Time to reduce politicians bodyguards
The biggest peace dividend (or should we say no war dividend?) the country has received is the fact that we have had no terrorist violence since the LTTE unilaterally declared its Christmas Eve truce soon after the December 2001 general election that swept the PA out of government. There are those who genuinely and sincerely, and not for partisan political reasons, believe that the memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the government and the Tigers which formalized the ceasefire is flawed to Colombos detriment. But as Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has rightly said, it is far better to iron out differences at the negotiating table than in the battlefield.
It is true that both the government and LTTE are still a great distance away from trusting each other with both sides viewing each other with mutual suspicion regardless of the honeyed words we hear from time to time. Unless a real basis of trust is achieved, the formidable task of forging a just and durable peace will be undoubtedly more difficult. The Tigers, of course, have long been dicey customers who have in the past employed a strategy talking peace and preparing for war. Global anti-terrorist sentiments following the September 11 events in the US have certainly had their effect on the Tigers and to that extent strengthened Colombos hand. Nevertheless, it is clear that the LTTE is steadily chipping away at the obstacles of legitimacy placed in its path and have since the peace process began made substantial gains on this score.
They have, for example, been able to entertain ambassadors and other high-ranking envoys of foreign governments at Kilinochchi and their visitors have included representatives of countries that have the Tigers on their terrorist lists. While Prabhakaran himself has already met Erik Solheim, the Norwegian peace facilitator, there were indications that a meeting between him and Tokyos special envoy Yasushi Akashi, due here later this week was a real possibility. That, however, may not now come to pass as the Tiger leader is understandably reluctant to meet any international personality in the absence of his chief negotiator Anton Balasingham who will not be coming here from Thailand for health reasons. But Ambassador Akashi was flying to Bangkok to meet Balasingham prior to his arrival here. There have also been speculative, we repeat speculative reports that UN Secretary General Kofi Annan who is visiting Sri Lanka next month will meet Prabhakaran. If that happens, the Tigers would surely have scored a great victory in their quest for international legitimacy.
All these events that are occurring will no doubt make it difficult for the LTTE to revert to terrorism in the short-term without shooting itself in the foot. The Tigers obviously would have learned their lessons from the Rajiv Gandhi assassination and will not lightly embark on major terrorist acts without very good reason. That is why it has been possible to dismantle the ubiquitous roadblocks and checkpoints that littered this country not so long ago and also reduce the massive security that even kept that part of the Galle Road running past Temple Trees closed to traffic for a number of years. Current conditions make unnecessary the same level of personal protection offered to politicians in the past be maintained today and it is high time that the hundreds if not thousands of policemen deployed for VIP security is reduced to realistic proportions and the surplus deployed for ordinary law and order maintenance work.
Over the years, the Presidential and Ministerial Security Divisions of the Police have grown to huge numbers. One reason for this, of course, was the LTTE threat to VIPs as well as what the JVP did during its second adventure in 1988 and 1989. Given the number of VIPs both the LTTE and the JVP bumped off, and the threat that both organizations posed at different times, nobody can seriously fault the effort, cost and resources expended in protecting political leaders from suicide killers and other assassins. We cannot forget that President Premadasa was assassinated by the LTTE to which he once gave guns and money and the Tigers attempted to murder President Kumaratunga who narrowly escaped with her life but had to suffer the loss of an eye. The other victims of these two terror groups are too numerous to mention. Suffice it to say that among them were many very senior politicians who were holding or had held high office as well as ranking members of the armed services and other officials.
So altogether dismantling the security apparatus that had grown around the political establishment over the years is unthinkable and cannot be advocated. But it certainly can be reduced to realistic levels. The time is right to downsize the number of bodyguards provided to politicians at taxpayers expense. These guards have all too often been misused as hitmen against political opponents and for providing personal services to their bosses. We are glad that some at least have politely refused to accompany ministerial progeny to various places; but for every policeman with a backbone who will decline to perform irregular services, there are many who will do anything for the price of the patronage the politicians can give them.
It is therefore necessary for a realistic risk assessment to be done and the private armies of bodyguards provided to politicians reduced to reasonable proportions given the current security conditions in the country. While it is necessary to be mindful that although the picture can swiftly change (God forbid!), there is a crying need for beefing-up the preventive and enforcement arms of the police. After all, while the security threat to politicians have diminished, criminals and other anti-social elements are making it increasingly dangerous for ordinary people to walk of the streets as the recent killing of a Russian woman doctor and speed maniacs making race tracks of the roads amply demonstrate.
Your comments to the Editor