Applying the logic of Maavil Aru to the closure of A-9

By Rajan Philips

Just so we do not forget, the current spate of violence began with the LTTE’s decision to shut the sluice on the Maavil Aru waters in August. The government responded with aerial attacks citing humanitarian reasons, as the LTTE’s action deprived the downstream farmers and their families of water for drinking, washing and cultivation.

The real reasons, as many have noted, were the military calculations of the LTTE and the army, the former trying to establish control in Muthur, the latter trying to dislodge the LTTE from Sampur, and both intended to achieve control over Trincomalee. The people of the area, whether peasants, pundits or priests; Muslims, Tamils or Sinhalese, were no more than pawns in these infantile war games.

The LTTE was soon forced to realize that closing the sluice was not a smart move and hurried to reopen the gate. That did not stop the army from going after the LTTE practically everywhere in the North and East and driving it out of Sampur altogether. Down but not out, the LTTE came back in Muhamalai, Habarana and even Galle to reaffirm the First Law of the Eelam wars: Neither side is capable of delivering a knockout punch. The Second Law of course is that the immediate and ultimate sufferers are the people who have no stake in the war and no role in decision making.

The tables have since been turned at the Muhamalai checkpoints and the roles were reversed in Geneva, with the LTTE raising the humanitarian cry over the closure of the A-9 highway and the government shooting itself in the foot by actually saying that the highway will not be opened in a hurry.

One of the government delegates in Geneva even went to the extent of saying that it was cheaper and quicker to send supplies to Jaffna by ship. The truth though is that ships have not been easy to find for love or for money, and Jaffna has neither lorry nor fuel nor manpower to carry out inland distribution quickly and effectively including the unloading of goods from ships. One of the advantages in letting supplies go by lorry from Colombo is that they can reach diverse points of need directly and avoid multiple handling and distribution within the peninsula.

As with the LTTE in Maavil Aru, it did not take long for the government to realize that its official intransigence in Geneva was an embarrassing mistake. After all, it is really not the intention of the government to starve the people of Jaffna. As a government minister pointed out the government continues to pay the salaries of government employees who are actually working for the LTTE in the Wanni. A food crisis in Jaffna would be far more critical than the non-payment of salaries to government officials working for the LTTE.

The government obviously realizes this and has been approaching the UN for permission to send ships of supplies under the UN flag to prevent LTTE attacks, even though such a move could be seen as vitiating the government’s insistence on territorial sovereignty. The government has also appealed to India and India has agreed, despite the often recalled controversy over the infamous ‘parrippu drop’ in 1987, to send urgent supplies of food and medicine directly to Jaffna.

Both the government and the LTTE have been more circumspect in their post-Geneva-II pronouncements, unlike the recriminations that followed the first round of talks in February. The government in fact lost no time after its delegates returned from Geneva in declaring that the A-9 will be reopened if the LTTE stopped using the highway for launching military offensives.

Touchstone of Credibility

The simple question is why did not the government delegates say in Geneva what they have said after returning to Colombo? They could have been more forthcoming in Geneva about reopening A-9 while laying out the conditions that the LTTE should agree to abide by under Co-Chairs supervision once the highway is reopened? That would have put the LTTE on the spot and even led to a solution to the A-9 problem and insured by the Co-Chairs. The talks also could have ended with some future purpose and definite next steps.

One of the reasons, in my view, for the government’s inability to take such a positive line of response is the adversarial approach taken by both parties to the talks and to the peace process general. Negotiations are not debating encounters or adversarial courtroom dramas, but a disciplined process for identifying even the slimmest of common ground and building on it with the utmost of labour.

The tactics and methods of the LTTE at the talks are not unpredictable, and the government must perforce respond to LTTE’s arguments and demands. But the government needs to do something more. It is simply not enough for the government to reject the claim that the LTTE is the sole representative of the Tamil people. The government has to demonstrate that it is the worthy custodian of the Sri Lankan state that genuinely protects and provides for all Sri Lankans in good times and in bad times.

Although not entirely the government’s making the A-9 Highway has emerged as a touchstone of this custodial responsibility. There is no need to elaborate the obvious. The humanitarian and the credibility implications of the A-9 roadway are far more serious for the government than the Maavil Aru waters ever were. By the logic of Maavil Aru the government should reopen the A-9 Highway.

The government is not being well served by its chosen Tamil supporters, Anandasangaree and Douglas Devananda. Their obsession to criticize the LTTE must not override the concern one would expect them to have for the plight of the people of Jaffna. The government appears to be capable of greater sensitivity to the situation in Jaffna than the advocates of Tamil Democracy.

The fact that the LTTE had kept the highway closed earlier is irrelevant to finding a solution to today’s problem. By insisting on reopening the highway the LTTE is inadvertently reinforcing the territorial unity of Sri Lanka and not its bifurcation. That reopening the highway will enable the LTTE to resume taxation of goods passing through its checkpoint and increase the consumer burden in Jaffna is immaterial to people whose shops are running dangerously short of supplies anyway.

This of course does not mean that the government should open the A-9 without any condition being imposed on the LTTE. On the one hand, the government has expressed concerns about the LTTE using the A-9 highway as a lucrative source of revenue and a conduit for military mobility. But on the other hand these concerns ought to be balanced against the plight of over half million people stuck in the peninsula. Equally, the manner of dealing with the same concerns should be consistent with the ultimate purpose of peace and finding a political solution to the Tamil question.

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