Importance of security in south as contours of war shift

Last week’s bomb attack at Akuressa, Matara, that killed over a dozen people and critically injured Minister Mahinda Wijesekera, awoke Sri Lanka to a rude reality that it must confront: that the contours of the fight against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are surely changing.

The battles in the Wanni jungles will soon be over. But the same cannot confidently be said about the Eelam war. The LTTE, at least in the short term, will revert to the modus operandi so familiar to them - guerrilla warfare, with their hallmark being suicide attacks.

It was only a few days ago that the Sri Lankan public was raising a hue and cry about alleged security lapses at Lahore in Pakistan, where our cricketers came under attack. The incident caused embarrassment to the Pakistani authorities, and many in our country took umbrage at the level of security that was provided.

But the Akuressa incident compels us to question whether we ourselves are mindful of the threats posed by terrorists - and more importantly, whether we are doing enough to counter that threat.

The Sri Lankan public has been used to and has often criticised the spectacle of security going into overdrive. We have experienced sudden road closures, sometimes for hours, so that a VIP convoy could get to its destination. Even if that may not amuse the general public, they have tolerated such encumbrances, all in the name of enhanced security for our leaders.
But what do we see in video footage of the Akuressa incident? A group of ministers, not just one of them, walking in a single row, surrounded by members of the public with hardly a policeman or any other security officer in sight. It is ridiculously naïve, and the VIPs are obviously sitting ducks for any would-be suicide bomber. Indeed, those politicians who survived should consider themselves very, very lucky!

Where were the security experts?

Were there no security experts dealing with the celebrations last week, especially when so many cabinet ministers were participating in a single event? How could an assassin riding a bicycle gain access to the VIPs with such ease? Why were the VIPs arriving at the ceremony positioned in the middle of a mass of people that made them especially vulnerable?

What is the earthly point in having numerous checkpoints, cordon and search operations, alternate traffic arrangements and many such security measures that disrupt normal life, and at the same time costs millions of rupees to implement day in and day out, when a suicide bomber on a cycle is allowed to saunter into a row of ministers, unrecognised, unchecked, and unchallenged?

Then we also saw footage of school children running for cover immediately after the incident. It is incriminating in that it proves that school children were participating in a public function attended by politicians - a widespread but unhealthy practice in our country. Had a tragedy befallen any of these schoolchildren, the repercussions would have been enormous, and the authorities who desired their participation would have had a lot of explaining to do.

It is not as if we do not have experience in this type of incident. No less a person than the former President Ranasinghe Premadasa, was assassinated by a suicide bomber when he took to the streets in typical Premadasa style to organise the May Day procession.

If there was a lesson in that incident, it was not learnt well. In President Chandrika Kumaratunge’s Cabinet, Minister C.V. Gooneratne was killed while parading in public at a ceremony held to commemorate war heroes. In President Rajapaksa’s Cabinet, it was Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle who paid the supreme sacrifice, when he took it upon himself to declare open a New Year festival. And now, Minister Wijesekera nearly perished in the Akuressa incident.

Securing the north and east of the country is no doubt paramount in the war against terror. But that should not lull the authorities or VIPs into believing that the south will automatically transform itself overnight into a peaceful haven. In fact, the reverse is true.
It is common knowledge that the LTTE had amassed a network of operatives in the south of country during the past several years, especially during the period of the Ceasefire Agreement. That they have been largely inactive in the past few months, cannot simply mean that they have disappeared into thin air.

They are surely still around and awaiting orders from their masters of terror to carry out their dastardly deeds. And it is only common sense that as the war in the jungles of Mullaitivu gets more and more intense, the risk of such attacks increases. And that is all the more reason why those minding security issues in the south should be extra cautious in the immediate aftermath of the war.

Albeit belatedly, the government has ordered that politicians refrain from attending public events without the express permission from the Ministry of Defence- and that is commendable. Perhaps it should adopt the same wary attitude towards using school children in public functions where politicians participate, and ban that practice forthwith too.

This is precisely the time and the hour to be extra vigilant, for the wounded Tiger is in its last throes, and is hell bent on hunting its prey, no matter what, knowing well that it has nothing more to lose and everything to gain, if it scores a hit. Eternal vigilance, after all, is the price of liberty, and it is a fair price to pay.