Bullet-proof jackets - new weapon in Lanka's export arsenal (SRI LANKA)
Other foreigners in the line of fire such as Jordanian troops are also kitted up by Wijetunga's Harsha International, the only company in Sri Lanka venturing into the body armour business. De-miners, diplomats, peacekeepers and even Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapakse don body armour made locally by the Wijetungas.
Sri Lanka, which carved a global niche with its exotic lingerie, has penetrated an even more lucrative market-body armour, flak jackets and bullet-proof vests for foreign troops.
The South Asian nation has no major defence-related industry despite being mired in a decades-long battle with Tamil Tiger guerrillas, but a former Sri Lankan marine engineer is hoping to change that with his life-saving venture.
Mohandas Ajitha Wijetunga, 46, and his wife Himmani, 45, employ a small army of workers at a modest factory in this suburb of Colombo to make camouflage body armour for Saudi troops as well as some United Nations peacekeepers.
Other foreigners in the line of fire such as Jordanian troops are also kitted up by Wijetunga's Harsha International, the only company in Sri Lanka venturing into the body armour business. De-miners, diplomats, peacekeepers and even Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapakse don body armour made locally by the Wijetungas. The couple import their main raw material "Kevlar", a thin fibre with tremendous strength and resistant to cuts and heat, and turn out jackets according to the individual needs of foreign buyers.
The Wijetungas do not like to discuss the prices of their hi-tech garments and accessories, or disclose sales figures, but they say the price in Sri Lanka would be about one third of the cost abroad. Wijetunga said he took an interest in ballistics after seeing his wife make good business selling dog tags, camouflage clothing and socks to the island's security forces and the police.
"I told my husband that bullet-proof vests and flak jackets were also made out of fabric and couldn't understand why the government imported them when it can be done here," Himmani Wijetunga said.
Sri Lanka's $2.5bn garment manufacturing industry is one of its success stories with lingerie, made for the world's top brands such as Victoria's Secret and Triumph, accounting for over a tenth of export earnings.
After experimenting for six years, Wijetunga designed and developed his own line of body armour and flak jackets for UN organisations carrying out humanitarian work in Sri Lanka's embattled north-east.
The UN operation, launched a year after the February 2002 truce pact between Sri Lankan troops and Tamil Tiger guerrillas, also created opportunities for him to develop de-mining gear. Orders are now flowing, with Jordan picking up a few hundred de-mining jackets this year, followed by 2,000 pieces of body armour bought by Saudi Arabia. Weighing around six kilos (13.2 pounds), each body armour set comes equipped with hard armour plates to fend off bullets.
"Hard armour plates are layers of Kevlar pressed together and dried under high temperatures, each plate is about an inch thick," he said. The Saudi army preferred a ceramic-based armour plate, he said. "When a bullet is fired it doesn't penetrate the armour plate ... You don't see any cracks or bullet penetrations in a Kevlar-based plate," explains the former seaman. The couple has a ready market at home too.
The firm currently supplies its entire range of high-tech combat gear, plus pouches, bags, ballistic helmets, caps, camouflage shirts, olive green t-shirts and raincoats to Sri Lankan forces and the police.
Wijetunga is currently working protecting vehicles from Claymore mines, also known as side-charges which are packed with hundreds of steel ball bearings that can cause damage over an area of up to about 100 meters.
"Claymores are deadly, as steel balls cause a lot of internal damage to humans. We have successfully tested our product at the army firing range last weekend," Wijetunga said.
Hopeful that Sri Lanka's seemingly unending ethnic conflict which has claimed over 60,000 lives since 1972 may come to an end, Wijetunga says there is plenty of work even in peace times. "The Sri Lankan army needs around 25,000 helmets annually. Any soldier, sailor, policemen or air force officer needs routine military gear." War or peace, they would be in business. A growing band of foreign peace keepers have created a steady stream of work.
"I don't like war. I only develop products to save people from mines and bullets. That's my contribution."
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