Colombo: A garrison city again? | Sunday Observer

Colombo: A garrison city again?

File pic
File pic

Almost after a decade of tranquillity, the Pearl of the Indian Ocean and its people are shaken badly due to the brutal attack on Easter Sunday. The insecurity within the public has not yet faded away. The Colombo landscape has dramatically changed after the attack as barricades are being set up on streets and military presence is everywhere. Surprisingly, the North is also requesting military presence which clearly shows how insecure people are feeling all over the island There are now a few roads in Colombo closed due to the security concerns, and most of these areas are where Parliamentarians live. However, so far no area has been declared a high-security zone, according to the Army Spokesperson, Brigadier Sumith Atapattu.

“We have deployed 11,000 soldiers island wide and about half of them are stationed in the city of Colombo,” he said.

Lack of and false information

There is no doubt about the security provided by the Tri-forces under the provision of the State of Emergency. In fact, people are relieved that the security is in the hands of the police and Tri Forces at this critical moment. But still, the country is moving at a very slow pace which we didn’t even experience during the peak of the Elam war. Last Friday, the Colombo Dutch hospital precincts was almost empty. The busy Fridays of the Dutch Hospital restaurants has become a good old memory.

“I am actually amazed that people are very scared. Ten years back, we were living in great fear of bombs and the threat was pretty much there. But now people are extremely worried. I think the reason is that nobody is telling them about the security of the country,” said the Director of the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies, Dr Harinda Vidanage.

In fact in Sri Lanka, communication errors have a proven track record of vicious consequences. In the recent ethnic clashes, social media made a great contribution towards fanning the flames. Dr Vidanage also explained the probable threat arising from communication failures.

“Every day we get texts and WhatsApp messages about potential bomb threats. But if you look at the actual attack, the way it was planned, and the strategic context of how they did it, I don’t think they wanted to target the ordinary people on the streets. But nobody is telling the people about it as we are living in a big security crisis. I don’t think that even the Government has figured out how to deal with it,” he said.

Military presence and Security

High tech countries in the developed world maintain their security with powerful intelligence services. The Mossad of Israel which is praised as the world’s best is one good example. A non-Arab nation which engaged in a never-ending war with Palestine had managed to provide a satisfactory security level for its people, mostly thanks to Mossad, their national intelligence service. Sri Lanka had chosen the ‘old-fashioned’ way to tighten security.

The military in the 21st century is not showing-off its force. Modern security is very much dependent on how fast you can analyse information and how fast you can project, predict and forecast attacks. The main reason for that is technology. But we respond to the situation in an old-fashioned way. Perhaps that’s the only way left. I am not undervaluing beefing up security and spot checks, but we need to go far beyond that,” said Dr Vidanage who has done various related studies including the post-modern architecture of terrorism to social theory.

He said, “We live in the 20th-century mentality in terms of security. The argument is that military presence symbolises insecurity. You don’t need to have military everywhere. But there are areas where it is needed. For instance, we dismantled ‘High-Security Zones’. We wanted the military to disappear. But even the most open societies in the world, such as the USA and UK, have a significant military presence, including airports and public sites”.

However, Security Analyst and a former Deputy Director (Research) attached to Sri Lankan military intelligence, Dr Ajith Colonne shared a different perspective of the military presence.

“The military can deploy a large number compared to the nominal number in the intelligence. But the military presence brings fear to people. Especially lower class and poor people suffer by it. Next, the economy of the country is in trouble. Because of the military presence people fear that the situation is going to get worse”.

He said, “I went to Maha Saman Devalaya, Ratnapura a few days ago. I saw soldiers walk up and down near the Devalaya. This created fear among the public and they don’t come to the place. When I went there, I was the only visitor. Therefore, the country should focus on providing security without visibility, avoiding instilling fear into people”.

France which was attacked in 2015 by the ISIS faces a similar level of greater threat in terms of security. The huge migratory population in France is one reason for them to worry more about security.

“What France did was to immediately establish a sense of security. The French people didn’t stay indoors. But Sri Lanka after two weeks still struggles to get back in business. That’s because we don’t have that sense of security,” said Vidanage.

“As an island nation, we need a comprehensive border management regime. The military presence which is called passive security alone will not provide security. But technology alone would not help. We need a strategic security plan. Technology, vision, political thinking, strategic thinking, human resources and military modernisation is needed. A simple projection of force will not prevent terrorist attacks,” he added.

A sociological perspective

Senior Professor of Sociology, Prof. K. Karunathilake spoke of two major characteristics the Sri Lankan society is going through after the Easter Sunday attack.

“Terror and motivational crisis are now driven across the society. The terror leads to a motivational crisis and it eventually produces a lagging community,” he said.

He added, “People don’t take correct decisions on their day to day social activities. This has become very serious because of the crisis. People feel that the law and order of the country has utterly failed. Also now people do not know what to do and which person or authority is responsible for what occurred”.

Rankled by political statements, people have been somehow relieved by the words and acts of Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, said Prof. Karunathilake. “ The Cardinal could convince not only Catholics, but the entire society.

The Mahanayaka theras should also come forward and give a clear and correct message to the community,” he said.

“We cannot compare the LTTE and theis situation. That was in a limited area and the majority of the population was safe. But this terrorism is spread throughout the country. Also, the Muslim community of Sri Lanka is in a motivational crisis at prsent. We need to address all these issues carefully,” added Prof. Karunathilake.