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The Rediff Special/ Nikhil Lakshman in Colombo

Dr Singh's security in Colombo leaves nothing to chance

August 01, 2008

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An MI7 helicopter with the Indian Air Force's familiar badge on its sides takes off with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh [Images], his wife Gursharan Kaur and other members of the Prime Minister's Office on board. On the tarmac are several officers and men wearing the IAF's familiar light blue uniform. What is unusual about this scene is the location -- Colombo's Bandaranaike International Airport.

This is the first visit by an Indian prime minister in a decade, and clearly, the government is taking no chances with Dr Singh's security. The defence establishment has deployed IAF helicopters, Coast Guard ships, Special Forces, even Indian military personnel to assist the Sri Lankan air defence to protect the prime minister during the three days he will spend in Colombo.

Nothing unusual happened during then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's visit to Colombo in July 1998, but Indian memories are still raw about the Sri Lanka [Images]n naval rating who swung his rifle at the last Indian prime minister who visited the island on a State visit. No Indian prime minister after Rajiv Gandhi has visited Sri Lanka again on a State visit; Vajpayee and now Dr Singh have travelled to Colombo for a SAARC summit.

With strange symbolism, the Sri Lankan government chose a naval guard of honour for the Indian leader on his arrival on Friday. Clearly, the adversary has altered now. Even though the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam has declared a ceasefire for the duration of the SAARC summit, the Sri Lankan security establishment, which has depleted the Tigers's ranks by an unflinching military campaign, knows it would be foolish to take LTTE [Images] supremo Vellupillai Prabhakaran at his word.

The LTTE's sinister ways has long turned Colombo into a city on edge, a place where residents may have come to terms with the uncertainties of their lives, and the possibility that their return home one ordinary day may be in a coffin. The Tigers's real targets, men of influence and power, live in a barbed wire society guarded by platoons of watchful men behind the inevitable sandbags and armed with automatic rifles.

On Friday, August 1, the day before the SAARC summit commenced, President Mahinda Rajapakse's administration has shut down the beachfront where leaders like Dr Singh will stay for the duration of the meeting. Shops are shut, traffic is restricted to smart police cars making their rounds, and the pavements are punctuated alternatively by armed policemen and soldiers.

The long journey from the airport to the seafront takes the Indian media through areas that appear clones of South Indian cities like Alazpuzha and Coimbatore. The difference being that every few yards, there is an armed policeman with his back to the road, often surveying empty patches of green. All traffic is halted as the media buses pass.

The Sri Lankan government obviously thinks that we could be a target for an LTTE assassin thwarted by security to strike a visiting leader. Several policemen guard the Galle Face hotel where the Indian media is based (and where Arthur C Clarke incidentally wrote the final chapters of his last book, Space Odyssey 3001), which is close to the Taj Samudra hotel where the prime minister and his entourage are staying.

The local CID watches everyone entering and leaving the Indian media centre, making sure that no Tiger sneaks in under the guise of a scribe. Constables even guard the hotel floors where the journalists have their rooms. Clearly, such security is something we are not used to.

The scenic beach promenade is also shut off to visitors. A disappointed family, which has obviously missed the huge hoardings proclaiming President Rajapakse's welcome to his guests (there is even one with him and George W beaming; no, the US president isn't coming; the Americans are only observers at SAARC summits), arrives at the seafront only to be told that it is off limits. The little children whoop seeing the angry waves, but security will be security and the family returns disappointed.

If Colombo's office-goers are irritated about the summit's intrusion on their lives it doesn't show on their faces. Bank employees leave their offices animatedly discussing the day gone by, even though it looks like they have a long walk ahead for their transport.

President Rajapakse, one Indian critic complains, has converted Sri Lanka into what this long time observer of the country describes as a republic reminiscent of the Latin American military dictatorships of the 1970s, where civil liberties are abandoned as the State relentlessly vanquishes its enemies.

Such a panacea, it appears, finds favour with the president's people. The Sinhala driver of a car assigned to the Indian media tells a colleague that inflation in Sri Lanka is far in excess to what India has currently, yet few Lankans complain.

There is a lot of popular hope riding on Rajapakse's onslaught against the LTTE, the driver says, which he hopes may finally rid Sinhala society of its old enemy.


The Rediff Specials


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