A Tiger rattling of chains

The air raid by the LTTE that took place on Friday evening was an extraordinary event, with an added human interest inasmuch as it happened while the Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights was entertaining Sir John Holmes to dinner. Sir John, like Colonel Fazackerley in the poem of that name, was magnificiently calm throughout the episode, while SMS alerts proliferated around the table.

Fazackerley in the poem is a colonel who is visited by a ghost while having dinner in a castle he has just bought. The ghost howls and rattles his chains but the colonel calmly continues with his meal, while telling the ghost that he really should not make such a nuisance of himself. The ghost, who had successfully frightened all previous tenants, gets more and more upset, but there is nothing he can do. If I recollect aright he finally vanishes up the chimney and is never heard of again.

The poem seemed particularly apposite since, apart from the horror of some people being killed, and more injured, the performance of the pilots, as surrogates for Mr Prabhakaran, was rather like that of the ghost. Ghosts, it should be noted, are generally frightening creatures, and the damage that might have occurred should not be dismissed lightly. After all it was a considerable achievement to have got two planes airborne from a small patch of jungle, to have flown them all the way to Colombo, and to have done much damage to the Inland Revenue Building with one of them.

But this certainly was not an embarrassment to the government of Sri Lanka, as one media outlet claimed, suggesting that it gave the lie to the government claim that the LTTE was almost finished. On the contrary, had it not been for the dead and wounded, one would have almost thought it was a performance the government had ordered, to make crystal clear what it has continuously asserted, that the LTTE is still a force for terror, and that we cannot relax.

The forces have almost wholly destroyed the pretensions of the LTTE to being an orthodox fighting force, and that is just as well, since they have for years been pretending to be precisely that, with a ‘national’ army and navy and police force and most recently an air force. They engage in formal training and, though this includes barbarous rituals, there is a veneer of orthodoxy about this training, even of children, that has taken in a number of gullible foreigners, in addition to the more gullible members of the diaspora who continue to fund what they think is the core of a future nation.

That game is now over and, if the President pursues swiftly his vision of a united pluralistic Sri Lanka, it is not likely to start again. But, as government has never hesitated to declare, the sudden surprise attacks of a ruthless and efficient terrorist outfit will not be got rid of so easily. That is why our security system has to be tight, that is why we still need our forces to maintain the vigilance and care that has lessened but not eliminated horrendously destructive acts. In that respect, the air raid was an object lesson for Sir John of the importance of security also in the Welfare Villages in Vavuniya where, amongst thousands of poor abused civlians finally escaping to freedom, there may lurk one or two suicide bombers, waiting to pounce. And even one suicide bomber is one too many, so we absolutely must take every precaution to prevent the type of slaughter that took place on February 9th, when women and children who thought they were on the threshold of freedom were killed by a woman who pretended to be like them, escaping from Tiger control into the safe haven of government territory.

The precautions we have taken, which should under no circumstances be reduced at this crucial stage, have however lessened the destruction that Tiger ingenuity had for so long perpetrated. And even the episode of the planes was in retrospect rather like the last rattling of his chains by the castle ghost, the damp squib with which the two planes exploded indicating that the ghost’s luck is fading. It may only have been good fortune that prevented the planes destroying an air force building, or the airport, but as it happened the destruction of some floors of the Inland Revenue Department building could not have brought much joy to Tiger hearts. After all that skilful flying over jungle and sea coast and city, a few tax files cannot be seen as feathers in the caps of the latest human sacrifices to the desperation of the ghost.

But a few more civilians have died, and sadly we know that the ghost will continue to kill civilians, Tamils now, but also Sinhalese and Muslims if he has half a chance. There may be no more planes left, but we cannot be sure, and we certainly know that there are hundreds of guns and heavy weapons still in terrorist hands. Given the entrenched habits of the ghost, using any weapon that lies to hand to kill any available victim, we cannot therefore relax in our efforts until all those arms have been surrendered. We must, as previously, take all care possible to avoid civilian casualties, knowing now from what happened from January 26th onward, as indicated by the UN report of the shooting that day as coming from LTTE territory, that the Tigers will happily sacrifice civilians if there is the slightest chance of the blame falling on Sri Lankan forces.

But, as the record of the Sri Lankan forces has shown over the past few years, we know how to take care of civilians, our civilians, which is perhaps what makes this natural to us, unlike in other contemporary theatres of war. Working with that knowledge we have to make sure that the struggle against the forces of terror continues, until the ghost vanishes up the chimney, and not only Sir John but all Sri Lankans can eat and sleep and work in peace.

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