Floating Armouries and Avant Garde Maritime Security
Navigating the murky waters
The Government’s love- hate relationship with Floating Armouries and
Avant Garde Maritime Security Services (Pvt)Ltd. continues to create
ripples in the Cabinet.
The CID is navigating the investigations through murky waters in
which the Maritime Security Company has been operating in.
Last week it was revealed that there were 2,140 firearms on board the
MV Mahanuwara, one of the three floating armouries operated by Avant
Garde owned by ex-military official Nishanka Sendhipathi. The second, MV
Avant Garde which was taken over last October is still under CID probe.
Ongoing investigations have revealed that the serial numbers of some of
the 840 weapons on board the ship had been tampered with.
Following a directive from President Maithripala Sirisena, on
November 11, the Sri Lanka Navy took over operations carried out by
Avant Garde. According to Navy spokesperson Captain Alavi, the Navy
earned Rs. 22 million a day by providing arms handling and storage
services to the Maritime security companies. However, this is not the
first time the Navy has been involved in this venture. Before Avant
Garde was given the responsibility of handling operations in 2012, it
was the Sri Lanka Navy which kept these weapons in secure storage for
different private maritime security companies. The service was first
introduced in late 2009 during the peak of Maritime Pirate attacks along
the coast of Somalia through to the Gulf of Aden.
The Sri Lanka Navy Camp, SLNS Dakshina, provided safe storage
facilities and took over custody of all weapons belonging to Private
Maritime Security Sompanies (PMSCs), which were mostly foreign at that
The Navy charged $ 10 per weapon per day. A proposal for the Navy to
engage in operations to provide maritime security to commercial vessels
was discussed but abandoned due to legal complications that may arise in
such a venture. The Navy also made proposals to the United Nations to
set up a Maritime Security force similar to the Peace Keeping force but
the discussions fell through. However, with the tie-up, Rakna Arakshaka
Lanka Limited (RALL), the government-owned company registered with the
Registrar of Companies set up by the Ministry of Defence under the
supervision of former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, between and
Avant Garde, the Navy was relieved of its responsibilities. Local PMSCs
hired weapons and personnel, from RALL until the operations were handed
over to Avant Garde.
Floating armouries a relatively new phenomenon in international
maritime security, just as it is new to Sri Lanka. As piracy incidents -
attacks and attempts to take over commercial liners increased since 2005
commercial liners turned to use PMSCs to provide them with security
needed for commercial vessels to pass through the high risk area
spreading across the Arabian Sea, the northern Indian Ocean, and the
south of the Red Sea.
However, since there are no international or national laws strictly
governing these armouries and PMSCs, their services have received mixed
Avant Garde becomes a monopoly
On September 18, 2012, the Ministry of Defence wrote to local and
foreign PMSCs notifying them that the “Ministry of Defence and Urban
Development had decided to deploy a Floating Armoury off Galle, South of
Sri Lanka in the international waters from October 15, 2012.”
According to the letter, the decision was taken “taking into
consideration national security concerns,” contrary to the concerns
raised at present of the threat posed by having privately owned floating
armouries off the coast of Sri Lanka.
A former Navy Commander referred to the move as “asking for trouble,
especially in a post war country” while Captain Alavi too stressed on
the national security threat an unsupervised armoury poses.
An agreement signed by RALL and Avant Garde on January 27 last year,
established the public-private partnership which amalgamated six
projects conducted by Avant Garde, namely
“1. Armouries project inter Alia Forward Operation Centres
established in other countries including but not limited floating
armouries but not limited to Fujairah and the Red Sea,
2. Fishing Trawlers project
3. Galle Floating Amoury Project
4. Air and Sea Transporation of Weapons Project
5. Un Armed Sea Marshals Project and
6. Rangala Weapons Depository Project.
The Agreement also gives Avant Garde exclusivity in the fields, while
agreeing on $20 million as “liquidated damages not as a penalty” in the
event of breach of contract.
A further $20 million is payable to Avant Garde if the contract is
breached by RALL. This amount is payable within two months of written
notice of a breach.
