advice, wit, and humor before departure.

I may say, he was a great student, scholar, academic, educator, public officer, diplomat, social worker, an advisor, innovator, and above all a great friendly human being, who enjoyed life and made others enjoy too, with his friendship, and camaraderie. Sadly, we will miss him forever.

May he attain the Supreme Bliss of Nibbana!

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Ethiopia: War in Tigray

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By Gwynne Dyer

“Love always wins. Killing others is a defeat,” said Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in June 2018, shortly after surviving a grenade attack at a rally in Meskel Square in the capital, Addis Ababa. How was he to know that just thirty months after saying that he would have to stop loving and start killing?

That’s the problem with being a reforming zealot who becomes Prime Minister: you have to deal with some really stubborn people, and sometimes it’s hard to shift them without a resort to force. That’s why Abiy launched an invasion of Tigray state on 4 November, and so far it’s been doing very well.

“The next phases are the decisive part of the operation, which is to encircle Mekelle using tanks, finishing the battle in the mountainous areas, and advancing to the fields,” Col. Dejene Tsegaye told the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation on 22 November.

Here we are only less than two weeks later, and the federal government’s troops have already captured Mekelle, a city of half a million people that is Tigray’s capital. It’s not clear how many people were hurt or killed in the fighting, but it went so fast that the butcher’s bill can’t be all that high.

In fact, it has all gone so well that Abiy Ahmed’s soldiers are probably thinking they might be home in time for Christmas. When Col. Dejene talked about “finishing the battle in the mountainous areas and advancing to the fields,” however, he was talking about the nine-tenths of Tigray that has seen no federal government troops at all, or at most a brief glimpse as they passed through.

Tigray is exactly the size of Switzerland, with about the same ratio of mountains to fields (although the mountains are somewhat lower). In other words, it is ideal guerilla territory, and a high proportion of the seven million Tigrayans are rural people who know the land. Moreover, they have long experience in fighting the central government’s troops.

That was the old central government, of course: the Communist dictatorship called the Derg, led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, that murdered the emperor and ruled the country with an iron fist from 1977 to 1991.

Tigrayans were the first ethnic group to rebel against Mengistu’s rule. They are only 6% of Ethiopia’s population, but the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was the most effective of the ethnically-based rebel groups that finally defeated the Derg.

The federal government that took over afterwards, called the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), was formally a multi-ethnic alliance. In practice, however, TPLF cadres controlled most senior posts and prospered greatly as a result – a situation that continued until the EPRDF appointed Abiy Ahmed prime minister in 2018.

It was a non-violent revolution, conducted not in the streets but in ranks of the federal bureaucracy. Abiy was the ideal candidate: in religion and ethnicity he is Ethiopian everyman, with a Muslim Oromo father and a Christian Amhara mother. (In person he is Pentecostal Christian, and very devout.)

As a young man Abiy fought in the war against Eritrea; he has served as a senior intelligence official and knows where the bodies are buried; he is well educated and speaks Amharic, Afaan Oromo, Tigrinya and English fluently. His first and most important job was to prise the fingers of the Tigrayan elite off the levers of government without a civil war.

Unfortunately, Abiy’s approach – merging all the parties based on the various ethnic militias into a single ‘Prosperity Party’ – didn’t work. The resentful TPLF cadres refused to join, and gradually withdrew to their heartland in Tigray. They don’t yet openly advocate secession, but they do point out that they have that right under the current federal constitution.

Whether or not the shooting war began with an unprovoked attack by the Tigrayan militia on the federal army’s base in Mekelle at the start of last month, as Abiy’s spokesmen claim, it was bound to end up here. All Tigray’s cities have now been taken by federal troops, but almost none of the rural areas.

This could be a brilliant victory for the federal troops that puts a swift end to the fighting. It’s more likely to be the result of a decision by the TPLF leadership to skip the conventional battles they were almost bound to lose, and go straight to the long and bloody guerilla war that they might eventually win.

That would mean secession, in the end, for they can never win power back in Addis Ababa. The risk is that if the war goes on long enough, other major ethnic groups may break away from Ethiopia as well. Abiy’s loosening of the tight centralised control that prevailed under the emperor, the Derg and the TPLF has already unleashed ethnic and sectarian violence that has rendered 2 million Ethiopians homeless.

Abiy recently got a PhD in peace and security studies from Addis Ababa University, but he’ll be concentrating on the ‘security’ part for the foreseeable future.

 

 

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Safety Equipment and Procedures and Exploding Fire Extinguishes

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by Capt. G A Fernando MBA

gafplane@sltnet.lk

RCyAF, SLAF, Air Ceylon, Air Lanka, SIA, SriLankan Airlines

Former SEP instructor/ Examiner Air Lanka

By law the Regulator Civil Aviation Authority Sri Lanka (CAASL) requires all Airline Crew to annually undergo continuous training and achieving proficiency in Safety Equipment and Procedures (SEP). At the end of the training, also answer a written examination to prove to all and sundry that the particular Flight Crew Member has sufficient SEP knowledge to continue serving in the Cabin or Flight Deck of that Airline, for another year. The SEP questions were relatively easy (no tricks) but each crew member had to score over 80% and carry out mandatory, practical proficiency tests such as operation of aircraft doors and Emergency exits, conduct evacuations, Life Raft operations (in the swimming pool), know the location and use of emergency equipment such as megaphones, Crash Axes, Asbestos Gloves, Emergency Locater Transmitters (ELT’s), the administration of Oxygen, First Aid and use of equipment such as smoke hoods and fire extinguishers to combat Cabin smoke and Fires, The airline is usually delegated to carry out these duties and functions at the behest of the Civil Aviation Authority.

