It has often been said that while all Tigers are Tamils, all Tamils are not Tigers. However threadbare the cliché may be, this is almost wholly true although it is increasingly evident that some Sinhalese are very much in the pay of the Tigers. But it is a fact of life in this civil war-torn country, where a terrorist strike by the LTTE at anytime, anywhere, is a stark possibility, extraordinary security measures that burden ordinary people, have to be taken. Yet it is not acceptable that when such restrictions, checks and investigations are enforced, that people of one community are singled out for special attention.
We carry an article today about one such instance of a woman who has worked for many years in two garment factories in the outskirts of Colombo, who while headed for her home in Badulla, suffered the nightmare of being held for nearly two days in a police station until her employer was able to establish her bona fides and get her released. The story also indicates varying degrees of kindness to the detainees in the police station that would have certainly helped blunt the bitterness such incidents inevitably create.
Reading the report of the travails of those held for checking, a problem that too many Tamils mostly from the estate areas often suffer, there is a clear impression created that these checks are replete with a great deal of unnecessary bureaucratic procedures. Sometimes the so-called ``suspects’’ are produced in court or, more commonly, a lot of time is spent in deciding whether they should be produced. Meanwhile they continue to be held by the police in stations that are not equipped to hold large numbers.
The police have established s system of registration of people, often domestic help from estates working in middle class or affluent homes in residential areas of Colombo and the suburbs or construction labour, at the local police station. When such persons are checked in a bus, as in the case of the factory worker whose experience we have related, a report from the local police station is required for clearance. Many of these ``suspects’’ have nobody to turn to when this happens and if that is the case it will make the period of detention longer until the police themselves make their own checks with the station of registration. Those who are lucky, as in the case of Maheswary in our story, will have employers ready to run around and furnish the necessary papers.
Mobile phones that many people, including those of relatively modest circumstances, carry today can be a boon to those caught up in a police check and held for investigation. They are a means of making contact either with your own home so that worry about your not turning up at your destination can be eliminated, or with somebody who can help. But given that mobile phones are frequently used by terrorists too, a policeman such as the one in our story, may well think it prudent to take your phone into custody. Maheswary had hidden hers in her dress, our report said. If that was discovered, all the more reason to treat her suspiciously.
Given ground conditions and the modus operandi of the LTTE, the police cannot be blamed for that. But people like Maheswary also cannot be blamed for trying to hide their property, either because they fear they may not get their cell phone back or as they feel safer with a means of communication in their own possession. The method the police used in this instance to get some of the people held to be checked transported to the police station was also interesting – stopping a three-wheeler and instructing the driver to drop them off at the station. Hardly the way to treat a terrorist suspect as the writer of the article has pointed out! But most typical of the police, it can be said.
It has long been clear that an efficient procedure to conduct security checks must be devised and the perception that Tamils are needlessly persecuted when they are held for investigation is urgently dispelled. No community must be allowed to feel that they are deliberately done down and short cuts for convenience must be avoided by those responsible. Merely registering persons at local police stations will not indicate the bona fides of registrants. That is why the police often want a report from the police station of the registrant’s home area to make sure that his or her credentials are in order. While it is unlikely that the LTTE will send somebody with a police record into the city to be available when the need arises, the various procedures that have been put in place makes it less easy for the Tigers to post hit-men or women in readiness for action.
Despite such precautions, President Premadasa’s assassin ingratiated himself with household staff at Sucharitha and wormed himself into the confidence of security personnel and others in the president’s inner circle. He bided his time for months and years before being called upon to launch his successful suicide attack. Terrorists have not only to be lucky; they have also to be patient. There was another instance when a woman cadre got herself employment in the home of a member of a well known political family and attempted to assassinate Minister Douglas Devananda. With Mr. Lakshman Kadirgamar’s third death anniversary falling on Tuesday, who can forget how the very tightly guarded minister was shot dead by a sniper in a neighbouring house under the noses of his security detail?
Checks are an undoubtedly a deterrent against terrorist who patiently lie in wait for the opportunity to strike. But the concerned authorities must be mindful of minimizing inconvenience to ordinary people who are neither terrorists nor terrorist sympathizers when they enforce security measures. Importantly, Tamils must not be allowed to feel done down merely because the LTTE is a Tamil terrorist force. As we said at the beginning, while all Tigers are Tamils, all Tamils are not Tigers. The vast majority of them live in harmony with the majority community in government controlled areas of the country. Those in LTTE-held areas are in a much worse plight as they are under a fascist jackboot.