Terror strikes in Moneragala have given an impetus to the proliferation of small arms in the country. An already unwieldy problem has been compounded. Given the sheer magnitude of the task that the security forces and the police are saddled with, the knee-jerk reaction of the government was to distribute arms among the villagers vulnerable to terror attacks besides deploying the army, the STF and the police to comb the jungles in a bid to hunt down a small group of LTTE killers.
A government has to find desperate remedies in dealing with such desperate situations. The security forces and the police cannot effectively track down a death dealing sparrow unit or two in the forest. That task, as Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka said in an interview with ITN last week was like looking for a wild pig with a particular mark in the jungle.
But, the issuance of guns to civilians is a task that needs to be carried out with utmost caution. Many illegal weapons, especially galkatas, are already in use in the Moneragala District and the incidence of deaths and injuries due to shooting is also high there. Tanamalwila is among the areas where the suicide rate is extremely high in this country. Abject poverty has increased their dependence on illegal activities such as ganja (cannabis) cultivation and poaching. President Mahinda Rajapaksa at a recent meeting with newspaper editors said the government had information that some of the ganja growers were in cahoots with the LTTE death squads operating in Moneragala.
Therefore, it is incumbent upon the government to ensure that the guns being issued will not find their way into the wrong hands or tempt the armed volunteers to put their weapons to illegal uses on some false pretext.
Our experience with the arming of civilians has been bitter. In the late 1980s, when the country was paralysed by the JVP-instigated terrorism which took a heavy toll on democracy, the then UNP government came under pressure to issue weapons to the Opposition parties whose leaders and activists had become easy prey for the JVP hit squads.
Fifteen thousand weapons including automatic assault rifles were issued to political parties, perhaps in keeping with the late President J. R. Jayewardene`s policy that the people had to look after their own security: Thamange araskshawa thaman balaganna avashyai. Many of those weapons ended up in the hands of the vigilantes of the People`s Revolutionary Red Army (PRRA), an outfit which was founded by the left movement in self-defence but later hijacked by the then government. A member of the Commission on Proliferation of Small Arms Sri Lanka Kingsley Rodrigo said in answer to a question by this newspaper yesterday that of those weapons only 5,000 had been recovered, that too years later.
Ironically, among those leftist parties that took up arms to quell the JVP uprising and didn`t return them are some of the present day peace activists. A cache of arms that the Nawa Sama Samaja Party (NSSP) had obtained from its bete noire, `the capitalist UNP` to protect itself from the JVP was detected in a party office in Colombo years after the crushing of the insurgency. The weapons had been hidden behind a false wall. Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, in the aftermath of the LTTE`s abortive attempt on her life, in a television interview, owned up to having carried a bomb on her laps in self-defence during the height of JVP violence, to which she lost her husband Vijaya.
The blame for unbridled counter terrorism in the late 1980s is often placed at the UNP`s door. But, it is not only the UNP that was engaged in that exercise. The so-called progressive forces have a great deal of blood on their hands. Pages of all the copies of the Das Kaptial in th eworld will not be sufficient to wipe them clean! However, the fact remains that the JVP drove them to that position through naked terrorism. The JVP sowed the wind and reaped the whirlwind. Most of the guns that were given to the Opposition and the then ruling party politicians have not been returned. Nor are records relating to them available as far as anecdotal evidence goes. That is the problem with haphazard distribution of guns. But, we, as a nation, don`t learn from our mistakes, do we?
The JVP is accusing the government of making hay while the sun shines by arming its party members. (Look who is talking!) This allegation by the poacher turned gamekeeper must be heeded. The SLFP-led governments are as adept as their UNP counterparts at suppressing political dissent violently as was proved beyond doubt during the Wayamba Provincial Council election of 1999.
If the criterion that the government adopts in distributing arms among civilians is not threat assessment as well as the track record of the recipients, but party loyalty, then immediate action is called for to thwart that scheme. Time was when we had Green Tigers or kola koti working for the UNP government during the JVP insurrection. We don`t need Blue Tigers or nil koti in the future. It behoves the Opposition to cut down on its political gimmicks and keep a watchful eye on the on-going arms distribution campaign and raise the matter in Parliament and take follow up action, if the government is making hay, as the JVP claims.
Meanwhile, the JVP which is rightly opposing an alleged move to arm the ruling party supporters ought to answer a question that has been troubling the public for a long time. Will it say in public whether or not it still believes in an armed struggle as the means to capture the State power? Or, to put it bluntly, will it arm its cadres again? (Richard Buckminster Fuller has famously said, `The end move in politics is always to pick up a gun.`)
Mr. Rodrigo says there are as many as 35,000 illegal weapons in the country apart from those in the hands of the LTTE and other armed groups operating in the North and the East. Perhaps, the real number could be much higher with the continuous flow of arms into the South from the conflict zone. That firearms are available in the Colombo underworld for a few thousand rupees on the kill-and-return basis is public knowledge. The LTTE must be having in its possession thousand of sophisticated weapons and it is trawling the arms black market incessantly for weapons, though its delivery mechanism is in total disarray.
It is imperative that the government keep track of all the guns issued to civilians on an ad hoc basis and ensure that neither those weapons nor ammunition will be used for any purpose other than defending themselves against terrorism. Failure to do so will certainly be fraught with disastrous consequences.