The first year after Air Lanka was established (September 1979), crew members had to go to Singapore Airlines or get the instructors across to Colombo to carry out these checks on behalf of Air Lanka. After about the second year of existence, it was decided that a team SEP instructors/ examiners would be appointed ‘in house’ to carry out this training and mandatory checks. Three of us from the ‘Flight Deck’ crew were appointed to the team. They were First Officer Elmo Jayawardene, Flight Engineer Gerrard Jansz and yours truly. We had, had some experience in crew SEP training in Air Ceylon.

We were sent to the British Airways (BA) Flight Training (Cranebank), UK, during our regular stay overs in London, to undergo refresher training, so that we could incorporate some of the BA curricula in our own (Air Lanka) programs. The then Air Lanka Manager Operations had been an ex BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation) Captain. As a direct result of our visit to BA, the then airline doctor (Dr Mrs Sherene Wilathgamuwa) was inducted to the SEP team to lecture the ‘troops’ on not only First Aid but also on delivering babies, with limited facilities on board!  I believe that this information has been extremely useful many times during the last 40 years of Air Lanka. This was not taught to us in Air Ceylon. The training curriculum was developed by the SEP team.  

The early days of Air Lanka wasn’t easy. While an operational profit was made, the ‘debt servicing’ put an unbearable strain on the overall profitability. We had neither a designated training department nor proper equipment. Our ‘wet drill’ constituted jumping into the pool in shirts and trousers for the boys and ‘made up’ Sarees without the ‘fall’ for the Girls, wearing life jackets of course. Initially the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) Katunayake pool was used and subsequently the pools of the two hotels down Katunayake airport road were used till Air Lanka got its own pool. We didn’t even have a permanently deployed Slide/ Raft either for teaching purposes. It all cost money. I was the Instructor in charge of the ‘wet drill’. In contrast SIA I worked for subsequently, had a pool with a ‘wave maker’ to give a realistic experience. There was no doubt Air Lanka at that point of time was ‘pinching pennies’ where crew SEP training was concerned.

To provide fire fighting experience to the Flight Crews we were forced to use regular Industrial Fire Extinguishing equipment to keep the costs down. That was acceptable since the basic fire fighting principles were the same. The fire fighting part of the training was carried out by the Ground Safety Section Instructors who were mainly ex SLAF types. A few months before, Lalantha one of the Chief Stewards was practicing the use of a Carbon Dioxide (CO2) extinguisher on a fire and the extinguisher exploded and flew off his hand, narrowly missing Leone who was just behind him. The on-board extinguishers were much smaller, lighter and more manageable than the industrial ones. A complaint was filed by me, but treated by the ‘Management’ as a one off case! It seemed as if one swallow doesn’t make a summer!  The extinguisher had been certified as serviced. The Administrative Executive in charge of SEP those days was a young man who had a degree in Marine Biology and perhaps was clueless on safety issues and couldn’t champion our cause.  We were all part time Instructors.

The annual recurrent training programme took two days. On one particular day, Chief Stewardess Jayantha and I were the instructors in charge. When it came to the Fire Fighting exercise, we handed over students of our class to the Air Lanka Ground Instructors and proceeded to the parking apron (opposite the Terminal Building), to check out a Lockheed L1011 ‘Tri-Star’ aircraft which was newly leased, by Air Lanka. It was a pre-owned, aircraft that had arrived the day before. Unfortunately, the locations of and the make of emergency equipment in the same type of aircraft (L-1011) differed from airline to airline. Therefore in the name of air safety and standardisation, it was important to resolve matters before the said aircraft saw service on the line on regular revenue flight services. It was a big deal as all Flight Crew had to know by memory as to where the specific locations of safety equipment were, so that when a ‘push’ came to a ‘shove’, no time would be wasted by the crew members involved, looking for these essential items. It could be a matter of life and death.

 I was not too happy sending the participant boys and girls by themselves for fire fighting and had an uneasy feeling. On other hand, our task too was also extremely important. So it was a case of ‘risk management’ and gave in. 

While we were checking out the new addition to our L 1011 Tri-Star fleet, we received a frantic message saying that another water type extinguisher had exploded and the injured had been removed to the Air Force Hospital across the runway to the Northern side.

Jayantha and I rushed to the SLAF Base Hospital in her ‘Mini -moke’ the long way around, up the Airport Road and via the 20th milepost main entrance along the Negombo road and found two crew members injured and in shock. Steward Senaka who had got the wheel shaped handle smack on his face, had injuries in the same shape and Naomal too had some minor injuries. We were assured by the Air Force doctor, Dr Narmasena Wickremasinghe that injuries were not too serious. We stayed there till the arrival of the next of kin who had been informed and went back to Office to meet Mr Wilmot Jayewardena, the Air Lanka Senior Manager Inflight Services.

When Jayantha and I sheepishly walked into his office he gave us the silent treatment initially and then softly declared that being responsible for the wellbeing of the participants, at least one of us Instructors should have been present when fire fighting was going on, even under the supervision of the Ground Safety Instructors. We accepted our mistake and defused the situation. When I look back now I am amazed as to how we coped with such limited resources to keep the National Carrier going. Safety Experts today, recommend that during risky activity, we should trust our ‘gut feeling’. It is usually correct as there is a connection between the brain and the gut resulting in feelings like ‘butterflies’ in the stomach. Needless to say the lesson was learnt.  

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