In battling terrorism, the police act in the same way as the health authorities engaged in eradication of dengue. They let the grass grow under their feet and swing into action only after disaster strikes. We are, as we have been saying in these columns umpteen times, a nation dependent on the benefit of hindsight. But, even the lessons learnt from disasters are forgotten in no time. There have been many terror strikes on buses and trains but, instead of devising ways and means of preventing them, we are still groping in the dark only to be jolted into action after a bomb blast.
The Piliyandala police claim to have apprehended the mastermind behind the recent bomb blast at the Piliyandala bus station, where 26 persons died and many others sustained injuries. Among the suspects is a resident of the area said to have collaborated with the LTTE for money. The main suspect, we are told, had come all the way from Kilinochchi and stayed with the hireling for some time to commit that heinous crime. The police believe there are many collaborators in the pay of the Tigers bent on wreaking havoc on the country.
The police may claim the credit for having made swift arrests. But, the fact remains that they had failed to prevent the Piliyandala terror strike planned and executed under their nose. The house the suspects had operated from is located in the Piliyandala police area. What had the police been doing while the bomb was being assembled? These days we see scores of policemen dissipating their energy and time by escorting bicycle races and providing security to Bak Maha Ulelas. If only they did their regular duties so enthusiastically!
The government has formed many civil defence committees to assist the police in preventing terror attacks. They could be seen in the company of the police conducting vehicle checks on public holidays! Grama Niladharis are required to keep a tab on each and every person living in their divisions, especially strangers. The police should have known that as the lodges in Colombo were being closely watched, the LTTE was moving into other areas to plan terror strikes. The conurbation of the Colombo city has thus become a haven for terrorists and other anti-social elements. Several underworld gangs have been arrested from areas like Piliyandala over the past few years. Therefore, those places need to be better policed.
The Piliyandala police and the Grama Niladhari concerned must be made to explain why they had failed to detect the LTTE safe-house in Piliyandala. The problem of serious lapses that lead to disasters cannot be overcome, as no one is held responsible for them and no heads roll. This is a country where even those responsible for devastating military debacles stay put unashamedly. Some of them also get posted as ambassadors after retirement! So, the police officers and Grama Niladharis don’t have to fear losing their jobs in case of their dereliction of duty and attendant terror strikes. They can trot out various excuses and get away with their lapses.
The police are now bombarding us with information about the Piliyandala bomber and his associates. We are likely to get a detailed description of his grandma and perhaps his great grandparents as well. While we are being told this, another LTTE suspect may be assembling a bomb in the same area. Are we to wait till he, too, accomplishes his savage mission to know his identity and how that terror attack was planned and executed?
The police must be properly trained and better equipped to conduct counter terror operations. The way they are doing that at present reminds us of a popular joke about the police. It goes like this: The Terrorist Investigation Department (TID), the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and the regular police were once given an assignment during a training programme. They were asked to catch a rabbit that instructors had released into a jungle. The TID combed the jungle in vain and returned empty handed claiming there was no rabbit there. The CID, too, spent hours and finally came back with the claim there couldn’t be a rabbit in that jungle. The police went in next and returned in no time carrying a bleeding bear and proudly claiming they had got the rabbit. And the poor bear that had got a severe beating from our police friends was stammering out a confession, "I am a rabbit, I am a rabbit …."
There are Tamil civilians in the Piliyandala area and they have been living there for decades as law abiding citizens. We hope they won’t face the same fate as the aforesaid bear due to the counter terror operations.
In fighting an elusive enemy like the LTTE, intelligence is the key to success. That exactly is what the police sadly lack. That’s why they are groping in the dark in trying to pre-empt terror strikes. It is time the police were provided with required resources and ordered to be vigilant, gather intelligence and conduct raids on terrorist hidehouts without waiting till someone gives them a tip-off or for bombs to go off.
Meanwhile, the government ought to explore the possibility of investing in technology to prevent attacks on civilian targets in public places. Bus crews saddled with the task of ensuring the safety of their buses have no way of knowing a bomb from a packet of lunch. They need to be provided with training and equipment such as explosive detectors by the State.
Catching terrorists after they take their targets and punishing them for their crimes, however necessary they may be, serve little purpose in warding off terrorist threats.