Questions are being asked about the validity of these agreements. In
February 2015, JVP MP Anura Kumara Dissanayake questioned in Parliament
about the process in which the agreements were signed as no national or
international tenders have been called for the projects before entering
into a partnership with Avant Garde. Dissanayake repeated his concerned
in August questioning why no action has been taken regarding the issue.
Business of Avant Garde
After the tie up with the RALL, Avant Garde established three
floating armouries, registered with the Ministry of Defence. Their
website, states that these three armouries are “strategically placed in
three key locations around the High Risk Area (HRA)” namely MV Seapol
One in the Gulf of Oman, MV Avant Garde in the Red Sea and MV Mahanuwara
in Galle, and “provide storage facility of firearms owned by both PMSCs
and the government of Sri Lanka as well as accommodation for sea
“Weapons owned by the Government are available for hire on
per-transit basis to Private Maritime Security Companies (PMSCs) along
with “sea marshal provided by RALL” “accompanied by an authorization
letter issued by the Ministry of Defence – Sri Lanka, for a specific
vessel for a transit”.
Of the 2140 Weapons stored on board MV Mahanuwara has now been taken
over by Navy following the Presidential directive. The floating armoury
MV Avant Garde which was apprehended by the Navy and taken into custody
is under investigation by the CID. The armoury was said to have only
three weapons along with three sea marshals. However it was later found
that the vessel was carrying 840 weapons, belonging to the Sri Lanka
The company is also engaged in training and certifying sea marshals
and has at its “disposal all facilities and resources to conduct any
type of Firearms Training Course with Rifle, Handgun or Shotgun”. The
training given to Maritime Security is only a ‘One-Day Refresher Course’
as the company claims all those hired were former forces personnel.
According to the company website, over 2000 such personnel has been
certified so far. Regulations on recruitment and training process needed
for certification of sea marshals for PMSCs in Sri Lanka is still a grey
area. A number of local PMSCs which operated in before 2012 slowly went
out of business owing to diversified business portfolios.
The political drama of Avant Garde unfolded when the floating armoury
MV Mahanuwara berthed in the Galle Port was inspected by the Galle Port
police. Questions have risen on how and why the vessel was given
permission to enter the Port, as the Navy claimed it was not informed of
such movements. Following the raids Senadhipathi’s passport was
impounded by Court.
An investigation conducted by the CID revealed that the company was
earning up to Rs. 15 million from its floating armoury operations. In
taking action against the company, Additional Solicitor General Wasantha
Navarathna Bandara in a memo - which was later leaked to the media -
outlined three different grounds under which the Avant Garde owner could
be prosecuted :
1. Unauthorised importation of firearms to Sri Lanka (under the
Firearms Ordinance and Explosives Act)
2. Possession of firearms and ammunition without valid licences (also
under the Firearms Ordinance and Explosives Act)
3.Conspiracy in aiding and abetting to commit the above offences.
However, the AG’s Department later told Court that there was no case
and Avant Garde was now in troubled waters. In the meantime, the Court
lifted the travel ban imposed on Senadhipathi and allowed him to travel
to Nigeria on business. On his own admission senior lawyer and close
Government ally, Thilak Marapana said that he represented Senadhipathi
in getting his travel clearance. Marapana’s statement regarding his
legal advice given to Senadhipathi also cost him his ministerial
position in the government, as he was forced to resign from office as
Minister of Law and Order.
Two other Ministers are at war over the legality of the floating
armoury owned by Avant Garde. Minister of Justice Wijeyadasa Rakapakshe
and Minister of Health Rajitha Senevirathne have been battling it out
making accusations and counter charges against each other over the
issue. Rajapakshe claims that there is no provision under which Avant
Garde could be prosecuted, as the business was legal, a statement which
received heavy criticism in Parliament as well. However, Minister
Seneratne demands an independent investigation. Last week, a third,
Minister Harin Fernando was dragged into the battle as he was accused of
defending Avant Garde during a television interview.