Terror stalks the populace

In a country constantly overshadowed by the spectre of terrorism, the security of its citizenry has been the focus of attention in the past week. A bus exploded in Katubedda on Friday killing at least 20, a bus bomb in Polgolla and a train bomb in Dehiwala snuffed out several lives, while several other bombs were discovered in the nick of time and another train bomb nearly produced mass mayhem at Wellawatte-all in the course of a few days.

These events highlight the vulnerability of the average, law abiding citizen to the threat of terrorism, which is precisely why terror is such a potent weapon. As a result, public transport has now become a virtual Russian roulette in this country, especially, on routes in and around Colombo.

The recent spate of attacks indicates a new strategy from the terrorists. It is clear that they are now primarily targeting public transport instead of economic, military or political targets. The reasons may be many: this is a ‘soft’ target. Also, hitting a train or bus at rush hour will result in a significant number of casualties. That appears to be the murderous logic of the terrorists’ handlers.
The government is duty bound to ensure the protection of civilians and, to be fair by the Minister of Transport, significant precautions have been taken. The final act of implementing these measures falls on the shoulders of individuals and invariably, there will be the one that gets away.

In that sense, one has to come to an inescapable conclusion: No matter what precautions are put in place, public transport will remain vulnerable, because of the very nature of the service it provides, catering to millions of individuals, day in and day out, in places scattered throughout the country.

As the Irish Republican Army reminded British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, after a botched assassination attempt on the Iron Lady at a Brighton hotel, “you have to be lucky always, we have to be lucky only once”. And that axiom is certainly true of the current threats faced by our public transport system.

This must compel us to examine other means of tackling this menace, because, obviously, vigilance in buses and trains cannot be ensured for everybody, everyday.

These explosions are not carried out at the momentary whim of an isolated individual. They are the end result of months, if not years, of advance planning. Men and material have to be put in place, trial runs have to be undertaken, before the actual act is carried out. And these measures require the cooperation of many individuals, acting on the instructions of the terrorist powers that be.

Has the security establishment turned the searchlight inwards? Does the State possess sufficient intelligence that enables it to crack down on the terrorist network that is masterminding these attacks? And has it made the most of the opportunities that came its way?

If recent incidents are considered, there have been some glaring lapses that must be rectified. A main suspect in the Jeyaraj Fernandopulle assassination died while in custody, swallowing cyanide. The Piliyandala bus bomber escaped from custody while being transported to court. Even in last week’s bomb blast at Wellawatte, the main suspect nearly got away before being apprehended by an alert home guard in Vavuniya.

The government, despite its best efforts cannot guarantee security and safety in every bus and every train, everywhere. But what it can do is to put in place all necessary measures to ensure that when investigations are undertaken and the judicial procedures get under way, there are sufficient precautions taken to guarantee that such lapses are not re-enacted.

This is, after all, a matter of life and death. Eternal vigilance is not only the price of liberty; it also saves the lives of innocent civilians caught up in a seemingly unending conflict that they would rather not be part of.

Conflict in the East should be nipped in the bud

Much was made of the Eastern Provincial Council (EPC) elections and the ruling party’s victory in the province, achieved in collaboration with the Thamileela Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP). But, what has happened in the region, since the May 10 poll, can hardly be described as encouraging.

Although there were some hiccups in forming the EP administration, due to the clash between TMVP leader Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan and chief ministerial aspirant M.L.A.M. Hisbullah, the government’s power brokers managed to iron out these differences and got the PC up and running.

Thereafter, however, law and order in the region has deteriorated due to clashes, mostly between the Tamil and Muslim communities. Sri Lanka Muslim Congress Leader Rauf Hakeem went so far as to say that these events were instigated by a group which has been endorsed by the government.

The government, neck deep in a war in the North, will most certainly not want another cauldron of conflict in the East. It would also belie their claim that its writ runs in the province, which it claims has been ‘liberated’. Besides, no one is saying that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a spent force in the East, is responsible for the current chaos there.

In these circumstances, it is incumbent upon the government to rein in the situation with the utmost urgency. A communal clash in the East would only be an invitation for the LTTE to step in and exploit the situation to their own advantage, with disastrous consequences for the government.

It is, therefore, imperative that, conflicts in the East should be nipped in the bud. If not, it may well be too little, too late.