Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s security detail came into parliamentary debate this week, and rightly so, but with an unseemly spectacle. The ruckus over who was right and who was wrong saw one MP hospitalised for trying to intervene and two suspended for going at each other’s throat. The downgrading of the former President’s security from [...]


VIP security; what about citizens’ security?


Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s security detail came into parliamentary debate this week, and rightly so, but with an unseemly spectacle. The ruckus over who was right and who was wrong saw one MP hospitalised for trying to intervene and two suspended for going at each other’s throat.

The downgrading of the former President’s security from an Army contingent to a Police one is at the crux of the issue. That it is politically motivated rather than based on some genuine threat assessment needs little argument. Political leaders often use VIP security as a political instrument to browbeat opponents. Ministers who resign from the cabinet have found their security withdrawn before they reach home.

The former President is getting a taste of his own medicine. When in office, he would provide security to his cabal and deprive it to those more deserving. Major General Janaka Perera, one of the officers in the forefront of the war against terrorism did not get his due security because he joined the UNP, which was then in the Opposition. The war hero paid for this with his life in a suicide attack in Anuradhapura. The country’s only Field Marshal has made no bones about his own experience at the hands of the former President whom he challenged on the political front. The Prime Minister gave him the floor in Parliament to defend the Government’s decision to scale down the former President’s security – and this led to the scuffle in the House.

On the other hand, when the Supreme Court ordered that former President Chandrika Kumaratunga was not entitled to a Government bungalow, the then President Rajapaksa ordered his secretary to ensure she got one — at Independence Avenue in Colombo. So, it seems, in these matters kissing goes by favour and not by any given law even though the President’s Entitlement Act (1986) provides for a Government bungalow (or rent money), a secretary and transport as is provided to a cabinet minister for any ex-President or his widow/her widower. Alas, there’s no mention of security.

Recently, a Government leader told a media delegation that an ex-President’s widow who was entitled to such a Government bungalow was now asking that it be transferred to their children. He, for one, of course, was not going to live in a Colombo Government bungalow after he retires, he said. Rather, he would go to his village and spend his days on top of a tank bund.

The Government’s argument that the National Security Council (NSC) has deemed it proper to withdraw the Army contingent guarding ex-President Rajapaksa is something it can tell the Marines. The NSC is headed by the Commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces and Defence Minister who is the President. Back in 2001, the Supreme Court rejected a request for the then President Kumaratunga and a few of her ministers to vote from home at the Parliamentary election citing security reports that they were to be targeted at the polling booth. Justice Mark Fernando held that the material put forward by the state agencies did not disclose any credible threat for them to claim that right. So much for these politically inspired threat assessment reports. After President R. Premadasa’s assassination in 1993, the new Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe asked the United States of America for assistance in VVIP security training. The request came on the grounds that democracy itself was under threat in Sri Lanka with elected leaders being targeted by the LTTE and therefore their protection was paramount.

President Bill Clinton arranged for the US Secret Service to train the PSD (President’s Security Division) and the PMSD (Prime Minister’s Security Division), Sri Lanka being only the second or third country to get that specialised training. Teams – all from the Police, were sent to the US, but shortly thereafter, the new President (Kumaratunga) discontinued the programme not wanting America involved, and almost paid the ultimate price with an untrained PSD when an LTTE suicide bomber targeted her in 1999.

The security of former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar is a case study in VIP security. When he was made a minister, and gave speeches defending the Sinhalese, he quickly became an LTTE target. From a solitary constable, he was provided special Police protection until he topped the LTTE’s hit-list, at which point the Police detail was ‘upgraded’ to an Army Commando detail. In 2001, when the UPFA lost the parliamentary election, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe had no hesitation in continuing Mr. Kadirgamar’s security strength – the entire paraphernalia of bullet-proof vehicles, escort jeeps, armed guards, dummy cars, maintaining the status quo up to retaining his official bungalow.

Back in ministerial office in 2004, Mr. Kadirgamar began having disagreements with his leader by about 2005, and requests for further security were being shelved at the Ministry of Defence. The three constables on static duty at his newly purchased private residence had to withdraw when the Minister came with the Commandos. It is the Police that check the neighbourhood – Commandos don’t do that kind of ‘mundane’ stuff. Ultimately, the Minister was shot from a window across his home; and as simple as that. So, for the former President it is not necessarily a bad move to be given Police protection. The para-military Police squad, the Special Task Force (STF), is adequately capable of handling VIP security.

Outgoing US President Barack Obama is already contemplating his exit from office after serving his two terms. In a convivial evening with the US press corps (White House Correspondents Association) he said he has decided to remain in Washington DC unlike most of his predecessors. He joked about having to get a new Driving Licence (as he hadn’t driven for eight years) and played a funny video of how he would spend his free time but nary a word about security because that is a given. His successors cannot come and play around with such factors. Here in Sri Lanka, the issue of VIP security is not a matter of mere academic interest to the citizens. While they would appreciate the fact that political leaders, especially those who were in the forefront of the war against terrorism in recent years deserve adequate protection, consider the factual case of one Colombo Police station that has 450 men. Half of them are protecting ‘VIPs’, another lot are on traffic duty and only 17 are handling the Crime desk at the station.

Murders, robberies, rapes, drugs, cases of incest, sexual exploitation of children continue unabated throughout the country while Police stations are hamstrung by the lack of manpower due to an over-emphasis on ‘VIP protection’ from Ministers to deputy ministers to Provincial councillors.

Following Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination, a report on VVIP protection said that the task assigned to many of her bodyguards was to make chai (tea) for visitors. Even here, many of them are used to take children to school or deliver letters. They are glorified ‘domestics’ but few of them complain because they see this as a short-cut to promotions courtesy the ‘VIP’.

The increased VAT that the ordinary people are asked to cough up from this week is not only for the free health and free education that the Government says it must pay for. It is also for the Police. But what is the commensurate service the Police provide if their very existence seems to be to protect VIPs and water-cannon anti-Government demonstrators rather than ensure normal policing measures so that the life and property of the ordinary citizen – not just the VIP — is safe and sound.

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