COLOMBO: As part of its policy to relieve the army from civilian and internal policing duties, the Maithripala Sirisena government in Sri Lanka has taken the army off VVIP security duties and has given the task entirely to the police, especially the police commandos designated as the Special Task Force (STF).
But the decision to replace the army ran into a political storm when, recently, the government withdrew the last 50 of the 102 army personnel who were guarding former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The Joint Opposition Group (JOG), which Rajapaksa heads, staged a violent protest inside parliament on Tuesday, injuring some MPs and forcing the Speaker to adjourn the sitting for the rest of the day.
The Rajapaksa faction, which has 47 MPs in a House of 225, vociferously demanded that army protection be continued since Rajapaksa still faces threats from remnants of the LTTE and radicals in the Tamil Diaspora.
"The people want protection for the man who rid the country of terrorism and the LTTE," they said.
But Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe flatly refused to acceed to the demand saying that all VVIPs will from now on be protected by specially trained police commandos.
The President's and the Prime Minister's security has been entrusted to the police STF, he pointed out. Wickremesinghe said that security for the British PM and the US President is provided by specially trained police units and not the military.
"I am keen on ensuring Rajapaksa's security.We will hold discussions with him.He can choose the police personnel he wants," the PM said.
Contrasting his conciliatory approach to the high handedness and arbitrariness of Rajapaksa when the latter was President, Wickremesinghe said that Rajapaksa had reduced former President Chandrika Kumaratunga's security even though she had lost an eye in a terrorist suicide attack. Rajapaksa jailed Gen.Sarath Fonseka who had led the army to victory against the LTTE.
Speaking after the PM, Fonseka, now a Field Marshal, recalled that he had been put in a jail housing hardcore LTTE cadres.
The army was first inducted into VVIP security in Lanka during the 1988-1989 leftist insurgency spearheaded by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). At that time, the police were too few in number for the task of providing security for all, though President J.R.Jayewardene had already set up the STF with the help of the Israelis and the British Special Air Services (SAS).
The induction of the army into VVIP security in President R.Premadasa's time in the late 1980s, was continued during the regime of Presidents Kumaratunga and Rajapaksa.In fact, Rajapaksa's security was predominantly in the hands of army commandos.
Partly because of the 2006-2009 Eelam War IV and partly because his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the Defence Secretary, President Rajapaksa felt safer with army commandos around him.
But the new goverment headed by President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has a plan to take the army off civilian duties so that it remains a professional, non-political, force trained and deployed for protecting national security against external threats.
The armed forces have already been withdrawn from building construction and agriculture.