Soft targets beware!

Friday’s atrocity very close to Greater Colombo, if not actually within the larger metropolis itself, sends an ominous message to us all. This was followed by a second bus bomb in the South yesterday. The LTTE intends taking on soft targets and Friday’s was one of them. The air strikes by the SLAF, mainly targeting Sea Tiger bases and identified gun positions are by all accounts effective. Civilian casualties are inevitable in such air strikes, especially so as it has been a time-honoured Tiger tactic to use civilian shields for themselves. People at risk in imperiled areas close to LTTE camps and strongholds are not allowed to leave and the tears that the Tigers and their fellow-travelers shed over the plight of the innocents belong to the crocodile variety.

It is clear that the city proper and VIPs are protected like they have never been before. That is perhaps why the Tigers have recently been unable to successfully accomplish a mission in Colombo although they have penetrated the defences, as amply demonstrated by the attempts on Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse and the former Pakistan High Commissioner. Guerillas live by the maxim that they have to be lucky only once while their adversaries must be lucky every time. So there can be no room for complacency because there is no question of the hit men and women being denied entry to the city or within reach of vulnerable points. They have long been here and biding their time sometimes for months on end maybe. Who can forget the time and resources invested in the suicide bomber ingratiating himself with President Premadasa’s household?

The Nittambuwa bus bomb is an indicator that there has been little effect of international horror following last year’s Kebbethigollewa bus massacre. The carnage this time around was less horrific in terms of the numbers killed and wounded. But the fact remains that a terrorist was able to hide a lethal time bomb under the seat of a bus and saunter off with nobody any the wiser. One hundred percent policing against such terror is not possible, not only in a resource poor country like ours but also in the developed countries of the world. This is evidenced by what terrorists have done in such countries. The only guard against such strikes is constant awareness of the dangers with every man, woman and child being policemen in public places. They have to keep their eyes and ears open against impending danger. Even if several dozen suspicious packages examined all proved harmless, containing somebody’s lunch, a bunch of bananas or even some items of clothing bound for the laundry, the whistles must continue to be blown. The authorities too must not allow themselves to be lulled into complacency by a myriad of false alarms. If they do, that is when the Tiger will strike.

Incidents like Friday’s will have an inevitable economic impact. Already the winter season for tourism is all but dead. Who but the most intrepid will want to risk life and limb in a holiday destination where they can be at risk however remotely? As a former tourism minister, Mr. Anandatissa de Alwis, with his gift for the colourful turn of phrase once said, ``we are not the only girl on the beach.’’ There are dozens of alternative destinations and the majority will prefer that option. Some people will of course come either because the present situation has compelled giveaway prices or because they sensibly know there is more chance of somebody being run over by a bus when stepping out on the road than being caught up in a terror attack somewhere. But travel advisories some countries issue naturally take the most prudent view and we in Sri Lanka, like Thailand now being rocked by explosions, must pay the price. The Sun God holed out in his lair in the Wanni knows that targeting the economy will make the Sri Lankan State less able to buy fast attack craft for the navy for which bids were invited by newspaper advertisement last Sunday; or for that matter any military hardware or sustain huge defence expenditure.

It is not only the tourism industry that is at risk. Remember the LTTE was able to attack the Katunayake International Airport and the adjoining air force base not that long ago. Given that the Tigers are able to strike a responsive chord with international donors and the larger global community about civilian casualties in a war that nobody in Sri Lanka, except a megalomaniac intent on wresting a separate state in this small island wants, our leaders must tread warily at the present moment. There is no doubt that a peace package meeting the just demands of the Tamils must be urgently granted. Delays will entail international trade sanction we cannot afford. The first straws are already up in the wind and more will follow as surely as night follows day if we do not get our act together pronto. With the PA-UNP memorandum of understanding under his belt, President Mahinda Rajapakse has a better chance of presenting a package that would be acceptable to the Tamils even if it is not to the liking of their self-appointed sole representative.

Lt. General Sarath Fonseka, the army commander, has gone on record expressing confidence that the East could be cleared in the short term and thereafter the forces would look north. Already, Sea Tiger bases in Mannar have been targeted. This scene would naturally tempt national leaders to go for the LTTE jugular even at both military and civil cost and then sit down to working out a solution to the long festering problem from a position of strength. The president must not be moved by extremist sentiment, even if it comes from those who helped elect him. He is the leader of all Lankans, those who voted for him and those who voted against him. Wise leadership and not more blood, especially of innocent civilians in the north or south, is the need of the hour.


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