To the disappointment of everyone except chauvinists on both sides, the Geneva-II talks between the Sri Lanka Government and the LTTE broke down on the A 9 highway. Taking the high ground on the issue, the latter held the talks hostage to the demand for an immediate re-opening of the trunk road. The Government would have done well to resolve the crisis triggered by the A 9 shutdown before going to Geneva. This should have been done not to appease the LTTE but to remove the misery of 650,000 people in the Jaffna peninsula. There is growing evidence of serious shortages of food, medicine, and fuel in the region. The A 9 was closed on August 11 following battles between the Sri Lanka Army and the LTTE along the Muhamalai Forward Defence Lines, in which 130 soldiers were killed. It was clearly a case of military miscalculation that enabled the LTTE to restore the military balance to an extent following its heavy losses, especially in the East. The military contention is that the LTTE`s clamour for the re-opening of the A 9 springs from selfish motives: the highway bolsters Tamil Tigers revenues from forced levies on the goods transported. Further, the free flow of traffic will enable the LTTE to poach into Jaffna University for fresh recruits and also use the people moving between the rival checkpoints as human shields for attacks on the military.
There is some merit in the Government`s argument but the key question is: should a sovereign, democratic government shut off an infrastructural lifeline for a major section of the national population just because it serves armed extremists? Colombo has said, perhaps as a rhetorical afterthought, that it is ready to `supply all the needs of Jaffna peninsula by [the] sea route.` The plain truth is that it is just not equipped for the purpose. The Essential Services Commissioner General of Sri Lanka has gone on record to the effect that there is a shortage of ships. There is also the problem of security. The Government has demanded that if the LTTE is genuinely concerned about the plight of the people of Jaffna peninsula, it should guarantee the security of the ships of international aid agencies like the International Committee of the Red Cross. Does this not amount to giving the LTTE a veto on what can and cannot happen even in areas under the military control of the Government? Paying due attention to internal security but putting humanitarian considerations in front, the Government and its new ally in the quest for peace, the United National Party, must urgently work out a practical way of opening the A 9 to general traffic and avert a human catastrophe. That would be good politics as well.