News Features


Make way for the VIP

Security and protection of VIPs is driving the public off the road

By Rathindra Kuruwita
My brother fell off a bike and was seriously injured. Since it takes time to get an ambulance, and we live in Pethiyagoda, we thought it would be easier to get him to the hospital in a trishaw. To our dismay, we found the Kandy road a sea of vehicles” said Vincent Ranasinghe.

“Motorists seeing us tried to make room but couldn’t, for want of space. We had to wait at least 30 minutes and Alexander was losing blood. Only later, we came to know that the traffic was halted for a minister to pass by” he added
Fortunately, despite the loss of blood, his life was saved. “Fortunately for Alexander, his blood was of a common type. However, if we were delayed by another half-an-hour, my brother would be dead” he said. “I know there is a terrorist threat but, is every minister under threat? Don’t they have alternative modes of travel? And, has all these precautions made any difference? The LTTE seems to strike wherever they want!”

Some might call Vincent’s close call, a “one in a million” situation but, at a time when road closures or traffic stoppages for indefinite lengths of time, for VIPs to pass, is a daily occurrence in Colombo, the chances of similar incidents happening will increase.

When streets stand still
Colombo is the commercial heart of Sri Lanka and the most populated city in the country. Therefore, thousands of vehicles traverse its roads, transporting passengers and goods. Although delays caused by road closures for VIPs may not be a life and death issue, as in the aforementioned incident, they do cause much inconvenience, discomfort and a considerable loss of time. For those transporting perishables, a delay could be disastrous.

“Up to now, it has not caused many problems because, we bring fish to Colombo very early in the morning and none of the ministers seem to be early risers” said M. Jacob, whom we met at the St. John’s fish market. “But, I have friends transporting fish from Colombo to outstation locations, who were late in getting the fish to those markets. People are accustomed to coming to the fishmonger, at a particular time, and when it’s not available, they look for a substitute”
However, what about those who are late for work or school? How does one account the man hours lost, due to road closure and traffic stoppage, to accommodate VIPs.

“There are days I am late for work and my two daughters are late for school. Most of my colleagues have the same problem. On such days half the office staff is late. I don’t mind the roadblocks, while the checking of each and every vehicle is a nuisance. But, this constant rushing to and fro of politicians and their convoys, is intolerable” commented Kanthi Kulathunge, a mother of two.
“We have a timetable to adhere to and a load of impatient commuters waiting to get to office, school or get back home” said Chithral Fernando, a bus driver operating on the 177 route. “We know the limit of their patience and drive accordingly but, when we have to stop for these convoys carrying politicians, the passengers snap. I don’t blame them. These convoys and road closures are just for show. No one really believes that all these ministers are under LTTE threat. Come on, there are 130 plus right? The worrisome part is the bodyguards with guns. They just stick them out of the vehicles and I’m certain that one of these days, an innocent bystander will get shot”

Licence to kill
The sight of bodyguards with their guns pointing at anyone and anything in sight, and of course, their verbal abuse at anyone coming too close for their liking, has become a common sight.
“I don’t mind the roadblocks. But, closing roads, stopping traffic and the sight of 4 to 15 vehicles full of armed personnel, with their guns pointing, barking at passing vehicles is irritating” said Senaka Sirithunge of Battaramulla. “Since I live near the Parliament Complex, I meet these convoys weekly. Not only do people get delayed to work or school but also, put up with their attitude”

In fact, it’s shocking to find numerous people who have had unpleasant experiences or witnessed others at the receiving end of the armed guards.
“Sometimes, our school van is motionless for 20-45 minutes. We are exhausted after school and there are days we have classes in the evening” said Natasha Ekanayake* of Sirimavo Bandaranaike College. “One day, a motorcyclist got blasted by the bodyguards of a minister or whoever was travelling. This guy got so scared, he almost fell off his bike. Imagine his embarrassment, to be insulted in the presence of all those girls. I’m certain, many have undergone similar experiences”

The official verdict
While the security and safety of government officials is important, there should be systems to minimise the inconvenience faced by the public.
“Safeguarding VIPs is my main concern” said DIG, Colombo Traffic Police, Y.G.M.R. Lafeer. “I will not hesitate to do anything in my power to protect the VIPs, because they are very important” he added.

A number of roads are partially closed, some vital to city traffic, due to security threats to VIPs. Bauddhaloka Mawatha is partially closed because a few military top brass live there. At night, Galle Road opposite Temple Trees, and the road to the rear of Crescat/Cinnamon Grand is closed to protect Temple Trees, creating difficulties to many.
“This means I have to drive like half-a-mile out of the way, to get to Thummulla junction, from whence I can get to Dickman’s or Barefoot. It used to be a straight shot. Also, Douglas Dev lives at Dickman’s Road and I see his convoy of gun toting goons all the time. Not only that, if there is a bomb around that area, there are at least two schools and a load of residential traffic” commented Mahendra Diaz.

“The closure of roads could create difficulties to residents and motorists” said DIG, Colombo, Rohan Abeywardena. “But, considering the present security situation within the country, I’m certain anybody could see the necessity. We don’t want to see a repeat of what happened to Army Chief Sarath Fonseka”

The end has no end
The security of the Nation and the protection of VIPS who are LTTE targets, are important. However, with a war that seems to have no visible end, many citizens are questioning the validity of actions taken in the name of “protecting the VIPs”. “Yes, I’ve heard the authorities say that if the citizens bear up a bit longer, everything’s gonna be a’right” said Mr. Diaz, “but, how long is this ‘bit longer’?”